Getting Schooled in Wine

(This article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates on September 20, 2012.)

Some people are perfectly content to sip, swirl and enjoy, but a growing number of wine lovers are looking for something more. They’re eager to learn the ways of the vine and the whys of terroir. Why does pinot noir taste the way it does? And what on earth is a winemaker doing with a refractometer?

The result: Wine education programs are blossoming across the Bay Area as universities, culinary schools and wineries respond to the demand from would-be sommeliers, devoted oenophiles and wine lovers eager to learn more.

“We’re finding here in the Silicon Valley, in particular, a tremendous amount of pent-up interest,” says Bruce McCann, president of the West Coast campus of the International Culinary Center.

Initially, the Campbell campus offered rigorous, 10-week professional-level training programs that are certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

“What we were finding is that half the people in that program had no interest in a career in wine. They were there simply because they wanted to understand wine better,” McCann says. “That led us to start thinking: A lot of people don’t have 10 weeks.”

Now, the school offers what McCann calls “serious amateur” classes, taught by master sommeliers and guest winemakers as a series of seven sessions.

“It’s an investment in something you’re going to enjoy the rest of your life,” he says.

For those who are just dipping a toe in the waters, so to speak, the school also hosts single-night events, such as wine-pairing seminars that include a presentation by a winemaker and a master sommelier, followed by a wine-pairing dinner. His staff also has begun helping groups of wine lovers launch their own wine clubs. The Google wine club, for example, has more than 1,000 members.

In Santa Cruz, Surf City Wine University takes a more casual approach. This collective of 13 boutique wineries offers classes that dive into topics such as varietals, blending or wine-and-food pairing. The inexpensive Sunday afternoon sessions are taught by winemakers, who are generous with both information and wine.

Silver Mountain winemaker Jerold O’Brien laughs when he says, “None of these classes makes money.” He routinely pulls out old French Burgundies and California rarities for his pinot noir sessions.

However, O’Brien has internalized a key lesson of wine education that is echoed by others, including Lawrence Lohr, who runs the wine education program at J. Lohr Vineyards in San Jose.

“It’s important to get some wine into people’s mouths within the first 15 or 20 minutes of the class,” he says. “Otherwise, you’re just listening to some guy talk to you for an hour and a half.”

Lohr’s sessions, dubbed Wine 101 and Wine 102, dig into specific varietals. He also teaches an enlightening blending seminar, but he never forgets his goal: “Reaching out to people to create a safe haven, so they don’t feel intimidated by wine.”

Lohr has seen the same trend in his program as Paul Bullard did in the wine classes he taught for UC Berkeley’s extension program: Repeats are rampant, and that’s a good thing. Bullard, who heads a wine distribution firm, has seen students repeat his sessions on major wine regions multiple times.

“My model was not to speak to the lowest common denominator but to raise the bar a little bit,” he says.

The upshot was energized participants with greater confidence about wine.

“A lot of the students who took the class would start buying books, they’d start to travel, they would go to the wine country,” Bullard says. “It was hysterical. I used to get postcards from students with their arms around vintners in Burgundy.”

See following posts: Where to find wine education programs and building your own tasting group.


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