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Studying Wine Science in Paradise

Eschewing popular domestic programs, an American somm heads down under

Diana Hawkins
Photo courtesy of Diana Hawkins.

On a typical day, Diana Hawkins might harvest grapes, inoculate a Chardonnay barrel with malolactic bacteria, punch down her master’s project (it’s Pinot Noir, fermenting in a bucket), attend a lecture, learn a winemaking trick in the lab, and put in a long evening doing homework.

And somewhere in there, she might meet her husband on the beach for some snorkeling, barbecue, and beer.

Hawkins, who is a Certified Level 2 Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, made a splash at restaurant hot spots like Lula Café, Alinea, and Promontory in Chicago. Now, she is hard at work in her second semester of a two-year master’s program in wine science. But unlike her peers, who might have enrolled in postgrad programs in places like California, Washington, and France, Hawkins decided to attend what is arguably the world’s most exotic enology school. She’s pursuing a postgraduate diploma in wine science at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where she is the only American in the program. In addition to hailing from New Zealand, her classmates come from Australia, South Africa, India, China, and the Philippines. Says Hawkins, with a laugh, “If you had asked me five years ago if I’d be doing this, I’d have said, ‘No way in hell.’”

The university campus features a 35-acre winery and vineyard on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf, a 40-minute ferry ride east of the city of Auckland. With 20-some wineries, Waiheke is home to plenty of grapevines. And beaches—a lot of beaches.

Of course, Hawkins didn’t enroll for the beach bumming. She wanted to live abroad and make the most of her science background. A graduate of Harvey Mudd College in California, with a degree in engineering, she worked in information technology before getting into wine. “I’m a big old nerd,” Hawkins says. “That’s why I was able to hop into this program. I have spent time in a chemistry lab.”

And, perhaps because she’s the daughter of a professor—her mother teaches at Clemson University in South Carolina—Hawkins decided to go for a master’s degree rather than, say, a Master Sommelier pin. “I’m of the belief that you never know what’s going to happen later in life,” she says. “I don’t know—maybe I’ll want to teach winemaking in 25 years.”

In the meantime, after she earns her degree, Hawkins hopes to make wine in a region that’s resistant to climate change. “We’re seeing the effects of climate change in California already,” she says. “I’m interested in regions that are warming up enough that you can get consistent ripening but [where] land is still inexpensive.”

The tuition for Auckland’s graduate program is approximately US $29,000. Hawkins found that many grants and scholarships were available for students studying overseas, and she was pleasantly surprised when a specialist in financial aid for U.S. students contacted her immediately after she was accepted by the university.

Hawkins’s wine science curriculum calls for hands-on field, cellar, and lab work in both viticulture and enology—unlike many other postgrad programs, where students are expected to choose one or the other. “I like Auckland because it’s so hands-on in both areas and also discusses the marketing aspect,” says Hawkins. “I think the best wines are made when the winemaker and vineyard manager are one and the same—or have a deep mutual respect for and understanding of each other.” Hawkins is drawn toward the winery, but she doesn’t feel that means she gets to simply bypass the vineyard. “It’s like a restaurant,” she says. “You have to put in the work and understand the whole beast if you truly want to succeed.”

And because her work takes place in wine country, Hawkins is also able to moonlight occasionally at Batch Winery, where her husband, the former Chicago sommelier Frank Lepera, works full-time running “the cellar door,” or hospitality program. The couple met when they both worked at City Winery in Chicago, and they eloped over the recent winter holiday. “We spent a couple of days drinking Champagne on the beach, reading, and touring vineyards,” says Hawkins, “and we went to the hot springs here.”

Before you get too green with envy, though, Hawkins points out that a typical school day is not glamorous. “There are a lot of bugs,” she says. “Your back is going to hurt. You are pulling hoses around.” And not only does the program involve a lot of hard work but her choice to pursue wine science hasn’t exactly garnered a lot of praise from the American wine community. “I’ve gone down a path that few recommended, and fewer still have cheered me along. But I have to say, it’s been so worth it. I’ve learned things I would’ve never even thought to ask about. I’ve experienced more at 31 than I thought I would by 50.”

Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One.

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