Remote education has been a challenge at all levels this year because of the pandemic, forcing alternate routes of instruction.
The Wine School of Philadelphia has been celebrating the changes it had to make to overcome the obstacles of moving online, saying in a recent press release that it succeeded in teaching its sommelier certification course remotely this fall, prompting it to recently unveil its online school.
“These new online classes reflect those values and deliver our award-wining content directly into your living room, Alana Zerbe, the school’s director of education, said in a press release. “In the coming months, we will be releasing online sommelier certification courses as well. Those sommelier programs will be offered in conjunction with the National Wine School in California.”
In promotion for its wine movie “Uncorked,” Netflix called The Wine School of Philadelphia one of the best in the country at offering instruction for aspiring sommeliers. It’s located in the city’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.
The 20-year-old school closed for a while this year, allowing the staff time to devise a way to switch its wine course online.
“There is a reason this hasn’t been attempted before,” Zerbe said. “Training people to be able to blind taste via Zoom was universally thought to be impossible.”
Retooling the program took some time but was manageable. The greatest challenge was figuring out how to conduct blind tasting exams remotely.
“We had an entire class of sommelier students who were expecting to take our Core Wine Course online,” Zerbe said. We were only days away from going live. We still weren’t sure how we were going to accomplish this.”
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Her husband, a member of the team, came up with what the school called “an elegant and novel solution” that was rapidly developed into a proprietary process. That was followed by several months of analytic trials. The results, per the release, were stunning: The online sommelier programs were as effective in training and certifying wine professionals as in-person training.
“Our propriety process is a bit tricky to describe, as we don’t yet have a patent on the technology,” Keith Wallace, the founder of the school and also an instructor there, said. “We are using data derived from a mass spectrometer to replicate the core compounds found in specific varietals but also in winemaking [oak aging, malo] and ship those core elements to the students in a vacuum-sealed container. I posted a prototype on our Instagram. This process allows us to combine those scents with wines each student is tasting.”
The “experiment” complete, the school has set up its next semester to incorporate a full online schedule. Current class topics range from “Wine 101” to “Wines of Bordeaux; seats can be purchased by clicking on this link. Classes will begin in January and start as low as $11.99/person.
In addition, there are online core and advanced wine courses listed, which feature 16 classes, at-home guided wine tastings. online textbooks, and a series of four sommelier exams.
The classes will be streamed live from the Wine School of Philadelphia with Zerbe as the featured instructor.
Being able to offer classes online has had an impact on the bottom line, Wallace said. The Online Core Sommelier Certification program is priced at $550, down from the $1,100 price tag of its in-person program.
Wallace said he expects the online courses to continue long term. “We had 18 people taking the program online. Several were from California, a few from the Midwest, and a local student who is undergoing cancer treatment and could not attend classes in-person,” he said. There is no reason we can’t offer these programs nationally.”
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