Traveling through Vineyards of Eastern France

Traveling through Vineyards of Eastern France

There is no better way to learn about wines than to travel the vineyards where the grapes are grown.  Photos in books and videos are great, but they are framed to give the best view and evoke a desired image. As a wine educator, being “on the ground” makes me see things in a new way and makes me a better teacher.  This past June I spent two weeks traveling from Chablis in the north, through Burgundy and then down the Rhone into Provence. My random thoughts are below. WSET students will get more details n classes starting next month.


Chablis is a little “off the beaten track” if you are visiting Burgundy, but it is worth the detour.  The village itself is incredibly pretty with classic French architecture, the peaceful Serein River running through the town, and the vineyards a two-minute walk from the town center.  The Vineyards here are so close to the working town center that they actually almost “grip” one end of Chablis center.  You realize the amount of vineyard land is not huge. Grand Cru hill sites quickly curve and slope into Premier Cru and basic vineyards.  Luckily there is an easy to read map that identifies each site. The map sits at the foot of the small street that separates the agricultural area from the central part of town.

If you visit Chablis a stop at the tasting room of William Fèvre is a good idea.  The wines are terrific and you can see large samples of the Kimmeridgean Clay soils, with their tiny fossilized sea creatures clearly visible, as well as Portlandian Clay, which is much different.  A great place for lunch is Les Trois Bourgeons.  This classic French restaurant is run by a Japanese couple and the food is fantastic!

Cote de Nuits

When you are anywhere in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or you really feel how the vineyards hug the eastern Massif Central. One commune flows into another. As you travel the main N74 road, the vineyards are a constant companion a stone’s throw to the west.  What is even more surprising is how close these world-famous expensive vineyards are to the big city of Dijon.  Essentially, they are southern suburbs of Dijon, and as you drive first through Marsannay and then Fixin and Gevrey-Chambertin you feel like you are traversing two worlds: behind you is the big city, to the west magnificent pastoral vineyards and to your east a suburban landscape with bowling alleys, car dealerships, KFC and pizza places and hotels. A little jarring but it shows that these are working grape farms rather than ethereal landscapes.

As you drive into the vineyards themselves thick vine density comes off the page and into reality.  Driving paths are narrow and vineyard land is maximized.  Books point to this fact, but to see it and navigate it as you pass from one great site to another really brings it to life.

Cote de Beaune

The villages of the Cote de Beaune can be described with one word: “charming.” Meursault, in particular, is quaint and beautiful with its central square, fountain and winding paths to vineyards.  I recommend grabbing a morning coffee there and just people watching or day dreaming.

The vineyards in this area seem designed to encourage you to take long lingering walks. Vines are easily accessible and a two-minute walk from any part of a town.  One of the things that you realize when you are among the vines is how easy it is to have one foot in a Grand Crus site and the other in a more basic site. The Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites are also much less steep when you are among the vines than when you see them on a map. Always at your feet is the classic clay and limestone soils.

Beaune itself is an easily navigable small city with the eastern vineyards watching over it as a protector.  The tile designs on the roofs of the Hospices de Beaune gleam in the sun and make this part of Burgundy unique. One realizes immediately that you are in a city of business with large buildings with famous names like Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin around you but blending in to the classic city architecture.  The restaurant that seems to be among the most popular is Ma Cuisine and I would agree – amazing food and a terrific wine list.

Cote Rotie and the Rhone

As with the Cote de Nuit flowing out of Dijon, the Cote Rotie vineyards almost touch the outskirts of the city of Lyon.  Standing in the tiny town of Ampuis, the height and steepness of the slopes of these vineyards seems even more staggering than photos.  You can see how hard they are to work and how the staked vines create a unique pattern on the steep slopes.

The Rhone is a working river and the peaks and valleys of its northern hills look down upon a waterway that is far more industrial than a wine book can show. It is easy to grasp why one hill is planted and another is not based on angle to the sun and reflection from the river.

As you drive south the hills become less steep but don’t entirely go away. Yes, the Southern Rhone vineyards are more spread out and the not as cliff-like as the north, but they are not completely flat either.  Vines live next to vibrant fields of lavender and other crops. Wind breaks from trees are evident as a protection from the Mistral. Driving into Chateauneuf-du-Pape the galet soils create a rocky landscape that reflects the sun and adds brightness to the sun light.  Stop by Vieux Telegraphe for a tasting of their amazing wines and then walk the vineyards which give a great view of the surrounding region.

Bandol and Cassis

The vineyards in Provence live easily among coastal towns and internal cities. The Alps gently extends to the sea here and creates a dramatic landscape which inspired painters like Cezanne and Van Gough.  Driving the coast from Cassis through Bandol is a great way to get a feel for the area and its vines, but to really see the area you need to go up and inland. Bandol AOC is actually made up of towns, including Bandol itself.  Mourvedre vines thrive in the damp soil and hot air.

Domaine Tempier is the place to go first to taste. It is in the village of Les Castellet and really led the change to fine modern winemaking in the area.  Véronique Peyraud, daughter of founders Lucien Peyraud and Lucie Tempier is a terrific host and the wines are worth the accolades they continually receive.

Hopefully my thoughts have prompted you to visit the area – or even better, take a WSET class and then visit.  You will be armed with information that will make the trip even better!

The New Level 2 Wine Certificate – What’s Changed

This fall WSET and Grape Experience will debut the new WSET Level 2 Certificate in Wine.  It starts September 10 in San Francisco and September 18 in Boston.  Registration information is at

The following interview details the great changes in the program

Q. What is different about the new Level 2 Certificate in Wine?

A. Just about everything.The course that will start on September 10 is still designed to enable someone to look at just about any major wine label and be able to describe what that wine is like and why, but the number of grape varieties have been dramatically expanded. Varieties such as Barbera, Gamay, Semillon and Viognier are now part of the course. We will cover the classic wine regions – Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc., but also add more emphasis on newer regions in countries like Australia, the USA and Chile. The new approach gives a Level 2 student a broader set of wines to explore and makes the course that much more relevant to today’s wine industry.  There is also a new textbook and class workbook as part of a complete WSET proprietary study pack.

Q. Are the class sessions themselves much different for the old course?

A. Yes, classes are more interactive than ever before, which better enables students to build off of previous sessions and what they have read on their own. There is a greater emphasis on why a wine tastes the way it does and how the same grape can make uniquely individual wines in different regions. Of course, we still taste several wines in each session but when we do so we are better equipped to taste both natural climactic factors and the human choices that went into each wine.  The end result is greater knowledge put into practice, building confidence among students.

Q. Spirits is no longer part of the Level 2 course?

A. Spirits has been removed from Level 2 Wine and is now taught as a separate Level 2 Spirits course.This change means we can cover more material in the Level 2 Wine course in the same amount of time. In some ways, Spirits in the old Level 2 course was an afterthought.  Now, in the Level 2 Spirits course, the subject gets the broader and more in-depth focus it deserves.  We will offer Level 2 Spirits this fall, and it can easily be taken in conjunction with Level 2 Wine.

Q. Who is the right student for Level 2 Wine?

A. Level 2 Wine is for just about anyone.The course is designed for both beginners and people who already have some knowledge in wine but want a stronger foundation.  We don’t assume for Level 2 that a student has any previous knowledge.  For the genuine beginner, the course will build a solid foundation for a career in wine or will just increase personal knowledge.  For someone who has a working knowledge already, Level 2 fills in any gaps and provides a solid launching pad for learning more.  The end result for all students taking Level 2 is increased confidence and greater overall enjoyment of wine.

Q. What is the final exam like?

A. The exam remains the same as before: a one hour, 50-question multiple choice exam. Students need to correctly answer 55% of the questions – about 28 of them – to pass and receive the WSET Level 2 Certificate in Wine.

For the September 10 San Francisco course register here:

For Level 2 Spirits register here:

For the September 18 Boston course register here:

Why You Should Take a Wine Class this Spring or Summer

You’ve been thinking about taking a wine course for some time, but for whatever reason you’ve been putting it off.  Well now is the best time of the year to take a wine class. Here’s why:


  1. It’s spring, the time of year for outdoor parties, picnics and outings and knowing something about wines makes all of these activities better. Advancing your wine knowledge gives you an opportunity to take an ordinary event and add something special.  You’ll be able to introduce friends to wines like Gavi, Bandol, Tavel, Rueda or Zweigelt with the confidence of knowing that the particular lesser known varietal or place is absolutely perfect for the warmer weather occasion.


  1. Spring is a season of new beginnings, a time to challenge yourself and learn something different. Wine is a great subject around which to build new skills and knowledge. Moreover, its wine – not rocket science or economics!  You can choose to go as deep or as broad as you like in the subject without thinking you have to master the entire world of wine.  And you get to incorporate science and history into the study of wine while giving your taste buds new sensations.


  1. If you work in the industry or want to get into a wine business, a class will fill in missing bricks in your knowledge foundation at a time when consumers are looking for something different to drink. You can speak with more confidence and authority about new styles and places and help other people break out of traditional wine habits.


  1. It’s fun! A good wine class is entertaining and involves group discussion and, of course, tasting. The social aspect alone exposes you to new people and ideas.

So which class is right for you? Grape Experience suggests WSET Level 1 or Level 2 in wine.  Both are beginner classes, with Level 2 going into a little more depth than Level 1.  These are generalist, structured classes geared to give participants an engaging way to build wine knowledge.

We have WSET Level 1 and Level 2 starting this June on weekends in the Bay Area.  You can see the schedule and enrollment links here:

So, go ahead and take the plunge.  Sign up for any wine course that seems like a good fit for you.  It will make your spring and summer incredibly memorable.

So You Want to Become A Wine Educator

People constantly ask me how they can become a wine educator (often hoping to teach WSET courses).  My first response is to ask, “why do you want to teach?” The answers fall into five categories:

  1. I want to share what I know with others
  2. I think it is the logical thing to do once I get my certification, isn’t it?
  3. I think it would be fun
  4. Umm….
  5. I want to help other people grow their wine knowledge, be more confident and have more enjoyment with wine

Answers 1-4 always make me suspicious.  Often, people get a certificate and just want to announce to others that they have achieved something special.  These people are often the worst teachers because they pontificate rather than coach and support students.

Teaching can be fun, but it is also hard work that involves preparation, patience and consistent re-evaluation for continuous improvement. The goal is to help other people learn and grow in a way that builds knowledge, skills and the confidence to use them. Rarely is this just telling a student what they should know but rather helping them tell you what they have learned.

A good teacher balances being an entertainer, manager and knowledge sharer.  Some people are natural teachers who inspire other people to want to know more, while also keeping a class on topic and on time.  They can easily read individuals in the classroom and what their learning needs are.  For other people developing good teaching skills takes more work. While still others probably are just not suited for teaching – even if they know a lot about wine (by the way, there is no shame in this, as wine knowledge and teaching ability are unrelated).

If you do think you might like to be a wine educator there are some steps, you can take to build your skills and see if you are suited to the role.  I suggest starting small with the process here:

  1. Teach Others Informally

Start by hosting a fun in-home wine tasting party. Pick 3-5 wines you like and create a plan on what you want to tell your friends about them.  Think about what they might want to know and what their mood and mind set will be (likely to have fun, learn something without being overwhelmed and to enjoy each other’s company).  What nuggets of information can you give them that they will be able to see when they taste the wine and then use in the future? Then ask for honest feedback – what did they like, what did they think you could have done better? Also, be kind to yourself.  You will be nervous and that is OK.  Try to do these wine tasting events regularly until you feel you and your audienceis really enjoying them.

  1. Ask to Train Other People at Work

Regardless of whether you work in the wine industry, look for opportunities to train co-workers, new hires or educate customers in whatever you do.  Create session plans for formal training and find means to gauge whether your audience was engaged and learned.  For consumers, think about how you build a relationship.  For any person you want to get good at empathizing, understanding their needs and ability to understand new information.

  1. Teach a Fun Consumer Wine Course

Think about a one-night short wine class that you might enjoy teaching – but more importantly, that you think individuals might sign up for.  Plan out how the session would go down to the minute (build in time for extended tasting).  Then seek out an adult education center and propose it to them.  Have a budget for the wine and be prepared at first to possibly offer your time for free.  Once you have a scheduled course, teach it first to a few friends or family so you can get the timing down and work out kinks that didn’t show up on paper.  Think about teachers you enjoyed learning from. What did they do?  Can you emulate their approach in any way? Keep teaching these classes and get and be open to feedback – It is the only way you can improve.

  1. Co-Teach a WSET or Other Certification Class

When you feel that you have developed good teaching skills – that students are engaged by your style, that you can control a room and manage time and that participants are actively learning from you – ask a WSET APP or other wine certification program if you can teach part of an entry level course.  When the opportunity arrives do your homework.  Ask about the class dynamic, the classroom and review the session plan with whoever you are sharing the class with.  Then practice at home before the actual session.  After the class, think about what went well and what did not.  Then speak honestly with your co-teacher and express what you felt and really listen to what they thought.

Be honest with yourself about both your skills and your enjoyment level when teaching.  If you don’t really love doing it, your class/audience won’t be engaged or happy either.  You may find that the fun non-certification classes are more what you like doing.  You might find the whole process is just not for you.  Or you may find that you can inspire other people in a way that makes both you and them really happy!

New WSET Diploma in Wines Starts August 3

New WSET Diploma in Wines Starts August 3

In January and February, all of Grape Experience educators – including myself – attended day-long workshops to learn about the new WSET Diploma in Wine that’s being introduced in August. There are some major changes to the current Diploma program in both teaching approach and in content. It was critical that all WSET educators understand the intentions behind the new Diploma in order to be able to teach the new program successfully.

I am incredibly excited about the changes, which I think will greatly aid students in their approach to studying for and taking the rigorous set of Diploma exams. First of all, the new Diploma will be more interactive: there will be an online textbook and an extensive library of resources for students to access. The classroom experience will be less lecture-based with more dialogue between educators and students – an opportunity for us all to learn from each other and also to put our understanding into practice.

As educators at Grape Experience, we have always tried to make clear how best to approach the Diploma exams in order to pass them, but it has not always been easy. The key to the Diploma is to apply your knowledge rather than simply state the facts. That hasn’t changed, but WSET now makes that aspect much more explicit.

The Diploma is now logically organized into two approaches. The first two units, D1 and D2, are classed as “foundation units.” As the name suggests, these provide the foundation for the rest of the exams. D1 is focused on wine production – i.e. the vineyard, the winery, and post-fermentation. This used to be assessed by a multiple-choice exam, but now it consists of open-response questions so that students can demonstrate their understanding. This new exam approach should help students better retain and apply viticulture and winemaking knowledge in later units.

D2 is the business of wine, which also consists of open-response questions and no longer has an exam based on a pre-issued case study scenario. Both of these two units must be taken before going into the later units to ensure that students have a foundation of knowledge which they can apply when answering questions about the wines of the world.

The other three units focus on production knowledge. D3 is wines of the world, similar to the current Unit 3, while D4 is sparkling wines and D5 is fortified wines. D3 hasn’t significantly changed, except for one major aspect: WSET’s Global Director of Education Karen Douglas emphasized that students are given more time for both tasting and theory so that the best students have the opportunity to convey their knowledge and understanding. The sparkling and fortified wine exams are now much more in line with D3, in that they have more complete, open-response questions rather than simple statements that “previously invited students to dump their knowledge.”

Finally, students finish their studies with D6, a research paper of 3,000 words focusing on current issues in the world of wine – a natural conclusion from the previous five units.

For students already taking the Diploma, there are some important things to note:

  • all previous passes from exams already taken stand: you do not need to retake any exam you have already passed.
  • Karen stressed that the WSET has worked intently to make the changes as transitional as possible – taking the new courses and exams will not be an upheaval; in fact, there will be a lot more material and resources to help you pass future exams.
  • the online textbook will be available in July. It will contain information you have already studied, but it is worth going to as a resource and for review.
  • there is no longer a spirits element to the Diploma. Existing students who have passed the spirits exam are able to earn the Diploma in Wine and Spirits. If you haven’t taken the spirits exam, then you are able to earn the Diploma in Wine.

The work that the WSET education team has put into the new Diploma program is amazing and represents a significant improvement in all aspects of the current course. I anticipate these changes will give the students a much better chance of passing the Diploma while still maintaining its rigorous standards. The WSET have put a great deal of time and effort to create the new Diploma, and I think they have done a superb job.

Look for the new Diploma to be first offered for D1 Winemaking the weekend of August 3-4 in San Francisco and shortly thereafter in Boston.