As pleasant as the sleepy and sparsely populated summers are here, the start of school injects energy back into this brainy little town. If you’re anything like me, you get student envy: wistfully thinking back to brand new Trapper Keepers and 5-Subject notebooks. The good news is that with your compulsory education complete, you can use your free time to learn while you drink.
Brix (n.): A unit of measure for a grape’s sugar content. Most grapes are harvested between 20 and 25 degrees brix.
Charlottesville’s leader in educational offerings for the oenophile is Piedmont Virginia Community College, where the Workforce Services division offers a Viticulture & Enology Certificate Program. Ten courses are required for each certificate, but Program Manager Gregory Rosko welcomes anyone looking to learn. This spring, I took Claude Thibaut’s Sparkling Winemaking Part I (Part II is November 19) and relished scribbling notes on everything from Champagne’s soil to the desired brix (see Winespeak 101) and pH ranges for its grapes. The all-day affair (complete with boxed lunch) ended at Thibaut’s sparkling wine production headquarters, Veritas Vineyard, where we zipped past the throngs in the tasting room into the cellar to sample pre-secondary fermentation blends. A group of overachievers even continued studying at another winery afterward.
Grape nuts may want to take the new five–part course that begins today on how to start your own vineyard. Pioneer of Virginia wine, Gabriele Rausse, will use the Monticello grounds to teach you about vineyard layout, soil preparation, trellising and vine planting between now and November 1. Classes will resume in the spring and summer of 2012, when the vines you helped to plant will need more TLC, and then continue for another two years when, fingers crossed, you’ll have your first harvest. Talk about a field trip!
Those more interested in consumption can learn how to pair food and wine with C&O Restaurant’s sommelier, Elaine Futhey. The course, held over three consecutive nights in November, will cover white, red and dessert wines along with some foods that make them sing. For an around-the-world wine trip, join Virginia wine expert Richard Leahy while he casts a wider net in a four-part course focusing on the wines of Germany, Austria, France and Italy.
If you’re an aspiring wine writer, or just always struggled to put your impressions into words, then my “Wines and Words” class on September 24 may unlock your inner columnist. A component tasting will highlight the importance of basic terms like dry, sweet, acidity, tannin and fruit. Then, with real wine in your glass and Pollak Vineyards as our backdrop, we’ll swirl, sniff and sip before waxing poetic with descriptors beyond the overused “fruity” and “oaky.”
Of course, all sorts of learning happens outside the classroom. We are blessed with a town full of winos so passionate about their craft that they can’t help but effuse. Pull up a bar stool at Tastings of Charlottesville and ask owner Bill Curtis to pour you something—you’re likely to get a colorful story about the wine’s region or producer. Or, join his Wine Club, which meets once a month at Tastings for an enlightening evening with wine, food and like-minded companions. Robert Harllee, owner of Market Street Wineshop, debuted a series of wine classes at Hamiltons’ this summer and will announce his fall series soon. I attended his class on terroir back in June and found his teaching style to be approachable and informative, complete with topographic maps and suggested reading materials.
Finally, don’t forget about our local winemakers who toil in the vines and cellars every day to bring world class wine to your dinner tables. They would love nothing more than a break from their tractors to chat with you about canopy management and stink bugs. You might even get to ride along with them, but if you show up during this month’s harvest, be prepared to lend a hand. They’ll get cheap labor, you’ll get a firsthand lesson —and maybe something stronger than milk and cookies after school.
Reaping the harvest
September marks a busy and exciting time for vineyards, with most grapes leaving the vines and landing on the crush pads. Jefferson Vineyards is celebrating with a Harvest Bash on Saturday, September 17. King Family Vineyards’ annual harvest dinner with The Rock Barn’s Ben Thompson is planned for Thursday, September 22, and Mountfair Vineyards is teaming up with l’etoile to offer a five-course dinner on Saturday, September 23. Visit the winery websites for more information.