March 26, 2003

Students Drink For Credit

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Every Wednesday this semester from 2:30 to 4:25 p.m., over 800 Cornell students are getting credit for imbibing alcohol. No, this isn’t an early April Fool’s printing of The Sun nor a cheap trick by the School of Hotel Administration to increase enrollment.

The students are enrolled in the hotel school’s two-credit Wine Appreciation class, and they are not getting drunk on the six one-ounce wine samples given to them.

The near-capacity class is taught every semester by Profs. Abby Nash ’75 and Stephen Mutkoski ’71, the Banfi Vintners Professor of Wine Education and Management. Mutkoski is on sabbatical this semester.

The class began in the early 1960s and has stayed close to its original goal of developing students’ appreciation of wines.

It is not required for hotel students except for the 20 or so who go on to take more advanced beverage management courses.

All students in the hotel school are recommended to take the course, however, and most do. The class is open to all students at Cornell, regardless of college affiliation.

The class has become a rite of passage for seniors of all colleges and has received attention in the national media including NBC’s 20/20, USA Today and the industry magazine Wine Spectator.

Nash, who has taught the class for over 12 years, credits some of that attention to the unique American interest in alcohol.

“Alcoholic beverages are such a charged topic in the US,” Nash said.

With that in mind, Nash said that he hoped the class could provide “an alternative to the typical consumption of alcohol in the college setting.”

“A lot of young people will become moderate regular wine drinkers, mostly with food. You might as well get there sooner rather then later,” said Nash of some of the course’s appeal.

Most students agree with Nash’s assessment and also credit wine’s growing appeal in American culture.

“Wine is so popular, and it seems like the in thing,” said Christie Yeoh ’03.

Raquel Look ’03 said similarly, “it’s a good conversation starter.”

He said that he often runs into alumni of his class who thank him for interesting them in wine. Of this he said, “We deliver something of value. We give [our students] something they can take with them.”

Nash explained that another goal of the class is to try to remove some of the snobbish connotations associated with wine in the United States.

To assist with this endeavor, most wines sampled are within a reasonable price range.

“The wines are overwhelmingly under $20,” said Nash.

Benchmark wines make up the back bone of the course. These wines are red Bordeaux, red and white burgundy, Champagne, port and sherry.

The class covers basic facts about various wine regions, what kind of grapes, climate, and terrain produce the best wines, wine history and the specifics of making a particular wine. Almost no region is left out. Regions covered in class include California, Oregon, Washington, the Finger Lakes, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Austria.

“We don’t leave much out. We squeeze everything in,” said Nash.

A typical class will begin with an hour-long lecture concerning the specifics of the region and its wines. After this introductory lecture, six one-ounce samples will be served to students by a small group of about 20 white-coated graduate and undergraduates teaching assistants. And no, they don’t check IDs. The New York State 21 year-old age restriction is waived for the class.

As students sample the wines, they rate the wines according to their personal tastes on “tasting sheets” handed out at the beginning of class. They are asked to comment on its aroma, body, the “evolution” of its taste. Students are introduced to these terms and many more in the first class, so that they will have the proper vocabulary to address the wines.

In a typical spring class six different wines are sampled. For each distinct wine, four cases, or 48 bottles, are consumed.

Most wines are donated by sellers, sometimes importers, who have excess. More often than not, an alumni is involved but even when they are not involved donators “never expect a return.”

Grades for the class are based upon three 100 question multiple-choice prelims; two are given in class and the third during exam week. A popular myth has arisen that the class is the most failed at Cornell.

However, Nash and most students who take the class find this to be untrue.

Overall, as Udi Falkson ’03 said, the class provides knowledge about something “that might come in handy someday in a fun setting.”

Archived article by Michael Margolis