There are a lot of wine education paths to take, which is best for you?
By Simone FM Spinner, CWS, MH
Learning about wine can be an academic exploration or a deliciously curious journey. The former, for the serious student of enology or wine industry professional, and the later for the pure joy of learning just enough about wine to always select the perfect bottle for your next dinner party or sipping pleasure.
My study of wine began more than two decades ago with just one book, the Windows of the World Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (third from the bottom, far left, in the photo of my wine book collection above). I immediately knew then, that I wanted to learn everything I could learn about wine, so my journey began with one course and led to a dozen certification courses and countless books on the subject. Your journey doesn’t need to be so intense to be as satisfying.
Wine education today is much more accessible and can easily be tailored to your needs. As a wine educator myself, I’ve broken down wine education into five categories, each with pros and cons and varying levels of formality. All to help you pair your wine education with your level of interest.
Books & Magazine – Wine Apps – Online Wine Education – University Wine Appreciation Courses – Professional Wine Courses
Let’s take a look at each so you can determine the best wine education path for your palate.
Wine Books & Articles
The easiest way to start learn about wine is to read a great book, magazine or wine blog.
Getting started can be hard though. Finding just the right wine book for your purposes can seem overwhelming. In my early days of wine education, books like K.I.S.S. and the For Dummies series were just being written, so most of what I read back then was much more academic and trade-oriented. Jancis Robinson, Tom Stevenson, and Hugh Johnson were the British wine expert trifecta writing learned wine tomes.
These days, I opt for something on the lighter side when I reference a book. I love Grapes by Oz Clark, Wines of the World by DK and Exploring Wine by Koplen, Smith & Weiss. The most innovative wine books to come out in the last decade are Madeline Puckett and Justin Hammack’s Wine Folly Essential Guide to Wine and Wine Folly The Master Guide. (Wine is complex and while Wine Folly is a great place to start, even the most curious will want to learn more than these books can offer.)
Magazines like Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, and Wine Spectator, provide a range of accessible wine-related topics, wine region exploration, vintage charts, ratings, and “best-of” lists. Newspaper wine columns can be incredibly informative too. I read Eric Asimov’s New York Times column and Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal column each week. They are always on-trend, focusing on seasonal drinking and dining with that is welcoming and warm.
Wine Apps are on the newest front of accessible information with apps to help you select wines, purchase and collect them. Most apps provide information based on labels and ratings. I can see how wine apps can be helpful in a pinch when deciding on a wine in a shop or restaurant, but the information is limited to label reads or tasting notes. Some wine apps also provide a shopping radius or delivery option.
The most popular wine apps I have explored are…
- Wine Ring is a hybrid tool for pros and consumers alike.
- Vivino is geared toward collectors along with Cellar Tracker.
- Delectable and Wine-Searcher contain a wealth of information that will thrill professionals and novices alike.
- There are also several wine apps that can help when you’re traveling to wine country. Read more about them here.
Online Wine Education Courses
Online Wine Education Courses are all the rage today. You can find MOOC’s, Master Classes, single seminars, webinars, and online serials. Some are free, most are not. Prices range from inexpensive single classes to hundreds if not thousands of dollars for courses and certification programs.
Most of the best online wine courses are hosted by industry professionals or wine critics and writers.
- Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan MW offers her courses through the Great Courses outlet ($35-$95 each) and her own website.
- As does Jancis Robinson MW, mentioned above.
- James Suckling of Wine Spectator fame is the newest addition to the famous Master Class website.
- Wine Spectator also offers exceptional courses.
Many professional wine courses are also offering online education programs, such as those from The Napa Wine Academy, which is explained more in the following section. These courses do allow for some level of formal wine certifications.
For more of the beginner or just wine curious, there are some fun and free online wine education courses from companies like Coursera, Udemy, and Khan Academy. And, don’t forget about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These are free online courses available for anyone to enroll. They can be an easy way to learn about a new topic or learn a new skill. (This is a online wine course focused on champagne.)
University Wine Appreciation Courses
University Wine Appreciation Courses have long been available at Ivy League universities, community colleges, and most institutions of higher learning in between. Many state universities and colleges offer hospitality programs that feature enology courses. Culinary schools will too. I teach continuing education wine master class and for-credit academic wine courses for the University of Colorado, Denver. Both are very popular with students looking for a fascinating elective and wine curious lifelong learners. University wine courses are as fun as they are enriching. Check out the colleges and universities in your city for more information.
Professional Wine Courses
Professional Wine Courses are seriously big business in the hospitality and wine world today. Wine enthusiasts are familiar with the term “sommelier’ and wonder what it takes to become one. The answer is study-taste-repeat! These courses dive deep into the sensory analysis of wines from key and obscure regions around the world.
There are many avenues for professional wine study but only a few that really matter in the professional arena. Most schools and guilds offer similar information and develop equivalent skills, but the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and its subsequent The Institute of Masters of Wine along with the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) are the most renowned and respected of the group.
The Wine Scholar Guild focuses on regional immersion classes and the Society of Wine Educators trains educators and judges. Some of these courses require wine industry affiliation but not all. If you are serious about your study and want to join a peer-group of professional students, this might be an option for you.
These organizations base their method on a certification system that increases in rigor with each level. Introductory certifications are great for wine curious and enthusiasts. Advanced and Master level certification will require some professional industry experience.
Wine regions often have associations, academies, and organizations devoted to promoting their wines by educating the public. The Napa Wine Academy takes it to the next level by offering classes on just about any wine region you want to explore.
The Napa Wine Academy offers certification courses from both the WSET and the CMS to their students. Philly Wine, in Pennsylvania, is a popular choice for home-study and online WEST driven certification classes. University viticulture and enology programs at the University of California Davis, Bordeaux University, France, and The University of Adelaide in Australia are among the best four-year enology programs. Adelaide also offers a free class called From Grape to Glass through Course Central. These require a serious commitment to wine education with the aim of becoming a professional winemaker.
With so many wonderful choices, your wine education can be as simple or structured as you want it to be. I recommend checking out a weekly wine column or website along with a simple book like Wine Folly to start out on your journey. Grab a few great bottles and explore tasting techniques. Only then will you decide how far you want to go with your training. Most of us, professionals included, just want a great bottle of wine to pair with our favorite meals or to sip on while we sit on our patios and watch the world go by.
By Simone FM Spinner, CWS, MH
Simone FM Spinner is a top-rated university wine lecturer and certified sommelier with thirteen advanced wine certifications, a bachelor’s and master’s degree in wine studies, and is pursuing her doctorate studying the socioeconomic and cultural effects of climate change on wine. She is a sought-after wine consultant, public speaker, and published author. She organizes wine events and international wine tours through her company Wine Rocks & Chasing Grapes™©. Her website is Wine RocksLLC.com™©