Usually, when people pair wine and college together in the same sentence, classes and education aren’t the first things that come to mind. However, here at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, wine isn’t just a social drink but a medium of study.
Barry Cameron is an associate professor of Igneous Petrology, Volcanology and Terroir here at UWM and is changing the way students and people think about wine and other fermented goods.
Cameron, along with being a professor in the Department of Geosciences, is the director of the fermentation certificate offered at UWM. He team-teaches FoodBev 102, a course that focuses on the fermentation of wine, beer and cheese. For Cameron, though in a city filled with breweries, his passion is found in the wine portion of the fermentation field.
“It really started to intensify, my interest [in wine], when I was doing my work around volcanoes in different parts of the world, but mainly in Italy,” said Cameron.
While Cameron was in Italy, studying Mount Etna, he became fascinated with the vineyards along the flanks of the volcano and the taste of the wines they were producing. For Cameron, one small grape would turn the passion for wine into a want to learn the connection between the wine and the volcano. Norello Mascalesci was its name, an indigenous red grape that piqued Cameron’s interest and grew his passion.
“Norello Mascalesci essentially is grown in this one spot on the flank of Etna, so that was the clincher for me,” said Cameron. “Wine wasn’t just going to be a social beverage or a hobby, I was going to go all in and start studying this connection between geology and wine.”
Terroir is the French term for the connection between geology and wine, and is the focus of another course Cameron teaches. GeoSci 525 is offered every three years in the fall, and will be offered in the fall of 2018. The course covers the geology of the major wine regions around the world.
While Cameron did bring his passion for wine into the classroom, he still maintains it as a hobby as well.
“When I got started in Terroir research, Philippe Coquard at Wollersheim Winery, convinced me that a critical aspect of Terroir is understanding the human aspect of Terroir, which is the decisions the winemaker makes in getting a finished wine product,” said Cameron.
This hobby and his research have intrigued his colleagues and employees of the Geosciences Department, as he stores samples for his research in the office fridge and has given bottles of his own as gifts.
“I’ve had different conversations with him about it just from being interested and I’ve tasted it a few times,” said Department of Geosciences Graduate Program Assistant Kathleen Wehrheim. “I’ve definitely been interested in knowing a different side of wine, as it is more specifically about the soil.”
For Cameron, wine is taking up his life and his home.
“My own wine is kind of overflowing in my basement now,” said Cameron. “My hobby is starting to consume me in terms of time, not only in terms of teaching, but making of wine in fall and spring.”
Cameron is lucky enough to work with grapes from Italy, Oregon and Chile. He is also part of the Wisconsin Vintners Association, which gives him access to grapes as well as the tools necessary to make the wine.
He is currently working on a batch of red, which will take up his time outside of work. After he picks up the grapes from the truck, he’ll have to de-stem and crush the grapes.
“I catch my 150 pounds of crushed grapes and juice, and I take that home and add yeast,” said Cameron.
The yeast is the critical factor in the wine-making process, as it converts the sugar into alcohol. The process will take seven to eight days to ferment, and, while the liquid is fermenting, it will produce carbon dioxide gas. The fermentation also causes the grape skins to rise to the top, creating a cap. For red wine, the skins need to mix with the juice; this is where Cameron gets some help in the process.
“This is something my 13-year-old daughter helps with – she is my assistant winemaker,” said Cameron. “Every day, in the morning and evening you punch down the skins to interact the juice and the skins.”
When the cap stops rising, the fermentation is done. After this, Cameron uses the homemade press he purchased to press the grapes and get every last drop. After that he racks the wine, meaning he extracts the pulp and dead yeast from the wine, making it as clear as possible. Cameron prides himself on being a natural winemaker and by racking, he avoids adding anything to the wine to make it clearer.
Finally, the wine is ready to age, and Cameron brings it from garage to basement. His favorite bottle is his 2015 Sant Gervasi, though his first bottle still holds a place in his heart.
“I didn’t know a lot about wine making, and I think there were some imperfections in it, but I think I like it for it’s imperfections,” said Cameron. “It was by far my most earthy wine that I’ve ever made, and as a Geologist I kind of like that flavor profile of earth.”
After his first bottle, into 2015, Cameron started to perfect his Sant Gervasi. A reason why this bottle is his favorite was because he did something a little different.
“I let the 2015 Sant Gervasi ferment on its own natural yeast; I didn’t add any yeast,” said Cameron. “It’s a bit more risky, because you’re not in control of the type of yeast; sometimes people say those wines fermented on their own yeast are a bit wild.”
Cameron was not so much scared of the wildness of the wine but excited about the natural process happening.
Cameron’s passion of wine and love of terroir can be found in his work and in the classes he teaches. It can also be attributed back to the nights on Etna, tasting wines with friends and family.
At a dinner in Cecily, a friend of Cameron’s pulled out two bottles of wines, one from each of this vineyards. One bottle was from volcanic soil and the other from sedimentary soil. Cameron was given a taste test.
“It was eye opening to me that the two wines had very different flavor profiles,” said Cameron. “That, for me, has been the motivation for some of my terroir studies, that I know soils are impacting the flavor of the wine; but as a scientist, now I have to prove it.”