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UNG professor’s "café" features dinner with a side of science

Dahlonega Science Cafe
Brannon Boegner, manager of Wolf Mountain Vineyards in Dahlonega, talks about the science of winemaking to the monthly gathering of the Dahlonega Science Club.

On a chilly, blustery fall evening, a group of 40 locals gathered in an event room at the Bourbon Street Grill in Dahlonega Square. The fare was typical New Orleans-style cuisine. The conversations among those gathered were animated and convivial.

At first glance, it looked like a typical group of folks who gathered to celebrate a birthday, say farewell to a retired couple moving to warmer climes or fondly remembering a good friend who had passed on.

What it is, is a classroom of sorts. It is the monthly gathering of the Dahlonega Science Café.

Its website says, it is a group "dedicated to bringing to the community fun, informative, thought-provoking meet-ups and talks from real working scientists."

"We’re a community of science enthusiasts. We enjoy talking science with each other. We enjoy each other’s company, so much so that we’ve become friends, said Dr. Donna Governor, assistant professor of science education at the University of North Georgia (UNG) and café creator. "This event has grown to the point that sometimes, depending on the month’s topic, there’s a waiting list of people wanting to attend."

Governor said she patterned the Dahlonega Science Café after researching similar venues (more than 200) across the country. The one closest to Dahlonega, the Atlanta Science Tavern, is too far away for most locals to join.

And, "Atlanta traffic is not fun," Governor said.

So she established a venue, created a website, took reservations (which are required), and lined up guest speakers.

The first meeting in May 2016 drew about 30 attendees by promoting the event through the website, on a Facebook page and community word-of-mouth. The café's format is social hour and dinner, followed by a 40-45 minute talk by a guest speaker, often by a UNG science faculty member. A question-and-answer session follows. Previous topics have covered aquatic dead zones, Red Dwarfs, parasites, and hurricanes.

"The speakers have been awesome," Governor said. "People have come up to me afterward to tell me how marvelous the speakers were, and how much they learned. The support has been amazing."

Carrie Jane Sparks of Dahlonega, an eighth-grade science teacher at nearby Chestatee Academy, has attended the gatherings from the beginning. She was intrigued after seeing a post on the café's Facebook page.

"It’s a lot of fun; it’s a very nice social event with like-minded people," Sparks said. "The topics have been wonderful, some are spectacular. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for lesson plans and class field trips for these meetings that I take back to my students."

The topic of one particular evening was of interest to everyone in the room. Brannon Boegner, a second-generation winemaker and manager of nearby Wolf Mountain Vineyards, was presenting "The Science of Winemaking."

"Winemaking is just as much about science as it is about technique and taste," said Boegner, who founded the winery in 1999 with his father. "In this area of the country, the science of growing grapes for making wine is all about the weather. We have a different set of challenges here than say, in California or even Virginia. Here in Georgia, the rainfall totals are the highest on East Coast. Grapes are very fragile; too much rain and mold and mildew will ruin a crop."

After dinner and dessert, the room settled down. Boegner took the group through a near hour-long journey on the history, science, challenges, and rewards of producing European-style blends in the red Georgia clay.

Some interesting science facts: Wolf Mountain’s fungicide program is 10 times what a vineyard in California is, due to the abundance of rain; harvest decisions are based on weather patterns, not on the ripening of the grapes themselves. Finally, August to October is the worst time of the year during the growing season, as too much rainfall can make or break a harvest, affecting the taste of the wine.

"I get to learn, listen to really good speakers," Governor said. "I’m a teacher, and I really enjoy helping others learn about science. It’s been a really rewarding experience in a lot of ways."

For more information on the Dahlonega Science Café, visit the website. The next meeting is Monday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. Dr. Lesley Simanton-Coogan, UNG planetarium director and lecturer will present "More Than Five Rings: The Cassini-Huygens Mission. Reservations are required to attend.

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