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Vines and wines
Faculty expert covers all aspects in online course
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010
By Richard H. Miller, WSU Global Campus
Ask WSU Associate Professor Kathleen Williams about soil snakes, and her eyes light up.
“You squish wet soil into a snake shape, and see if it crumbles. It shows texture and water holding capacity.”
Getting your hands dirty is the first requirement for Williams’ new spring online course, VE 113, Introduction to Vines and Wines, which covers everything from planting the grapes to pairing wine with food.
The second requirement is the ability to squish stuff. Take, for example, the process of extracting DNA from strawberries: “You take a couple of strawberries,” Williams says, “squish them up, then add liquid detergent, meat tenderizer and salt. You pour the mush into a glass and add ice-cold rubbing alcohol.”
This may sound like a particularly gruesome cocktail, but students will see DNA strands rising into the alcohol.
“It’s very cool,” she says.
Another experiment will teach the principles of fermentation: “Students squish up fruit, add bread yeast, let it ferment and compare fermentation rates.”
Students also will learn how to prune vines, make ricotta cheese - heat up milk, add vinegar, strain the curds - and detect tannins. Due to underage students, these tannins come in a tea bag, rather than from one of Williams’ favorite reds (“a really heavy duty cabernet”).
The first thing people should know about tannins, Williams says, is that you can’t taste them. You feel them.
“Tannins make your mouth feel dry and your teeth feel fuzzy. That’s because tannins precipitate out the proteins in your saliva,” she says.
“If you really want to do a number on yourself, just hold that tannic wine or tea in your mouth for about 10 seconds - if you can stand it - then swallow. You will feel it for several minutes.”
After students recover, they will add fresh lemon juice to the tea to learn how flavor is affected by acid.
“I’m not trying to torture people,” Williams says, “but it’s a good lesson in how those two compounds interact.”
Williams is an expert on walnuts, almonds, persimmons, chestnuts, pecans, peaches, pears, apples grapes, cherries, raspberries - “all the brambles, really” - and her chief area of expertise is growth regulators and fruit set. She began at WSU Extension in 1988 and has tromped through many a Washington state orchard and vineyard.
She gradually shifted to teaching and became a full-time Pullman faculty member in 2007.
Her interest in horticulture began much earlier in Riverside, Calif. Her mother wanted a good cherry pie - not a store-bought pie, not a pie with canned cherries. She planted a cherry tree in the backyard. It wouldn’t blossom.
“Being an enterprising 10-year-old,” Williams says, “I wrote one of the scientists at the nearby University of California.”
A scientist responded with a letter.
“That’s when I discovered that tree fruits have very elaborate mechanisms for dormancy,” she says. “It has to be cold enough so the buds can rest and form flowers. I decided that when I grew up, I was going to study cherries.”
Williams went on to earn a bachelor’s in history from the University of California Santa Barbara, a master’s in horticulture from UC Davis, and a Ph.D. in pomology (fruit science) from Cornell University.
“I wished I’d kept that letter,” she says. “I’d love to thank the person for inspiring me."