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Vintage Education: Juniata Chemistry Professor Creates Wine Course

(Posted March 19, 2012)

Peter Baran, lar left, associate professor of chemistry at Juniata, works with his students to build a vineyard trellis.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Marvin Gaye may have heard it through the grapevine, but Peter Baran, associate professor of chemistry at Juniata College, is using grapevines to teach students a little bit about reactions, fermentation, chemical analysis, sugars, and phenols. Heck, let's just admit it -- he's teaching them about wine. In fact, the course is called Wine Chemistry.

"The course is for students who might not be interested in science as a profession," says Baran, a native of Slovakia who made wine as a youngster with his father and later as a young family man in the central European country. "It's using knowledge from all parts of chemistry. My goal is to have them learn chemistry through an attractive topic."

Winemaking, which in the United States has burgeoned from a backyard hobby in the 1940s to a multibillion-dollar industry with major production in California (primarily Napa and Sonoma counties), Washington, New York and more recently Pennsylvania.

During fall semester, Baran taught the first part of Wine Chemistry, which focused on winemaking from harvest to crush to bottling.

Last semester Juniata students learned about must and wine composition and the grape fermentation process, while also analyzing qualities such as aroma, flavor and color. The course also covered how wine ages as well as storage techniques. The course culminated in small tasting, using wine made from Concord grapes obtained from a local grower.

"The course is for students who might not be interested in science as a profession. "It's using knowledge from all parts of chemistry. My goal is to have them learn chemistry through an attractive topic."
Peter Baran, associate professor of chemistry

"The first course really shows the students the process of making wine," Baran explains.

Wine Chemistry II, which is taught through the end of this spring semester, concentrates more on wine analysis, using scientific methods to measure levels of sugars, alcohols, acids, phenolic compounds, sulfur dioxide, alkaline metals and other compounds. In addition, the class will cover winemaking theories related to corkage, storage barrels and even the health benefits associated with wine consumption.

For now, the Juniata wine connoisseurs are using Concord grapes, which are not particularly sought after as wine grapes (Concords often are used in grape juice and grape jelly). Baran has already started on a solution. Last year he planted 177 grape vines in a small vineyard on campus divided into five varieties of wine grapes.: Reisling, Traminette (both whites), Lemberger, Cabernet Franc and Zweigeltrebe (reds).

Baran, who makes wines at home, consulted with Mark Chien, Penn State Ag Extension Service in Lancaster County, to choose varieties that would thrive in Huntingdon's climate. The vineyard is located behind Juniata's Brumbaugh Academic Center.

"The vines take about three to four years to mature to produce wine grapes, so perhaps the first vintage will be fall 2013," he explains. "We lost just one plant last winter and the vineyard is doing well."

Baran comes from a winemaking region in Slovakia and explains that many central Europeans tend small vineyards to make and bottle small vintages for personal use. He points out that his course is not designed to teach entrepreneurs how to open a winery but rather how to make wine as a sideline or as part of a secondary agricultural enterprise.

"Many of our students come from central Pennsylvania and they may be able to use this as a hobby or to make wine as a small business," Baran says. "From our vineyard we may be able to make enough to eventually supply Juniata Wine for a college event or celebration."

The class, which has more than a dozen students enrolled, does not require any chemistry prerequisites. He also has enlisted a chemistry student Chelsea Homes, a senior from Glen Rock, Pa., to research how complex compounds are formed from the basic components of wine during the winemaking and aging process.

Baran hopes to make the Wine Chemistry course a regularly scheduled course and he's already come up with a third course he plans to offer in fall 2012. Wine in a Vessel will examine wine and winemaking from a historical and archeological perspective. Baran will team-teach the course with Bethany Benson, assistant professor of art, and archeology consultant Jonathan Burns, owner of AXIS Research Inc. "The idea is to look at winemaking through different cultures and different periods of time," he says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.