Learn It Through the Grapevine

Submitted on Thursday, 2/28/2013, at 12:38 PM

Article by Katherine Duke ’05
Photos by Rob Mattson

Plum. Vanilla. Licorice. Leather. Oak. Old Band-Aid.

These were just a few of the scents that students were challenged to identify at a recent meeting of their seminar on “Wine, History and the Environment.” Working in small groups, the students moved around the Environmental Geology Lab of the Beneski Earth Sciences building and took turns sniffing small vials of the chemical compounds that create these aromas in wine, trying to locate each smell on an aroma wheel. Later, they sipped water subtly flavored with other compounds—as well as some actual 2009 Malbec from Argentina—and attempted to describe the tastes.   

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Fine distinctions between the aromas and flavors in wine might seem like a trivial, even snobbish, concern. But in fact, minor shifts in consumers’ preferences for certain smells and tastes have “ripple effects that carry down to organization of labor, trade issues, environmental conservation problems,” says Associate Professor of History Rick López ’93, who teaches the seminar this semester with Associate Professor of Geology Anna Martini. For example, López explains, “oaky”-tasting wines have recently declined in popularity; therefore it’s less common for wines to be aged in oak barrels; therefore there are fewer employment opportunities for barrel makers and less demand for oak wood; therefore the United States and France have less economic incentive to conserve their oak forests; therefore “they’re removing restrictions on those forests and opening them up to other kinds of logging.” 

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Wine spills over and flows into many aspects of society, and that’s exactly why López realized it would be a juicy topic for an interdisciplinary research seminar. He first taught it, under a different title, in the fall of 2011. Margaret Hunt, the Winkley Professor of History and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, taught it in fall 2012.

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When Martini heard about López’s ideas for the seminar, she knew there was a lot she could teach about “the biochemistry of it all.” Much of her biogeochemical research relates to fermentation reactions in sedimentary basins, which are in some ways similar to the reactions that yeasts undergo in the production of wine. And then there are the chemical additives that go into modern wines; plant pathogens; soil sampling (the course includes a field trip to the soil excavation site of Amherst’s new campus farm); and terroir, defined on Wikipedia as “the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant’s genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine….” Terroir, in turn, ties back into the history, economics and cultural identity of each place.

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The course fulfills certain requirements for history and environmental studies majors, but it attracts a wide range of juniors and seniors, each of whom is ultimately tasked with designing and developing an independent research project. Topics in past semesters have included changes in the labeling of bottles of wine from 19th-century French Algeria, attempts at unionization by vineyard workers in 20th-century California and legal protections on the commercial use of place names such as Champagne. This semester, the professors aim for the humanities majors to develop “a solid understanding of the science—not just in their analysis, but in terms of how they’re asking the questions,” says López, while those who research scientific topics are also expected to explore their economic and cultural ramifications. 

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The students work their way up to their final research projects step by step, with help from Missy Roser ’94, head of research and instruction at Frost Library, who visits the class several times throughout the semester to conduct workshops. The students start by doing simple research on general websites and reading books about wine that are intended for nonacademic audiences. Then they delve into specialty databases to begin assembling “working bibliographies” of scholarly articles, followed by original documents. “And then, once they’re working with the original documentation, how does that force them to revise—either in small or, usually, dramatic ways—what they thought they wanted to ask?” says López. “A lot of what they’re doing is learning how to ask a good question, which is hard.” After that comes learning how to compose research prospectuses, critiquing one another’s writing and pulling together their final essays.

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So far, Kristen Lee ’14 has only a few vague ideas about what her research topic might be, but the seminar certainly relates to her long-term goal of “a career that involves food and wine.” On her food blog, she’s posted 5 Fun Facts About Wine that the course has taught her. Lee attended “more than a few wine tastings” while studying abroad in Paris last semester, but it’s been years since she’s written a formal research paper. “I hope to find a topic I really like,” she says, “and write extensively on it, in the mindset of a mini-thesis, and rekindle my research spirit.”