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This post is the second in a multi-part series where Dude will give you a ‘wine insider’s’ take on how to seriously up your ‘wine geek’ knowledge (and hone your overall wine-tasting skills along with your “impress your party goers” wine profile).
Some of you may recall my recent post on the first step to wine geekdom – reading about wine. If you’re new to this blog, it might be a good idea to review that post first. This post will explore the second (and most important) thing you need to do in order to up your wine IQ – Taste.
To know wine, you need to taste wine. There are no shortcuts, and it’s pretty much impossible to overstate the importance of building up your tasting vocabulary and knowledge via the simple act of tasting a glass of wine. Don’t just take my word for it – to underscore the importance of this, I asked Eric Miller, owner and winemaker of one of the largest and most successful PA wineries (Chaddsford), for his views on how wannabe wine geeks can best increase their wine knowledge. His response: “The important thing is to taste like a banshee.“…
Eric also added – “Go to the myriad of shops that do tastings and begin to get vocabulary in tune with taste. If that is not available, throw a series of parties and have a hell of a range of wines for friends and you to taste.” Throwing a wine tasting party is probably the most fun way to gain wine knowledge and is easier than you’d think – it’s actually tough to find people who *aren’t* interested in learning more about wine. There are great free resources on the web that can guide you through this (Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste offers some primers on hosting tastings, but you gotta pay for it). If you don’t taste, you won’t know what you like, and you won’t know how to describe it if you do like it!
Be consciously in the moment. Dude is not trying to get too Zen on you here – just make sure you taste and not gulp. If you want to get to know wine, you need to spend a little time with it. You do NOT need to become a snob, put on airs, or hold a wine glass up to a special light bulb for 15 minutes pretending to examine its contents. You only need to give it a sniff and really concentrate on tasting what’s in front of you. How to Taste also offers amazingly good, practical advice on this.
Experience before judging. Keep an open mind – you won’t learn much about wine if you enter into a tasting with preconceived notions of what you will and won’t like. Wine will surprise you and it will open up new worlds of delight to you – you just have to let it! Wine reviews are great for starters, but your own experience should always be the final determinant in setting your wine views. Eric Miller offered this advice urging wine newbies to taste and gain their own experience: “Avoid tight-assed views stuck on old world rules and regs. I teach a twice annual class on what wines taste like, the words to describe them with an international selection under the primary headings of: light fresh fruity dry (white and red), light fresh fruity sweet (I only show a white), med to full body dry white, med to full body red usually a Cabernet, Pinot, Syrah or Shiraz, and a fortified sweet red like LBV Porto. My suggestion would be to get the terms down in an environment like that.“
Record what you taste. Admittedly this is usually a pain in the ass (try not looking like a geek when sipping a glass at a nice downtown bar and then whipping out your journal and scribbling notes furiously), but it’s essential for upping your Wine IQ. Find a nice journal and record your tasting experiences. Don’t worry if only you can understand them – the important thing is to build a vocabulary that helps you identify what you’re tasting in a way that works for you. Over time, you will go back to these notes, if only to dig up information on a bottle you had a few weeks back that you really enjoyed and can’t remember the name of (this is how wine geekdom begins!).
Don’t Be Shy. Good things come to those who ask. If you really want to get to know wine, it doesn’t hurt to be bold. Most of what I learned about enjoying wine, I learned while talking informally to winemakers – and none of them have been unapproachable. “Go as close to the source as you can,” offers Eric, “Wine lovers like me will talk eagerly to someone truly interested. (You get a dozen newbies together and i will speak).“
Thanks, Eric! Anyone out there in the Philly region willing to take him up on that?
This post is the first in a three-part series where Dude will give you a ‘wine insider’s’ take on how to seriously up your ‘wine geek’ knowledge (and hone your overall wine-tasting skills along with your “impress your party goers” wine profile).
When this Dude gives in-home wine tastings, probably the most frequently asked question is “How can I learn more about wine?” As Lao-tzu once said, “The Great Way is Easy” and he may have well been talking about obtaining wine knowledge, because Dude has been there and he can tell you that all it takes is three things:
- An open mind
- More Patience
I usually recommend a three-step program, which I will cover individually in three posts (counting this as #1, with the others to follow relatively shortly):
- Read (see below)
- Be Bold
Today’s post will tackle the reading bit, which I offer to you in Top 10 format. So without further ado, Dude presents:
The Top 10 Wine Books You Really Need
1. Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman
The book I wish I’d had as budding a wine novice. Mark Oldman provides what might be the best and most well-paced (not to mention most practical) wine introduction book on the market. As a beginner, you will not be disappointed.
2. Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy & Mary Ewing-Mulligan
THE starting point for your induction into the world of wine. I know the brother of one of the authors, both of whom really, really, really know their stuff.
3. How To Taste by Jancis Robinson
Great reading for the beginner who wants to learn more about how to enjoy wine, all done in an open and not-so-stuffy style. The important thing about this book is the emphasis on how to taste wine, which (as we will explore in Dude’s next post), is the single most important skill you can build to up your wine IQ.
4. The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil
A mighty tome of accessible wine knowledge, with excellent primers on the wine regions of the world for the beginner wine enthusiast, but also with tons of detail for the advancing wine geek as well. A fantastic achievement and a book that will prove to be a valuable resource for years to come (I still refer back to my tattered copy).
5. Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book
Updated every year, this book packs a ridiculous amount of handy wine information into an impossibly small amount of space. The abbreviations take some getting used to, but once you have them down you will wonder how you even wandered into a wine store without the handy reviews. It’s also a great reference to have in the kitchen when trying to match up wine styles with dinner.
6. The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson
A reference that is so handy, I destroyed the binding on my copy within weeks from overuse! I know both wine fans and wine industry pros that use this book, and it’s handy – and accessible enough – for both. Plus, Tom does not hold back his opinions on developments in the world’s wine regions and in the progress towards top quality from each area’s most important wines – not watered-down, and therefore entertaining as well as informative.
7. The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson
A beautiful coffee-table sized book for the budding wine geek, it’s an essential reference for those interested in increasing their detailed knowledge of where their favorites wines come from and why that plays such an important part in why those wines taste they way that they do.
8. The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson
This weighty tome is *the* wine reference book for the wine geek and wine professional. Not exactly easy to read in bed, but when you find yourself absolutely needing to know what terms like Recioto mean, you need this book. Also handy for finding interesting wine blog topics (and by the time you’re ready for this book, you will probably have your own wine blog…).
9. Wine Report (Annual) by Tom Stevenson
Another reference updated annually, this one is for the wine professional (or only the most serious of wine geeks). A great read for finding out what’s new and noteworthy in the world’s major wine regions and the industry in general.
Essential at Every Level
10. Your Very Own Wine Journal
You need your own wine journal to capture your reactions to wines that you taste, build an understanding of what you like (and dislike), and sharpen up your wine tasting vocabulary. The importance of this will get explored in my next post – but for now, just trust the Dude and get yourself a wine journal! (dude recommends the Little Black Wine Book).
The bad news – The whole kit & kaboodle will set you back about $150 – $175. So buy ’em in stages (don’t worry, none of these are likely to go out of print anytime too soon).
The very good news is that the general state of wine writing – much like the general state of wine itself – has never been better, so you will get your moolah’s worth. Long-time, prolific, and talented writers like Jancis Robinson, as well as a multitude of fine bloggers, are contributing accessible and well-written wine knowledge. Come on in – the water is fine!
Whenever someone asks me what I’ve been up to in my “wine life,” and I tell them that I’ve recently sat an exam of some sort, I invariably get asked the same question:
“So… uhm.. what does that do
for you exactly? Are you, like, a sommelier now?”
Now, it wasn’t all that long ago that I knew nothing about wine, or the various credential-chasing that would effectively allow me to take something I would come to love (drinking and sharing wine) and piss all over it by making it difficult and shoring up my free time with studying weighty tomes of wine knowledge. So I understand why people ask me that. The answer is even more complicated and usually boils down to this:
“Well… sort of…”
So, I thought that I’d try to take a few minutes to explain the wacky world of wine education in layman’s terms – a quick reference that I’d wished that I’d had when I was starting to “take this wine thing more seriously.”
Fortunately for me, the fabulous folks at i-WineReview.com have already done this for me, and they have a great page on their site that lays it all out in some detail. So, can you go to this page and have it all figured out?
Well… sort of…
In the world of wine, there are (more-or-less) 3 main educational/certification paths that you can take which are internationally recognized:
- Masters of Wine – This is the granddaddy qualification for wine peeps, and exists to recognize the best of the best in the art, science, and business of wine. Which means that theoretically anyone can achieve it, but in reality it’s insanely tough and there are fewer than 25 members from the U.S. Achieving the MW credential is a bit like a PhD on steriods.
The MW recommends, as a prerequisite for entry, the Level 4 Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is a bit like the Masters degree of the wine world, with 4 levels of certification covering a one-day foundation certification in wine / spirits concepts, all the way through a multi-year Diploma program. Each step gets significantly more difficult in the academic portion (multiple-guess and essay exams) and adds more difficult wine identification tastings. This is where I started (I’ve got Level 2 and Level 3 certifications, Level 3 being the first one to test you on tasting identification). WSET classes and exams can only be offered by affiliated organizations (e.g., PhillyWine.com in Philadelphia).
This path (WSET through MW) focuses on the entire world of wine & spirits, how they are made, with emphasis on tasting profiles typical for these beverages in the regions where they are made.
- The Court of Master Sommeliers – This is the granddaddy qualification of wine service. It focuses on the best-of-the-best in wine service and industry matters, and those that sit the final diploma exam also must pass a brutal (and fairly rapid) tasting. I know someone who is sitting this tasting by invitation, and she has been studying her a__ off for a month, mostly through ‘blind’ tastings (you identify the wine – type, age, and region – by tasting, without knowing anything about it until it’s poured into your glass).
- Society of Wine Educators – This group exists to promote standards of qualification in the education of wine. Their focus is on deep understanding of wine taste, identifying wine faults, and having detailed knowledge of the geography, science, and history of wine. Members (of which I am one) and non-members can sit two levels of exams to achieve qualifications that are meant to prove that you know what you’re talking about when you speak or teach on the subject of wine:
Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) – This exam is a bit like the Boards of wine: 100 questions (a bit more difficult than those of the WSET Advanced exam), 1 hour, 75% needed to pass.
Certified Wine Educator (CWE) – More difficult exam, plus two tastings to identify similar wines from different world regions and wine faults, respectively. I have met people that have failed these tastings multiple times – it’s brutal.
After that, come various certification and education programs around the globe that are local, and are NOT internationally recognized. These can be fun, local, and usually require no wine knowledge to get started. They’re a great way to learn more about wine. There are probably about a billion of these such programs, give or take several million. As an example, I’ve heard good things about the Wine Spectator School, which offers classes on-line. A quick search on the Internet will turn up all kinds of these, or varying difficulty and interest. Are these local things any good?
Well… sort of…
If you want to learn a bit more about wine, by all means seek out a local program near you and have fun. If that program asks for lots of your hard-earned dollars (I’m talking $1000s here) to give you what they tell you is a “professional” certification that rivals the three I have outlined above, then ***walk away as fast as you can***. And keep your hand firmly on your wallet and/or purse while you exit.