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Wine Educations Begins In Class

There probably are as many ways to learn about wine as there are grape varieties, but a quality wine course is where the roots should be established.

Wine education provides the structure to approach and understand this complex subject, and to build upon with further real-world experience. And anyone passionate about wine can spend a lifetime researching more through education, travel and tasting groups.

Yesterday, my colleague Eric argued that wine courses, including the program that I and about every other person at Lot18 has pursued, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), is “useless.”  He prescribes learning by drinking, suggesting that it will all come naturally as if divined by a higher power.

Really, unless you’re brought up by parents who read The Oxford Companion to Wine at bedtime and give small pours of premier cru Burgundy at the dinner table – or are born with superpowers and a superliver – you need proper training. How else do you approach this vast subject? A structured and rigorous wine course might not be your first step in wine education, and it certainly isn’t the last, but it is the most critical.

Before I continue, I do need to divulge that I have a bias: for several years I worked for International Wine Center in New York, which provides WSET courses. But I was a student long before I was an employee.

At the time, I was working part-time at a small, discount wine shop to supplement my freelance writing income until I could land my next big thing. Rather quickly, wine became my next big thing. The store’s selections were simple but broad, offering the basics from the world’s major wine regions. Most bottles cost $10 or less, but to me, each label was a fascinating portal to new regions, grape varieties, cultures, cuisines and traditions. When the deluge of shoppers or deliveries subsided, my co-workers and I would flip through the wine magazines and books to read as much as we could on our latest favorite wines.

But many of the books presumed a level of knowledge I didn’t have, and the managers at the wine store, who were on loan from the grocery chain that owned it, were more concerned that I learn to operate the palate driver than distinguish the quality levels of Burgundy.

To jump-start a new career, I needed to ramp up my understanding fast. I was well beyond my 20’s, married and with our 13-year-old nephew suddenly under our roof. I had responsibilities, and, like most people, I needed to make real money; there was no way I could traipse off to France to be a winemaker’s apprentice or work for slave wages as a cellar rat.

School was the obvious answer, and it seemed WSET was the most logical choice. The world’s largest and oldest wine education program, WSET has taught wine professionals and consumers since 1969 and offers courses in 55 countries. Unlike many other programs, the WSET offers classes that meet regularly, follow a syllabus and include textbooks.

WEST was the program that professionals in the industry pointed me toward. It’s also the program recommended by the world’s wine greats: Michael Broadbent, the famous Christie’s wine auctioneer and a top authority on rare and fine wines; Jancis Robinson, author of The Oxford Companion to Wine; and Hugh Johnson,  author of The World Atlas of Wine. These wine heroes not only recommend the program, they’ve also served as honorary presidents to WSET.

My class shined a spotlight on every region of the wine-producing world, and every aspect of the industry, from the biological and chemical processes of production to  the intricacies of liquor and labeling laws. The lessons were further applied to the wines being tasted. The WSET breaks down the steps of wine tasting systematically to discern and analyze all of its elements, better compare wines and determine quality. These are key skills of any job in the business, or for anyone who wants to appreciate wine completely.

As with any class, you get what you put into it, and many of my classmates put in a lot. Today they work at restaurants with the most impressive wine lists in New York City: The Modern, Veritas, Balthazar and Eleven Madison Park, to name a few. Others went on to open up their own wine stores, restaurants, write for established wine magazines or, as winemakers, returned to wine country to craft better wines.

Eric argued that such wine school certificates are worthless, but fact is, people in the industry recognize and respect the level of knowledge these certificates require, as my colleagues have proven. On that note, I’d like to address a couple of Eric’s other arguments:

    • - Gary’s vlog is the answer. Eric sings the praises of Gary Vaynerchuk, a great entertainer, but his videos can’t serve as the sole source of your wine knowledge. As one co-worker put it, that’s like saying I watch Hannity on FOX, therefore I understand politics. Do yourself a favor and consider a range of opinions. Look for courses taught by several different experts to provide a more rounded education.

 

  • - Bad wine in wine class? There might be a few, but it’s rare. The wines used in most programs are specifically chosen to provide typical examples of a region, variety, production method or quality level. They can range from a large production jug wine to a first-growth Bordeaux, but these are the extremes – usually they fall somewhere in between. Eric suggests asking a wine-store clerk to assemble a comparative line-up for you, but if you’re a beginner how do you know what to request? And ultimately, who’s going to guide you through that tasting?

 

Unless you are an uncommonly brilliant person with unlimited time and unlimited financial resources, trying to teach yourself everything that you would learn in a wine course is a fool’s errand, and will likely lead to a lot of misinformation. For us ordinary folk, I recommend wine classes from an established source, where an enormous amount of information is distilled into manageable, progressive lessons under the guidance of trained professionals.

Establish your wine roots in the classroom, then expand that knowledge and feed your thirst in the real world, where your passion began – in vineyards, restaurants, kitchens and cellars. Travel. Read. Taste. Maybe we disagree where wine education should begin, but I think we can all agree that it’s truly never ending.