I drank wine for 20 years without thinking much about it. Still do, in fact (but shhh, I’m not supposed to).
Drinking, you see, consists of sipping (or gulping) an alcoholic beverage, swallowing and repeating. It’s fun and I still drink more wine (plus beer and strong stuff) than “taste” it. Tasting conjures nervous and potentially snobby images. Indeed most people aren’t natural smellers or tasters and upon attending the infrequent “tasting” are (secretly) there to… drink!
Unlike most wine industry pros–even those like me who arrived later from a humdrum corporate career–I wasn’t instantly enamored by wine’s innumerable nuances, wafted whispers, heathered honeysuckle, scaly stratified schists (a soil type, for you non-geologists) and so on.
For me, it came with difficulty over time.
But wine drinking represented an interesting gateway to eating, traveling and experiencing new cultures so I doggedly experimented over years with learning methods. Now I know: it’s not complicated, though plenty of wine pros sure make it that way.
So for you, let’s make it much easier with practical pros & cons of common beginner learning methods and wine courses options:
Option 1. Do It Yourself, or b(u)y the book
DIY is quick easy entry, dipping your proverbial toe without bothering anybody. Wine books exist for different purposes, many as coffee table showpieces or weighty gifts which actually dampen rather than spark any flame. Top honors here extend to encyclopedic tomes like the 800+ page, size-6-font Oxford Companion to Wine organized like and riveting as a dictionary. Looks imposing on the shelf though.
Immeasurably more practical among reference books is The World Atlas of Wine with wonderful maps for traveling through any major (or minor) world wine region. Beautiful vineyard views guaranteed but still not super helpful for beginners to decode what’s in the glass.
For that, I chose Essential Winetasting: structured, practical yet creative; years later I still teach bits from it. Blogs are modern (and free!) but their unstructured nature doesn’t always support stepwise instruction… so the best bloggers monetize with books! See Wine Folly: The Essential Guide To Wine with easygoing tone and charming illustrations.
DIY’s main drawback is the hidden cost of practicing alone. You pay full bottle price to taste 1/15 of it and the best learning comes from comparing several bottles open at once. That’s eventually lots of bottles. And without 100% certainty that you’re experiencing things correctly. For that you need face-to-face guidance from an experienced human.
Option 2. Winery Tours / Wine Shop Tastings: Piece it together
Even before DIY, the first gleam of interest often springs from a well-run, beginner-friendly winery tasting tour or focused wine shop tasting (that is, not randomly-opened “here try this” bottles to buy). Indeed once someone (or a book) clearly explains wine basics, you can piece together the “bigger picture” from any or all future organized tastings.
Building that picture somewhat haphazardly typically requires some years, though many wine fans become quite proficient and find that knowledge likewise quite sufficient. Gaps always remain, however, and those looking to continue teaching themselves gain much–more than true beginners actually–from a structured course.
Option 3. Academic Acronym Wine Courses: Let’s get (very) serious
The majority wine course approach is simple: study wine like a school subject. The bread-and-butter clientele are young hospitality hires starting in restaurants and hotels. Bare basics require 4-5 class sessions; deeper immersion equates to a university class semester of work. Beyond that demands big investment, 2+ years of intense study, an equivalent master’s degree or Ph.D. in wine.
The academic approach “gorilla” is London’s Wine & Spirits Education Trust (sounds sexy, yes?) or WSET Levels 1, 2, 3, 4, a solid if uninspiring program which churns out certifications factory-style. Don’t believe me? This Certified Sommelier feels similarly.
America’s Society of Wine Educators (SWE) offers a roughly analogous track; I’m certified by WSET and SWE. Or become a celebrity by pursuing a Master of Wine (MW)–only 369 in the world–or petitioning the secretive Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) to become an MS as popularized in the nutso 2012 documentary Somm:
Sounds fun? Depends. These programs provide ample training for new wine fans to out-snobbify (and thus annoy) friends and colleagues, admittedly fun for many. But thus armed you’ll need to nurture an independent desire to further explore food, travel and lifestyle aspects because the academic approach lacks soul. It’s alcohol, people. You remember, stuff for parties..?
Option 4. Lifestyle Classes or Workshops: Learn to drink like Italians eat
Residents of the 3 giant wine producing countries–Italy, France & Spain–find effortless daily joy in dining with the wines which academic programs monotonously analyze. They know enough about wine without overthinking it.
Over time I became an unabashedly fervent promoter of their lifestyle approach.
Thus for wine beginners and piece-it-togetherers, I recommend tracking down a local advocate of “wine-with-your-lifestyle”. Research/shop around for a proprietor-run, beginner-friendly wine course or workshops (i.e., single-evening classes on select topics). With emphasis on friendly. Not just the teacher’s personality but also curriculum style.
Yes, disappointment lurks. Many wine pros regurgitate WSET style studies; my wife and I once attended an “Intro To French Wine” workshop with 75-minute lecture on the ancient geological history of France with detailed soil map. “Intro” indeed. When the wine glasses finally appeared they happily contained liquid and not limestone.
Avoid that when possible by online researching would-be providers’ vibe and content prioritization. Look for clues in:
- Branding. Academic, scholarly or traditional vs. modern, casual or whimsical
- Imagery. Pics of individuals seriously smelling wine (dead giveaway for an academic approach) vs. groups toasting, laughing or eating? Sterile classrooms vs. rustic dining gatherings? Stainless steel cellars vs. travel landscapes?
- Business type. Schools and academies are, well, academic. Wine shops may lean academic or casual, see tips below. Restaurants, event and catering companies typically prioritize lifestyle (food).
- Teachers & certifications. Any experienced wine pro is qualified to teach beginning- and even middle-level wine classes. Online emphasis on teachers’ official certifications usually indicates more academic approach; winemakers in contrast often make excellent practical teachers. Anyone offering WSET certification uses the same standard academic method with little wiggle room.
- Themes. Examine past and coming workshop themes. Classic “sophisticated” wine regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne (FR), Piedmont or (often) Tuscany (IT) tend more serious; “intros” here can be surprisingly complex. Whereas Spain, Portugal, southern France & Italy, South Africa or South America, for instance, represent casual yet good quality regions.
- Food. Does wine always star alone or does food share the limelight? Any food themes supported by wine, instead of always vice versa? For example, autumn wine classes from someone who just hosted a summer BBQ Bash party are likely more lifestyle-oriented. “Wine & Dines” are a dinner workshop which derive their personality from the venue, restaurant or otherwise; judge accordingly.
Option 4 requires some trial & error but–I firmly believe after trying it all myself for 20 years–ultimately pays off handsomely.