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Finding Balance in the Wine
Fascinated by the science behind grape growing and winemaking, Zachary Stocksdale ’15 is taking his biology studies in a whole new direction.
Zachary Stocksdale ’15 was working his way through his biology major at Washington College, trying to figure out how, exactly, he wanted to apply his studies in biochemistry, when the answer came in a most unlikely form: within a glass of wine.
Several glasses, to be precise, that were served at a formal dinner for ex-pats to which Stocksdale was invited while he was in Barcelona, Spain, working as an oncology lab intern on a grant from the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows. Over the four-course dinner, he met a vintner who was explaining the intricacies of the wines complementing each course. Like the ding of a spoon on a crystal glass’s rim, something in Stocksdale’s imagination clicked.
“All the wines came from the Balearic Islands, which include Mallorca and Ibiza. He had grown up on a vineyard in Mallorca and he told me all about it. And it just sparked something,” Stocksdale says. “At first it was like this romantic, ridiculous idea, but the more I delved into grape growing and winemaking, the more I realized there’s a lot of science there, a lot of biology and biochemistry, which is my primary background. It just took off, and I went with it.”
Specifically, Stocksdale is intrigued by terroir—the natural environment in which a wine grape is grown, including climate, soil type, and topography, and how those variables influence a grape’s flavor. Upon his return from Barcelona he sought as much information as he could on the topic, including devouring a wine atlas front to back. “France obviously is the perennial powerhouse of winemaking, it’s pretty much the benchmark for everything regarding wine,” Stocksdale says. “But I was more interested in New World wine, because you can trace these back to their very beginnings.”
To pursue his research in New World wines, he earned a second Cater Society grant to spend two weeks over winter break in New Zealand, touring its spectacular wine country and exploring its winemaking industry. Within five days he traveled to more than 30 vineyards. Some of his stops were planned, while others were more spontaneous, with vintners making suggestions and contacts for him as he went along.
“Beyond wine, New Zealanders understand that their land is their biggest capital,” Stocksdale says. “They’re very interested in the land and conservation of it, and that extends to wine in an interesting way because it’s a way for people to see or experience New Zealand without having actually been there. There is genuine science behind the idea that wines are a direct representation of the lands where they are grown.”
Now that he’s back in Chestertown, he’s completing his Cater project by researching local winemaking, the terroir of the Eastern Shore, and what types of grapes would most benefit from it. The Shore’s changeable climate is a challenge, unlike areas of New Zealand, for instance, where the topography and climate conspire to produce extremely steady growing conditions. While that climate may create “less flexibility for growing great wines here, there could be a marriage of some variety” local vineyards could plant to take advantage of it, he believes.
Stocksdale has dropped his original plan to pursue biomedical research and instead is writing his senior thesis on the science of terroir. This spring he was accepted to the Viticulture and Enology Graduate Program at University of California Davis, and he’s awaiting word, after an interview, from the Vinifera Euromaster program the Montpellier SupAgro in France. And, if he chooses to wait on grad school, his time in New Zealand earned him an invitation from one vineyard to come back and apprentice to gain more hands-on experience.
“Looking at being a physician or a medical researcher, I felt I lacked the balance in life I wanted,” he says. “What I like about wine is the idea that I’m interacting with people and plants and wine. I have that interaction, that personal connection, but also a very rigorous scientific aspect that balances it out.”