Wine on the Brain? Options for Wine Education

“his lips drink water
but his heart drinks wine”

― E.E. Cummings

One of the most captivating aspects of wine is there is always something new to learn and discover. With more than 70 wine producing countries around the world, each with multiple wine regions producing over 1000 grape varieties, there is endless information to keep knowledge-seeking wine lovers engaged.

Once you begin your wine love affair, you’ll find that wine is more than just an alcoholic beverage, the quest for wine knowledge becomes a lifestyle. As your pursuit of knowing more about this delicious substance evolves and you find yourself with “Wine on the Brain” there are many avenues you can take to help you on your wine journey. As you continue to sample wines and study more about its history you’ll find yourself continually learning something new about its depth and complexity.

If you are new to the world of wine it may feel intimidating at first because you’ve seen movies or reality shows with sommeliers swirling and smelling wine then after a sip they swish it around in their mouths before spitting it into buckets. However, wine can and should be much more laid back and accessible than these productions depict. If honing your wine tasting skills and learning more about the wine making craft drives you, don’t let preconceived ideas about wine and wine knowledge stop you from learning as much as you can!

Before I share some ways to expand your wine knowledge always remember wine should be fun, and as with any new experience it’s entirely about what you make of it. Wine can be emotional, once your interest is peaked, you will soon discover that the more you learn, the more you want to reveal. Just remember to enjoy the journey as you chart your course through the “liquid geography” as it opens up to you.

Wine Education Programs:

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the hieroglyph labels and wide assortment as you walk through the wine aisle then one of the first options to bottle that nervous feeling is to enroll in a wine education course. Formal wine education courses are filled with both wine hobbyists and future sommeliers who desire the organization of a set study schedule and a certification exam.

A wine education program is not essential, but it can make wine more approachable, interactive, and fun! Below is a few of the top wine education programs that will help you on your wine expedition.

Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

WSET offers qualifications in tiers, from one-day beginner courses to the advanced Level 4 Diploma. WSET’s education is delivered via accredited classroom and online providers around the world, and all of its examinations are conducted in person. Final exams for Level 3 and Level 4 certification require tasting evaluations, codified in the widely recognized WSET Systemic Approach to Tasting. WSET classifies the sensory acts involved in drinking wine which is beneficial for students who want to hone their palate and tasting skills.

Having completed both WSET 2 and WSET 3 I can attest to how difficult the exams can be, but you take away an incredible amount of wine knowledge creating a strong foundation and initiating your life long wine education journey.

Court of Master Sommeliers (MS)

The Court of Master Sommeliers study is similar to WSET in that it is capped by four exam levels that culminate with the Master Sommelier Diploma exam, which is noted as being one of the world’s most challenging tests. Unlike WSET, the Court of Master Sommeliers also focuses on customer stewardship and service, generally in an on-premise setting.

Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW)

Applying to the Institute of Masters of Wine requires the WSET Diploma or equivalent, like a bachelor or master degree in wine or a top-level sommelier certification. Other conditions also includes a recommendation from a current MW or senior trade pro, at least three years of current and continuous professional wine involvement and completion of a notoriously difficult practical and theory assignment. The arrangement also includes work with a mentor, a research paper and an annual residential seminar.

Wine Scholar Guild (WSG)

For individuals who prefer to focus on a particular country, the Wine Scholar Guild offers French, Italian and Spanish studies, all of which can be further specialized with master-level certifications for distinct wine regions. WSG offers online and classroom curriculum that’s either independent study or instructor-led, both include reading materials, quizzes and a comprehensive manual. Exams are conducted in-person or with an online proctor. WSG students are eligible for immersion study trips and membership benefits like access to past webinars and a private forum.

Society of Wine Educators (SWE)

Society of Wine Educators offers a range of self-study programs that includes specialist and educator certifications in wine and spirits, as well as a beverage and hospitality specialist course. The programs finish with a multiple-choice exam taken at testing centers, located in most major cities.

Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

The Certified Specialist of Wine works on building a candidate’s wine knowledge and mastery of key elements within the worlds of viticulture and wine production. The 1 hour exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions drawn exclusively from the CSW Study Guide. This certification is widely recognized and regarded by the international wine industry.

Napa Valley Wine Academy

Napa Valley Wine Academy offers a wide array of courses such as Wine 101 – Foundation Online Course™ and support to help you achieve your wine education goals. In addition to fully digital online wine courses and experiences they also provide WSET 1-3.

I completed two Napa Valley Wine Academy online courses, American Wine Expert and Oregon Wine Expert between WSET 2 and WSET 3 and I was really impressed with the amount of information that each course delivered.

All of the above options do require set times, study dedication and of course money. If you do want to understand the growing practices’, climate differences and winemaking styles and rules without digging deep into your bank account then a self-taught wine education approach is a good alternative.

Approaches to Wine Education on your own….

There are a lot of advantages to approaching wine education on your own. In addition to the numerous resources that are readily available there is sometime to be said about learning about wine from the comfort of your own sofa without the need to arrange your life around a set schedule. Wine study on your own is incredibly convenient and for wine lovers with a deep commitment to learning, self study can offer a rich and rewarding experience.

Learning the Language of Wine

One of the best things about wine is that you get to taste it, and there is a lot out there to taste! If you want to dive deeper into wine and learn about its language then the best way to start is by opening a bottle and pouring yourself a glass. By learning the language of wine you deepen your knowledge of the properties in each sip while cultivating your passion of wine.

Components of aroma and taste:
Learning about wine should begin with deciding what type of wine you like to drink and build your initial knowledge by study through tasting. From there you’ll begin to focus on specific countries, regions and the varietals that speak to you more than others.

As you investigate different regions and varietals start building a wine vocabulary to assist you in describing what you are seeing, smelling and tasting. Two resources that can help you develop this vocabulary are the WSET Level 3 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine® and Wine Tasting Terms And How to Use Them from Wine Folly. A valuable resource to aid you in becoming more familiar and to recognize individual flavors and aromas, is by using an aroma wheel created by Wine Folly. This handy device lists the various flavors and aromas in wine as well as enhance your wine knowledge by improving your ability to describe complexities in red and white wines.

Once you have the best aids to help you build wine vocabulary you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to come up with the right words to describe what you’re tasting or smelling. At first this is incredibly useful, but over time you will find that you don’t need devices anymore to help you describe the independent flavors of wine. A good way to start working on these new vocabulary terms is by starting with easy drinking, approachable bottles and moving towards more complex wines with nuanced personalities.

Next, mature your knowledge of wines by learning about Wine Faults and How to Recognize Them and move onto reading and tasting about what happens to the flavors of wines over time. This article in Wine Enthusiast, What Really Happens as Wine Ages? is a great resource, however tasting a range of new and older vintages on your own is the best way to to really experience how wine evolves and changes.

Helpful Tool: Pairing Passion with Practice by keeping a Wine Tasting Journal

Keeping a personalized wine journal is a great hobby for wine newbies, wine enthusiasts and wine professionals alike. Your wine journal is a place to collect and record observations as well as opinions on the wines you taste, whether that happens in a winery, a bar or restaurant, even in the comfort of your own home.

Start with the basics and jot down the producer, the wine’s full name, the region of origin, its grape variety or varieties, its price and its alcohol percentage. Next add in observations about the color and appearance, aromas and flavors, the structure of the wine including acidity, tannins and body, lastly describe the finish of the wine. When you have these notes in place you will be able to better determine your overall impression of the wine and if you wish you can also add a wine rating. You don’t need to use a point system, rate them how you would like.

The goal is to build a wine journal that can be something you reference in the future, but most importantly, you are forcing yourself to pay attention to wine in a detailed and systematic fashion.

Moleskine Wine Journal available on Amazon.

Developing a Wine Pallet

Developing a refined wine pallet will take time and it can take years for one to begin enjoying the taste of a dry red wine if you tend to only like whites, rosés or sparkling wines. We all have starting points when it comes to wine but eventually we graduate to expand our preferences. Finding wines that are suitable for your taste buds is largely a game of trial and error and always remember that you’re allowed to like whatever you choose and still be a certified wine lover.

Once you begin to get a better grasp on how certain wines taste you’ll need to start learning about the history of wine, the wine making process and what makes each wine region terroir so distinct. This is where the real effort of tracking down the best resources to assist your self-taught wine education happens. These resources can be found in books, on wine web sites and wine blogs, listening to wine pod casts, or even talking to the staff at a favorite wine shops or tasting room. Another great resource could be friends who are more knowledgeable than you about wine or seeking out a local wine tasting group that gets together to share detailed tasting notes and share wine stories.

When you want to learn about wine, treat the wine drinking experience as a moment of discovery while you savor every sip to explore the texture, taste, and aroma.

Books about Wine…

When you are ready to level-up your wine knowledge, there are hundreds of books available which provide a roadmap to teach yourself more about wine. Books can be a valuable resource and help you discover why wine is such an incredible living thing. Books also help demystify the world of wine by tackling the many misconceptions about wine. Just know as with any subject there are differences of opinion and many different optics, and wine is no exception. By reading and understanding the confounding joy of wine you may also come to realize you may never fully master everything there is to know about this topic, but you can sure try!

With a few (or a hundred) essential books in your library you can easily turn your wine knowledge up a notch with encyclopedic reference books, grape varietal books, wine travelogues and entertaining books about life in the wine world.

The following books are just a few that I would recommend to get you started in learning more about wine:

Wine Folly The Master Guide: This book is great for visual learners as it is full of graphics and charts explaining grapes, regions and styles.

Appropriately titled, Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible is considered the Bible of wine though it is a hefty 736 pages it covers everything you could possibly want to know about the world of wine.

Kevin Zraly is America’s most entertaining and famous wine teacher who has written a book of his own book based on the field—Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. This book includes topics like Wine Basics, Tasting Wine, Matching Wine and Food, and more.

Jancis Robinson is a leading international authority on wine and any of her books will answer all of your most pressing wine questions. I would suggest starting with newest edition of The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine, then to help you better understand wines here in the states continue with American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States. I really recommend reading all of Jancis Robinsons books, in the world of wine she has a wealth of knowledge.

Maps play an important role in helping you explore wine regions. Journey Through Wine: An Atlas is a beautiful cartographic history of the world of wine, from 6000 BC until today, with detailed maps along with incredible facts about wine making.

By studying on your own you can really build up on the basics​​ by understanding the general regions first, their grape varieties and styles of wine. Then you can narrow your focus even deeper into a specific region, such as Portugal, to get a better understanding of not only the wine growing and wine making practices there, but also learn more about the people, the landscape and the culture. If you are able to I highly recommend picking up a few bottles of wine from the area that you will be reading more in-depth about so that you can get a sense of the flavors that come from that unique wine region.

As you work your way through the library of books that are available on the subject of wine give yourself some time to traverse other avenues of wine knowledge as well like Wine Blogs, Wine Podcasts and even TV series about wine.

Wine Blogs

Wine blogs present a broad coverage of wine while also covering the latest trends, industry news and new releases from wineries around the world. Blogs also offer unfiltered wine reviews, editorials and wine travel adventures that can inspire your next wine purchase or help you plan an upcoming wine vacation. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of wine blogs that have a passionate point of view about wine and it would be impossible to list all of the great ones to follow and read. I would start by visiting Madeline Puckette on her website, Wine Folly which is an award-winning brand dedicated to wine education for all.

A couple of my other favorite Wine Blogs;

The VinePair website has a wide range of unique, accessible wine content including reviews, expert profiles, recipes, and pairing recommendations.

The Wine Economist-Mike Veseth is editor of The Wine Economist and author of more than a dozen books including Around the World in Eighty Wines (2018) and Wine Wars II (2022).

You can also check out, A Wine Blog For Every Taste[bud] which is a recent list of wine blogs from Forbes.

Although not always just about wine, you can find a lot of wine information here on Drink In Life, including my series on Washington State AVAs. My most recent article is the beautiful and Alluring Ancient Lakes AVA. In this supplement you will find links to previous WA AVA stories and in the category section on the left side of this page you will find more about wines, wine travel and wine education.

Wine Podcasts

A very interesting and informal way to learn about wine is by to listening to a podcast. Today there are many different alternatives which cover a variety of topics ranging from grape varieties and regions, to interviews with individuals related to the world of wine. To assist you in learning about wines often with a dose of humor I recommend browsing this list of the 70 Best Wine Podcasts from Feedspot.

Wine Related TV Series

The Wine Show – is a delightful travel series about the stories behind some of the world’s most fascinating wine regions and wines. Seasons 1-3 explore the stunningly scenic wine regions of Italy, France, and Portugal while sharing history, winemakers stories and of course a multitude of great wines. If you haven’t watched this series yet you are in for a treat.

V is for Vino – takes you on a deeper journey into the wine world! Each episode, hosted by certified sommelier Vince, explores different wine regions, their culture and history and introduces you to winemakers while also sharing an educational glimpse into the world of wine. When I first started with the WSET courses, I found this series very helpful in explaining certain wine terms and methods.

Wine Masters – is available to purchase on Amazon and each season currently available is a documentary look at terroir, tradition, and taste. Filled with valuable information the series shares the stories of some of the most prestigious winemaking families and the most famous wine regions around the world.

Continue to Expand your Wine Proficiency

Wineries can be the best way to learn more about wine. Go to a winery and get a tour of the facilities from someone who can explain the process along the way. People that love wine also love talking about it and they are often excited to share their passion and story. The key to a wine education is exposing yourself to various people and places. When visiting any winery location, don’t be afraid to ask questions and do your own research about the history of the winery and the wine region. And let’s face it; tasting wine has to be the best kind of research there is so be sure to try as many wines as possible at each new place that you visit. You just might find your new favorite ‘house wine’ or discover the perfect bottle to take home and tuck away for a special occasion.

Other ways to experience and learn more about wine;

Keep an eye out for wine events, wine seminars, wine classes and Wine Boot Camps in your area or in regions you may be visiting.

“Wine is like life, it must be savored, not gulped.”

– James Norwood Pratt

Expand Your Wine Tasting Adventures:

Start a tasting group with other wine enthusiasts: Tasting groups are an enjoyable and inexpensive way to learn about wines. Hold meetings once or twice a month on a particular theme, like focusing on a single variety of wine, then have each participant bring a bottle of the same variety (such as Pinot Noir). Taste them blindly, then compare their differences based on the regions of origin, climate & Terroir, vineyard soil, winemaking methods and of course, taste and aromas.

All of this combined sounds like a pretty daunting list of stuff! It’s a lot, but you can build this knowledge slowly and because wine is not static, you will always want to find new ways to seek more knowledge about this ever changing libation.

Life is too short to drink bad wine! Whether you are sipping a new wine at home or taking part in a wine tasting at a winery or an event, it is important to remember that if you don’t like something, don’t feel obligated to drink the entire bottle or even finish the sample. At a winery or event politely dump it into the receptacle and move on to tasting the next one. At home set the bottle aside to use for cooking with or pour it down the drain.

There are many interesting approaches to keep learning about wine, but no matter which avenue you follow, be it a formal wine course or self-study at home, I have always believed that the best way to learn about wine is by drinking wine. As in everything however, the important thing is balance. Enjoying wine is a sensory practice that should be experienced but not every day.

I hope that all of this information is helpful as you traverse along on your wine journey. Cheers and thanks for reading.

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

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