Students find culture in the bottom of a wine glass

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The course “A Taste of Terroir: French Methodologies for Experiencing the Earth” refines students’
palates for wine. The class allows students to explore geographical, economic and ethical influences. Photo By: Jacob Heydorn Gorski

Filling 144 glasses of wine is not a typical duty for professors; however, for Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies Thomas Parker it is essential. For the students in his course “A Taste of Terroir: French Methodologies for Experiencing the Earth,” French culture isn’t just something one reads about, or is lectured on—it is something one tastes. Or, more specifically, drinks.

Though this unique aspect of the class drew in many students, it is not to be taken lightly. Parker described the course as multidisciplinary and challenging and many students dropped it for these reasons. The class always begins with a guest lecturer who speaks for half of the time about the theme of the week, some of which include chemistry, biology and geography. Parker then steps in and leads the tasting part of the course where theory and experience intersect.

“The wine tastings give us a chance to really apply what we’ve been studying about the complexities of wine and the various factors that can influence its terroir,” said Amy Schindelman ’13.

“Terroir” is a term which ties the savor of food or drink to its geographical origin, a connection which is the focus of the course. “The course demonstrates that the flavors of terroir are as much culinary mythology as science. It is about rocks, dirts, water and exposure to the sun. But it is also about stories and beliefs from cultures and regions, and flavors that are shaped by economic decisions,” said Parker.

Schindelman admitted that her understanding of wine was limited before taking the course. She said, “Well, my feelings on wine before this course was that it tasted like grapes and that the best kind is free. Now I have an understanding about the different factors that affect the experience of tasting a wine and also have gained knowledge about proper wine etiquette and distinguishing good wines.”

While Schindelman identified herself as an amateur wine-taster, Parker maintained that the semester has left his students among those with the most refined understanding of wine. Their knowledge, he said, surpasses even that of self-acclaimed connoisseurs. “Vassar students come out of the course with knowledge that 95 percent of people working in wine stores don’t possess. They are able to speak in a highly sophisticated way about wine…[it] is a conveyance that allows students to find new ways of understanding the disciplines covered, from French culture, to antiquity, chemistry, economics, biodynamic agriculture [and more],” said Parker.

For Will Lefferts ’13, learning about these topics has contextualized his time in Paris.

In an emailed statement he wrote, “I went to a few wine/cheese tastings in France and the producers were always incredibly enthusiastic…about where their products were coming from—after taking this class, I’m realizing that that was my first introduction to terroir, just without the terminology.”

The wine culture in Paris, Parker affirmed, is a prime example of the new ways in which wine has become closely associated with issues which transcend those simply of taste: It is not just an expression of personal preference, but of one’s personal values.

“The bars are filled with people who are ‘rebelling’ against globalized, mass market foods and international trade practices that affect wines…” said Parker.

He continued, “They are making a statement about the kind of world they want to live in by the wines they drink. I want Vassar students to have the tools to make the same sort of statement if they want; about how their aesthetic preferences can mirror wider choices in ethics, economics, and the sort of world they want to live in. It’s a tall order, but it’s pretty neat to think that the flavors you learn to like in wine having a broader meaning.”

Schindelman noted that through her experience in the course, she has learned to consider these implications when tasting wine—whether it be from France or the United States.

“Tasting French wine as well as American wine has broadened my understanding of the different philosophies surrounding wine production, marketing, and drinking and the impact of globalization on every aspect of the wine industry,” she said.

Parker likened wine-tasting to a kind of art that engages more than just the palate. He said, “We learn to read and listen to wine. Think about your favorite piece of music you like to listen to where you can hear every and isolate every note, music, vocals, everything—your senses are completely alive. You’re not missing a beat. Compare that to music that you hear without listening to as some sort of innocuous background noise. That is the difference between connoisseurship and consumption. It’s not about sustenance, but living and learning through the senses.”

As for Schindelman, she foresees more practical applications of the skills she learned in Parker’s course.

She said, “I will take away the ability to walk into Arlington Wine and Liquor and be really pretentious. But for real, I’ll take away a huge appreciation for wine and a significant understanding of relevant economic forces, biological factors, geographic differences and cultural presence.”

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