What to Give a Wine Lover – or a Wine Curious Person – for the Holidays

The holiday season is here and if you are wondering what to give the people in your life who are into wine or those people who are just lovers of food, wine and culture we have some ideas.  A wine class is always a fun experience for someone who just wants to experience wine at a deeper level.  But for many people that might be too big a leap so how about a bottle of wine from somewhere unexpected?

Wine Classes
There are so many classes available out there and if there was anything good coming out of the pandemic it was the emergence of a wide array of courses that can be taken remotely.  At Grape Experience we offer WSET Level 1 Wine and Level 2 Wine (along with Sake Level 1) in a hybrid format.  For these two beginner wine courses participants get free tasting kits and several live online class sessions.  These live sessions are also recorded so if you miss the live class you can watch it on your own schedule.

Both Level 1 and Level 2 are fun beginner courses.  They look at the major styles of wines and how they differ throughout the world.  Partcipants come out with greater knowledge and confidence about choosing wines and how to pair them with food.

Purchasing a Gift Bottle
A gift of a bottle of wine is always appreciated but to make it not just something ordinary there are many things you can do:

  • Find a region that may be unusual: The country of Georgia, Greece, Uruguay, Corsica, Israel, Tasmania are all possibilities.
  • Find a know style of variety from an unexpected place: English Sparkling Wine, Alsation or German Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo from Virginia, Cabernet Franc from New York all come to mind
  • Purchase a style that the recipient might not but for themselves such as sweet wines from Tokaji in Hungary, White Port or Sparkling Shiraz from Australia.

They key is to be creative here so that the person gets something that is memorable.

There are so many options for anyone who is interested in food, wine, pop culture or just understanding trends in each of these areas.  Have fun with your gift choices!

3 Things Needed to Become a Sommelier or Wine Expert

The question that I am most frequently asked is, “how do I become a sommelier?” or “how do I become a wine expert and get a wine job?”  Although there is no silver bullet answer that I can give, there are three elements that anyone can work towards that will make entering the wine industry more successful and enjoyable:  confidence, knowledge, and tasting for quality.

Confidence is something anyone can achieve by building a knowledge base and developing a key set of skills.  The more you study wine the more you realize there is more to learn.  However, by building a foundation of information on wine production, you gain confidence.  That confidence helps you express yourself and react to others’ ideas with conviction. It also provides a solid base on which to continue to learn – be it in a classroom, during winery visits and on the job.  Confidence will help you appear stronger to potential employers by being able to understand, answer and build off their questions.

So how do you get that confidence or the knowledge base from which confidence comes?  There are two skills that are critical:  explanation and discussion of winemaking concepts and learning how to taste wine for quality.

Many people want to be in the wine industry because they like the pleasure and taste of wine.  They find theory interesting to a point but then lose interest.  The truth is that most of wine work does not involve tasting but rather focuses on theory.  If you work in wine retail or distribution it is unlikely that you will taste all of wines in your portfolio or inventory.  Even sommeliers who, at lease initially, taste most of the wines on their list, may not have tried everything or the latest vintage that has been produced.  The way to fill that gap is to understand the theory behind that wine.

Confidence comes from looking at any major wine label and, without having tasted the contents of the bottle, be able to convey what that wine should taste like and why.  The best way to achieve this is to take a comprehensive wine survey course.  There are several classes that may fit the bill, but we recommend the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 course.  This program has been taught around the world for over 50 years and is specifically designed to build expertise and confidence.  You can find out more at: Wine Courses for Beginners

Tasting is the element that most people both look forward to and at the same time dread!  First, let’s define tasting at the professional level.  This type of tasting is not about “do I like this wine” or “do I want to purchase a bottle.”  Rather, it is about is this a good wine for the purpose for which it was made and is it representative of its region and style type.  There are several wines that are made for mass market retailers or restaurants that are not meant to be complex or age worthy.  It is just as important to distinguish quality here as it is when looking at premium wines.

Why do people dread tasting?  The answer is lack of confidence.  Most people doubt their ability to taste accurately thinking “what if I mistake a Grand Cru Burgundy for a Napa Cab?”  The issue isn’t tasting blind but rather understanding the key components that make up a wine:  appearance (color), Nose (aroma), Palate (acid, tannin, body, finish, etc.).  All of this can be learned and the way to make it easier is to have a specific system and process to do so.  WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting does just that.  Other courses should do so as well, or they are not worth taking.

By building confidence through theory and tasting skills you will not only enjoy wine more and make yourself more suitable for a wine job, but you will also be better informed as to what part of the industry – if any – you would like to join.

Wine and YouTube

The proliferation of streaming services available to everyone has certainly expanded the way we can learn about wine.  Just searching for a wine type, wine region, winemaker or brand will bring up a number of options.  We can add on top of that searches for advice in wine careers or the process of grape growing and winemaking.  The number of channels is seemingly endless!

Given all options, I have a few favorite You Tube/content channels and suggestions for how to navigate all the content that is available.

WSET Bitesize – https://www.youtube.com/@WSETGLOBAL

This is a channel developed by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust to give people short spurts of information on a wide range of wine topics.  Because it is from WSET you know that it is accurate and not just some random blogger’s idea of what is correct.  The short format makes it easy to watch and remember and the production value is really good.

True Wine – https://www.youtube.com/@TrueWine

If I have a personal favorite YouTube wine channel this is it. Kyle Billings makes wine easy to understand especially at the most technical levels.  His approach and style are clear, friendly and he demystifies wine.  If you are beyond the beginner stage this is the channel for you.  That said, even beginners will benefit and love True Wine and Kyle’s approach.  From Champagne to Australia to passing WSET exams to picking out wedding wines, Kyle covers it all.  This channel is like talking to a friend who really knows their stuff and will make you excited to learn more.

Wine Masters – https://www.youtube.com/@WineMasters/videos

This channel often goes on site to speak with winemakers or taste wines.  There are several hosts, one of whom, Christy Canterbury MW is a personal friend.  What I like about Wine Masters is that you never know what you are going to get, and it is always at least interesting.

Jancis Robinson – https://www.youtube.com/@jancis.robinson

Jancis is the Dean of wine experts in my mind and someone who I admire beyond words.  She was the first female Master of Wine and writes on Wine for the Financial Times.  Her web site jancisrobinson.com is a compendium of articles, reviews and a literal encyclopedia of everything in the wine world.  Jancis is one of the most respected wine professionals in world and her selection of videos – many over 10-15 minutes in length – are invaluable.

Of course, just putting a wine subject into the search box at YouTube will bring up many more channels and content.  Some of these will be great and others you can take with “a grain of salt.” I recommend using the search function if you have a specific subject or process that you are interested in.  See what comes up and then check out the channels above and see if they also have something about that subject.  The more you explore the more you will learn what content is accurate and what is exaggerated of incorrect.

The important thing is to have fun with all of this.  Wine videos can become addictive.  Keep exploring, tasting and never ever be intimidated. Wine should always be first and foremost about fun.

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.