Oh gosh, it is 2017! I feel like the white rabbit, that I am late already. We are already on day 4 of it. If you are still in the midst of setting New Year’s Resolutions and Goals for 2017, here are some easy suggestions for upping your wine game this year!
1. DRINK MORE WINE (RESPONSIBLY OF COURSE) AND GO TO MORE TASTINGS!
This one is certainly easy! Be wine adventurous, try a wine style you have not tried before, try a different grape, try a different region or country. Most local wine stores have tastings on Saturdays as a way to introduce customers to new wines. The huge Chicagoland retailer Binnys, whose stores can be rather intimidating to shop in because of their size and variety of offerings, many times has tastings on Saturdays. These free tastings are a great way to sample grapes and wines you might not be familiar with. Binnys offers in store courses at their different locations. Some retailers offer more formalized wine tastings where they charge a fee, like Perman Wines, whose small guided tastings focused on grape or wine style or region, tend to sell out immediately. Get to a wine dinner at the Cherry Circle Room, or at City Winery, try wine flights at a place like Eno Wine Room or Pierre Gourmet, go to Vera and try a recommendation from the highly knowledgable staff and ask questions. Be wine curious!
2. READ A BOOK
Wine can be rather off-putting sometimes because of hard to understand labeling on the bottle, grapes, countries, foreign words and then figuring out if the price of a bottle is worth buying. The Internet is obviously at your finger tips to search for information but there are a couple of books that are really great to have as a reference and go to, for wine questions. The first book just recently came out, easy to carry in your handbag and for anyone it is a wine gem, The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson.
The book came out in September 2016 and sells for a whopping $8 on Amazon. In a GuildSomm podcast, Jancis said the book came from an idea her daughter had, which was to give her friends a short wine primer to use when they went out to eat or searched to buy wine. Jancis ended up taking over the project from her daughter. One of her most well-known books, The Oxford Companion to Wine which she edited and has about 180 contributors is the “go to” for wine nerds and industry experts for just about any question on wine. The Oxford Companion is a huge, door-stopping, encylopedia of wine. This little $8 book has a ton of very useful information and is really a handy dandy guide for anyone looking to learn a little bit more about wine. There is an industry term where an undervalued wine is considered “over-delivering” at the price point. Well, this little book has an awful lot in its pages and is well worth the price. She very succintly and in a razor sharp way put all her years of wine knowledge and experience into this book. The book is aimed at complete novices but I think everyone will find a tidbit that is useful. Buy it!
The book that I gave for Christmas presents this year was Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible. This book is thick but not as big as the Oxford Companion or as daunting and it covers the gamut of wine regions, history, producers, and wines. It is a really good summary and starting off point for a broad perspective of wines and wine regions and most importantly, gives guidance as to producers and wines to look for when in a wine shop.
3. TAKE A CLASS
Nowadays there are a huge variety of wine classes, self taught, online or in person, if you live in a city or near one. The positive thing is there are so many classes and groups to choose from, the confusing thing is which class to take, which group to go with. I am still learning which path and group is the right fit for me. First off, check with your local wine shop who many times offers educational tastings for customers. City Winery has some Wine & Style classes coming up as well as Vinyasa and Vino. Below are some of the more formal organizations that offer classes nationwide.
A. CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine Exam) offered by the Society of Wine Educators
The CSW is a 100 question, multiple choice test that you are given 60 minutes to complete. This is the entry level exam for this group. It is a rigorous exam, which tests a candidate’s wine knowledge and mastery of key elements within the worlds of viticulture and wine production. This certification is widely recognized and regarded by the international wine and spirits industry. The Society of Wine Educators is a US based non-profit founded in 1974, whose mission is to set the standard for quality and responsible wine and spirits education and professional certification. They hold large annual conferences and offer free webinars on all topics in spirits and wine. The positive about this test is you can study on your own time, there are free online webinars to help you study. The negative is, the material is very daunting and there is no tasting at all with the credential except for on your own. The test is very, very detailed so I strongly recommend the webinars as support. The Society offers a lot of free, detailed information particularly in spirits and it is on my personal list to get to their conference.
B. Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET)
WSET was founded as charitable trust in 1969 to serve the growing educational needs of the UK wine and spirits industry which, at the time, primarily spanned import, distribution and retail. Funding was provided by The Vintners’ Company and WSET took over the education initiatives started by the Wine and Spirit Association of Great Britain.
The WSET offers a whole series of classes starting with complete beginner at Level 1 all the way through to Level 4 The Diploma. Level 1 is generally a 4 hour class or 2 sessions of 2 hours including wine and food pairing. There is a test given to gage your retention level but the class is a fun way to get the wheels in motion about food and wine pairing in particular. Level 2 gets much more detailed, covers spirits and includes tasting as part of the class. Level 2 requires a fair amount of studying if you want to pass the test. Level 3, is the level required if you want to go onto to pursue a Diploma. It is multiple choice, short answer and essay, it includes a blind tasting of 2 wines. There is no requirement to sign-up for Level 3. If you are just trying to get a good base of global wine and spirits knowledge, Level 2 works and is less time on your part. If you are trying to get a job in the industry, Level 3 is the credential most employers look for. If you are trying to decide between taking Level 2 or Level 3, Level 3 is a ton more work! As I am learning with wine credentials, even though you learn a lot at whatever level you take, the next level takes even more time. The positive of WSET is that it is a global organization, the negative of WSET is that it is a global organization so there is lack of US support although it seems that finally the WSET community in the US is growing. In Chicago, the American Wine School offers WSET classes.
The Guild provides study & certification programs on the wines and wine regions of France, Italy and Spain. If you love old world wines this group is for you. Originally created as the French Wine Society, the organization quickly became the leading provider of French wine study and certification programs internationally. In order to accommodate wine industry requests for equally detailed study programs on Italy and Spain, the French Wine Society reorganized as the Wine Scholar Guild.
I love France and always have, so when I saw that the French Wine Scholar program was offered in Chicago, I signed up right away. Arguably, the French have the most developed and oldest appellation system for wine. Many regions in other parts of the world compare their wines to French wines. For anyone who wants to learn about the different French wine regions, their history, wines and styles, this is the course for you. The course is very structured and there are interesting and helpful online lessons that go along with the in-course instruction. You go through every wine region in France along with tasting the wines. The course book is a very comprehensive resource I will keep forever. The online lessons are given by people fluent in French. In Chicago, the classes were given by Americans so no beautiful french accents but at the same time, I could easily understand the instructors. The Wine Guild has now increased their offerings to Italy and Spain. They, also, offer one-of-a-kind study trips to different wine regions with leading wine journalists and critics like Andrew Jefford or Kerin O’Keefe which I highly recommend as well. Another thing I have learned so far in my wine path is that you can’t know everything and that peeling the onion is endless. I chose the FWS because it was developed by French people about french wines. As much as it required a massive amount of time to study for this credential, it was really fun at the same time. At the back of each Chapter on a wine region are the local cheeses and foods that are native to that region. The Wine Guild has online seminars and offers a lot of support along the way. The operation is A class all the way. In my class were a mixture of French wine enthusiasts and industry people. I am sure the Italian Wine and Spanish are just as thorough as the FWS was.
D. The Court of Master Sommeliers
The Court of Master Sommeliers was established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. Education was then, and remains today, the Court’s charter. The first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as the premier international examining body. The movie Somm is a 2013 documentary following the attempts of four candidates to pass the extremely difficult Master Sommelier examination, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world
The Court of Master Sommeliers is the preeminent body for certifying sommeliers in the US and worldwide. I saved it towards the end because the track is for sommeliers. If your goal is to be a sommelier this is the track for you. Although it is London-based there is a very established network in the US and support system for people to have a career as a sommelier. The exams are tracked similarly as the WSET although one of the key differentiators is that you are graded on service.
GuildSomm is a non-profit international membership organization for sommeliers and wine professionals. They strive to promote wine education, enrichment, collaboration and healthy debate among our members while maintaining the chief values of the sommelier profession: integrity, humility and hospitality. Through their online community and in-person events, they aim to help their members broaden their knowledge of the world’s wine regions, enhance their beverage service skills, network with other wine professionals, and stay up-to-date on industry news and trends.
Fred Dame, MS is Chairman and Geoff Kruth, MS is President. My impression is that although it is an independent entity and non-profit, it was formed to really supplement the Court of Sommeliers in the US. As long as you are a member, they offer courses in many of the larger cities across the US. As a non-sommelier, I found the courses really good, particularly with tasting descriptors of wines. One of my focuses right now is to increase my tasting skills and broaden my palate recognition and association of smell and taste of a wine with a word. So far, the classes I have taken through the GuildSomm, one on the Beaujolais Cru and one on Prosecco DOCG, were really well done. I have to admit there is a way that a true sommelier presents information that is different from a non-sommelier instructor and we tasted some beautiful wines.
F. North American Sommelier Association
NASA (North American Sommelier Association) is a California founded non-profit networking and educational organization, key member of the WSA (Worldwide Sommelier Association – the biggest umbrella Sommelier organization in the world). NASA was born out of the ‘AIS California’, originally founded in Los Angeles by Professional Sommelier Alessandro Sbrendola (Valentino, L’Orangerie, Bartolotta).
NASA may be based in Los Angeles but they offer courses throughout the US. Founded by an Italian, the US Education Director is Diego Meraviglia who among other things is a Master Taster. When I heard they were giving an Italian Wine Specialist Course I signed up. This course was completely tailored to people in the industry and very succinct considering how much material we covered. I think if I had not studied for the French Wine Scholar previously to this, I would not have been able to know how to study for this test. It was multiple choice, short answer and essay. Italy has so many grapes, regions and DOCS, the material to be covered was overwhelming. Diego gave the first weekend’s worth of classes and he is a fantastic teacher. Not only did I learn some key points to wine regions in general, his tasting ability and descriptors were incredible plus I was taking an Italian wine course from an Italian, so all the Italian words were pronounced correctly and we tasted beautiful Italian wines. It is an intense course, 7 hours Sat. and Sund. over the course of 2 weekends. But Italy is an intense country when it comes to wine. I highly recommend this course and any course taught by Diego. There were all industry people in my class and I think if I had not had the previous classes this course would have been much more difficult. The biggest difficulty was in memorizing all the material in time for the test. The time frames for this test were short, it is very dependent on either a lot of prior wine knowledge and a lot of studying on your own. NASA offers many other courses and as somewhat obvious most in California.
Hopefully this post was helpful to you. I started this post with a picture of the white rabbit because once you get the “wine bug” you truly do go down the rabbit hole, it is just deciding what corners and niches you want to linger in, for me it has been France and Italy. Cheers to a new year 2017 and may you be adventurous in your wine travels this year!!!