City Paper: Class Act

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia City Paper on April 10, 2007.  The article is reprinted solely for educational purposes.  It is intended to offer insight into the history of wine education in Philadelphia, and our place within that context.  Links to the original article and author are given below. 

Class Act

Anyone can be a wine expert — just ask Keith Wallace.

Author: David Snyder

Picking the perfect vintage can be a frustrating venture — the employees at PLCB stores are often unhelpful; labels on the bottles can be harder to decode than the exemptions for Philadelphia’s smoking ban, and experimenting with different wines gets expensive.

Much like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to give to man, Keith Wallace (pictured) has made it his mission to demystify wine and make it more accessible to the masses. “It’s an art form that’s to be enjoyed, not to be rarefied,” says Wallace. “The more you know about it, the more you’ll love it.”
Frustrated by the quality of wine education, Wallace founded The Wine School of Philadelphia in 2001. “Everything everyone was learning was bullshit. Every major wine book is underwritten by a distributor or an importer,” explains Wallace. “This really bugged me, so I started the school.”

Wallace didn’t know whether it was going to be successful; he just knew he liked doing it. But in the last six years, The Wine School has sold out every class it’s ever hosted. His teaching staff has grown to include writer Brian Freedman, local wine distributor Pete Mitchell, and Frank Cipparone, a retired teacher who spent the last decade studying Italian wine.

Wallace’s epicureal passion began at Savannah restaurant in Baltimore’s Fells Point, where he was the executive sous chef. He left to pursue a degree in English and become a journalist, but says the “commerce of it” left him cold. After a bit of soul searching, he decided to return to what he loved — food and wine. But halfway through the prestigious Viticulture Enology program at the University of California-Davis, he realized his job opportunities would be limited. “You have to be the cream of the crop, or you have to have investors, or your family owns a winery,” says Wallace. “The jobs that were open were assistant wine-making positions. Basically, that amounts to scrubbing out barrels.” So after graduation, Wallace started a consulting business, which eventually spawned The Wine School.

When Wallace moved to Philadelphia, he started teaching classes at a local winery as a way to introduce people to his client’s products. That’s when he discovered he had an aptitude for teaching: “I had the ideas they wanted.”

In fact, Wallace’s ideas are what make The Wine School so unique. Its Foundation Program — the first tier of Oenotropae, its flagship diploma program — features Wallace’s sensory-based approach to wine appreciation. He takes concepts from chemistry and wine-making and distills them into an easy-to-use framework that enables virtually anyone to understand and explain why a particular wine tastes the way it does. By the end of the seven-week course, students can tell whether the wine was fermented in oak barrels or in a stainless steel tank, gauge whether it went through malolactic fermentation, and note how the grapes were picked.

Industry types were initially skeptical of Wallace’s approach. “I don’t run eight-hour seminars,” he says. “I don’t have people memorize 20 pages of text about trellising systems, the different appellations and terroir in Burgundy. I want people to have skills that no one else has.”

And it’s true — students walk away from the Foundation Program with skills that even some highly paid sommeliers don’t have. In the not-too-distant past, two wine professionals from out of state wanted to skip the Foundation and Intermediate programs and go right into the Advanced class. Wallace agreed to let them do it as long as they passed the Foundation’s final exam — a blind taste test in which they had to correctly name the varietals without any knowledge of their identities. Both pros failed.

“The very people who look down on what we’re teaching can’t even do it,” says Wallace. “A housewife from New Jersey kicks their ass.”

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