Rutgers Professor Enriches the Lives of Students with her 'Wine Insights'
For 20 years, students have clamored to take Lena Brattsten's one-credit course
Every semester for 20 years, about 200 students have applied to take “Wine Insights,” a one-credit course. About 55 actually get to take the course, “because that’s what the room will hold,” according to Lena Brattsten, who originated and teaches the course.
Improbably, the course is in the Department of Entomology, in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “It’s in entomology because Rutgers doesn’t have a hotel school,” Brattsten said. “It’s an orphan course, and it’s in entomology because I am in entomology.”
Brattsten, who came to Rutgers from industry as a full professor in 1987, specializes in insect physiology and insecticide toxicology. She said that, when she arrived at Rutgers, there was a course dealing with wine, but it focused on growing wine grapes. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do something students would be more interested in than that,’” she recalled.
The course isn’t difficult, Brattsten said, but it’s no skate, either.
“This isn’t a course where you sit around and drink wine,” she said. “It involves biology, history, geography and other disciplines. It involves some reading and thinking.”
And, of course, it does involve drinking some wine, which is why students must be seniors and at least 21 years old. Three optional wine tastings each semester are associated with the course, and each has a theme – wines of a particular variety, for instance, or wines from a particular place. One tasting features wines from New Jersey. “New Jersey has some 50 wineries and rates seventh in production quantity in the United States,” Brattsten said. “Just like in California and Bordeaux, some of the wineries in New Jersey make excellent wine, indeed, and some less so.”
The course covers the components of wine, the sensory physiology involved in smelling and tasting wine, the process of wine-making, varieties of wine, the health effects of wine, and the relationship of wine and food. Brattsten also covers the geography and history of the beverage.
Students’ motivations range from simple curiosity to career-focused ambition.
“I was always interested in learning more about wine,” said Nicholas Apostolopoulos, a research assistant at Harvard Medical School who took the course in 2010, his senior year at Rutgers. “I think it’s an important subject to learn – if you go into industry, science, or just want to impress a girl on a date. That’s what drove me to take the class.”
Apostolopoulos thought wine had to be expensive to be good – a notion he was disabused of in the first tasting, which involved wines costing from $10 to $15 that tasted great. Apostolopoulos was surprised, too, at the sheer complexity of wine, the many levels at which it can be understood and appreciated. Had he not taken the course, he said, he’d still be drinking wine, but probably paying more for it and enjoying it less. “I wouldn’t know what grape I was drinking, or where it came from,” he said. “You can buy really good wine for not a lot of money if you know what region makes that kind of wine the best.”
Richard Heritage, who graduated from Rutgers in 2008 with a degree in environmental business economics, knew exactly what he wanted to learn when he took Brattsten’s class. His family owns Heritage Winery in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, and Heritage knew when he entered Rutgers that he would go into the family business.
“I wanted to hold ‘wine 101’ classes at our winery,” Heritage said. “I wanted to see how this class was conducted. Also, I had no formal wine education, and I needed to solidify the basics.”
Even though he grew up in a winery, Heritage was surprised at how subtle and multilayered a subject wine was. “Wine is about farming, chemistry, smell and taste,” he said. “For instance, what does it mean when we say a wine is dry? It’s a simple question, but it can be difficult to answer sometimes.” (When visitors to his winery ask, Heritage gives them the short answer: Dryness refers to the absence of sugar; if a wine’s not sweet, it’s dry.)
Heritage was also surprised at the level of interest in wine among his contemporaries. But such interest is no surprise to Brattsten.
“How can you not be interested in what you’re eating and drinking?” she said.