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Back to School
By Michael Apstein
Sep 16, 2014
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Along with the burgeoning interest in wine among American consumers has come an explosion of opportunities to learn about wine. It’s a far different state of affairs now than in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was learning about wine. Back then, there were few opportunities for novices to attend reasonably-priced tastings to develop their palates. Indeed, the sort of in-store tastings that have become commonplace were actually illegal in many states not long ago.

The books about wine available at that time were encyclopedic or focused on a single area, such as Bordeaux, France or Germany. None were aimed at the beginner. There was no Windows on the World Wine Course or Wine for Dummies, the two best introductory books today for beginners.

What we did have back in the “dark ages”--private tastings of high-end wines at affordable prices--have long since disappeared. Thanks to such “tasting groups,” we could routinely assess an entire vintage from a particular region, including even the most prestigious wines from the appellation. The wines were cheap, especially by today’s standards. One could buy first growth Bordeaux, such as Château Lafite Rothschild, for $30 a bottle. Hallowed wines from Burgundy were comparably priced. So, the mainstay of education a generation ago was the tasting group, in which ten or twelve friends would meet regularly to taste, sharing the expense.

Although comprehensive tastings of that sort, at that level, are virtually impossible in today’s economy, tasting groups remain an excellent way to learn about wine. Take the advice of the late Alexis Lichine, a Bordeaux château owner, wine importer, and prolific author who introduced Americans to the pleasures of French wines: “Buy a corkscrew and use it.” Still, those who are just becoming interested in wine are fortunate to have a diverse set of opportunities by from which to learn about the wonders of the grape.

Classes

A plethora of courses in cities around the US allow anyone to delve as deeply--or shallowly--as they wish into wine. Some schools offer an entire course (or more than one), whereas others specialize on free standing classes regarding different regions or grape varieties. Google your city and “wine school,” and several possibilities are likely to appear. Two of the best in New York are The International Wine Center (IWC) and Windows on the World Wine School.

The IWC, founded in 1982, offers courses appropriate for those who aim to pursue a career in the industry. Those who seek the prestigious Master of Wine certification frequently start here, but the IWC’s “Foundation Course” is perfect for someone who knows nothing about wine. A serious introduction, it’s composed of three, two-hour sessions (a short exam follows the last session), which run virtually every month and cost $348 plus tax. (Full disclosure: My friend and colleague at WRO, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, founded the IWC.)

Kevin Zraly’s ever-popular Windows on the World Wine School, formerly based in the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center and now at the Marriott Essex House on Central Park South in New York, has attracted over 20,000 students since he started it 39 years ago. The current 9-week course starts September 29 and costs $995. A unique feature, in addition to Zraly’s fabulous style of teaching, is having two years to make up any missed class.

For those living in the Washington, DC area, The Capital Wine School, led by Jay Youmans, who also holds the prestigious MW (Master of Wine) degree, offers a similar range of courses as well as individual sessions focused on a single topic, such as Introduction to Wine Basics or Brunello di Montalcino. The single topic classes are particularly appealing to those whose schedules prevent their taking a semester course. (More disclosure: My friend and WRO colleague, Michael Franz, teaches at the Capital Wine School). Wine schools are not limited solely to large metropolitan areas. They can easily be found in smaller cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin or Charlottesville, Virginia. All you need to do is look for them in your area.

Tastings

Wine retailers in every city--large and small--offer wine tastings open to the public. Some are free, whereas others require a fee. Even those requiring a fee will sometimes apply the fee to purchases made that day. These tastings are a win-win for the store and the customer. There’s no better way to buy wine than to taste it first, especially for free. And retailers know that these tasting increase sales. In the Boston and New York suburban areas, large retailers, such as Marty’s (Newton, MA) and Zachys (Scarsdale, NY) regularly offer free, in-store tastings on Saturday mornings. Urban shops, such as Federal Wine and Spirits in downtown Boston, offer these tasting in the early evenings during the week. “Saturdays are slow for us, but we have a lot of traffic during the week,” says Len Rothenberg, owner of the store. “We aim for focused tastings in which customers learn something.”

Retailers, distributors or importers will also organize wine dinners, which involve a greater investment of the consumer’s time and are more expensive. However, these can be extremely worthwhile when a winemaker (or other knowledgeable speaker) leads the tasting. For example, Kobrand, a well-known importer based in New York, just partnered with La Morra, a good Italian restaurant in Brookline, Mass., showcasing the wines of Pighin and Masi when the owners of those Italian wineries were in town. The restaurant was packed with a range of diners, some of whom knew little about wine and others who were more conversant with the subject. Raffaelle Masi and Roberto Pighin did a wonderful job of explaining their wines to the entire group while guests tasted--and more importantly, drank--a different wine, which ranged in price from $14 to $80 a bottle, with each of the six courses. At $85 plus tax and tip, it was a bargain.

My advice is to get on mailing lists of your local retailers who will inform you of these kinds of tastings and events. Localwineevents.com allows you to enter your location to find listings of wine tastings, dinners, or other activities in your area.

The Internet

The Internet has opened the floodgates for wine writing. Some writers, such as Tom Maresca, a true expert on Italian wines, teach through their writing. We do the same here at WRO. There are many other sites; check out as many as you can, and you’ll quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Sadly, along with the praiseworthy options, there is plenty of dross, but if you follow your favorite writers, you will learn a lot over the course of a year.

Print Still Exists

Eric Asimov, the wine writer for The New York Times, has started a superb monthly column called "Wine School," in which he holds forth on classic areas, such as Chablis or Bordeaux, or grape varieties, such as Zinfandel. He encourages readers to buy the three wines he has suggested, or others if those are not available, and drink them “along with him.” He encourages readers’ comments in an online forum, and answers questions in a follow-up column. It’s a great way to learn the basics. He rightly points out that the aim is to drink--not just taste--the wines, because that allows you see how the wines change over time as they sit in the glass and with food.

There’s no better way to start learning about wine than to buy one (or both) of two easy-to-read books: Wine for Dummies by Mary-Ewing Mulligan, MW and Ed McCarthy (another friend and WRO contributor), and Windows on the World Wine Course by Kevin Zraly. Indeed, all of the books in the "Wine for Dummies" series--Champagne for Dummies, French Wine for Dummies, and others--are excellent sources for information. But the place for beginners to start is with the initial book, Wine for Dummies. Even those who think they know a lot about wine will learn from Mulligan and McCarthy’s writings. They have a rare talent to teach both beginners and experts alike in a readable, non-pretentious style.

Zraly’s book, Windows on the World Wine Course, is the best-selling wine book in the world, with over four million copies sold. Four million people can’t be wrong--and they’re not. Windows on the World Wine Course is a fabulous way to start your journey.

Nevertheless, to paraphrase Lichine’s advice, the corkscrew is the best textbook.

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E-mail me your thoughts about how to learn about wine at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

September 16, 2014