By Romina Benzeray
Photos by the author

In the last week of September, when the harvest time was at its peak, the Tuscan town of Panzano hosted Apicius wine students in one of its finest vineyards for one purpose – giving them a real hands-on wine harvest experience. The Apicius Wine Studies and Enology Career Program brings eight individuals from all around the world together in Florence and gives them a comprehensive wine education including both theoretical and experiential learning. Through the wine harvest experience of the Table and Wine Grapes of Italy course, these students got the chance to take the best grapes in a vineyard on a journey from their clusters all the way to the bottle.

Lets meet the wine students, the main actors of this hands-on experience. Joe Damiano, 30,  from New York, U SA, wants to change careers and be involved in wine business. Uzair Thobani, 24, from Karachi, Pakistan, is a chef who wants to broaden his horizon by learning more about wine and food pairings as well as cooking with wine. Zeynep Arslanalp, 28, from Izmir, Turkey is actually a chemistry engineer who always had an interest in wine and wants to be involved in the industry. Josiah Kahiu, 30, from Nairobi, Kenya, already has a company back in home and is here to further improve his wine knowledge. Amber Gates, 33, from California, USA, wanted to get her hands dirty with winemaking ever since she was little. She hopes to combine her interests in microbiology, chemistry, and wine after this program. Lauren Jubic, 22,  from New York, USA, studies wine and is planning on joining the industry as a professional. Nilufer Ozcelik, 58, from Istanbul, Turkey, has a broad wine network that she will continue to cultivate both nationally and internationally. Brad Copeland, 58, from Dadeville, AL USA has a bed&breakfast and is already knowledgeable about American wines and is fine-tuning his expertise on European wines.

The wine harvest was a great opportunity for this group to be on the field and witness each step of the winemaking process. The students were hosted in Case Nuove which has 14 hectares of vineyards and is owned by manager Alessandro Fonseca. There are three main types of grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese –  growing in the vineyard, and the students participated specifically in the Merlot phase. Case Nuove is a small producer that puts quality ahead of quantity, allowing the students to work with some of the best grapes in the area.

The weeklong course had a great start with students diving into the vineyard to pick the merlot grapes along with the vineyard staff. Some of the learned techniques included how to pick out the good grapes and cut away moldy clusters. It was surprising to absorb the smallest details: “How the exact position of the cluster in the vineyard or the amount of sunlight it receives can have a huge effect,” said Zeynep who enjoyed most the tinning and pruning method to separate the bad grapes from the good ones to ensure the best quality. Although it was sad to throw away a whole cluster just because of a one moldy grape, the group learned that this too is necessary for maintaining quality.
Once all the grapes were collected, the sorting process started. The students learned what to look for and how to analyze the grape quality. The sorted grapes were put in the crusher where skin, seeds, and pulp sat in the same tank for flavors to marinate together. Then a yeast was added to start the fermentation process, which can take up to months. The students also worked with soil on the emptied vineyards to make the field ready for spring to grow new grapes. “Working with our hands was worth it simply for the terroir knowledge we gained. Where the wine comes from makes an incredible difference. It’s very abstract unless you see it,”  shared Amber.

The students also acquired theoretical information on climate, soil, and effective harvesting methods. “I realized that one can actually tell the climate of a specific season by studying the wine from that year,” said Nilufer. Alessandro had the students tour the cellars where the fermentation process takes place, as well as to another vineyard nearby to give the students a better understanding of the process. Josiah affirmed that “Talking to someone who has been in winemaking business for a long time is extremely informative. We got to learn what the textbook doesn’t mention in this practical process”.

Brad, on the other hand, deeply enjoyed walking amongst the grapes: “We got the chance to translate what we learned in classroom to the field. When you see it, you understand everything immediately.” Though the group had been taking coursework on wine harvesting prior to the harvest, there was still much to discover in terms of the terrain and the methods used in winemaking. “The fermentation process was interesting and new to me” shared Lauren, “it was always discussed in class but I was never able to picture the many layers of grapes in the tall tank requiring the hard work of workers who mix them daily.” Everyone agreed that the experience will be one to remember.

The wine harvest wasn’t only a didactic experience for the students. It was something greater that was able to make a difference in their lives, as Uzair noted: “In Pakistan, wine is not appreciated as it is here. I had neither the experience nor perspective on wines before. Therefore, just touching the grapes and taking part in the process from the cluster to fermentation was an incredible experience for me.” Thanks to the harvest experienced hands-on, horizons have been broadened, wine cultures expanded, and new perspectives gained.

Learn more about the Apicius Wine Studies & Enology Career Program.

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