Of all the current Carolina student-athletes planning to enroll in graduate school in the fall of 2018, Meredith Bozentka may have the longest guest list.

Often, grad school doesn’t sound like much fun. No one wants to go hang out at a law school or medical school. But Bozentka, a senior captain on the fencing team, says, “All of my friends have told me they’re going to come see me.”

That’s partially because of the location – Bozentka will be in Piacenza, Italy, attending the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. And what takes her to Italy? Therein lies the other reason she’s been such a popular friend. The Oregon Episcopal product plans to earn her Master’s in viticulture and enology…in other words, a graduate degree in winemaking. Italy is currently the world’s largest producer of wine.

“My guy friends always ask me for advice about wine,” she says with a laugh. “They want to know what they should get to impress a girl’s parents. I tell them to go to the store and send me a picture of the red section.”

This isn’t some college whim. Bozentka has been interested in the science of winemaking for several years. Her father, Neal, has an extensive wine cellar, and taught her some of the nuances of the industry.

Bozentka actually arrived at Carolina with the idea that she might be a veterinarian. But she interned at Benjamin Vineyards, a family-owned vineyard in Graham, during her freshman year, and like many students, found that her internship turned into a passion.

She identified the graduate program that would be the best fit, and picked a major, environmental studies, that would allow her to seamlessly transition into the graduate classes. A botany class was helpful, as were several environmental studies classes, especially those dealing with water and the various ways to use it. Most people think of the wine industry mostly as what happens after it’s put in the bottle. But Bozentka is interested in the entire process.

“Working at Benjamin Vineyards is really when I fell in love with it,” she says. “They were so helpful to me and I loved picking the grapes. You had to make sure you got the right color and the right firmness of the grape. I stayed with them a couple weeks after the harvest to help them press the wine, and that was so cool to be involved in that process.”

With her eventual travels in mind, she’s been taking Italian classes since her freshman year. She also interned at another vineyard – this one near Florence, Italy – during the summer between her sophomore and junior years. She considered doing another internship for her post-college year, but the intricate process of getting a working visa proved to be more complicated than doing graduate study.

Bozentka’s unique path of study becomes even more impressive when you consider that Carolina fencing coach Ron Miller has been directing the program for 51 years, and has mostly seen everything at least once. “And in all that time,” he says, “I think Meredith is the first one to do this type of graduate school.”

Miller and Bozentka always had a good coach-athlete relationship. They solidified it when Bozentka earned a berth to the NCAA Fencing Championships in 2016, where she qualified for honorable mention All-America honors after finishing 11th overall. She returned to the NCAA championship in 2017 and finished 18th in women’s sabre. Her qualifications helped continue a streak that has now seen Miller place at least one of his fencers in NCAA championship competition for each one of his 51 seasons.

Those one-on-one trips to the national championships were valuable quality time for the coach and his pupil. Miller learned more about Bozentka’s unique interests away from sports, and Bozentka developed a deep respect for Miller’s vast experience at Carolina.

“If you want someone to do your taxes, do you want the two-year-old or do you want the 50-year-old?” she says. “It’s the same way with fencing. I had the opportunity to learn from someone who has basically seen everything in this sport.”

Injuries limited Bozentka during her senior season, but she was still part of a squad that won the program’s first-ever women’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship in the friendly home environment of Carmichael Arena.

“She had great skills when she came to Carolina,” Miller said. “She continued to work very hard after she got here. She stays after practice and does extra footwork. She never rests. Especially at the end of her senior season, her leadership was a very important factor. I like leaders to lead by example. She does that with the way she competes. She listens to other people, she’s unselfish, and she’s a good motivator.”

There might not be many obvious parallels between being an NCAA fencer and a professional winemaker. But Bozentka believes there are more than you might think.

“No one really knows that much about fencing,” she says. “There are so many details that people don’t realize. You plan for so much more than what people might think, and it becomes just as much a mental game as a physical game. In the same way, very few people know that much about how wine is made.”

One of the exceptions to that rule, of course, is Meredith’s father, Neal, who is serious enough about wine that he recently took his daughter to a wine convention in New York City. But he’s not concerned about being surpassed as the family’s foremost expert on his favorite topic.

“He’s really excited for me,” Meredith said. “He’s a student at heart, and he wants me to learn as much as I can. He’s already told me that wherever I end up working, he’s going to retire there, and I will have free labor whenever I want it.”

This story appeared in the APRIL 2018 edition of Born & Bred