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'Exploring Wines and Vines': MSU Horticulture class allows students to experience a world of wine tasting

May 30, 2023
Grapes picked from an MSU vineyard sit before getting crushed for wine on Sept. 15, 2016 at 3900 Collins Road in Lansing.
Grapes picked from an MSU vineyard sit before getting crushed for wine on Sept. 15, 2016 at 3900 Collins Road in Lansing.

At Michigan State University, students will often find that most classes require specific prerequisites, whether that would be previous coursework, major acceptance, or number of credits. But for horticulture Professor Gregory Lang’s HRT430 class, the only prerequisite students have to fulfill is age.

"Exploring Wines and Vines" is a horticulture course at MSU centered around the study of wine. Offered every spring semester, the class requires those enrolled to provide identification on the first day of class.

Throughout the semester, students will get a taste of different wines while investigating the history, social, cultural and economic impacts of the wine industry. They will also learn about viticulture, or the cultivation and harvest of grapes, as well as winemaking techniques.

The course material includes wine tastings from region to region, starting in France and working its way around the world; students taste wines made in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Germany and even make their way to wines made locally in Michigan. After mastering American wines, students shift their attention to South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Professor Lang said learning about wines has been a "lifelong process" for him.

"I love being able to share the information that I've gathered," he said.

Lang first started teaching the class in 2020, taking over for retired professor Dr. Ron Perry, who created the course in 2010. However, Lang found his passion for wine tasting at the University of California Davis, where he completed a masters degree and PhD in plant physiology.

Because he spent a lot of time in the same building as the viticulture and enology program there, Lang said, he developed an interest in wines. 

Lang is married to another horticulture professor at MSU, Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Human Resources Suzanne Lang, who shares his love for wine. She will sometimes join classes with Lang to lecture and help set up wine tastings. 

“We have a big wine cellar in our basement," Lang said. "We’ve got wines going back to the year that we were married. Wine has been a part of my life and I love sharing that with the students.” 

Lang described the course as a rigorous, three credit-class that's a lot of fun while also requiring work and investment from students. While some might assume that a wine tasting course is great for blowing off steam or acting as an easy schedule-filler, he said, students will quickly realize the class still follows the same guidelines as their other courses. 

Students who take the class are required to purchase a $160 textbook and start by studying alcohol responsibility and health. Subsequently, they will be quizzed on this knowledge and must receive higher than a 70% in order to remain enrolled in the course. 

Lang said weekly quizzes also help students keep up with content throughout the semester while also weaseling out those only there to drink.

“If you’re here to (just) drink wine, you’re better off going to Beggars Banquet on Wednesday nights when it’s half off wine night, or Bridge Street Social, or The State Room on Thursday nights because you’ll get a lot more wine,” Lang said. 

During in-class tastings, students receive a one ounce-pour of each wine. They then discuss the sensory perception inherent in the wine and sometimes pair it with "matching" food.

Over the course of the semester, Lang said, students will taste about 60 different wines, with about two to four different wines during one lecture period. 

 “Students mostly come in with very little wine experience, often with... sweeter wines, cheaper wines,” Lang said. “Everyone is a student, they're on a budget.” 

Lang said what he enjoys most about teaching the class is seeing students expand their appreciation for wine. He said many students have emailed him after graduating to tell him how the course has shaped their careers. 

One student emailed him to let him know they had been selected to pick wines to serve at a business clientele dinner. Others have said they secured internships at wineries or jobs as sommeliers.   

“Everyone comes in with a different idea of why they’re there, but... leaves with a great appreciation (and) passion for wine,” Lang said. 

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For recent MSU graduate Caitlin Thompson, the class was a chance to grow her knowledge and enjoyment of wine.

“My parents have always been really into wine and I would go with them to wineries all the time when I was younger, but could never actually taste and experience it,” Thompson said. “I thought it’d be a cool way to actually be more knowledgeable on it and have a good conversation topic.” 

MSU graduate Isabella Chung said after taking the class, she no longer drinks boxed wine. 

“I was never a big wine drinker before, and I didn’t really know much about wine," Chung said. "After taking the class, I feel like I did develop a palette."

For students wanting to enroll in the course next spring, Chung recommended scheduling as early as possible, noting the waitlist last semester had almost 160 students on it.

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