Raising the (Wine Bar), Wine Education in the US | Wine Enthusiast Magazine
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Raising the (Wine) Bar


We now know that wine in moderation is good for our health, and that delicious wines can be had outside of France (and for less than $100). But wine enthusiasts, novices and experts alike, still have a lot to learn. Here’s where we’re hitting the books…and the glasses.

You’ve heard of the French Paradox: Drink wine for good health. Here’s the American Paradox: Study wine to understand what you’re drinking. Wine has a whole industry devoted to explaining it, something few other foods or drinks can claim.

“It’s a bizarre thing…to sit around in a room and talk about the way something tastes and smells,” says Linda G. Lawry, director of the International Wine Center in New York. But, as Lawry is the first to point out, people like learning about what’s in their glasses. In a culture that considers wine mysterious and complicated, she says, “people have to be supported to develop their own confidence.”

“There’s a huge thirst for this information from the consumer. Wine is probably the most intimidating topic to talk about. It’s keeping people from drinking wine in this country,” says Andrew Bell, vice president and education chair of the American Sommelier Association. “When people are exposed to it in an appropriate manner they can make it part of their lifestyle.”

The desire to face down a wine list with confidence prompts many people to seek out wine education. Other students work in wine or food industries and want to understand their product more thoroughly. Some are career changers bent on entering the field. Some aim to grow grapes or make wine. Still others simply fall in love with wine and are seized with a need to learn everything about it.

To meet these varying levels of demand, an entire industry has emerged. Around the country, in adult education programs, on college campuses, in culinary schools and hobbyist clubs, in professional organizations and freestanding wine schools, at wineries, in wine shops, at winemaker dinners and even at birthday parties for the over-21 set, wine education has developed into a legitimate field of study.

The Growth of a Discipline
Wine education is hardly a new phenomenon. The celebrated educator Harold Grossman was giving wine classes at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria back in the 1940s. Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration introduced wine classes in the 1960s, and the Robert Mondavi winery began offering winery-based education in the same decade. But the real advances in wine education came in the 1970s and 1980s, paralleling the surge of public interest in food and wine.

Even as the field develops, however, the quality and availability of instruction has been uneven.

“Most wine education thus far in America has been decentralized, destructured, in some cases it’s not even accurate,” says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (Workman, 2001) and chair of the wine department at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California. “For the most part, even people who have availed themselves of education have taught themselves. We all kind of do it in a Swiss-cheese method. We all piece together what we need.”

There are signs that this is changing, that the field of wine education is maturing.

“For the longest time,” says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, president of the International Wine Center, “if you looked at the picture of wine around the United States, you saw mainly soft education… where people use the occasion to socialize and enjoy the product without learning about it…[and the] goal is just to feel comfortable, to know what to order. And that’s fine.”

But, says Ewing-Mulligan, who co-authored Wine for Dummies (IDG Company, 1998), “the field is substantial enough to support academic study. That’s what’s happened in the last 10 years.” And judging by recent developments, we can expect even more sophistication in wine education over the next 10 years.

Item: The Society of Wine Educators is making a push to encourage wine educators to demonstrate basic knowledge of the field through study and certification. In addition to awarding the title of Certified Wine Educator (CWE) to those who pass a qualifying exam, it has added a new, less advanced title, Certified Wine Specialist (CWS) and will publish its first study guides for both this spring. The society will administer both exams.

“People are dying for good, accurate education and certification,” says Bonnie Fedchock, executive director of the society. “The larger companies have already been out there teaching their employees…but a lot of it is based on what they sell. They want independent certification. Our exam covers the whole spectrum.”

Item: In 2001, the Institute of Masters of Wine, the London-based organization that presides over the Master of Wine (MW) exam, widely considered to be the most difficult and therefore the highest achievement in the world of wine appreciation, established a North American chapter. The new chapter will administer the exam here and provide education and mentoring for MW candidates.

“It’s going to be more and more important in this field to attain a degree of knowledge that was not necessary in the past,” says the chapter president, Roger Bohmrich, MW. “It was only logical that we formed our own organization so we could be that much closer to the needs of members.”

Item: The University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology, the oldest and biggest school for students interested in becoming wine producers, is going to get even bigger, thanks to a $25 million grant from Robert Mondavi. Davis, a model for many smaller viticulture and enology departments at state universities and colleges around the country, has been both praised and criticized for its decidedly American reliance on scientific research rather than “art,” but few would argue with the fact that its work has raised the quality of wine in this country and beyond. The grant will pay for a new, larger working winery, which will, says department chair Jim Wolpert, broaden student winemaking activities and allow visiting winemakers to demonstrate their methods. Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2003 or 2004. “The program will be heavy on science,” says Wolpert, “and we’ll do as much art as we can.”

Item: Several major culinary schools, as well as some academic institutions, are strengthening their wine curricula. The CIA at Greystone is developing a Center for Professional Wine Studies, which is scheduled to open in September. The center will enhance the school’s already substantial wine offerings and will offer its own certification. At the French Culinary Institute in New York, noted master sommelier and author Andrea Immer has signed on as dean of wine studies and is developing classes for amateurs and professionals. Boston University, which took the bold step of establishing a master’s degree in gastronomy, also set up the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center in the mid-1990s.

Item: The American Sommelier Association, founded three years ago, is beefing up its education program, adding additional classes, recruiting expert guest lecturers and increasing the requirements for its Professional Sommelier Certificate.

Item: Restaurants at all levels are now more conscientious about educating both their staffs and their consumers about wine. One such grassroots-level education program is taking place at The Olive Garden, a national restaurant chain that boasts over 480 locations, which now treats diners to wine tastings on Friday and Saturday nights. Four years ago, they began what was easily one of the largest wine education programs ever, and one that will likely affect the foodservice industry and the dining public for years to come: Wine Fest—300,000 hours of training for 30,000 of the chain’s employees, from top managers to servers. The company ran four-day wine courses at six restaurants at a time, until the entire chain had received training. The chain’s winery partners handled the teaching duties until its managerial staff became more knowledgeable; then Olive Garden personnel took over. Since that first push, all new hires have received similar instruction. Company president Brad Blum’s goal was to provide diners with an authentic Italian dining experience—one that had a greater emphasis on wine. This was a tall order, says Mark S. Mitchell, the chain’s manager of beverage training, due to the “tremendous amount of underage servers who have never experienced wine.”

Item: The popularity of what Ewing-Mulligan terms “soft” wine education is also growing. The once largely professional American Institute of Wine and Food now has more “dedicated consumers,” according to its president, Mary Abbott Hess. Another indicator is the explosive growth of the Wine Brats, an industry-sponsored organization whose goal is to introduce Generation X—aged 21 to 30—to wine. In the six years since its founding, the decidedly Internet-oriented group has attracted 35,000 members, most of whom registered via its website.

Challenges Remain
All of these developments point to progress in wine education. But the field still faces significant challenges, not the least of which is the public’s general unease with wine.

“What I find fascinating,” says Michael Apstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who writes on wine for The Boston Globe and has taught introductory wine classes for 20 years, “is that you ask people what they think about a movie and you get a longwinded answer. You ask people what they think about a restaurant and you get a longwinded answer. You ask people to comment about two glasses of wine and you get the deer in the headlamps. We’re not a wine-drinking country.”

Among the many reasons for this national nonhabit is the lingering image of the wine snob. And while much is made of the need to make wine education accessible and, for the consumer, fun, there are many educators out there who stick to the old ways.

“There’s a lot of discussion of demystifying wine, but most of what’s out there is more pedantic than I would like,” says Immer.

“There’s way too much hierarchy,” says Kansas City, Missouri-based consultant and author Doug Frost, one of the handful of people who hold both MW and MS titles. “We have to stop making judgments about what people ought to like and ought to drink,” says Frost, who wrote On Wine: A Master Sommelier and Master of Wine Tells All (Rizzoli, 2001). “The idea that this must be accompanied by that—that, on the face of it, is wrong. It’s imperative that people are given permission to disagree.”

Resistance to this democratic concept, says the CIA’s MacNeil, stems from the American wine community’s adherence to the British model of wine education. “The people who invented wine writing and wine teaching were the British. We Americans tend to model ourselves on their standard. The more I think about it, the more I think we may need to break free of that.”

MacNeil believes that Britain’s strong class distinctions can be seen in its wine culture. “I would argue that the British have used wine to keep people out: ‘There are those of us who understand and those of us who don’t.’ Americans are different. We say, ‘Come on in.’ While I certainly admire my British colleagues, they are not a model for me. If your stated philosophy is to make [wine] more inclusive, then you’ve got to think about teaching it in that way. It behooves us as teachers to work harder and think harder about how to get a given message across.”

Elements of Style
How should wine educators reframe their lessons to make wine more accessible? MacNeil often anthropomorphizes whatever wine she’s talking about: “You could say this wine is like Abraham Lincoln—it’s tall, it’s sleek, it’s hard. It’s not like Marilyn Monroe, short and fleshy.” Patrick W. Fegan, founder-director of the Chicago Wine School and a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, agrees, saying, “Ninety-nine percent of the time you can relate wine to a person. If they can grasp that they’ll have a much easier time.”

But there are many ways to make the study of wine more approachable.

Steven Kolpan, professor of wine studies at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, and co-author of Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America’s Complete Guide to Wines of the World (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001), starts with New World varietal wines. “There’s a certain reverence for the Old World, which is not misplaced, but in terms of teaching, it’s better to start with the New World,” he says. Studying Old World wines means studying the continent’s wine laws and having some facility with foreign language, he explains, while with New World wines, students can jump right in and learn about varieties. This preparation makes it easier when they do move on to Old World wines.

In tasting class, many wine educators find that the more down to earth, the better.

“I write terms on the blackboard, like ‘cardboard,’ ‘basement,'” says Kolpan’s colleague, Anastasia Smith, beverage manager at the Hyde Park campus and teacher in the school’s continuing education program. “People say, ‘This does smell like my basement. It isn’t so intimidating; I can say whatever I want.’ ”

“I never say no,” says Frost. “If a student smells peaches, I say, ‘Yes, peaches, and do you also smell grapefruit?’ And they’ll say, yes, ‘That’s what it is—grapefruit.’ ”

Harriet Lembeck, who runs her own wine school in New York and is wine director at the New School University, tries to keep things light, and to relate wines to more familiar things. “I say, ‘I’ll be your spitting role model.’ I try to defuse it a little.” To describe the body of various wines, she compares them to milk: skim, regular and cream.

“If people don’t get it, it doesn’t matter,” says Lembeck. “Everybody’s different. If you don’t get new-mown hay, what do you get?”

“It’s finding a way to get into people’s heads,” says Lisa Airey, fine wine manager with the distributor F.P. Winner and a wine educator with her own online wine school, www.thewinekey.com. “There are so many ways to play now. People are hungry for knowledge. We are all evolving to find a format to give it to them.”

Other Formats
Wine education also turns up on university and college campuses, often in professional programs such as schools of hotel and hospitality management, or in continuing education divisions such as the Elizabeth Bishop Center at Boston University. Occasionally, however, wine turns up as a liberal arts elective.

Marian W. Baldy, professor of enology and genetics at California State University at Chico, has been offering “Introduction to Wines” in the College of Agriculture’s Plant and Soil Sciences division since 1972. The author of The University Wine Course (Wine Appreciation Guild) and a former winery owner herself, she structures her class like the science course that it is, mixing units on how the characteristics of wine are determined in the winery and vineyard, and how sensory perception works with tastings, label analysis and winery visits.

Baldy’s experience can be seen as a good gauge of how wine education is perceived by other educators—and by students. When she first proposed the class, she argued that the art and science of wine was a worthy subject for study because wine can be viewed from so many points of view: science, geography, religion, history. “I boldly and foolishly said, ‘Here are the arguments for why wine should be placed with the art and music appreciation classes,” she recalls. “I was defeated by my silver-tongued colleagues.” Academic politics won out, but her class found a place in the College of Agriculture, where it has stayed for 30 years because it is so popular with students—not just agriculture majors, but future dietitians, food service and hospitality management professionals and a healthy number of liberal arts students.

At Cornell University, “Introduction to Wines” has been offered by the School of Hotel Administration since the 1960s, and although it was designed for prospective hospitality professionals, it has developed a large following among the university’s general student body. “It’s a consumer-oriented class for people who are English majors or engineering students who feel they need to know this as they graduate from an Ivy League institution and enter their careers—and for their own enjoyment,” says the school’s Banfi Vintner Professor of Wine Education, Stephen Mutkowski. This semester, some 880 students will take the course; the class is so popular that places are awarded by lottery. Interest in wine classes has increased, Mutkowski says, along with society’s growing realization that “studying culture and cuisine and what has happened in other parts of the world is worthwhile. Students learn something about geography, trade patterns, history. In order to buy wine from Italy you have to know something about Italy. These are broadening bases of education.”

Wine classes have turned up at other colleges, as well, but not in overwhelming numbers, says Mutkowski, because schools “have been frightened of beverage activity on a university campus.”

The reality is quite the opposite, say both Baldy and Mutkowski. Wine classes introduce undergraduates to alcohol in a cultural setting that assumes mature and responsible use. Says Baldy, “teaching students about using wine in the meal process, with food, is a subtle counter to the culture of drunkenness that exists on college campuses.”

The CIA’s Kolpan contrasts general academic attitudes with his experience saying, “What’s wonderful about teaching at a school like the CIA is you don’t have to justify the teaching of wine.”

He is not technically a wine educator, but few people have had as much influence on the field of wine education as Robert G. Mondavi. The 88-year-old winemaker instituted an education program at his winery soon after it opened in 1966, and he augmented it as the years passed.

“Ever since the founding of Robert Mondavi [Winery], [we] realized that helping people learn about wine was part of our mission,” says Mark deVere, MW, who as Master of Wine at Mondavi oversees the company’s many education programs for consumers, professionals and Mondavi employees. The company has four full-time wine educators. Hour-long winery tours explore the winemaking process from vineyard to bottling, and offer history and tasting as well. Once a week, the winery conducts wine and food demos. In addition, there is education for the Mondavi sales force; they, in turn, offer training to distributors and restaurant wait staffs and, when time permits, for avocational groups and at winemaker dinners.

These activities are now part of the company culture—and the industry’s culture, as well. But as Mondavi himself recalls, convincing his peers of the value of education was a struggle: “I even had trouble with my own staff—and I was the head of the company. They wanted to sell boxes. I wanted to sell a way of life.”

Mondavi has worked steadily to spread this philosophy beyond his winery’s gates. In 1981, he teamed with Julia Child and Richard Graff to found the American Institute of Wine and Food, which they dedicated to the study of gastronomy and improving the understanding of food and drink. Today, the organization has some 7,000 members in 30 chapters around the nation. In the late 1980s, fired up by antialcohol sentiment in America, he founded the Mondavi Mission to spread the word about the health benefits of wine and its heritage in many cultures.

Now chairman emeritus of the company he founded, many of his activities are devoted to spreading the word about wine.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” says Mondavi. “if you look at where we are today and where we were. People are beginning to realize that wine in moderation can be good for you.”

To further that cause, in 1996, he and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, vice president of cultural affairs at Robert Mondavi Winery, gave $20 million in seed money to get the ball rolling on their pet project, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, which opened late last year. Copia brings together many attractions: classes on food and wine, museum exhibitions, performing arts, gardens, dinners and special events. “The purpose of the center,” says its curator of wine, Peter Marks, MW, “is to celebrate, whenever possible, the interrelationships of wine, food and the arts.”

A $35-million grant from the Mondavis will promote food, wine and art at the University of California at Davis. Some $25 million will fund the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which will include a state-of-the-art winery. The remainder of the money will fund an arts center adjacent to the wine and food facilities.

“I want to educate the American people that wine, food and the arts enhance life,” Mondavi says. “I wanted to build something permanent. I wanted a facility that would last 500 years or more.”

“Bobby’s not a small thinker,” laughs his wife.

Wine Lite
At the other end of the format spectrum is the Wine Brats. Brendan Eliason, the group’s director of education, thinks most wine education is geared toward older consumers with more disposable income than his Gen-X targets.

“We’re rethinking how those events go on in the wine industry,” he says. “We’re going to a completely new demographic.” The organization’s main venue is parties; it puts wine on tour, staging themed parties in large nightclubs in major cities throughout the country. These parties integrate wine with music and food, and often, sound-bite-style education. Attendees can stroll by, listen to Eliason’s five-minute presentation on the wines of Bordeaux and move on.

“We fundamentally believe that wine education is not necessary for wine enjoyment,” says Eliason. “If people want to know more about Bordeaux, they can go further, but we don’t overwhelm them in the first step.”

Traditionalists might question whether this “lite” approach is really education, but others say there’s room for everybody.

“You’ll find a lot of people who have been doing this for a while who might feel a little threatened by Wine Brats,” says Kolpan. “I’m not. If you want to learn a little about wine, great. If you want to learn a lot about wine, that’s great, too.”

For a comprehensive listing of organizations and universitites that offer wine classes, and for interviews with Andrea Immer and Kevin Zraly, pick up this month’s copy of Wine Enthusiast at your newsstand.

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