Brian Freedman

Brian Freedman with the Wine School of Philadelphia

An Article by Brian Freedman

Originally published in the Mainline Times.

Brian Freedman is a former instructor at the school. He is currently working in public relations at Peter Breslow Consulting. 

“There’s no pressure here,” instructor Michael Alleruzzo said. “We’re just going to sit back and have fun. We’re going to enjoy some great wines…So I’ll be right back with the sparkling wine and we’ll get ready from there.”

Less than five minutes later we were sipping from our glasses of Prosecco, comparing our tasting notes, and feeling utterly at ease. I cannot think of a happier way to begin a wine class: An enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable instructor, the stated goal of wanting the students to enjoy themselves and learn about wines they may never have had before, and a bottle of bubbly. Wine instruction does not get much better than this.

Alleruzzo, a recent transplant to the area from Erie, Pennsylvania, has been teaching classes at The Wine School of Philadelphia since June, though his background in wine goes back significantly farther. He has taught a wide variety of wine courses before, and even recently earned his Sommelier Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the major certifying body in the wine world.

His passion and love of wine shone through the entire evening, and he put those of us in attendance at ease from the start.

“Ask any question you’d like,” he said. “Please don’t feel nervous about asking the right question or the wrong question-that is never an issue.”

And, indeed, it was not an issue: Throughout the two-hour class, during which we sampled eight wines, the questions and the laughter flowed as easily as what we were drinking.

Wine has, until recently, suffered from a bit of an image problem in America. It was erroneously perceived as a strictly precious drink, one that was reserved for those with either a great deal of money or an inherent tendency toward pretension. But all that has changed, and in the past five or ten years, Americans’ appreciation of wines has increased exponentially.

As a result, wine classes all over the country are being attended by those who have loved wine for years as well as by those who simply want to learn more about it. Last Wednesday evening, at The Wine School of Philadelphia’s “Holiday Wine Guide” class, people from both groups were in attendance.

The purpose of the class was to taste a selection of wines from around the world, and made from a wide variety of grapes and blends, that pair well with the foods we traditionally eat around the winter holidays. This afforded us the opportunity to branch out from the wines we may have fallen into the habit of repeatedly serving in the past, as well as a chance for us to taste wines that are affordable enough to be given as reasonably inexpensive gifts to family, friends, and even business associates. To that end, none of the wines we tasted that evening costs more than $20 in Pennsylvania state stores, and many of them are significantly less, including a $10 Chardonnay-Marsanne-Sauvignon Blanc blend from California and an $11 Tempranillo from Spain-two of my personal favorites from the class.

The Wine School of Philadelphia was founded in 2000 by Keith Wallace, who for several years had run wine education classes at local wineries, but soon realized that the desire to understand and appreciate wines was not at all limited just to those in the field. “[So] I decided that this was what I was going to do,” he said. “This was a whole new idea. This just hadn’t been done, having a wine school, having a full curriculum, and having individual classes but also having certification programs. It hadn’t been done, and I knew I needed to do it.”

The community clearly felt the same way. Wallace originally held his classes in the back room of a coffee shop in Manayunk, and eventually, after a few years of running his courses in local restaurants, he decided to settle down into a permanent location. The Wine School of Philadelphia has now been at its current address on Fairmount Avenue for a year and a half. The space itself is warm and intimate, and because Wallace keeps all of his classes at a maximum of 24 students-and many of them much smaller-everyone has the chance to voice their opinions and to discuss their impressions with the instructor and their classmates.

One month ago, Wallace began holding classes at Primavera in Ardmore, as well. “It’s a converted old bank,” he said. “And they’ve converted the vaults downstairs into a wine cellar. And that’s where our classes are. So it’s intimate, beautiful. It’s a great room.”

The Wine School offers both individual classes-like the holiday wine guide-and extended courses that afford serious students the opportunity to explore all aspects of the world of wine. In that way, Wallace provides education opportunities that are appropriate for a wide variety of wine drinkers.

At the class I attended last week, the students ran the gamut from very knowledgeable to novice. The one thing everyone had in common, however, was a love of good wine.

“I can’t drink bad wine anymore,” said Sue, one of the students that evening. “I won’t.” But, she added, her enjoyment of fine wine often makes it “really tough on a date,” she said. Some men, apparently, are simply intimidated by a woman who possesses more wine knowledge than they do.

At the class, however, all differences in wine knowledge were swept away, and by early in the evening, we had all grown comfortable enough to discuss what we were tasting in an open and honest manner.

We even discussed the reputation of the much-maligned Merlot. The fourth wine we tasted was a 2003 Falesco “Pesano” Merlot from the Umbria region of Italy. And despite the fact that Merlot is often perceived as a simple wine that lacks depth, this one was described by the noted wine critic Robert Parker as having chocolate and coffee notes as well as a solid base of fruit. In our class, many of the students were surprised at how much they liked it.

“Everyone is [criticizing] Merlot now,” Wallace said. “And now I’m in this weird position of actually having to defend Merlot after all those years of trying to convince people to drink something [else…Merlots are] just misunderstood.”

And that was the lesson we left with that night: Good wine is not always what you expect. The key to finding it is keeping an open mind and maintaining a willingness to try new things.

That’s what I call an education.

Brian Freedman