The Wine School was founded in 2001 by Keith Wallace. Over the past two decades, it’s grown into one of the most important wine schools in America. This page offers a short history of the school, along with the people behind the corkscrews.
Director of Wine Education, Alana Zerbe
After spending a decade adding letters to her last name — from J.D. to LL.M. to C.S.W. — Alana found her home in Philadelphia, as the school’s Director of Wine Education.
A background working in both wineries and the law gives her a unique advantage as a wine educator: she is the top-rated wine instructor in the history of the Wine School. Over the past ten years, Alana has taught everything from Wine 101 to academic wine courses. But most of her work has been behind the scenes, developing and refining national sommelier certification programs for the National Wine School.
Founder of the Wine School, Keith Wallace
The story of the Wine School begins with Keith Wallace. A man with deep convictions and even deeper knowledge, Keith has been the driving force behind all of the School’s classes and programs since the beginning
Keith’s background includes stints as a hard-hitting journalist in Baltimore, executive chef in Boston, and professional winemaker in Napa Valley. All of these life experiences have combined to make Keith one of the most unique and interesting educators in the wine industry. To be honest, he probably would be insufferable if it wasn’t for his charisma and off-color humor.
Keith founded the Wine School in 2001, with the goal of bringing winemaker-grade education to the public. He slowly grew the school into the most influential independent wine school in the US. His innovations have helped shape the future of wine education and have inspired the development of dozens of wine schools across the country.
Wine School 101
Now in our second decade of providing top-tier classes and programs to aspiring wine pros, the Wine School has become an institution in the food and beverage industry. Our influence is felt not only in Philadelphia, but in several of the top wine regions in the world. We are very proud that graduates have gone on to become winemakers, sommeliers, distributors, importers, and more.
Over the years, our passions have expanded beyond the wine glass. The School now offers beer, spirits, and cocktail classes led by the the top talents in the industry. One thing that has not changed: All of our classes are designed to be fun and educational.
We can mix a bit of fun with our classes because we have the bona fides to back it up. Our real mission in this world is to educate consumers and professionals without the pretentiousness normally found in the wine world. Based on the demand for our programs and courses, we expect to have that opportunity for a long time to come.
Wine School History
Before the School
Before the Wine School opened in 2001, wine education had become marginalized. Philly’s only brick & mortar wine school –the highly regarded L’Ecole du Vin– had been closed for over a decade. The Restaurant School’s Wine Academy had closed, reopened, and then promptly closed again. At best, wine tasting was something done in the back rooms of restaurants. The idea of a stand-alone private school with an independent curriculum for wine was nonexistent. Most of the cooking schools in the city had closed a few years before.
No one was thinking of opening a wine school at the turn of the century, and that includes our founder, Keith Wallace. In 2000, Keith was consulting for a local PA winery, a job that included lectures on winemaking and harvesting. Having never taught before, it was a nerve-wracking challenge for someone who was naturally shy and reserved. He discovered something about himself when he stood in front of that classroom: he was a damn good teacher. People were drawn to his no-nonsense approach to teaching about wine.
For an interview on this subject, we recommend the interview with Keith on Philly Who.
In 2001, Keith was at a crossroads in his career. A graduate of the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis, he was working toward opening his own winery. It was dream that would never be realized.
He was keeping a secret from employers and clients. He knew if anyone found out, his career would be over. Back in 1998, he was grievously injured in car accident. He spent months in the hospital. In time, he could walk, but was left with a life-long disability.
Young and foolhardy, we was working He was hiding the focal epilepsy. He had a relatively minor form of the disease, but it made working in and around the heavy machinery at a winery a growingly foolhardy idea.
What do you do, when you can’ t do the think you love?
Throughout the ordeal, Keith never lost his sense of humor or his positive outlook in life. “I loved the fact that people just thought I was clumsy or drunk. I could be myself. Let’s be honest, even without being an epileptic, I am a clumsy drunk,” he laughed. His handicap was a well-kept secret until 2008, when a small newspaper, the Chestnut Hill Local, published a story about the accident
Keith taught more and more classes for his client, the idea of a wine school started to take shape. People loved his classes, and he discovered his new passion.
“I was really shy, but I loved to teach. My mom was a school teacher and my dad’s a preacher. It must be in the genes.”
He researched the currently available wine courses in the region. He respected what he found, but felt they were too narrow in focus. So he built out the fundamentals of a wine curriculum.
Knowing he would need an online presence to sell classes, he taught himself to build websites and purchased the domain www.winelust.com. The owner of a coffee shop on Cotton Street in Manayunk offered to rent space for the Wine School.
Everything was set to open up a small little wine school, except for one small detail. What would it be named? At first, he thought of going edgy and naming it WineLust, as a play on “wine list” but (thankfully) thought better of it. After a few glasses of wine, he came up with the name Vinology, which was an improvement. Not perfect, but an improvement.
“At some point, I just kind of figured I shouldn’t try to be fancy or put on airs. Let’s call it what it’s going to be. It’s a wine school, in Philly,” he explained.
The school struck a cord with Philadelphia’s wine lovers and classes started selling out. By 2002, the school outgrew the coffee house. It started running weekly classes in the wine cellar of a local steak house.
Keith’s idea of founding a wine school was taking root. Soon enough, the school was outgrowing it’s rented wine cellar. It was time to find a more permanent home.
The Fairmount Years
In 2005, the school opened at 20th & Fairmount. It was in a neighborhood still in transition: junk shops and decaying buildings dotted the block. A pizza joint, a hardware store, and a water ice shop were the only businesses that were still open.
In short order, the Wine School attracted attention in both the local and national press for its new pioneering course offerings. The school premiered it’s new Core Wine Program which is now the bedrock of wine education in Philly.
“We did have some students who were wary of the location. It was perfectly safe, but it did look like a war zone back then. It wasn’t where most folks imagined a wine school would be located.”
By 2009, the neighborhood was thriving. The Wine School had done its part by beautifying what was once a dark and unwelcoming block. The School was thriving as well, far beyond Keith’s expectations. The school had expanded to two classrooms and a warren of offices. The school had grown to a staff of six, and wine classes were selling out weeks in advance.
At the same time, the Philly Beer School began, a passion project started by some of the School’s young guns who also happened to be beer geeks in their spare time. While the School’s ties within the neighborhood ran deep, the addition of the Beer School signaled the time had come to uproot once more.
Rittenhouse, Part One
Thankfully the perfect space became available at just the right time: a beautiful mansion in Rittenhouse Square. 127 22nd Street had housed the Wine Spectator’s publishing house in the 1970s. In 2013, Keith packed up his collection of exquisite old bottles, foraged furniture, and the School’s original chalkboard — along with paintbrushes and power tools — to create the ideal setting for the Wine School.
From the start, Keith’s goal for the school was to support the wine world, and help those who wanted to be immersed within it. The move to Rittenhouse became a benchmark for wine education. Not just in Philly, but across the country.
New wine schools started opening across the country, from California to Washington DC. The founders of many schools, including the Texas Wine School and the Atlanta Wine School, sought out Keith’s assistance. Like always, he was happy to help.
Locally, Philly’s cultural landscape was changing. The School’s success cemented a culture of boozy education that included top wine writers and restaurant critics. Keith’s students were opening up wine bars, wineries, and even other wine schools.
“I always will miss the neighborliness of Fairmount, I loved living there, but for our students, Rittenhouse has been a game changer.”
At the same time, Keith started working to develop a US-based accreditation agency for sommelier certification.
“I felt then, and still feel, that the wine trade was heading for a disaster by relying on English-based programs that didn’t comply with our state and federal laws. Eventually, either the WSET or the CMS will get sued. That would render every sommelier certificate issued in the US worthless. I wanted to make sure that day never comes.”
His work eventually become the National Wine School, which is based in Los Angeles, California.
All the while, Keith & company taught wine classes. Really, really awesome wine classes. And he was lobbying Harrisburg to abolish the PLCB. And he was finishing his cookbook for Perseus.
He didn’t sleep much for those first years in Rittenhouse.
“Not everyone has the chance to do something this awesome. When you have the chance, you do it. Also, I’m a tad crazy. Clearly.”
Rittenhouse, Part Two
In December 2015, the Wine School relocated a block away, to 109 S. 22nd Street. The move was both unexpected and essential. Word to the wise: choose your landlords carefully! Keith spent 4 months renovating the new building and turning it into a wine education paradise. For more: Building the Wine School.
It was also a time of necessary transitions for personnel. The longtime DWE (Director of Wine Education) Zach Morris was in the planning stages to open a coffeehouse on the Main Line, followed by a restaurant in Headhouse Square. He had to step down. The widely respected sommelier-instructor Alana Zerbe took over the position.
The move also allowed a more streamlined organizational structure, allowing a renewed focus on high-quality wine classes and courses. The school continues to grow in popularity as it refines it’s unique algorithm of high-level education and pure delight in wine.
“Most of the difficult stuff has been done. I’m spending more time with students, and it’s just great,” says Keith.
What’s in the future for the Wine School? I am not sure, but I bet it’s going to be a whole lot of fun to write the next chapter.
Don’t Tread on my Corkscrew, Bro.
A cornerstone the Wine School’s mission is to protect the consumer against the dirty tricks and backroom deals that often go unnoticed in the wine trade. As is often pointed out, we exist in a multi-billion dollar industry dealing in controlled substances with very little oversight. Sound a bit bit nefarious? It can be. We aren’t afraid to stand up for the average consumer when their rights are being threatened, or to expose the cost-cutting shortcuts intended to dupe the American wine drinker.
Keith has written a series of exposés into the wine industry on the Daily Beast. He has spoken out against overzealous government meddling on the BBC and MS-NBC. He has talked about manipulation of wine by big-name wineries on NPR. He has lobbied hard for the privatization of wine and spirits sales in Pennsylvania He has also worked with the Speaker of the House in Harrisburg to insure that any legislation to abolish the PLCB would protect small businesses and wine consumers in the Commonwealth.
Needless to say, not everyone is happy with our turning over the apple carts. It also part of what makes the Wine School an authentic place: a willingness to be more than just fluff.
Making Philly Just a Bit Better
A fundamental part of the Wine School’s mission is not just protecting consumers, but also giving back to the community. The good people of Philadelphia have been kind to us and fostered our growth. We feel it’s only right to return the favor: over the years, the Wine School has donated more than $75,000 in wine classes and events to Philadelphia’s charities and schools. The school continues to donate to charity.