Like many folks who love wine and travel, I look for ways to combine the two. But doing so isn’t just an excuse to party away from home; it’s a great way to learn a lot about each place’s wines. I can’t visit vineyards during the pandemic, so in the fall I enrolled in a nine-week online course taught by the Napa Valley Wine Academy.
I’m taking the advanced level-three certification course developed by the United Kingdom-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which is among the world’s top wine education and accreditation organizations. (I took and passed the level-two course a couple of years ago — in an actual classroom setting.)
My wife, Gail, also a fan of wine and travel, encouraged me. As she put it: “Oh, goody. Now you’ll be even more insufferable about wine.”
Just as with most first days of school, this one’s mostly a chance to introduce ourselves and for the teacher to tell us what to expect. Of my 50-odd classmates, I’m among a handful who aren’t in the business of making, selling or serving wine. We amateurs are here solely to learn more about a beloved beverage.
Jess Helfand, our charming and patient Nashville-based instructor, lays out what’s in store for us. Come exam time, we’ll be expected to explain what natural and human factors are involved with most every aspect of growing grapes and turning them into wine in the world’s major wine-producing regions throughout more than a dozen countries. Oh, and we’ll also need to describe how to properly store and serve wines, pair them with food and display more than a passing knowledge of wine laws. The 2½-hour trial will wrap up with blind-tasting a couple of wines.
Because the course is aimed at those who are engaged in the wine trade — or want to be — there’s a focus on scoring a passing grade. Barely more than half of those who take this test pass the first time, Jess says.
Undaunted, I take a big sip of wine, grateful that I’ve scheduled my test for late July. I picked the date because I figured I’d need more time to study — and because the exam will take place at the Epicurean Hotel, about four blocks from my house. Plenty of time to prepare.
In a webinar several days later, Jess goes over what, judging from the smiles on my classmates’ faces, clearly will be a favorite part of the course: learning how to taste and evaluate wine. For this, we’ll need to adhere to the program’s trademarked systematic approach to tasting wine, spelled out on a handy double-sided and laminated card. If, for example, we taste a hint of lime in a wine, we’ll need to specify whether it’s juice or zest. Ditto for sticking to the official lexicon when judging a wine’s appearance, and levels of sweetness, acidity and tannins, among other characteristics. In other words, although a wine may smell or taste of golden raisins, we’re to use the British synonym sultana.
“This is in no way a creative writing assignment,” Jess says with a laugh.
To help us get the hang of things, she walks us through a group tasting of two wines — 2018 Maison L’Envoye Fleurie and 2016 Chateau Laribotte Sauternes — hotel minibar-sized bottles of which are conveniently included with our course materials.
Inspired and pleasantly buzzed, I fall asleep that night wondering if Jess’s advice to “make this level-three tasting card your friend” means my family will be okay with me bringing it to the dinner table.
Over the next couple of weeks, online instructional videos and homework assignments involving reading and writing take me deep into the how, where and why of winemaking. Reading over my marked-up textbook pages, I vow never again to tease anyone for alleged overuse of highlighter pens.
By Week 3, we’ve landed in France. First stop is the famed Bordeaux region, where we explore how weather, climate and soils conspire with a handful of grapes to create the signature wines along the left and right banks of the Gironde estuary and two rivers. We also discover how autumn morning mists and sunny afternoons farther to the south encourage the curiously beneficent fungus that helps turn semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle grapes into honeyed Sauternes.
As always, Jess offers lots of practical tips. For example, to determine how long a wine’s finish is, she says try counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” and so on after taking a taste. If pleasant flavors remain by “five Mississippi,” you know it’s a wine with a long finish.
After a brief stopover in neighboring Dordogne, with its bold wines made from Malbec grapes, we bounce to Burgundy, a place I’ve long wanted to visit in person. So happy am I to sample the region’s famed pinot noirs and Chardonnays, and begin to understand its once maddeningly complex hierarchy of appellations, that I linger and fall behind on homework as the class heads south to Beaujolais before jumping north to Alsace, near the German border, followed by the Loire to the west.
By the time we reach Rhone, I’ve mostly caught up. With the arrival of a cold snap in my hometown of Tampa, I pretend one evening that the bitterly cold mistral winds of the northern Rhone are blowing as I sip a deep and spicy syrah from Cote Rotie.
We’ve read and tasted our way through southern France’s Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence, when the first of my tasting notes homework assignments returns from Jess with what looks like more corrective red ink than original black type. Reminding me to stick to official tasting terminology, Jess diplomatically noted it’s unlikely I’d earn any points in the exam for describing a wine as smelling of “raw hamburger.” As if reading my mind, she reassures me I’m doing fine.
From lessons on Austria, Germany, Hungary and Greece, I come away with fresh appreciation for their wines. I also make a mental note to score a bottle of white wine made from assyrtiko grapes on Greece’s volcanic Santorini, an island where vines are trained into basket-like blobs on the ground as protection against strong winds. Come to think of it, I should also come up with some sort of mnemonic to remember Germany’s brain- and tongue-twisting lingo for the sweetness levels of its wines.
Although I like to think I’m fairly familiar with Italian wines, I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of how the boot-shaped nation’s geology and geography contribute to their subtleties. It’s also now, about halfway through the course, that I heed Jess’s advice to print out maps of wine regions, labeling subregions and scribbling other important details.
As our course makes its way through Spain, Portugal and the Americas, I worry anew that I may have taken on more than I can handle. Chapters on Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, whose climatic quirks and wines seem ever more foreign to my ears and taste buds, only amp up my anxieties.
Then one day, I pop by a local wine shop for a couple of bottles of Bordeaux. Scanning wine labels, I find myself thinking how a bottle from Saint-Emilion, being from the right bank and dominated by merlot grapes, is likely to have medium to high tannins, and red berry and plum fruit flavors. Similar experiences of near-competence happen in aisles devoted to wines of California and Canada.
Encouraged, I dive into lessons on sparkling wines of the world, along with sherry, port and fortified muscats. My latest tasting notes assignment — on Champagne and sherry — comes back from Jess with what seems like less red ink. So ends the course: To celebrate its completion, I splurge on a bottle of Bonnet-Ponson “Cuvee Perpetuelle” Premier Cru Extra Brut Champagne.
Not that I plan to take down the wine region maps festooning my office walls, or otherwise slack off studying for my exam this summer. As I semi-convincingly tell Gail, my newfound knowledge will come in handy when we are able to plan in-person visits to the wine regions upon which I hope soon to be a certified expert.
Napa Valley Wine Academy
California-based school offering online (and, when possible again, in-person) courses for newbie wine and spirits enthusiasts and experts alike. Classes start at $45 for folks interested in learning how to pair wines with foods, and $125 for Wine 101, for those keen to learn generally about wine. More advanced courses such as the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s globally recognized accreditation curriculums on wine, spirits and sake run anywhere from $325 for introductory classes to upward of five figures for the most advanced, multiyear programs.