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.