January Term Course Explores 'Curious History of Wine in Virginia'

January 13, 2010

January 13, 2010 — Virginia's history is associated with tobacco, but that's only part of the story, according to University of Virginia professor Kathryn A. Neeley.

From the colony's earliest days, wine grapes were "in competition with tobacco for the attention of plantation owners," said Neeley, who teaches in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Department of Science, Technology and Society.

Neeley is leading a group of 29 undergraduate engineering students on an exploration of wine growing and consumption in pre-Revolutionary War Virginia in a January Term course, "The Curious History of Wine in Virginia: A Sociotechnical Systems Approach." (The syllabus does not include any consumption of wine.)

"Wine, oil and silk were the three primary commodities the British hoped to cultivate in America," she said. "They needed independent supplies of wine and it was a motivating factor of the Virginia Company to invest in the New World."

Studying attempts to grow grapes and make wine provides "a lot of insights into the history of Virginia," she added.

Neeley examines wine's history through "sociotechnical systems analysis," which includes three components: technical, the ways things are made and the processes of making them; organizational, questioning who is engaging in the activities and why; and cultural, which includes beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and values.

"Sociotechnical systems do not consider artifacts in isolation, but in relation to other activities," she said. It is an interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of complex human problems. The class provides insight into the way organizations or culture and technology play a role in the way people use alcohol.

"Historically wine has associations with divinity and religious ritual, and the growing of grapes and making of wine with communing with nature and, through nature, with God," she said. "Wine is also associated with expanding consciousness and facilitating human interaction."

Second-year civil engineering student Maggie McNamara said this sociotechnical approach is "a big-picture way of looking," offering a "framework and vocabulary" to approach her engineering studies. "Civil engineering design impacts society, and what society needs impacts civil engineering," she said.

"You need an interdisciplinary approach to investigate any problems in engineering," Neeley said.

To hone research skills, Neeley assigned a project centered on an unpublished 18-century manuscript, "A Sketch of Vine Culture for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas," written by Robert Bolling Jr., an early Virginia landowner who had a vineyard in Buckingham County.

"To make the past accessible and meaningful, you have to do research," Neeley said.

The manuscript is technical and presented the students with a number of research obstacles, including reference to classical literature, mythology and other classical and historical works in France, Italy and England. "A lot of what they had to research was terminology and the technology Bolling described," Neeley said.

Another assignment looked at the effects of alcohol on behavior, health, predisposition and factors related to alcoholism, along with cost,production and marketing of wine today. They considered these issues in a range of other countries.

Neeley said her awareness of the problematic role alcohol plays in the lives of students was also a motivation for teaching the course. The opportunity to take a systematic and critical approach to the study of the making and drinking of wine offers the opportunity to ask the question, "How can we get a better grasp on the role it plays today?," she said.

"There is so much historical evidence for each culture, and it varies for each culture," said C.A. Merrill, a third-year biomedical engineering student. "It's fascinating how the technical aspects of production, distribution and the way cultures perceive drinking have evolved over time."

Guest lecturer Beth Bollwerk, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, told the class that the role of archaeology is to make concepts of culture accessible and to create links between the past and the present. She described the interdisciplinary nature of archaeology, a discipline within the field of anthropology that also includes the study of culture, physical artifacts and linguistics.

Her presentation was an introduction to a visit to Bolling's estate, Chellowe in Buckingham County, to see the remnants of the vineyard and the amateur archaeology efforts taking place there. The students also visited Montdomaine Winery and Vineyard in Albemarle County to learn about modern viticulture and wine making.

Second-year computer science major Poorja Usgaonkar said the class reinforced her belief in the interdisciplinary applications of computer science. "It applies to a lot of fields," she said.

Third-year engineering student Dan Abebayehu said, "Applying the cultural aspects of the history of wine in Virginia has been interesting and an eye-opener. The class opened my mind to be willing to study any topic and the influence of different elements on it."

— By Jane Ford