Tracking fermentation fires imaginations

Bouquets! Aged just right, fourth-and fifth-graders at Mount Washington Elementary School divine a project full of flavor as they turn tennis balls into wine.

April 06, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Isabella Jacoby is a zinfandel. Jordan Holton is a chardonnay. Will Brown is a tokay and Katie Brown a burgundy. (Other than that, she's no kin to Will.) Julia Barry is a chianti, Nora Feinstein a merlot and Alison Noji, a Champagne.

These fourth- and fifth-graders at Mount Washington Elementary School might have settled on being grape jam, jelly, soda, Popsicles and shriveled little raisins if Eli M. Shulman, a retired dentist and gold-medal basement winemaker, hadn't come along.

The team, assembled for this year's Destination Imagination, a national, creative problem-solving program and competition, had been wrestling since October with this year's challenge: to create a working "fruit roller coaster," complete with a loop, corkscrew and jump.

That was just one layer of the problem. Judges, abiding by a Byzantine rule book, would also time the speed of loop-the-looping tennis balls, listen to a narration explaining what process the coaster represented and evaluate an original creative presentation by the kids.

When, early in their research, the students visited Fresh Fields and its array of unusual fruit, they first decided upon a project about different grape products such as jam and raisins. Last year, several Destination Imagination participants were on a Baltimore City team that went on to the world finals with a skit fusing "Macbeth" and the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. If they could do that, they could do a fruit roller coaster.

But their complicated fruit-on-a-thrill-ride project didn't immediately gel.

Enter Shulman, regional vice president of the American Wine Society, member of the cellar committee of the international Wine and Food Society, award-winning enologist who has made 20 different wines in a basement operation he calls "The House of Shulman."

When he was first invited to speak to the students, they "had no comprehension of what wine is," says Shulman on a recent morning, as the kids assemble their modular roller coaster nearby in Mount Washington's auditorium.

If they lived in Europe, however, wine would be nothing new. "This is not a culture where wine drinking is part of the prevalent [lifestyle]," Shulman says. In Sicily, where he has just come from, "it is a food, not any big deal. Wine is put on the table automatically."

Learning about wine

Instead of uncorking his vintage merlot, Shulman gave the students a primer on winemaking, including the crushing and skin discarding, creating the juice that's processed as wine; the chemistry of fermentation; the bottling.

"I tried to focus on what a kid would see in a vineyard," he says. I tried to bring it to what would be in their life. My biggest fear was talking over their heads."

Not to worry. "These kids are bright, extremely bright," says Shulman, whose grown children attended the same school once upon a time.

The students quickly lost the jam and embraced the wine with a plan to make a roller coaster simulating the fermentation process, albeit at high speed.

Each kid would become a wine. They approached Shulman with questions such as, "Should I be a tokay?"

"I didn't want to get into that," Shulman says. "I told them, `Select whatever you want.' "

(In fact, after his initial pro bono consulting job, Shulman was required by the Destination Imagination rule book to step back and let the kids do everything themselves.)

Katie Brown wears a label that says "Burgundy since 1999." Out of all the wine she has tasted, "I liked it the best," she explains.

"I guess I decided to be a merlot because my dad always has it around the house and it's his favorite kind of wine," Nora Feinstein says. The choice "came naturally."

Jordan Holton opted for chardonnay: It's a "really catchy" name, she says. "I also thought it is a good name for a real person."

Will Brown read in "The Golden Compass" how "this guy tried to poison this guy by putting poison dust in the tokay. I remember that. Besides, I like the name."

When the kids went to the Bel Air Double T Diner after participating in the regional tournament recently, they scanned the menu's wine list. "We were all in there!" they say.

Following the grapes

In Mount Washington's auditorium, the children sport labels, black garbage bags for bottles, and hats as corks. They run through their fermentation process: Day-Glo tennis balls (representing grapes) flow through dryer hose, down zip lines, through cut-out milk cartons and a re-jiggered clementine box. Their Rube Goldberg-esque contraption, constructed of PVC pipe, string, recycled linoleum and other valuable scraps, is in fine working order.

As the tennis balls roll through, the kids' explain their roller-coasting factory as "Speed Fermentation: Process of the 21st century."

"With tennis balls you can make wine really fast," Shulman observes.

When a ball goes awry, the kids improvise: "That one is sour," says a student as she scampers to retrieve it.

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