Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I Only Come Here Seeking (Wine) Knowledge – So Now What Do I Do?

Feed Me!
I know I am stating the obvious when I say I find the world of wine to be incredibly interesting, dynamic, complex, and a rewarding use of time to learn about and to share my knowledge with the readers of this blog.  I wouldn't be writing 100s of blog posts about something that I didn't find fascinating enough to study and to want to share knowledge with others who may share my passion.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with just popping a cork (or twisting a cap, or opening a box) of wine, and sitting back to enjoy.  But if you are like me and are intrigued with the history of wine, intrigued with how a wine can smell like gasoline but taste like apples (some Rieslings) or can smell like raw bacon but taste like blackberries and spices (some Syrahs), and maybe even intrigued by the process that brings you this wonder in a glass…then you may need some hints on how to expand your wine knowledge. 
Where Ya Headed? - Set Some Goals
My first recommendation is for you to define where you want to go… or as a self-help book may say “begin with the end in mind.”   Take a minute to figure out your goals in becoming more educated about wine. Some of the many possibilities are:
  • Know enough to make good choices when buying wine.  You can rely on what you like now, or you can rely on your local wine shop to make suggestions, but with a little additional knowledge you can take your fate into your own hands when selecting wines.
  • Know more about how to pair wine with food.  Do you like to cook or do you perhaps cohabitate with someone who does?  Great food paired with great wine is something that can elevate both and turn your meals into a whole new experience (OK, maybe not breakfast – but Rioja with scrambled eggs and chorizo is pretty darn good!).
  • Gain some general knowledge on a breadth of topics. It may be to woo your friends or just converse knowingly with the winos in your life, but knowing a little about a lot of things (grape varieties, wine regions, winemaking, food and wine pairing) can be very rewarding.
  • Geek out.  If you’ve read the other options, and thought “sounds good…but I want MORE”, then you may be ready to begin your journey to becoming a wine geek.  It takes some time and devotion, but things that are worthwhile always do.

Not That Kind of Goal!
Whatever your personal goals are, I have some suggestions for gaining more knowledge.  The amount you want to geek out (or not geek out) will drive how much time you devote to increasing your knowledge. 
If You Read It, They (Brain Cells Full of Wine Knowledge) Will Come
Magazines.  There are quite a few choices out there, and they will all contribute to your wine knowledgebase.   You will just need to try an issue or two of a particular one to see what you like. For me, my favorite magazine is Wine & Spirits. Wine & Spirits is not the biggest one out there, but I like the variety of topics, the fact they focus on a bit on spirits as well, and that they have a listing of wine events throughout the US.  The wine snob level is pretty low, which I like as well. My other favorite, coming in a close second is Wine Spectator.  
The wine snob level of Wine Spectator can at times be off the charts, but if you look past that you will find a lot of information on a lot of topics. I also trust their wine ratings more than most other magazines.  Some other magazines seem to rate a LOT of wines as 90+ points, and I am suspicious that they know this gets them a lot of little cards on wines and on wine shelves saying “Wine Blah Blah Blah Magazine Rates this Wine 92 points.”  In the world of wine these days it seems like a 90 point rating is magic… you must buy it, and you must love it, while anyone who bottles an 89 point wine might as well give up and start making grappa.
Books. A quick search on Amazon for wine books will net you 104,978 hits to sift through.  There are certainly enough choices, but how do you pick out a book that fits your needs?  I have polished off a few wine books in my time, so will share some of my favorites, but in your search do what I do… read those reviews.  Throw out the ones that are way too positive (the authors mom, aunt, who knows who else) or too negative, but read through enough to get a sense of what type of information other readers found, and how successfully it was delivered.

Wine for Dummies.  This set of books is where I first started. It seemed a little generic to go to a Dummies book, but the Dummies people selected some very good authors, and these books had a ton of overview information that provide a great base of knowledge.  Reading books like this early in your wine education (wine-ucation?), may help you figure out what areas you are most interesting in for further study.  I have read Wine for Dummies, Red Wine for Dummies, White Wine for Dummies, Champagne & Sparkling Wine for Dummies, Italian Wine for Dummies, and French Wine for Dummies. Some of these may be out of print… so head on over to eBay and you might find them at a bargain price. Start with Wine for Dummies and see if you like it before shelling out any cash for the others.
Red Wine with Fish. This one is an oldy but a goody. You may (gasp) have to actually find this one as a real live, old school book – book, and not an ebook.  This book is out of print, so eBay is a good bet to find a copy.  Right after the Wine For Dummies series, this was the next book I read.  It was very memorable to me, because as the title implies, it is as much about breaking the rules in the wine world  (red wine with fish), as anything.  The book effectively defines many of the “unbreakable” rules that you will hear about when it comes to wine, and will explain why the rule exists, and why (and if) the rule should occasionally be broken.
Perfect Pairings and Daring Pairings.  Writing about food and wine pairing can be a difficult undertaking. If you are going to provide more depth than just “do this” and “don’t do this” lists, you need to be able to successfully present a lot of information about the elements of wine, and the elements of food and how they interact. Perfect Pairings is a book that I read many years ago, and still refer back to it often.  It provides great information on pairing food with the better known types of wine. Daring Pairing is a follow up book, that delves a bit deeper, covering some lesser known wines and more “daring” combinations.  Daring Pairings is one of the many books I am currently reading, and have not been disappointed. 
Websites.  Read wino4life.com…next topic please!  But seriously though folks, my biggest goal with this blog is to provide understandable and relatable information about wine to a world of winos and wannabe winos, so come back often!  A few other websites do seek to provide wine information as well, so I will respectfully include them as potential (but secondary!) sources of information.
  • Wine Folly. A definite "wow" site - great articles, great original wine prints, maps, graphics. 
  • Vinography. One of the very first wine bloggers, Alder Yarrow has been writing about wine since 2004. You know you are doing it right when you become a regular contributor to the website of wine heavyweight Jancis Robinson.
  • Dr. Vino. The tagline says it all..."Wine Talk that Goes Down Easy."
Live (to Taste) and Learn
If the bookworm route just isn’t for you, or you want a break from reading your tenth wine book, wine tastings are a fun (hopefully) and educational (again, hopefully) way to learn about wine.  You do need to choose carefully, as a wine store pouring a few wines from its stock may be a sales opportunity for them, but not much of a learning opportunity for you.  You may not know until you try, and you may find a particularly knowledge wine shop owner. You may not know until you try some different tasting opportunities and even if one turns out not to be super-educational, at least there will be wine!
Your best bet is to look for tastings with a visiting winemaker, or perhaps from a distributor that may have a good deal of knowledge about wines.  This was the case with me; our local wine shop had several excellent distributors that would present the wines for tasting each week.  If you happen to find the right wine shop, like I did when I first became a wino, you may become a regular and it may be an excellent way to expand your wine knowledge! 
Check out a website like localwineevents.com to find a listing of tasting opportunities in your area!
Learning on Vacation Can be Fun!
What??? I’m not talking about booking a week at a Physics retreat; I’m talking about a vacation to wine country!  If it is education that you seek, you will want to look to visit wineries that offer more than just a standard tasting.  Avoid those high traffic “night clubs” type spots where people stand around waiting for a spot to open up at the tasting bar… instead look for smaller wineries that offer tours and require appointments.  At those wineries you are much more likely to have a host that is highly knowledgeable and that can help further your wine education.  In the high volume wineries, I have been served by perfectly friendly staff that did a great job of pouring and telling you me basics about the wines – but if you try to delve deeper into the topic you will get a blank stare, or even worse a made up answer that may be far from accurate!  Also, look for wineries that specialize in different types of wines…sparkling wine made in the classis Champagne method, white wine, red wines, fortified wines.   A visit to each type of winery will give you some specialized information about what it takes to grow the grapes, and make and age the wine.
Don’t forget your wine education if you are travelling internationally.  From my experience in Spain and Italy, visiting a winery in another country is a much different experience.  A winery tour in Spain is typically at least 2 hours and will be a bit of history of the winery and the wine region, an in-depth tour of the winery, and perhaps other cool features like their own barrel making (in the case of one of our favorite wineries in Spain – Muga).  Depending on where you go, you may or may not be able to visit any wineries, but there will probably be an opportunity not that far away if you search them out!
Also, keep in mind major wine events like the Wine Spectator Grand Tour that can turn into a mini wine vacation. The Grand Tour is help for one night in usually three different cities – this year in Las Vegas, Washington D.C., and New York.  On a site like localwineevents.com, you can look for events all over the US.
Pay to Play
If you have decided you are in full wine geek-out mode, or have exhausted other avenues for information, it may be time to consider taking a formal wine course.   There are options that you can complete in a (very intensive) weekend, or others that take months to complete.  If you search hard enough you should be able to find something that meets your needs.  Many classes like this are designed for professionals in the food and beverage industry, but they are just as appropriate (and welcoming) to wine enthusiast like us!
The wine education organizations I am most familiar with are the following:
International Sommelier Guild (ISG).  I have earned a Level 2 Sommelier certification from ISG.  With this certification I am able to move on to their Sommelier certification program even though I don’ t have experience in the food & wine industry (I’m not sure if two years at Godfather’s Pizza in college would count… I think they had wine???).  These courses were offered at the Art Institute of Phoenix, and every Sunday for about 4 months I spent the day learning about and tasting wine.  The course was divided into two parts – the first few weeks were a Level 1 introduction, which concluded with a multiple choice test and an extra credit blind tasting of one wine.  At the end of the Level 2 portion there was a three part test: multiple choice, essay, and blind tasting of four wines.  This effort was an investment in time for sure, but a great one for me and I have since been trying to continue my education with ISG’s Sommelier certification, but year after year they do not have enough students sign up so the class gets cancelled. 
International Wine Guild (IWG). When I decided to pursue wine as a second career, I wanted to brush up on what I had learned from my International Sommelier Guild studies. I found that a nearby Total Wine & More had teamed up with the IWG to offer an intensive weekend wine course where you could become a Certified Cellar Manager (the title for those not working in the food & beverage industry).   I was scheduled for the class, but was not able to attend, and my attempts to reschedule weren’t successful (more cancellations from not enough students).  I cannot tell you any detail about this course, but an option that only takes up a single weekend may be a good one for many of you – so check it out!
Society of Wine Educators (SWE).   After too many iterations of signing up for classes only to have them cancelled, I decided to go with the self-study route and am currently a member of the Society of Wine Educators.  I have started to study for their Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), and am also interested in their Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS), but have not had enough recent free time to study at the level needed to pass these tests.  There are courses where if you pay the toll, you will end up with some type of certification at the end. These classes are not like that – and there is a pretty sizeable failure rate with these tests. So if you are going to invest the money to buy the study materials and pay to take the test… make sure you are able to devote the time it will take to study, study, study!
There are some other options I have heard of, but have no personal experience with:
Local Culinary Schools.  If you happen to be in a city with one or many good culinary schools, there may be a wine education program offered outside of their culinary degrees.
Court of Master Sommeliers.  These guys are host to what some consider the world’s toughest test – the Master Sommelier Diploma exam.  Don’t believe it’s tough – watch the movie Somm and see if that changes your mind.  They offer four tiers of courses, but they are really geared toward building up to the Master Sommelier certification rather than providing overall education.  But take a look – what they offer may appeal to what you want in a wine education.
Certified Wine Expert. Funny story…really!  A guy I used to work for in my Information Technology career gave me the contact information of an acquaintance that had started a wine business, and who had also published a book on wine.  One of the things I was trying to decide at the time was the next certification I wanted to pursue.  I was fairly familiar with most of the options, but had only just heard of the Certified Wine Expert (CWX) certification. I was about to send an email message to ask this contact about the CWX, when I read that she was in fact the person who developed the CWX!  I assumed her response would be positive about CWX, so I didn’t bother sending the email! OK, it was funny to me! Anyway, one of the newer options out there – worth looking into for sure.
If you do choose to pursue some type of formal class, they can be pricey – so make sure you can devote the time needed to get the most for your money. If you do, the experience can be extremely rewarding (and you will get a cool certificate to hang on your wall, and maybe an acronym for your business cards!).
Screw Misery… Wine Loves Company!
Do you have family or friends that are winos or have potential to grow into one a good wino? Gather with your loved (or liked) ones to share your love of wine, and maybe some knowledge as well.  Host a wine tasting gathering – have your guests bring some wine and be ready to discuss the wine, why they brought it, and what they know about it.  
Gather up and visit a wine bar or a wine tasting to make your learning communal… it takes a village to become a great wino!
Just Do It
Whatever your goals, and whatever you path you take to accomplish them, if you have any interest in learning about wine – just set aside some time in your busy schedule to expand your knowledge.  Who knows, there may be a future wine maker, wine shop owner, or wine blogger inside you just waiting to get out!

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