How I embarked on a journey of intense professional level wine education for no good reason and how you can too.
My History of Wine
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with wine for many years now. I don’t really remember the first glass of wine I ever had. I do, however, remember the first bottle of wine I really liked.
It was Lancers sparkling rosé. It was a pretty cheap wine sold in these weird ceramic jugs. It was a little sweet and my wife and I drank it together when we were still dating, close to 15 years ago. I also remember this wine because it’s the first time someone criticized my taste in wine. I asked a certain lovely person who happened to know a good amount about wine if they liked it too and while they were as nice as they could be about it, it was obvious that this was considered a pretty poor wine in general.
At our wedding, Jessica and I served Charles Shaw wines, the infamous “two buck chuck”. We had a beautiful selection of either “Red” or “White” that our guests could choose from. This being free booze at a party, there was certainly nobody complaining, but looking back on it I’m sure there were a few people there who looked down at the selection at least a tad. Like the Lancers, I still hold a warm place in my heart for the Chuck because it’s associated closely to the early years of Jess and I.
Several years later, my wife and I had some friends of ours over and we drank a lot of Charles Shaw red wine which made me pretty sick the next day. It led me to have a very difficult time drinking any red wine for several years. While I eventually got to where I could enjoy white, for a long time I could barely smell red wine without feeling a little sick.
Over the last few years I built up my taste for red wine again while still mostly enjoying whites, but like most people I didn’t really know what I was drinking.
Jess and I would choose something at Trader Joe’s at random or based on how pretty the label looked, drink it and generally enjoy it. Rarely was a bottle over $6 or so, rarely did I even memorize what grape varietal I was consuming.
This was the state and status of wine in my life until just a few years ago. In fact, until I was over 30 years old, I had almost no significant experience or real knowledge of wines or spirits of any kind.
Over the last few years however, I have had occasion to go to dinners where I would sometimes be exposed to very high quality wines. On business related dinners, the very kind sommeliers at Alexander’s or Twenty Five Lusk would bring us some pretty amazing wines from time to time and while I still wasn’t really learning anything about them, I was starting to be able to tell the difference to some degree.
At one point I went to dinner with a friend who really loved wine. We went to RN74, which is a really high end French wine place with some amazing bottles in stock. He ordered two glasses for each of us and we did a blind tasting of a 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux from the same producer, asking which I thought was better. Today I would probably find that exercise really interesting, but at the time, as most people would, I found it insanely pointless. As nearly anyone else would have, I tasted “red” next to “possibly a little more red”. Not only did it make me feel kind of dumb, it was a pretty big waste of what I’m sure was extremely expensive wine.
Then about a year ago my family and I moved from San Francisco to Paris, France.
Wine in Paris
When you first move to a place like Paris, you kind of want to go native a little. Part of it is just to feel less isolated, perhaps a little more accepted and normal in a foreign world. Part of it is just because it’s fun.
One of the first things I did was buy wine. If I was going to have a French apartment, I wanted there to always be at least a few bottles of French wine around. I wanted to sit in my little garden every evening and sip wine and eat bread. I bought a bunch of wine, constantly, from the local grocery stores and eventually the nice little independent wine shop that opened up down the street. Some of them even had names I sort of recognized, like “Bordeaux” and “Riesling” and “Gewurztraminer”. I went through them all over the months, starting to recognize the bottles I liked though still knowing little about any of it. Still thinking that Bordeaux was a type of grape.
I was, however, pretty good at food. Not really a full-fledged foodie, but sort of a foodie-light. I love good food, and I loved all the great French restaurants around us, with the hand-written chalkboard menus in French for Jess and I to try to decipher. The problem is that they all have French wine menus and I didn’t really know anything about that. I learned the words “Sancerre” (a Sauvignon Blanc) and “Chablis” (an unoaked Chardonnay) at some point and just started ordering one of those all the time.
Then, about a year ago (Jan 2015), my stepmom and sister came to visit us.
It turns out that one of my favorite things to do in the world is to be a host and tour guide. I like entertaining and I like teaching and I love introducing people to new things. We had tons of people visit us while we lived in Paris and I had gotten better and better at leading people around and recommending places to eat at and things to do.
For my family’s visit, I thought it would be fun to do a wine tasting or two. We were going to be visiting Italy as well, so I figured perhaps we could learn something about both French and Italian wines.
I saw ads for a place called O Chateau in the 1st Arrondissement (sort of near the Louvre) on a food blog I used all the time called Paris by Mouth and I figured I would sign us all up for the Tour de France wine tasting. My family and I were planning on visiting Italy next, so I went on Viator and found another wine tasting in Florence we could do while we were there. The stage was set.
The first night was at O Chateau for their Tour de France tasting.
This course served you six French wines — a champagne, two whites and three reds.
It was an amazing experience. The teacher was very charming and funny, the group we were with was having a good time and we learned a good amount about wine. Most importantly, we really enjoyed ourselves.
They had a map up of France and for each wine they pointed out the region that wine originated from and talked a little about the area. They also gave us a pretty nice little rundown on the appellation system used in France and the basics of how to read a French wine label.
Jessica ended up getting sick that morning and our babysitter canceled, so I ended up taking Josie (our 5 year old) with me to a 2 hour wine tasting. They gave her apple juice and she listened intently to the teacher for a while and then drew quietly the rest of the time. I like to think she learned a lot about French wine though.
A few days later we travelled to Italy where we had a second wine tasting experience at Piazza del Vino in Florence.
With this one, they fed you real meals with each wine. Not only was the wine amazing, but the food was ridiculous.
The server showed us each bottle and talked a little about the region it came from, how Italian wines work, the DOC system and a bit about each specific bottle of wine.
Again, my daughter Josie was there and put her stamp of approval on the Italian meal. I like to think she listened to the wine expert a bit and furthered her now significant level of wine expertise.
Once again, I would highly recommend having a meal or wine tasting at Piazza del Vino if you’re in Florence at any point. Nearly all of the wine they have in stock is Italian, the building is charming and everything we had was very good. Just don’t walk there, it gets a bit sketchy — take a cab.
WSET Level II, Paris
At this point, I was really interested in knowing more. All of the little facts and hidden things I had learned in these two back to back sessions were fascinating to me and I was already using the information constantly. Every time I went to a restaurant I would look at the wine list and understand what was going on just a little bit more.
So I looked on the O Chateau website and saw that not only did they offer fun consumer classes like the wine and cheese thing, but they also offered professional development courses as a WSET provider. The WSET stands for Wine and Spirits Educational Trust and they give certification classes in wine for industry professionals and the occasional hobbyist. I figured it might be interesting to really dive in and learn about wine from a professional standpoint.
So I signed up for the class. There were two classes, the Level I and the Level II. Neither required any previous wine experience, so I signed up for the Level II. Go big or go home.
It was €650 for a three day course, 8 hours a day tasting in total 48 wines and spirits. I went and picked up a textbook and workbook and was instructed to read through the entire book before showing up in class.
Now, this was way different than wine tastings I had done before. In every tasting I’ve done in the past I simply drank every wine. This meant that not only did I rarely remember what wines I had tried, but it also meant that it was difficult to tell one from the other after a while.
In a WSET (or any other professional) class, you don’t drink any of the wine. You put it in your mouth for a bit and spit it out into a little bucket. It is exactly as gross as it sounds. At the end of the day you have this big bucket full of spit and wine you have to empty out.
We went through a little over 20 wines a day, meaning that you are constantly directly comparing similar wines. This makes it way easier to actually get better at telling the difference between styles. You can taste one and then immediately taste another and try to work out how to tell the difference in the future. You can go over all of them with a professional who can tell you what you should be tasting so you can think about it and look for it.
Actually, the tasting part is the least significant part of this particular course — you’re not actually tested on it at the level II. Most of the course is about memorizing the different wine regions, which grapes are grown where, what types of climates they grow in, how the wine is physically and chemically made, etc.
At the end of the course you take a 1 hour multiple choice test and get your results back in a few weeks. In my case, I passed “with Merit”, which means I got above 70% correct. If you get “with Distinction” it means you got over 85% right. Sadly I got an 84% — one more correct answer would have given me the prestige I did not even know existed a few weeks earlier.
WSET Level III, London
Well of course, as with any good obsession, I took this success as a reason to continue spending my time and money on something that was now sure to have rapidly diminishing returns. Thus, whilst drinking rather heavily one night, I impulsively signed up for the WSET Level III course.
Now, the thing is that the Level III is much rarer and as far as I could tell was not conducted in English in Paris. In fact, I couldn’t find a course held in Paris at all. They also rarely conduct the course all in one go, like they did with the Level II. Even the Level II isn’t often done in three straight days like I did, it was called a “condensed” course — more of a review than a class. The Level III is way harder and so is generally done as a 3 month or 6 month course where you take classes every weekend.
However, I found a condensed version of the Level III offered by West London Wine School, held in London. It would be 5 straight days of instruction, again with a test at the end, though this time there is a blind tasting component to the test.
So in May, after a few months of self study, my family and I flew to Edinburgh (as my wife has never been there) for Mother’s Day, then took the train down to London for a totally professionally useless and very expensive class for me.
This class was £645.00, which is something like $1000, for 5 days of instruction including about 50 wine tastings. This is basically the same material as the WSET II, but just in way, way more detail in every possible section.
You need to know soil types in specific cities, individual towns and regions in multiple continents, dozens of grape types and where they’re grown, different grafting and vine training techniques, wine grading, rainfall and elevation levels in different countries, just tons of incredible minutiae. You get a dense 250 page textbook and you can be asked questions on literally any small detail in any sentence of the book.
Here are some example questions from the test at the end. “Which of the following grape varieties is predominantly grown in Canon-Fronsac?”, “Within the context of Bordeaux, what is unique about the classification system in St-Emilion?”, “Which wine fault is identifiable by a distinct aroma of vinegar or nail polish remover?”, “Which region in New Zealand has an established reputation for premium Pinot Noir?”.
There are also a number of long form questions — one of mine ended up being having to list and describe in detail the various forms of sparkling wine production.
Finally, there is a blind tasting component. You’re given two wines, a red and a white, and you have to list off the various aromas and levels for each (sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, body, intensity, flavors, finish, color, clarity, quality, price, etc). Most are on a 5 point scale (low, medium minus, medium, medium plus, high).
To practice for this, we did comparative tastings of over 50 wines over the 5 day course.
Each time we had to write down what we thought each of these levels were (acidity, alcohol, tannins, etc) and compare ourselves to what the teacher got.
Here is an example of my tasting notes pages. You can see the smiley or frowny faces in the margins and the marks next to which of the attributes I didn’t get correctly. On these pages, I did pretty well on 3 out of the 4, but that certainly wasn’t always the case. As an example, you can see in the top left I blind tasted a Napa Cabernet with relatively high levels of acid, alcohol, flavor intensity and finish, but I guessed a little too low on body and tannin levels. I also guessed that the bottle cost £15 when it was actually £65 (when you take the course in London, you have to guess bottle prices in the local currency). In the top right I got almost everything correct on a blind Pinotage. Then in the bottom right I got nearly everything wrong on the palate for a blind Stellenboch blend.
This was initially really frustrating. You would have to put the wine in your mouth and spit it out and then be able to tell if it was 12% alcohol by volume or 14%. If it was high, medium or low in acid. What the “body” was, which is pretty difficult to describe anyhow, much less objectively measure. You have to pull out red fruit smells, stone fruit, tropical fruit, wood, minerality, pepper, vanilla, leather — it’s insanely difficult.
In then end, as I mentioned, there is a long test, this time including a terrifying blind tasting portion where you are graded on your evaluations of a red and a white wine. About 3 months later you get back your results, which luckily for me was another pass grade.
Not only that, I got a fetching pin with my new Level 3 certification, which means now I can wear a sweet little green pin on my vest every time I pretend to be a wine expert. I think I now need to get some sort of vest to wear for events as well.
So at this point I found myself in the strange position of having obtained a fairly high level professional wine certification without any wine industry experience at all. What do I do now?
WSET Level 4 Diploma
Well, it turns out there is another, final level that the WSET organization offers. Not only that, there are only a handful of places it’s offered in the world in person and the Bay Area is one of them, where I now again reside.
The Level 4 Diploma is spread out over 6 Units, each of which takes several months. The entire course takes at least 18 months of study and testing, including multiple choice and written exams, blind tasting exams of 12 wines at a time, research papers and more. It will probably cost around $7000 in tuition all together, plus various other materials and travel expenses.
So, of course, I’ve enrolled.
My first classes in Units 1 and 2 were a few weeks ago and I’ve been studying my viticulture and vinification books for about a month now.
I’ve embarked on a new, 18 month long adventure to delve even deeper into the world of wine and I’m still not sure exactly why I’ve taken my obsession to this level.
It’s a little funny to be in these classes now, because nearly every other hobbyist has stopped. The entire room is filled with wine industry professionals, a few people retiring from a career and looking to move into wine, and then me.
Since it’s a little awkward at this stage to have fellow students ask me what I do or why I’m taking the class and have literally no answer for other than it’s really interesting to me, I recently started trying to figure out what I can do with all of this education.
Charity Wine Night
I’ve been recently thinking back to that first wine night at O Chateau that got me started down this long, ridiculous and expensive road. What did I like about it? Why did it hook me?
I’ve decided that there’s just something I love about wine.
I love that it’s simple and natural and ancient. You can technically just put grape juice in a barrel for a while and get wine (obviously it’s way harder than that to make good wine, but still). The wines I love the most are the ones like Donkey and Goat here in Berkeley that do so little to the natural process and make such amazing wines. Wines that the crazy natural wine store owner in Paris that I loved to frequent used to describe as being so “full of life”.
I love that it’s packaged for an intimate social occasion. It’s not a bottle of beer that you drink by yourself. It’s not a bottle of whiskey that you slowly diminish over a month. It’s a bottle that’s difficult to close and save for later that has 3 or 4 servings in it. It’s perfect for a long dinner date. It’s great for an evening of soulful conversation amongst three close friends. You don’t open a bottle of wine when you’re alone and bored, you open it when you’re about to laugh with your friends. It’s very packaging is designed for friendship.
So I’ve been thinking back to those first lessons where I learned my first real bits about the world of wine and I decided that I would really like to pass this love on in a way that has a positive impact. I can certainly do an introductory class about French wine and if people are interested, I would love to do it to raise some money for charity. Thus, the idea for Charity Wine Night was born.
If you would like me to come to your dinner party with a few cases of French wine and teach you and your guests all about wine — how to taste it, how it’s made, how to read labels, how to order at a restaurant, etc — then just figure out a date and raise money for a charity and I’ll come with wine and teach. Hopefully I can use all of this education to do a little bit of good in the world and perhaps get you started on your own wine education adventure!
If you’re interested in talking with me about it, email me or consider buying a ticket to the Gather to Give wine night at The Brick Yard in SF next week (March 10th). I’ll be serving and talking about some great wines and would love to talk to you about it.