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The Geology and Wines of California and France

Monday, January 30, 2017 to Friday, March 17, 2017
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Course Description

This course is designed for curious people who enjoy wine, especially wine from California and France, and would like to learn more about it. We will examine the connection between wines and their terroir—the complete natural environment in which a wine is produced—and learn why “place” and its geologic history—along with the grapes, their viticulture, the climate, and the winemaker’s skills—are all crucial to the characteristics of wines. We will explore the geologic setting of wine regions in California and France and, with comparative tastings, form the basis for understanding why certain grapes seem to prosper and others do not.

As we delve into the geologic history of wine country, we will also learn about the geography, the wines, the names, and the history of numerous wine regions in California and France. By the end of the course, we will have gained a better understanding of why wines are a reflection of “place” and have firsthand knowledge of many of the tastes that result.

The wines we will taste will compare both Old World (France) and New World (California): Burgundy and California’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Loire varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc; northern and southern Rhône wines with Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and a dozen others; plus Bordeaux blends from France and California made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other Bordeaux varietals.


In order to participate in this course, students must be at least 21 years of age (if a resident of the United States), or of legal drinking age for the country in which they reside. 

Please note: Stanford Continuing Studies will offer a separate course excursion to Napa this Spring. The course, led by instructor David Howell, will review the 140 million–year history of the valley, the origin of the mountains and the valley itself, and processes of sedimentation that characterize many of the valley floor vineyards. Participants will examine how elements of topography, climate, and soil, essential elements of terroir, have been used to subdivide Napa into fourteen distinct viticultural areas. The course will focus on Oakville, with vineyard and winery visits along with tastings. Students will also meet with winemakers and vineyard managers. For more information, please see the Spring 2017 catalogue (available in February 2017). While this course excursion builds upon Winter’s “The Geology and Wines of California and France” (GEO 03 W), each can be taken independently as well. 

To participate in tasting discussions, students will spend approximately $160–$200 on California and French wines. A wine list will be provided at the start of the course. Students will taste the wines in advance of the optional online videoconferencing sessions (which will be recorded and posted). During these sessions, students will compare notes with the instructors and invited winemakers to discuss their experiences with the terroir, grape varieties, winemaking styles, and taste sensations.

Enrollment: Fee Applies.

David G. Howell, Research Geologist (Retired), US Geological Survey

David G. Howell is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America. He has been working with Napa Valley vintners for more than twenty-five years and is the co-author of The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley. After retiring from the US Geological Survey, Howell was an adjunct professor in Stanford’s School of Earth Science from 2005 to 2009. He received a PhD from UC Santa Barbara and has authored more than 150 scientific articles.

Douglas Posson, Owner, Hexagonvins

Douglas Posson gathers and compiles data and information on wines. He is a co-founder of the US Global Change Research Program, and he led the US Geological Survey’s Arctic data team that received the Presidential Design Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Visiting France annually for the past thirty years, he has explored the geography, terroir, food, and especially the wines in Alsace, Burgundy, Beaujolais, the Rhône, Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon, the Loire, the Southwest, and Bordeaux.

Textbooks for this course

(Required) Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible, 2nd Edition (ISBN 978-0-7611-8083-8)
(Required) Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition (ISBN 978-1-84533-689-9)
(Required) Madeline Puckette & Justin Hammack, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine, 1st Edition (ISBN 978-1-592-40899-3)
The Geology and Wines of California and France

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