How a Class Can Enhance Your Wine Experience

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the  Wall Street Journal on February 10, 2006.


Learning the Ropes About Vines:

How a Class Can Enhance Your Wine Experience


About a year ago, Kent Benson, a risk manager at a bank in St. Cloud, Minn., took a wine class at a local wine store and it changed his life. “It inspired me,” he says.

That’s an understatement.

Soon after that first course at Westside Liquors, Mr. Benson launched a wine-tasting club and business that hosts private wine-tasting parties. A few weeks ago, he began working part-time at the wine store. “I really dove in head first,” Mr. Benson says.

Jane Farrell-Beck and her husband, Marvin, picked up a flier about wine classes at their favorite store in Ames, Iowa, Cyclone Liquors, and promptly committed themselves to several sessions. “I’m not a keen fan of Chardonnay,” says Ms. Farrell-Beck, a retired Iowa State University professor and author. “But I found a delightful one, a Spanish one, in one of the classes.”

One of the questions we’re asked most often is where to find a good wine class. For everyone who ever posed that question: Your ship has come in. All over the country, wine classes are booming as interest in wine continues to grow. There are wine classes associated with wine stores and restaurants. There are classes at colleges, universities and community schools, both for nonstudents — sometimes in continuing education programs — and students. Cornell University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Florida International University, Boston University, Miami University in Ohio, the University of Utah and Central Washington University, to name a few, all have classes of some kind. (Classes are limited to students of legal drinking age.)

A Bumper Crop
Wine schools are proliferating, too — from California to Philadelphia. In the Chicago area, Patrick Fegan, founder of the Chicago Wine School, says a local Treasure Island Foods grocery store has asked him to teach its customers for a fee. The Napa-based American Institute of Wine & Food has 28 chapters nationwide that sponsor wine and food programs for wine enthusiasts and professionals, and a 29th chapter is in the works. And, of course, there are online courses, too.

Eighty percent of people want to learn more about wine, according to a survey by Los Angeles-based Impulse Research Corp. for Royal Caribbean Celebrity Cruise Line. That’s much easier to do now than when we were learning about wine in the 1970s and largely had to teach ourselves. We loved trying new wines. Every one was an eye-opening, brain-stretching experience. We also found good merchants who helped bring us along and we joined the local chapter of a now-defunct international wine organization, Les Amis du Vin, to learn more through organized tastings. And we devoured wine books and toured wine regions. Although we still believe that the best way to learn about wine is to drink it, being led by an expert can really increase your enjoyment — and there are more people every day who are eager to do that.

Ms. Farrell-Beck said that her classes met for 90 minutes in a room that was set up for courses and tastings in the wine shop. About a dozen people took the classes and sat at a U-shaped table, with six or seven glasses in front of each of them and a list of the wines to be studied. The list also had space for students’ comments. There were also baskets of bread; water was available if anyone wanted it. Roger Esser, the manager of the store and their teacher, gave the class an overview of the wines they were about to taste. For Spanish wines, red and white, for instance, he brought out a map and pointed to the areas where the wines came from, discussing how geography affects the grapes and the resulting wine and what grape varietals the wines were made from. It was not a blind tasting, but was purely instructional, so the labels were visible. There was usually a progression, from dry to sweet or from light to heavy. Mr. Esser poured one at a time, only a taste, and asked for students’ reactions to them. The discussions were quite lively. Mr. Esser also asked how much the students thought the wines cost, which was always fun. Ms. Farrell-Beck said it was a good idea to eat well before classes and to have a designated driver. Individual classes range from $15 to $50.

Putting Things Into Context
Judging from people we have talked to, wine classes don’t just lead to an increased passion for wine because they taste good stuff, meet nice people and feel less intimated by the subject. The classes, like Mr. Esser’s, put wine into a geographic, historical, personal and sociological context that makes each bottle of wine something more than the liquid inside.

In Los Angeles, Martin Weiner has been teaching a six-week general course for almost 40 years at the school he founded, the Los Angeles School of Wines, which doubles as his residence. Premium Fine Wines of the World costs $245, but Mr. Weiner says that if students bought a bottle of each wine he features, they’d spend far more than the cost of the sessions. All students need to bring are “three wine glasses, a note pad and thirst,” he adds. He teaches a variety of other wine courses, too.

Kevin Zraly, who trained some of the nation’s top wine people and who celebrates the 30th year of his famous Windows on the World Wine School in New York City this year, makes the same point as Mr. Weiner about the cost of the courses and wines. Mr. Zraly’s eight-week class costs $995, he says, “but you’re going to taste $4,000 worth of wine, plus you get an education and all of the information and you have a chance to talk with other people about it, even if you don’t like the teacher.”

In Seattle, Arnie Millan, a certified sommelier and wine consultant who now works in a wine shop, holds wine classes at the Warwick Seattle Hotel. It’s $39 per class or $250 for all seven classes in the introductory course. “I can’t stand that intimidation factor with wine, especially European wines like Bordeaux,” Mr. Millan told us. “Wine should be something that enriches our life, makes us enjoy things more, not something laden with social baggage.”

A history buff, his first class is “A Brief History of Wine from 7000 B.C. to the Present.” One coming class focuses on the wines of Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe, along with matching wine and food, serving wine and wine etiquette.

Solid Information

Keith Wallace told us he founded the Wine School of Philadelphia in 2001 because of what he called “a complete lack of solid information” about wine in his area. Mr. Wallace, a former consultant to wineries and a former partner in a wine distributorship, says, “People wanted information and there was nobody out there to give them unbiased information. All of the wine tastings up until recently were sponsored by industry people. Everybody had a certain interest.”

Classes range from $34.99 for a single evening of tastings to $425 for the Wine Basics Certification Program to more than $800 for the Advanced Wine Certificate Program Level 3, which is limited to 14 students. “One of the first things we do is show a Riesling with a screw-top cap and ask, ‘What do you think this is?’ ” Mr. Wallace says, describing the first basic class. “Everyone says, ‘Cheap and sweet.’ We like to dispel all of the myths in the first class.”

So, how do you find a wine class? It’s impossible for us to recommend any specific classes, but it’s clear that it’s a buyer’s market today if you’re willing to do some homework. One place to start is It’s chock full of classes, listed state by state. Look closely to separate one-night tastings from multi-class courses. There is much to learn at one-shot tastings, but you might learn more in a short time in a course that meets several times because the comfort factor increases each week. You should also call local wine stores; we have found that many offer courses themselves or know where to find them. In addition, contact local colleges, especially those with continuing-education programs. To get an idea of the kind of courses out there, for instance, look at the Web site of New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and search “wine” to see courses like “Born in Bubbles.”

Harriet Lembeck is one of the deans of wine education in America, a founding member of the Society of Wine Educators, director of The New School’s Wine & Spirits Program in New York City and president of Harriet Lembeck’s Wine & Spirits Program. Ms. Lembeck has more than 30 years of wine instruction under her belt. We asked her what advice she’d give to someone interested in taking a wine course. She offered three main suggestions:

1) Inquire about the teacher’s experience. Enthusiasm is not a good substitute for knowledge. “You want to have a teacher with a track record. It’s a marketplace decision. If you’re crummy, people won’t come. If you’re good, they keep coming.”

2) Ask about the different types of wines you’ll be exposed to, not the number of wines you’ll be tasting. “If all you want to taste is First Growths, you’re barking up the wrong tree. In my class, you’ll also taste $4 Vinho Verde” from Portugal, among many other types of wines at different price points. And,

3) Make sure you understand the make-up policy for classes missed. “People are busy. If you miss one of my classes, you can make it up the next semester, space permitting, or send someone in your place to pick up the information and notes.”

The most important piece of advice we could give is this: Do it. Don’t put this off. If you’re a beginner, you might be curious, but a little intimidated. If you’re already well on the road of your wine journey, you might think you don’t have much more to learn. In both cases, you should go ahead and take the leap. Really, when you think about it, can you imagine not having fun at a wine class?

You can reach us at [email protected]. Don’t forget that Saturday, Feb. 25, is Open That Bottle Night 7. Here’s our column explaining how to prepare for it.

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