Cooking school is no picnic. It’s expensive, arduous and in no way guarantees you a job upon graduation — at least not in a professional kitchen. So many people enroll hoping to become great chefs, but emerge as food writers, restaurant managers or sommeliers. For six lucky students each year, a focus on wine pays off.
The Kopf Scholarship, sponsored by Kobrand Wine & Spirits, is awarded to students who show passion and promise in the world of wine. The award includes $10,000 in cash, plus six weeks traveling around California, Italy and France. We talked to three recipients about the experience: Michael Echeveste, who went to the Culinary Institute of America and now works at Volt Restaurant in Maryland; Seth Gerber from Boston University’s hospitality program, now at Hillstone Restaurant Group; and Gonzalo Gout, who went to CIA and is now at the Four Seasons in D.C.
What does the Kopf scholarship represent? It is a big deal for students?
Michael: At CIA, part of our curriculum is a class called Wines. It’s known as one of the most difficult, but also one of the most rewarding classes. I went into it not knowing much about wine, then I heard about the scholarship opportunities.
Seth: When I heard about it, I was too young to apply — you have to be 21. But it became an immediate goal of mine. What I love about wine is that there’s only so much you can learn on paper. It has to be experienced.
Gonzalo: I didn’t get it the first time I applied. So, I worked even harder the next year. It’s one of the most important scholarships for wine studies — not only because it’s a big chunk of money, but because it’s such an incredible experience that immerses you in the subject.
Why do you think you were chosen?
M: I’m interested in sustainable agriculture. I was involved in Slow Food on campus and interned at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I was very forward with the fact that I haven’t been drinking wine my whole life, but wanted to learn.
S: My first year, I wasn’t selected. It sounds cliché, but one year made a difference. I was more mature, had a greater knowledge of wine. I wrote a more colloquial, heartfelt essay [the second time around]. And I did well on the tasting portion of the application.
G: I think it was my passion; it was the same for all us, actually. I come from Mexico City and my family is really into food. There are people who know more about wine than I do. But I was already working in school — I had a catering company with a friend.
What was your favorite part of the traveling?
M: We visited the wine caves at Taittinger in Champagne. To see these incredible caves built into the chalk soil underground, the riddling of the bottles and experiencing the painstaking work that goes into fine Champagne. It was very humbling.
S: Being in Burgundy was amazing. We had one really amazing meal with the export manager of Maison Louis Jadot, whose job is literally to allocate, say, how much Premier Cru Montrachet the U.K. gets in a year. And he was totally humble about it.
G: We all had a pretty adventurous spirit. No one ever really said no to anything. So, we saw some pretty amazing things. Beautiful vineyards, valleys… at first, I was really in touch with my family everyday, then I just totally gave in to the experience.
Any bumps in the road?
M: There were language barriers everywhere we went. In Asti, we were offered this famous dish and, of course, we agreed. So, out comes a farmer’s stew of intestines, organ meats and genitals of all of the animals that they were using in the back. The look on our faces was priceless. But in truth, it was delicious.
S: We made one horrible mistake in Italy, where we filled our rental car with gasoline instead of diesel. Luckily, these nice Italian mechanics pumped 100 euros worth of gas out of the car. That was a high-tension moment.
G: In Burgundy, we met students from South Africa, London and the United States. They invited us to their house for a barbecue. The house had no electricity because they couldn’t afford the bill, so we had this incredible candlelit night drinking wine from the cellar.
What was the biggest takeaway from the experience?
M: I definitely got a good appreciation for the hard work that goes into wine and, more importantly, that good wine is hard to define. I had bottles that were eight euros that I loved and bottles that were 100-200 euros that were just OK.
S: There’s no such thing as good wine and bad wine; there’s only good wine and great wine.
G: My epiphany moments were all about the meals. I loved the food and the wine, of course, but it was more about sharing a meal with the winemakers and even the other [five recipients].
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