Your First Wine Class – A Survivor’s Guide

There are people who attend wine classes with an agenda other than to learn about wine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A class is a great way to meet other people, in particular, people who also enjoy wine. It can be a fun night out for a small group of friends, and sometimes, towards the end of the class, when enough of it has been consumed to raise the volume of chatter louder than the instructor’s voice, it can more resemble a Friday night happy hour than a serious classroom. But that’s also part of its appeal.

If your objective is to learn, attending a class on any subject can be a little intimidating, especially if the subject is one that you always have struggled with to understand. Whether it’s the first day of first grade or the start of an adult education class to learn a foreign language, the adrenalin flows just a little faster in anticipation of it. And the composition of the students in a wine education class is just like any other–some will appear to be more knowledgeable than you while most others will not be.

But simply sounding wine-savvy is easy to do. People in my classes do it often, probably without realizing it. During the lesson on the proper steps to taste like a professional, someone will throw out terms or expressions that I know they don’t really understand, but have obviously heard uttered from others. Take the word “earthy,” for example. Wine critics use it often as a descriptor for some very fine wines made in Burgundy, France, indicating an aroma of truffles, or mushrooms, or when the aroma is reminiscent of the air on a cool morning in the woods. It has happened that someone would use this word to describe a wine in class and, invariably, everyone would look at him or her in complete amazement, as if that student is a ringer–someone who actually knows a ton about the subject and is in the class only to show off their expertise.

It’s not that “earthy” is a bad word to use–it’s just that it is not one that a typical beginner would think of using. They must have heard it or read it somewhere and remembered it. Fact is, when it comes to tasting and smelling wine, you can really say almost anything when it comes to what you detect. And who’s to say that some people don’t smell earth when they stick their noses in the glass? It does sound good, and it does impress others in a beginner’s class. The point is not to be intimidated if someone uses an “expert” word like earthy, instead of how a more humble wine drinker once described it when asked what comes to mind after a good sniff: “It smells like dirt,” which is also perfectly acceptable.

With a beginner’s class, keep in mind that anyone who sounds like they know more than you has chosen to attend the same beginner’s class. It’s like a situation that sometimes happens when I play golf. I am just an average golfer, who plays only several times a year, usually at friendly golf tournaments for charities, organized by a local association. But when I just go out and golf with my wife it is inevitable that someone playing behind us is significantly better than either one of us. When we see him waiting impatiently as we hack away needing five, six, (yes, sometimes more) strokes to finish the hole, the natural reaction is to think we’re not good enough and that we are slowing down his game. But we choose to play at the easiest, most basic courses in our area. I would never even attempt to play at a professional course where I really would feel bad about holding up better players behind me. But on an elementary, easy-rated course, it’s the impatient guy behind me who chose the wrong course for his level of ability, not us.

The same holds for basic wine classes. If this is your first class and you choose one that is designed for beginners, then you should never feel uncomfortable asking questions or admitting that there is something you don’t understand. My old instructor at the Chicago Wine School used to say that there are no stupid questions at his school. Then he would add, “Well, there has only been only one stupid question in all the years of the Chicago Wine School that is still asked every now and then.” Inevitably, someone would have the courage to ask what the stupid question was. Patrick Fegan, the Director, would wryly respond, “The only stupid question comes from people who call the school and ask me if we teach wine classes here.”

Maybe you just don’t smell or taste the same aromas or flavors that most other students are experiencing. Maybe you detect licorice while others get black cherry. You’re both right. That’s perfectly OK. Take your time. Be a beginner and enjoy it. Some of the best questions and comments in the classes I’ve taught have come from the people with the least amount of wine knowledge or experience. Just as playing golf should not be rushed, neither should the process of learning and savoring wine.

Relax. Here’s What To Expect:

Every class that I’ve ever attended or am aware of involves tasting wine. Classes for beginners will always include tasting because their purpose is to teach the essence of wine–the complete process of tasting, from observing color to describing what you taste, to thinking about whether or not it pleases you.

In my classes, I sometimes start out by asking a very simple question: “By a show of hands, how many people here drink wine?” It’s an odd question to ask a wine tasting class. Obviously, the response one expects is a raised hand from nearly everyone. And that is precisely what happens. But then I pose the follow-up question: “Now, by a show of hands, how many people here taste wine?” Here is when everyone looks at the others around them and looks back at me like maybe I’ve lost my mind. “Did he just ask the same question in a different way?,” people are wondering. But these two questions presented back to back serve as good shock therapy.

Students instinctively react as if I asked the same question twice until they take a moment to think about it. My point is this: anyone can drink wine, but trained drinkers taste wine. Drinking is simply the process of consuming, and nothing more than that. Tasting wine involves a thought process, and, if the wine is remarkable, the added bonus of savoring it.

A good class for the novice will focus on tasting, not drinking. It will help you understand the reasons for observing a wine’s color, swirling it in the glass, smelling it. Most important, perhaps, it will assist you in finding the words to describe what you smell and taste. When you start thinking about wine as you drink it, not only do you begin to enjoy it at a new level, you automatically start building a “virtual wine database” in your mind. From this memory bank, you will withdraw some of that saved information upon future tasting experiences. You will start comparing wines that you’ve tasted in the past with the one in front of you at the moment. And you will learn to compare them fairly and consistently, which leads to more cost-effective buying, better enjoyment of food, and more meaningful conversations with other wine lovers.

I admit that sometimes I will just drink wine and not think about it. The reason is usually because it is not compelling enough to think about. But the vast majority of the wine I consume is tasted–seen, swirled, sniffed, sipped, swallowed and savored: also known in some classes as the six “S’s” of proper tasting. I’ve applied these basic steps of tasting ever since I learned them in my very first class on basic wine tasting in 1994.

And with practice, you will get better at it until it becomes automatic. Sometimes I catch myself swirling and sniffing my orange juice or sparkling water, which can be embarrassing. But when you take your first tasting class, be sure to learn these steps. It is the foundation of every wine experience.

What Not To Do

So much of what you taste depends upon what you smell. To be able to clearly identify the many aromas your nose must not be distracted by non-wine fragrances, such as perfume or cologne. If fragrances are applied heavily, you will not learn much about the wine when you stick your nose in the glass and smell nothing but Calvin Klein Obsession. If you feel that you cannot go out of the house without a body fragrance, keep it to a minimum. And if you don’t wear perfume or cologne, be sure to avoid sitting near someone in class who does. Now, picture yourself walking up to each person in a classroom and taking a good whiff of him or her. Just tell them that you’re deciding where to sit.

Next in importance after utilizing your sense of smell when participating in a class is applying your sense of taste. When you sip samples, your entire palate will be coated with wine and your tongue’s ability to sense flavors and textures will be greatly diminished if there is residue of other flavors. I strongly urge people to avoid the following items within a couple of hours of taking a tasting class: gum, mints, toothpaste, beer, soda, hard alcohol, coffee and very salty or spicy foods. Even ice-cold water can temporarily numb your palate for a few minutes and make a fair evaluation impossible.

Avoiding these items in advance of class gives the wine a clean chance of receiving your approval. People unfairly reject so many wines without realizing that it’s not the wine’s fault. They may have just eaten something that created a huge clash in flavor, and just because the wine was the last thing to enter their mouth, the wine is blamed.

If you ever had an experience when you tasted a wine once and absolutely loved it, then tried the exact same wine again at a later date and absolutely hated it, I am confident the reason is related to a tainted palate at the time of the second tasting. So, be fair to yourself and the wine, even if you have breath and body aroma that aren’t exactly April fresh. In the end, you’ll get more from the class than those who do.

The Classroom

A wine class can be conducted almost anywhere. All that is needed is a fairly quiet environment to aid concentration, good lighting, to observe color, and enough space for each setting to have up to six glasses. Usually the glasses will be arranged in a row across a white place mat. Samples are poured in each glass, 1-2 ounces apiece, starting on the left with the lighter wines, then progressing to heavier ones on the right.

Because the objective in the class is to evaluate, compare, and then discuss conclusions with the instructor, everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to tasting. You can’t be on sample number two while everyone else is sipping number three. Be sure to keep wines in the order in which they were poured, and if you think you moved a glass out of order, be sure to let the instructor know. Otherwise, you’ll be even more confused about wine when you leave class than when you arrived.

Taking notes is encouraged when learning to taste, and I don’t mean just notes on what the instructor says. It’s a good idea to start writing down your thoughts on what you taste. At the very least, for classroom experiences and any other times you drink wine, write down the name of the producer and the region where it comes from. Get into this habit. This information alone is helpful in building your mind’s “wine database.” Even if you don’t jot down detailed tasting notes, you will subconsciously associate the wine with either pleasure or disappointment. Being able to go back and identify that wine, its region and producer, is invaluable in your education process.

I’m a strong believer in looking at the labels of the wines I taste. It makes a good visual impression that stays with me. If you are at a restaurant and happen to like the house wine being poured, ask the server to bring the bottle out so that you can read the label. Do the same when enjoying a bottle at a friend’s house. Keep building your database. Look at labels, take names.

In class, you’ll likely be asked to describe what you taste and smell because that is the essence of the process of learning to taste, rather than simply drinking wine. But writing down what you taste and smell makes a better “imprint” in your mind and helps to trigger other descriptive words. Even better, save your class notes on each wine that you taste and refer to them the next time you taste one of the same type. Over time, and after jotting down thoughts as you taste, you’ll see for yourself how chardonnay, for example, will exhibit certain characteristics consistently, every time you taste chardonnay and regardless of where it came from. Other characteristics will come not so consistently.

You then decide which traits you prefer over the others. Your virtual wine database will begin to alert you to what stands out as a pleasant trait or unpleasant. After time, refer to your previous notes to see which regions are producing the chardonnays that regularly possess the preferred traits and I guarantee you’ll never drink a restaurant’s house white wine again without asking first what type it is and where it comes from. With a little practice and minimal wine knowledge, you’ll be able to smile with a polite request, “Do you happen to have a lightly oaked chardonnay from the Sonoma side of Carneros?”

Who Teaches About Wine?

Wine classes are like people. They come in all different shapes and sizes and personalities. And just like it’s nice to have met a variety of people in your life, the same holds true for classes.

There are classes that focus on specific countries of origin, like Italy, for example, which has hundreds upon hundreds of grape varieties that are unique to Italy. There are classes that focus on a single grape variety, such as cabernet sauvignon, arguably one of the world’s finest. A class like this could compare cabernet sauvignon from a variety of countries or a variety of regions in California. There are classes that explore differences in vintage years within a single region, using a single grape. The possibilities for different class subjects are endless. Trying as many as possible is not only fun, but a valuable education as well.

Class instructors can have credentials ranging from college professor to sommelier to distributor sales manager. And although the basics of the tasting process can be taught by any one of them, their perspectives are different. In the examples above, the professor tends to be more analytic from a scientific standpoint and able to answer questions about chemical compounds in the wine and the flavors that they produce. The sommelier has probably tasted thousands of wines and is current on what is popular today. Someone who sells or distributes wine will have thorough knowledge of his or her brands and how they compare to one another and competing brands.

Every one of these possibilities for wine instruction is valuable for basic wine education. In fact, I encourage you to take basic classes from as many of these various experts as you can. You can learn a lot by simply listening to the words they use to describe wines, and you can start building that other virtual database in your head that collects descriptive words about wine. Then, above the clamor of chatty wine lovers at the end of class, you’ll sound like the ringer when you describe the wine as ” having an earthy elegance.” And you’ll mean it.