We’ll Drink to That: Get your wine geek on
Some of the world’s best wines may be dry but that doesn’t mean that learning about them needs to be. Wine education is no longer one size fits all. Here are a few approaches to consider if your wine game needs some stepping up.
He or she needs facts in the form of textbook and lectures. She thrives in a structured learning environment. She seeks the adrenaline rush of test taking, needs a score to verify her comprehension of the material, and looks for the security imparted by certification or a diploma.
Several organizations, such as the American Wine Society, Society of Wine Educators and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), provide various certifications from the beginner to advanced levels and even offer titles like “Certified Wine Judge.”
Confused as to which school may be right for you? The WSET is a good place to start. “They’re the gold standard,” says Niagara County Community College professor Kurt Guba. He should know: Guba collected intermediate and advanced WSET diplomas in preparation for his wine studies at the International Sommelier Guild before becoming an instructor of winery operations and sensory evaluation at the college.
While these organizations design their programs for aspiring wine professionals in the service industry, wine trade and wine media, there is plenty the courses have to offer the average enthusiast. The Level 1 WSET diploma offers a basic education and may be earned in as little as one day. “The Level 1 course is something great to do if you have a passing interest or even just to test the waters to see if it’s something you’d want to go into further,” says Guba.
The Intermediate Level 2 course can be finished over an intensive weekend marathon of wine assimilation. The cost of this three-day course runs about $725, according to the New York Wine & Culinary Center’s own WSET program, and provides an in-depth study of wine and spirits through seminars and tastings. There is no prerequisite for this course—meaning if you think you have what it takes to skip Level 1 then you’re welcome to jump right into the big leagues.
There are a handful of other certifications you can set your sights on, but be forewarned: Like any higher education, these may have a cost some amateurs could find prohibitive.
The on-the-job learner
This person doesn’t want to spend and study his or her way to the top of high wine society. He also believes the cost of a higher education shouldn’t infringe on his ability to actually purchase wine. Learning while he works part time is the best option he has for quenching his thirst for wine knowledge. He aspires to working with experienced industry workers whose brains are ripe for picking.
Kevin McFadden, a five-year veteran Wine Associate at Premium Wine & Spirits in Williamsville had no formal wine education before taking his current position where he now tastes at least twenty wines a week. He views the relationships he’s made with co-workers and a few store regulars as a valuable education. “I consider tasting wines with my co-workers and a few regular customers after work to be a course in itself,” says McFadden.
A job in wine retail will not only guarantee an almost instant familiarity with varieties, regions, and the industry itself, it’ll constantly push the issue of quality, value, and marketability to the forefront. McFadden recognizes this as a salesman and consumer himself. “When I’m tasting wine, I want to know how much it costs, because it’s tough to appreciate a wine without knowing if it’s worth the price and if it’s a good value,” he says.
A tasting room can also provide invaluable exposure to a variety of wine and is even more likely to hire seasonal part timers whose job description borders on a combination of salesman, educator, and bartender. The job provides the opportunity to taste a wide range of wines, learn from industry folk—in this case winemakers—and talk wine with a diverse wine-drinking public.
The opportunist doesn’t want the process of learning about wine to feel like work, and he or she knows that there’s always a better way to soak up the complexities of the wine world. The twenty-first century has christened do-it-yourselfers as those most likely to succeed—technology, social networking, and an uptick in wine appreciation all make it easier than ever to get information.
Five years ago, it was impressive that we could bring a wine home and after a quick Internet search read every detail of where it’s from, how it was made, and how it’s been received by critics. Today, we can use our phones to scan the barcode or label and get that info at the store before we buy.
Serious wine stores have also become a sort of de facto classroom, now offering guided tastings as a push to educate and increase the appreciation of their customers. While some of these do charge a reasonable fee, many others are free and require only a reservation. The public is encouraged to participate and, best yet, there’s no obligation to buy.
McFadden, who teaches some classes in his store, sees a diverse audience show up to participate. “The crowd that attends our classes is a mix—some people just want a free glass of wine and a good time—but the customers I enjoy having are the ones that really want to learn about wine and more importantly, how to discuss wine,” he says.
But if your schedule prevents you from attending these public tastings, don’t worry: Your living room is just as suitable a place for a classroom or tasting venue. Web 2.0 communities like Snooth and Cellartracker are also virtually bringing together wine lovers across the globe to compare notes and share knowledge, while Twitter and Facebook enable us to coordinate live tastings and classrooms across different time zones. It’s not uncommon to find live tasting events where you can buy a wine package and taste the wines while you participate in a chat or video room discussion with the winemaker and other fellow geeks.
The best part about wine education is there’s no substitute for actually trying as many wines as you can. The approach you take is ultimately up to you.
Bryan Calandrelli is a freelance writer who also works as a winemaker and cinematographer.