I am an autodidact, for better or worse, or in my case for better and worse. As I’ve written elsewhere, I learned about wine in my beginner years from the growers themselves, one by one, full immersion, guided only by my responses and curiosity to see what lay around the next bend.
I took four guitar lessons and then never took another. I played for nearly fifty years, essentially self taught.
I was always an avid reader, especially of fiction, yet for every teacher who really breathed life into literature, there were five others who sucked the life out of it. Eventually I stopped taking classes in order to guard my love of reading.
That approach serves me, usually, but I make no value judgment about it. It happens to work for me; it doesn’t work for everyone. I’m well aware I might have benefited from more structured learning now and again, but I could never surmount my concern that my own frustration with those structures would make them into strictures. I say all this to clarify that when I critique wine education as it is often (but not always) carried out, I do so from the position of an essentially lone wolf. I am also mindful that the approaches I extol are actually in practice at times; this isn’t an evil monolith I am inveighing against.
That said, I respond to what I perceive as patterns, impressions I have formed by repetition of input. I don’t find an academic approach to wine relevant to me, and thus not especially useful. Some of it looks like training to take an SAT exam instead of an approach to wine as a lifelong friend. However, people who learn best in environments I myself find suffocating will find me unreasonable. That’s acceptable, and there are plenty of wine-education situations where they’ll feel comfortable. I will stand off to the side, a little sad that they’ll never know what they’re missing.
So, what I desire from wine education can be summed up as deep immersion, carefully guided by a loving and encouraging hand. The student has to feel, “It’s OK, wine loves you; you got this.” That lets the mind dilate, and the soul, and the heart, and a comfortable heart leads to a receptive mind, and wine must never, ever be a thing against which one is tested, but rather a portal into myriad joys, which we will let unfold under our deliberate guidance. And guidance contains the word “dance.”
First order of business: assure students they are already tasters, and they are free to use the words that come naturally to describe and record what they taste. Reassure them that we all, even us lofty lamas of wine wisdom, wrestle with language when we try describing flavor.
Next order of business: guide them inside wine more deeply than they anticipated at this “beginner” stage. Here is how. Identify two grape varieties, one red, one white, and those are the only ones they’ll taste in “class” (and ideally outside also) for all the time it takes for those wines to feel familiar, comfortable and a little boring. That boredom is the signal you’re ready for the next set of varieties.
Not the ubiquitous ones please; there’s too many examples of them. The goal here is to explore one single thing until it starts to feel like second nature. So…off the cuff, let’s say Syrah and Pinot Blanc. You set up a schemata tasting Syrah from as many places as produce it (even the obscure ones if you can find examples; Germany, Switzerland…) and you do this because even though Place is prominent over Variety in knowing wine, variety is the way in to place. Tasting the many iterations of Syrah (and Pinot Blanc) from hither and yon will automatically introduce the idea of Place. You delve into the varieties, the various types of wine they produce, their “signature” flavors, the language typically used to depict them, and for a few weeks you pretend these are the only wines in the world.
But look at what you see! Differences in body, in terroir elements, in nuance and emphasis, all of wine in microcosm. And eventually you can’t help but look directly at the primacy of place. Tasting a decent Syrah from the Languedoc or an ambitious one from Germany or a big seductive smoky one from California, the great icons of Côte Rotie and Hermitage will show their preeminence – and now you are introducing the idea of the Classic and the Profound.
Your tasters have started to have enough. But they know those two varieties, and not incidentally they are learning how to know wine. You’re ready to introduce the next two, which ideally are quite different from the first duo. So….Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, maybe? Eventually onto Pinot Noir and Riesling, and then onto the important but less widespread varieties such as Nebbiolo, Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese, Grüner Veltliner, etc. The point is, you do them two at a time, you create big blocks of knowledge, and while it seems like it’s taking longer, you’re building something enormously more durable than if you try to taste 100 different wines in the first two weeks.
Think about it. You’ve been tasting no reds but Syrah for around a month. The first taste of the new variety (say Cab Franc) is immediately and vitally different, because it’s bouncing off the firm edifice of what you’ve come to know about red wine viz. Syrah. The shocking contrast of this new variety is dramatic in a way you could not have otherwise contrived. The palates you have disciplined are now sensitized to each speck of Otherness in this new thing you’re introducing. And it will keep being that way every time you repeat the exercise. That, in my view, is how you learn about wine.
And please, please tell me you’re not having your poor students taste blind any more. Very little good can come of it, except in a tightly controlled matrix with a specific end in view. (“One of these wines has malo, the other doesn’t; which is which?”) But speaking of which, here’s an idea created (as far as I know) by an old wine colleague named Chris Smith. He lined up a flight of (usually) 4-5 wines that we all tasted blind. We wrote our impressions. Usually these were wines in a single family, whether red Bordeaux or Maconnais whites or what have you; the point wasn’t to try to “guess” or ID them. Just to taste.
When that part was done, we folded up our notes and put them away, and the same wines were poured again, in a different sequence, and we tasted them with the labels in view. Again, the point was not to guess “wine number 2 is the same as last-flight number 5…” (though honestly we mostly couldn’t help it) but just to taste as though they were two different groups of wine. And only then compare notes.
The lesson we learned was, blind tasting is merely a particular tasting environment. It distorts as often as it clarifies – perhaps more often. It is not the holy pathway to Truth. Wines we tasted were one way like THIS and another way like THAT, and neither impression was truer or more valid. I’ve been said to be “anti blind-tasting,” but I’m not; I think blind tasting is fine within its own limitations, the most dangerous of which is the assumption that it confers “objectivity” upon the taster. Opinions based on ignorance are not to be confused with objectivity, which is only reached when a taster is professional enough to understand and surmount her subjectivities. But that’s a subject for Wine-202.
I’m not here to design syllabi (though call me if you’d like me to!) but instead to identify and expose the most egregious errors in the ways wine is TOO OFTEN taught.
And the last of them, I think, is this:
Who are you, standing up there? Is all of you there and available? Or have you subdued things you think are “too personal” or too emotional? No one has to love wine the way you love it, but if you don’t show your love, the poor student may question whether wine is something he could love. The one professor of literature from whom I actually learned was a person who once wept as she read a passage. “I’m sorry, this gets me every time,” she said to the class. I myself didn’t weep at the passage in question, but I knew two things; that I wasn’t weird for the passages I did cry over, and that I could learn from this teacher. She did not check her humanity in the professors’ lounge. You shouldn’t teach wine if you’re not batshit-crazy in love with it. Not obsessed, but calmly and gratefully and immoderately in love with wine. Obsessiveness makes wine smaller, but love makes it larger, and not only larger, but liquid enough to fill our hearts with splash after splash of joy and restoration. If you are that person, go forth and teach! Your students will never forget you.