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This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By David Nutt

Mountaineers have Mount Everest. Musical prodigies have Carnegie Hall. Cornell has the wines class. One of the University’s most popular elective courses, not to mention the envy of college undergraduates everywhere, the iconic “HADM 4300: Introduction to Wines” has helped generations of Cornellians refine their palates—and knowledge—about the many varieties of wine and how each is produced, bottled, labeled, distributed, sold, and, ultimately, savored.

Students attend “HADM 4300: Introduction to Wines,” one of Cornell’s most popular elective courses
Oenophiles in training: 700 students are enrolled in the class.

Cornell’s first wines course—and the first accredited wines course offered at any American university—launched in 1953 for students in what is now the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration.

This semester, the course is celebrating its 50th anniversary as an elective open to students of all majors.

Few traditions in college lore can match the class in which students are served quality alcoholic beverages every week. And, just like a fine cabernet sauvignon, Intro to Wines has only deepened with age.

Samples of wine are poured in the Introduction to Wines class
Samples are poured by the ounce.

“It is a journey,” says Cheryl Stanley ’00, a senior lecturer in food and beverage management at the Nolan School who has taught the class for the last decade.

“We teach the basics of what is wine, and we 'travel' each week to a different place in the world to learn about wines.”

Understanding wine is not just a treat for taste buds and palates. It can be crucial for anyone pursuing a career in the hospitality industry.

“Wine is a very scary field to look at because you have the viniculture side, the agriculture, the farming part, then you have the knowledge that accompanies knowing how to sit and discuss wine,” says Delesa McCruter ’25, who took the course last spring. “Because being a hotelier, a lot of the deals I will probably make in my life will be somewhere at some lounge, some bar, over a glass of wine.”

A lot of the deals I will probably make in my life will be somewhere at some lounge, some bar, over a glass of wine.

Delesa McCruter ’25

The original Introduction to Wine and Spirits was launched in 1953 by a group of five New York vintners and importers, one of whom, Julius Wile, was the course’s first instructor and famously commuted up to Ithaca from New York City once a week for 30 years.

However, the course as it is known today was first taught by the late Vance Christian ’61, MS ’65, the Villa Banfi Professor of Hotel Administration and Cornell’s first Black tenured faculty member.

During his 23 years of teaching, Christian modernized the Hotel school’s food and beverage curriculum, and he popped the cork on the wines class, making it available University-wide.

Professor Vance Christian ’61, MS ’65, was the first to teach Intro to Wines as a universitywide course
Christian was the first to teach Intro to Wines as a University-wide course. (Cornell University)

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“Professor Christian had a vision of saying it should not just be for the Hotelies to learn about wine and to be able to have a seat at the table. It should be for every single individual here at Cornell University. And it goes back to Ezra Cornell’s mission of ‘any person … any study,’” Stanley says. “So everyone has equal access and opportunity to learn about the world of wine.”

One thing that hasn’t changed: competition for a seat in the class is fierce.

There were 106 juniors and seniors enrolled in the first class in 1953. The current semester enrollment is about 700 students. The wait list for HADM 4300 is almost as legendary as the class itself.

If taking Intro to Wines is a coveted Cornell tradition, so is teaching it.

Since Christian revamped the course 50 years ago, only two other instructors have led it.

When Christian was diagnosed with cancer, he passed the baton—or, rather, the bâtonnage—to his former teaching assistant Stephen Mutkoski ’67, PhD ’76, in 1983.

Christian died a year later, and Mutkoski taught the class for the next 30 years, shaping it into a more consumer-oriented course. During his tenure, he also eliminated spirits from the curriculum.

Stanley was hired to teach the class in 2013. She hardly needed any introduction to Intro to Wines. She had taken it in her junior year in the fall of 1998 and, like Mutkoski, she had been one of its teaching assistants.

Professor Stephen Mutkoski teaching a class in 1986
Mutkoski teaching in 1986. (Cornell University)

“Steve TA’d for Vance, I TA’d for Steve,” she notes, “so we kept it in the family.”

She and Mutkoski co-taught the class together for a year before she took it over solo in 2014 and Mutkoski retired from Cornell.

“He also understood that it’s an institution,” she says. “He traveled the world for years, going to events, because he also was an alum of the Hotel school. People would come up to him in the airport and say, ‘You were the wines professor; I took your class at Cornell.’”

Wines class students are easy to spot. The course fee includes a $45 wine-tasting kit comprising three glasses inside a black, foam-lined case.

Senior lecturer Cheryl Stanley in the wines class
Stanley, once a TA, has been the course's instructor for the past decade.

“If you’re on campus on a Wednesday,” Stanley says, “it looks like we have a lot of clarinet players.”

For anyone wondering how much wine is required for 700 students, here is a little math: of the course’s 14 classes each semester, 12 feature tastings of up to seven different wines. Each student is served one ounce of each wine, and a typical bottle of wine contains 25.4 ounces.

That works out to roughly 210 bottles a class, or 2,520 bottles for the semester.

If you’re on campus on a Wednesday, it looks like we have a lot of clarinet players.

Cheryl Stanley ’00, wines course instructor

Chayil Hyland ’25, a former wines class teaching assistant who is now taking the class as a student, says learning how to read a wine list and evaluate a wine’s characteristics and knowing what foods it can be paired with, all help increase a person’s “cultural capital.”

“It’s a really robust class,” Hyland says. “And although it’s difficult to get into, once you get in, you’re happy that you’re there. You’ll take something from that class that you’ll use for the rest of your life.”

All photos by Ryan Young / Cornell University, unless indicated.

Published December 6, 2023


  1. Leanne S., Class of 1983

    A bunch of my dorm friends & I took this 2:30-4:30 Wednesdays, last semester senior year. My assigned seat was the end of a row (every other row, every other seat) in the lecture hall. That usually meant a generous pour from the bottle (several bottles) as it got to the end of the row. Loved the course. It led to an early happy hour each week that term. And, I learned a lot, too – beginning my appreciation for wines since then.

  2. Perry Jacobs, Class of 1974

    We’d sneak out a few unfinished bottles and enjoy them on the Arts Quad after class!

  3. Mike Wapner, Class of 1982

    I took the class first semester senior year (fall ’81). I always said I learned as much about wine as I learned about the subject of any other class I took at Cornell. And, Vance Christian was awesome in so many ways. I even made a special donation to some facility in Statler that was named in his honor.

  4. Kathryn Scanlon Catanach, Class of 1976

    I took “Intro to Wines and Spirits” my senior year, either Fall ’75 or Spring ’76. It was one of the first times it was opened to non-Hotel students and they were experimenting with a larger class size. I, a Geology major, dropped a seminar in remote sensing to take it. (I’ve never regretted that decision – we learned a lot!) I was on the wait list, but decided to show up for the first class anyway. Christian took attendance then asked, in his imperious way, any students on the wait list to come to the front of the lecture hall. I was terrified and sure I was about the get kicked out. He took our names, then announced that we were now officially “IN” because we had demonstrated our seriousness by showing up, and the rest of the wait-listed students were “OUT”! I had won the lottery!

  5. Les, Class of 1983

    Vance was legendary. Don’t wear your Cornell tie…

  6. Jack Cutler, Class of 1974

    I too took this class my senior year at Cornell. Vance was an awesome instructor. I recall that he gave lots of homework (reading assignments; book reports; etc.) UNTIL a certain number of students ultimately dropped the class and the number of students remaining met his acceptable class size.

    I recall one class ran over the 4:30pm scheduled ending time. At this point, Vance announced that if any student had a prior engagement, they could leave – not a person left!

  7. Laura Winter falk, Class of 1987

    I took this class as a senior in 1987. It served as the launch of my love for wine, which eventually lead to a change in my career 20 years later when I launched a wine tour and events company and became a certified sommelier.

  8. David Bilmes, Class of 1978

    I took this class senior year, with several of my friends. It was the only class we eagerly did homework for! It also instilled in me a life-long love of German white wines.

  9. Barbara (Dingee) Higgins, Class of 1988

    As a Hotelie, this was a required class more for. As a student-athlete, so was showing up for track practice immediately afterwards. Wednesdays were especially memorable that semester, and never for my best workouts. But I do use what I learned virtually every day!

  10. Charlie Kentnor, Class of 1964

    I was at Cornell in the early 1960’s and had a roommate who was in the hotel school. I’m absolutely certain he took a wine tasting course as my other roommates and myself were very jealous! So, it seems to me, this course is more like 60 years old.

    • Joe Wilensky

      Yes—as the story says, the course was first offered at Cornell in 1953. The 50th anniversary marks how long it has been offered universitywide to all majors.

  11. Douglas Birnie, Class of 1985

    Diring my senior year – a rep from Anheiser Busch came to speak during one of the wines lectures – at least 4 different beers – all from bottles……back then NY state gave a nickel for each returned empty. Following the lecture A buddy and I filled my old beater station wagon to the roof with empty’s and took them into town for returns ……over a couple hundred dollars later ensured a roaring afternoon and night at Johnnys for many many folks!

  12. Laura Anderson Hackett, Class of 2012

    The best way to end Senior semester! So many fond memories and time and time again I’ve recalled what I learned for practical use in the real world. Anyone else remember how everyone would freeze with caution when the inevitable spill of a tray would happen?

  13. Daniel Schildge, Class of 1990

    Although my degree was in engineering, I always tell people that the class at Cornell that had the most practical application in my life was Intro to Wine and Spirits. What an amazing class. I think of it every time I look at a wine list in a restaurant.

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