Learning About Wine – Where to Start?

So, you’ve decided it’s time to learn more about wine, but where to start?   25 years ago, I was in your shoes and asked myself that very question.  The answer – just dive in and take any wine course that looks interesting.  Of course, as a provider of Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses, I am a big proponent of this tried and true highly respected program.

WSET offers two unique starting points.  For the absolute beginner WSET Level 1 offers a one-day study of the basic wine terms, varietals, and food and wine pairing possibilities.  It also provides a systematic basis for tasting any wine and then being able to describe it taste profile, quality, and the things you like or don’t like about it.

WSET Level 2 is also a beginner course but goes into much more depth.  You do not need to take Level 1 to enroll in Level 2.  Level 2 looks in depth at the same subjects as Level 1 but goes further into the basic techniques of wine growing, wine making and how the major grape varietals of the world differ based on where they are planted.  Along the way you will learn the differences between Bordeaux and Burgundy, Chianti vs Rioja and the similarities between places like the Napa Valley and Australia’s Barossa Valley.

If a certification program like WSET seems too intense than check out the offerings at local wine and adult education centers.  San Francisco Wine School offers several fun courses for beginners in the Bay Area, while Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Wine School does the same for New England.

Wine has become an integral part of culture and with the continued expansion of places making wine and styles available understanding this historic beverage can be confusing.  The most important thing is do not be intimidated.  At the end of the day wine should be fun and add enjoyment to life.  Taking any wine course, asking questions, and thinking about what you are tasting will be that start of a great adventure that will only enhance your life.

How to Become a Sommelier

A sommelier, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is, “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service.”  That definition is pretty basic and in today’s wine world we can add quite a bit to it.  A sommelier needs to be knowledgeable and trained in the art of food and wine pairing.  They also need to be a guide to the customer who increasingly wants to know “why” a wine is the way it is and the story behind where it comes from.  If you are interested in becoming a sommelier there are several steps you can take, including WSET courses in your training.

Some Sommeliers go through the Court of Master Sommeliers to become formally certified.  There are also several regional organizations around the world including the North American Sommelier Association. Many of these groups offer levels of courses to help you develop sommelier skills.  We have found that starting with a WSET Level 2 or 3 certification helps make ultimate certification success and job confidence much stronger.

WSET certificate holders are not sommeliers. Still, the style of learning with an emphasis on the theory behind wines that WSET courses emphasize can help prepare people to enter the Certified Sommelier program and achieve quicker levels of success.  WSET students learn what makes a wine unique – the natural and human factors at work in the vineyard and winery – and then taste those wines to see that theory in a real glass of wine.  WSET students learn a systematic way to taste wine that delineates the components that determine both quality and how that wine can be best paired with food.  The result is a stronger foundation for the sommelier certification exams.

Some sommeliers never become certified as such but still have successful careers using the sommelier title.  Sommelier is not in and of itself a controlled term, so no specific education is required.  That stated, we recommend that people take some level of wine course before going into the industry.  These course build confidence through knowledge development and begin to train palates so that better food-wine pairings can be made.  In short, they empower future sommeliers for success.

So, what steps to take?  First, we recommend getting a job or even an unpaid internship working with a restaurant sommelier.  Learn from them.  You may start as wait staff in a restaurant and offer help to the sommelier.  Ask the sommelier there to let you attend tastings or do inventory.  At first this may be on your own unpaid time but if you prove valuable your basic waiter job description may expand.

Second, take a wine course to build your confidence.  Some of these courses will be easy and just confirm what you already know – or think you know.  That confirmation is important because some things you think you know you might be off the mark.  Correct these imperfections early.  Course such as WSET Level 2 are a good place to start.

Continue to take higher level courses.  Wine success relies on continuing to build knowledge WSET Level 3 or courses by the Court of Master Sommeliers will help you do just that.

Finally, if this is a career you really want to pursue, become a certified sommelier through the Court.  These courses are offered in cities around the world and having a certification on your resume will definitely stand out to employers.

Whichever direction you take make sure that you are having fun and keeping everything in perspective.  Consumers drink wine for enjoyment.  As a sommelier it will be your job to make sure they achieve that goal.

The Best Online Resources for Learning About Wine

The combination of advances in digital technology and the COVID pandemic have increased the demand for online classes of every type – including wine.  Grape Experience has responded by creating several ways to learn about wine Online.  These options range from completely online courses to hybrid in-person and online sessions.  The demand has been incredible and if you are interested in Online wine education you might want to check out our offerings.

WSET Level 1 and Level 2 Online Live Wine Courses

In combination with our partner school, Commonwealth Wine School, we have created an online curriculum that includes weekly live Zoom sessions with actual wine – we provide a tasting kit that the student orders and has sent to wherever they like – and a self-paced study program.  During the live sessions everyone has the same wine samples and tastes together – as if we were all in the same room!  Of course, if students miss one of the live Zoom sessions they can always watch a recorded version.  We hope to add a Live Zoom Level 3 in Wine this autumn.

WSET Level 3 and Level 4 Diploma Online Lectures

For WSET Level 3 in Wine and the Level 4 Diploma in Wine courses we have created an online site that includes study support and access to recorded lectures.  These recordings are not a grainy/out-of-focus tape of a class, but a personalized discussion geared specially for the Online format.  Students can view the slides with detailed commentary for each course session in their own time to either supplement an in-person course or a self-study Online program.  WSET Level 3 and Diploma exams are heavily theory focused and these Online platforms are designed to really underscore key concepts to empower students and maximize their success. Recommended tasting samples are included which students purchase on their own.

WSET Online Classroom

For all our WSET courses a self-study version through the WSET Online Classroom is also available.  In this format students work with an Online tutor over a number of weeks.  Through WSET’s proprietary digital format the participant meets other students and is given tasting and theory assignments which they can choose to submit to the tutor for feedback.  WSET’s Online platform may be perfect for the student who is self-directed and wants to purchase more than just a book or exam.

The technology for online learning continues to expand each year.  Virtual reality and artificial intelligence – such as ChatGPT – will take us to the next level in Online learning.  To see what is available now check out https://www.grapeexperience.com/beginner-wine-courses/

WSET Education & Exceptional Pinot Noir

Many people who take WSET courses go on to great wine career opportunites.  Others use their WSET education to forge lifelong relationships that open the door to exciting wine and food travel, as well as unique cultural experiences. Two people who studied WSET Level 3 Wine and Level 4 Diploma with Grape Experience have gone on to become exceptional producers of one of the most difficult plants/grapes to work with: Pinot Noir  Michael Green who now owns Elswick Vineyards focuses on grape growing, while Dave Szkutak produces and sells Pinot Noir at Samsara Wines.

Michael Green’s love of wine and winemaking has been with him since he was born – it is in his blood.  His great great grandfather immigrated to the Napa Valley in the 1860s from Germany.  Michael’s maternal grandparents invested in property in Anderson Valley to grow grapes which they eventually sold to his his paternal grandparents, Donald and Maureen Green.  They passed it down to Michael.  The name Elswick comes from the street in Liverpool England on which Donald Green grew up.

Michael’s commitment to his craft is exceptional.  He focuses on Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from 3 unique vineyard blocks.  The fruit is sold onto winemakers for premium Pinot Noir that has rich dark fruit character with great vibrancy from acidity that Anderson Valley vineyard sites uniquely impart.

Dave Szkutak, along with his wife Joan, now run Samsara Wine, a producer of premium Sta. Rita Hills wines in Santa Barbara County.  For those of you unaware of Sta. Rita Hills (take a WSET course and learn), it is perhaps the site of the most premium Pinot Noir vineyards in California and profiled in the film, Sideways.

Samsara makes individual Pinot Noir wines from specific historic Sta. Rita Hills vineyards.  Each wine differs based on unique terroir, but all have the lush dark fruit that the region is known for along with fine, ripe tannins and crisp acidity.  The wines are exceptional with layers of flavor and a long evolving finish.  You can see and purchase current releases at https://www.samsarawine.com

Dave said of his WSET Diploma studies, “Having gone through this program, I now have a much greater appreciation for what goes into making the style of wine that we produce.”

WSET education empowers individuals and gives them the confidence to build a life around wine, spirits or sake that is meaningful and profound.  Michael and Dave are just two of the thousands of individuals who have made WSET an integral part of their career path.

New Year, New Wines

The holiday season is one of the biggest wines sales and drinking periods of the year.  2023 represents a great time to try new wines.  Below is our thinking on what drink in the year ahead.

Georgian Wines

The growth of wines from the country of Georgia has been explosive.  Grape Experience and Commonwealth Wine School educator Erika Frey has become an expert on the Wines of Georgia and Lisa Granik, MW has literally written the book on the subject.  Try wines from the deep red and crisp Saperavi grape or the aromatic, tropical notes of the white wine Rkatsiteli.  Both of these grapes are now getting attention by US growers, particularly in New York’s Finger Lakes.

Unique Wines from Australia’s Hunter Valley Semillon and Yarra Valley

Most people think Barossa Shiraz or easy drinking wines like Yellowtail when they think Australia.  But there are some sensational styles that go well beyond these basics. In New South Wale’s Hunter Valley, northeast of Sydney, Semillon is king.  This crisp dry white wine comes in several different price points and styles and my top producer is Tyrrell’s https://tyrrells.com.au. This winery is family run and dates to the 19th century.  Their Semillon is dry, layered but still crisp and delicious.  Tyrrell’s also creates some of the best New World Chardonnay I have ever had.

In the Yarra Valley in the State of Victoria, northeast of Melbourne a group of young first-generation winemakers are also doing great things.  Look for Yarra Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir.  One of my favorite producers is Mac Forbes Wines https://macforbes.com/.  Mac makes all the standard varietals and is experimenting with varieties such as Nebbiolo and Aligote.  The care he and his team take shows in every sip.

Rueda and Zweigelt

Spain and Austria offer two other wines that we recommend.  Rueda, a white wine made from the grape Verdejo is an unexpected treat for first time triers. The bright fruit from the ripe Duero Valley growing conditions is balanced by perfect crisp acidity, which is maintained in the grapes during the dramatic nighttime temperature drops.  Try the wines of Jorge Ordoñez https://www.jorgeordonezselections.com/wines.php?regionName=rueda.  The company selects great smaller lot wines.

In Austria Zweigelt is prized as a red wine for its ability to pair with just about any food or to drink as a stand-alone beverage.  It has vibrant red, black and blue berry, light tannins and grip acidity.  The variety is both easy to drink but also layered with flavor so that it stops you cold in a good way!  Erich Sattler wines makes a great Zweigelt http://www.erichsattler.at.

One of the best things about wine is how many varieties and producers are out there to try and the constant innovation in wines and winemaking.  Make 2023 a year to taste something new!