Two and a half years ago COVID 19 changed our world. Wine Education was particularly rocked by the virus that, at first, prevented classes from meeting in person. Although that shock to our education system was difficult, it has actually resulted in significant improvements, particularly at Grape Experience. COVID encouraged us to find new technology to deliver wine education and new methods to provide tasting samples. Although we are now back to in person courses, Grape Experience has incorporated the learnings over the last 30 months to radically improve our overall WSET wine, spirit, and sake education.
Zoom is now a part of every Grape Experience WSET Level. Regardless of whether you are taking a course via the WSET self-directed Online Classroom or through a Grape Experience run program, you have access to Zoom-based real-time and recorded lectures. This allows us to connect in virtual-person and make sure key concepts are understood. It also allows Grape Experience to highlight key success factors to passing WSET exams. The result is an extra layer of wine education that gives students confidence they are mastering concepts and building knowledge.
A New Grape Experience Proprietary Online Platform
The technology that enables Zoom led us, in collaboration with our partners at Cambridge’s Commonwealth Wine School, to establish a proprietary study support online platform. All WSET Level 1, 2 and 3 and Diploma students now have access to a unique site where they can watch recorded theory lectures and gain access to quizzes and short answer exam sample questions. They can access the site whenever and wherever they choose. A missed wine class session in no longer a major issue since the student can view it at any time – or if they attended the class, re-visit the lecture to confirm their understanding of the material. The new platform also provides the student a single source for special offers and access to a wealth of study materials.
Wine Samples Delivered to Your Door
We have partnered with both Master of the World and Wine.com to provide a means for getting tasting samples for Online courses and enhancing the tastings of in person WSET classes. Select Online Zoom classes now come with free 187ML size tasting samples sent directly to their home or office. All students, regardless of class format, now have access to a discounted curated set of wines through Wine.com for each WSET Level 1-3. Students can purchase the entire set of wines for the Level or just individual wines.
The result of COVID 19 on Grape Experience Wine & Spirit School education has been innovation that better prepares and empowers wine professionals and enthusiasts. Our WSET classes are now more dynamic than ever, and we will continue to find new ways of making the wine education experience even better!
In light of our exciting news regarding the merger between Grape Experience’s East Coast WSET operations and Commonwealth Wine School (CWS) in Cambridge, MA, we caught up with CWS founder and director Jessica Sculley. In this interview, we learn about Jessica’s extensive background in education and how she’s applied it, coupled with an innovative approach, in building one of the Greater Boston Area’s leading wine schools.
You founded Commonwealth Wine School after a long career as a math and science teacher. What made you transition to the wine world?
Although wine was always on the table when I was growing up—pretty typical for an Italian family—I wasn’t hooked until the age of 17, when I visited a friend in Montalcino in Tuscany (the legal drinking age then was 16 in Italy). I was completely entranced. Maybe it was the old farmhouse on the Tuscan hillside, and the delicious food, but the wine brought out flavors (and no doubt some intoxication) that I hadn’t expected. I wanted to learn more.
After college and grad school I began my career as a math and science teacher, tasting good wines when I could, reading a bit here and there, but otherwise unable to find the time or the funds to study wine more intensively. I found the first WSET Level 1 course ever to be offered in Pittsburgh at a local wine shop and completed the rest of the WSET wine certifications with Grape Experience. I then left the classroom and began teaching classes for Grape Experience.
In fall 2019, the time seemed right to join the spectacular educators and renowned schools for wine education in one place. With the support of fellow educators, I signed the lease on our Harvard Square location in February 2020.
How did you adapt your approach as an educator to WSET courses? How did you develop your wine skills?
Though teaching math and teaching about wine may seem unrelated, they’re not. In all areas of education, it’s necessary to engage students so that they have a stake in the subject they are learning about—it’s not just about exam results.
As teachers we have options: we can present information and tell students to memorize it or we can lay the groundwork of understanding by presenting information, encouraging active participation, problem solving, and interacting with each other as well as with the subject. The WSET curriculum is well suited to this kind of educational structure.
My own wine skills were developed slowly, and are still being developed! When I was focused on training my palate early on, I would go into the grocery store and stick my nose into every bit of produce, and into the bulk spice racks (of course we can’t do this now). I’d make flash cards for myself when I needed to remember facts or figures that wouldn’t register any other way. But the most important thing that I did, and that I still do, is teach. I think that teaching is one of the best ways to learn anything. There’s nothing like researching, organizing and gathering thoughts to create a presentable story to other people to help you learn a topic.
Commonwealth Wine School’s faculty and staff consist of an impressive list of highly respected wine professionals. In your view, what are the traits that make for great WSET educators?
I feel so grateful to be part of the incredible group of scholars and educators that we have at Commonwealth Wine School. As I mentioned before, it’s not enough to just know the material to be a great WSET educator, you have to be able to explain something from several different perspectives. You must ask students questions that allow them to make their own connections and build their own knowledge base. Above all it’s important to create a safe learning environment where everyone feels comfortable asking questions and sharing their thoughts.
The pandemic has required that schools all over the world change how they deliver curriculum to their students. What are some ways that CWS has done this? What has worked and what hasn’t?
The most obvious change was going virtual during the initial stages of the pandemic through Zoom courses. When we finally opened our doors in Harvard Square, we invested in a SWIVL robot in order to teach concurrently in person and virtually. This allows us to present a live class to a group in our classroom, while also allowing students to tune in from home and participate interactively with the class. This is a technology that we are still perfecting since it’s clear the hybrid learning format is here to stay.
Then there’s tasting together – a really important part of wine education. Last October we began creating sample tasting kits for students to pick up and taste along at home. Now we work with a certified wine shipper to deliver these sample kits to students around the country to taste along with classes. Creating these kits are time consuming and expensive, and ensuring they stay fresh and ship well has taken a lot of experimentation. Still, they offer a solution for when we’re not able to taste together in person.
In the classroom, we ask everyone to wear masks while not actively tasting. All of our faculty and students must now also be fully vaccinated. My main goal is to keep everyone healthy and we will continue operating in a way that is in the best interest of public health, whatever that may be.
I’m sure we will see more e-learning modules, which we will be rolling out this fall. These will be for students who want to learn about wine, but have to do it on their own schedule. Stay tuned!
If you had to pick wines from only wine region to take to a desert island, which one?
In the end, I really am a devotee of Burgundian wines … I think that the Chardonnays and the Pinot Noirs from this little slice of France will suit me fine (assuming I’ve got good producers and vintages with me!). If I’m lucky, I’ll have some Crémant de Bourgogne to celebrate when I’m rescued.
It’s official, Grape Experience is now offering in-person classes in both Boston and San Francisco (check out the website to see upcoming courses and enrollment deadlines). Since it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other face to face, we decided to catch up with a few of Grape Experience’s instructors and reintroduce them to our wine-loving community. First up is WSET Certified Educator Matthew Gaughan, who has helped us kick off our in-person classes.
Rest assured, we are taking every precaution to guarantee the safety and well-being of students and educators. We hope to see you at a class soon; meanwhile, read below to learn more about Matthew:
What brought you into the wine industry?
I’ve always enjoyed drinking wine, but it was more for pleasure until I started asking myself why I liked one wine more than another or what the difference was between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. So, I took an introductory wine course, then the WSET levels 1 and 2. As I became more and more fascinated by the world of wine, I thought I should my learning to use and got a part-time job at hangingditch wine merchants in Manchester and I’ve never looked back.
What is it that fascinates you about wine?
Wine is a window into so many varied corners of the world: biology, chemistry, geology, history, literature, trade, business, retail. (If wine had been part of our science classes at school I would have done a lot better…). And, of course, wine is social—I’ve met so many amazing people around the world because of wine.
Tell us about your education background.
I first started teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Dublin after I finished my Master’s degree. Then I moved to Madrid to teach there before moving back to the UK to do my PhD in English Literature at York, where I also taught undergraduates. When I moved into the wine industry, it was natural for me to study wine and teach about what I had learned.
Why should students take WSET courses?
Whether you’re in the trade or not, if you have a genuine enthusiasm for wine then WSET courses are clear, concise learning tools to gain knowledge about wine—and you take that knowledge with into your everyday social conversations or into your job. For some people, Level 2 is as much knowledge as they want or need; for others (like me) the WSET can take you further with the all-encompassing Diploma. Another reason to take the courses is that you can meet some awesome people who have lots of stories to tell.
And what do you do when not teaching for Grape Experience?
I’ve started an online wine club called blackpoolmatt’s wine club—Eric Asimov recently featured it the New York Timeswhich was pretty exciting. I bring an educational aspect to the club, with notes on each wine about the people, the place, and the winemaking. There’s also a specific club for wine students, where I send out blind tastings according to which exam they’re taking.
Jerez (Sherry – Xérès). Yes, I’m British.
When you’re able to travel again, which is the first region you’ll visit?
Well, the last place I was supposed to visit was Germany so I should resume my travels there.
Desert island wine?
Given it’s a remote, small island, let’s say Madeira!
The Land Down Under, Oz, Australia … however you refer to it, this is a continent/country with an incredibly varied winemaking history and culture, but one that too often gets pigeon-holed as solely producing big, high-alcohol wines.
Mark Davidson, Head of Education Development – Americas for Wine Australia
We sat down with Mark Davidson, Head of Education Development – Americas for Wine Australia (and who also happens to be a Grape Experience educator) to chat about what’s happening in Australia’s wine scene right now and how the WSET helps change consumer understanding of the wines.
How have perceptions of Australian wine changed in the USA over the last ten years?
There’s been a big shift over that last 10 years, and more particularly in the last 2-3 years. Before, the perception was quite negative and one dimensional across all levels of the supply chain. Now we are seeing that there’s a much better understanding of the diversity of wine styles and this has resulted in a renewed interest. On-trade are keen to bring on more wines and have been more receptive and actively seeking out Australian wines and distributors. We also have more importers looking at diversifying their books and bringing in different styles and varieties.
How have you been educating consumers/trade during Covid times?
We have been partnering with wine schools and other educational bodies to host webinars, we’ve ramped up our distributor training sessions, and we’re working on various media campaigns.
Our online learning platform has also been a real hit: Australian Wine Discovered (www.australianwinediscovered.com). This is a free site with a plethora of downloadable, editable resources that has been a game changer in terms of directing people to access a curated, reliable source of information.
We are also about to launch a campaign called “Far From Ordinary.” More on this in the next few weeks.
What undiscovered Australian wines (not necessarily brands, but regions and styles) should Americans know about that they don’t? What are the Australian wine regions on the rise that we should watch?
So many! I think there is generally a better understanding of the classic varieties and styles. There are many exciting and contemporary regional stories right now, but I think that what is going on with southern Mediterranean varieties in McLaren Vale and Riverland is very cool: Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola, and Montepulciano are all really showing themselves to be ideally suited to the environment, and the best examples are showing a lovely freshness and vitality.
How do WSET courses help promote Australian wine?
From the start, WSET has always provided a solid foundation in Australian wine. Getting those basics sorted early in your wine education helps avoid stereotypes that can develop – and that’s true of all countries and regions.
WSET students have to learn about Sparkling Shiraz: tell us why.
Because it is unique and lip-smackingly delicious! It is a historic style and while it can take people off guard initially, Sparkling Shiraz is incredible food friendly. Brilliant with Peking Duck, awesome on the Thanksgiving or Christmas table and remarkably good with Eggs Benedict. (That’s a personal story for another time….)
If you had to pick one region in Australia to take to a desert island, which one?
Yikes! That’s tough. Tasmania. That way I could drink world class bubbles, Pinot, and Chardonnay all day long. And in the unlikely event that those got boring, there’s delicious Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gamay.