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Posted by on Aug 20, 2015 | 51 comments

How Wine Travel Lead To My WSET Education

As much as I wanted to be there I was saturated, mentally and physically. I felt I couldn’t possibly absorb any more information — or any more wine. I looked at my cell phone to check the time, it was exactly noon. We’d completed our first tasting of six wines and had another six to go.

That was last Sunday. As of today I’ve completed two of four days of my WSET (Wines and Spirits Education Trust) Level 2 certification training. I tasted 24 wines in eight hours. I’ll do it again this weekend. That’s a lot of wine!

Participating in a class that includes wine tasting may sound like fun and games but let me tell you — it’s hard. It’s not only about tasting wines but about how to properly taste wines. All the stuff that seems intimidating in the beginning: tipping the glass at a 45-degree angle and checking the color, smelling it, swirling the wine in the glass and smelling it again, swishing and spitting out a mouthful — all of that has meaning and purpose.  Perhaps this is the place where I should add: You don’t have to take a class to learn these things or to enjoy wine.

Though I live in Dallas, not exactly known as a wine mecca, one of the most qualified instructors in the world happens to have a wine school here. Dilek Caner is one of only 35 people in the USA and 312 people in the world who holds the title of Master of Wine. Not only that, she has a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. Her mantra, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”  Who am I to disagree?

Why am I doing this? Because I want to. Travel writing and blogging have been a big influence as well.  I like learning new things. If I’m going to write about something I want to know it inside out, and I like vineyards. If I’m honest, I probably enjoy visiting and photographing vineyards as much as I like the end product.

 

vineyard in Italy @PennySadler 2014

Altavita Vineyards, Emilia Romagna

Consider this — vineyards are located in temperate climates. Some of the best wines in the world come from some of the most exclusive and desirable destinations in the world: Napa Valley, almost all of France and Italy, Germany, Spain, New Zealand. Why wouldn’t I want to go there? You don’t have to love wine to enjoy the scenery and history. I think learning about wine is a great way to understand a region.

How wine Travel lead to My WSET education @PennySadler 2014

Milbrook Vineyards, Hudson Valley

So what is the WSET all about? In a nutshell, it provides internationally recognized educational standards in the world of wine and spirits. The course I’m enrolled in, Level 2, focuses on major varieties and wine regions of the world while expanding on wine tasting technique. At the end of the course the WSET Level 2 Certificate is presented to candidates who successfully complete the exam. I plan on being one of those candidates.

If I think about it the journey to getting my WSET certification really began in 2000. I had started traveling to Santa Barbara pretty regularly to visit friends. Those trips usually included day trips to the wine country in Santa Ynez: Fetzer, Sunstone, Foxen, a few big producers in Santa Barbara County. As much as I enjoyed visiting the tasting rooms it was just a fun experience that included pretty scenery, nothing more.

Then in 2013 I visited some vineyards in Italy on a travel blog-related trip. I actually helped pick grapes at lovely family-owned vineyard, Altavita, which translates “high life.” Afterward we had a tour of the winery and Alessandro, the owner, explained what happens to the grapes after they are harvested. Then our group sat down to some of the house wine, salami, and piadina, a typical bread of Emilia Romagna, made by Alessandro’s mother. Most of the information about wine making went over my head, but the camaraderie around the table is a memory I cherish. I certainly felt I was living the high life that day.  And so it began.

Why I'm taking the WSET certification exam

Alessandro Giunchi with his mother – Altavita Vineyards. Friend Catherine Sweeney wrote more about our visit to Altavita Vineyards.

 

In 2014 I took my first trip to Napa Valley where I toured Chateau Montelena and sat down for a tasting with the director of PR. She told me the story of the 1976 Paris tasting and how Napa Valley wines put California on the world wine map. That story became the movie, Bottle Shock.  Who doesn’t love a great story? It was here that what started in Italy began to come into focus.  I made a conscious decision that day. I would visit more vineyards and learn about wine.

Read more about Chateau Montelena and the Paris tasting in my article.

Tasting room, Chateau Montelena @Penny Sadler 2014

Tasting Room at Chateau Montelena

I followed my Napa trip with another trip to Santa Barbara, spending a day in the Santa Ynez Valley. I followed that trip with New York’s Hudson Valley, Monterey County and in May 2015, Paso Robles. Once I make a decision to do something I don’t fool around.

 

Read more about my road trip along the Dutchess County wine trail. in Hudson Valley.

A few tasting tips I’ve learned the hard way.

When you’re really having a good time at a tasting it’s easy to lose track of how many ounces of wine you’ve consumed. Here are a few tips especially for social and novice winos but even experienced winos need to be reminded.

Appoint a designated driver — seems obvious, right? If I’m on my own, as I was in the Hudson Valley, I only go to one tasting.

Learn to spit. I know what you’re thinking– no way are you going to spit out that luscious Bordeaux or Gewurtztraminer. Think about it this way — if you taste twelve wines and each glass has two ounces of wine in it, by then end of the day you will have drunk one entire bottle of wine. Alone.

Drink a lot of water between tastings.

I recommend not visiting more than three wineries in one day. Hard to do when you’re in a premium wine area but smart. I’ve even been told by drivers that they wish their customers would learn not to cram so much into such a short time. Maybe they know something?

WSET Certification Level 2, Dallas

Setting up for a day in class. WSET Level 2 training with Dilek Caner.

Drinking wine is a social experience, at least for me. What fun is it to drink something so delicious, so perfect, and not have anyone to share it? I love traveling solo but drinking wine solo… No. A good wine is meant to be shared. And that’s what’s so great about wine travel. There’s no shortage of people happy to drink with you.

Learning about the wine regions of the world and the grapes grown there can only make my future experiences richer and more rewarding. That’s reason enough for me.

Follow me on twitter to learn more about my WSET education. And on Facebook for stories and photos not posted here.

Sterling Vineyards, @PennySadler 2014

Sterling Vineyards, Napa Valley

51 Comments
  1. I am about to start my WSET journey with level 2 in December…very much looking forward to it! I definitely need to learn how to spit (gracefully). I am doing the 3 day course – not sure if that’s the one you did? But I can imagine it’s necessary tasting all those wines in one day…

    • Hi Angela, you will love the class and be so glad you did it. My course was over two weekends. About 4 half days. 12 wines per day. You will learn to spit quickly! 🙂 I’m not always graceful, but no one is.

  2. I m very happy about wset course I’m also planning to do it I’m a wine enthusiast still learning about different countries wine all I need is a course which will give me vineyard exposure & what’s the price for the course as I’m working class in hotel in mumbai india need a sponsorship any help from any wine company God bless you

    • Good luck Joseph. There are other courses as well, and less expensive. Have a look online. You might find something more affordable. Also, there are some WSET sponsorships I think but you have to qualify first.

  3. Penny, congratulations on pursuing formal wine education. I took the leap a while back and it’s both fun and gratifying. I now have a wine school in Phoenix teaching WSET courses and other classes. Our students who then travel have more enriching memorable experiences in the wine regions of the world.

    • Thank you so much for the comment and reading the article. I’m looking forward to applying my new knowledge on the wine road in Italy next week.

  4. sounds interesting … I am also planning to do a wine tasting soon 🙂

  5. Haha, I’ve been in that same spot! Okay, I wasn’t learning about wine, just drinking it. This sounds like an awesome course to take and a unique skill to have. I love wine but I want to know more about it. unfortunately, I would probably get kicked out of this course because I wouldn’t follow the spit rule!

    • Well it would make it pretty hard to do the course to be honest.

  6. I could imagine doing this myself. I love tasting local wines when I travel. I recently went to Hungary and previously had no idea that it so many wonderful wines. Good luck with progressing through your classes – sounds like a good combination of education and pure fun tasting wonderful wines.

    • I also have recently been reading about Hungarian wines. I hope I will have a chance to try them soon!

  7. Was looking for something like this – now I know what it’s called and where to find it!! Your tips are great – especially appointing a designated driver, although that task usually falls to me unfortunately!!

    • Great! Glad you found some useful information.

  8. This is the first I’ve heard of WSET education, but I find it very glamorous. 🙂

  9. Those tips for wine tasting are great! Must remember them!

    • A lot of folks don’t like the idea of spitting but let me tell you, it comes in handy.

  10. More than 3 wineries a day… did that in australia but good thing we had a designated driver. I also agree, you don’t need to take a class to appreciate wine. I always enjoy wine tasting tours

    • I just can’t make sense of more than 3. I’m a light weight.

  11. Oh wow! I had never heard of WSET certification before but it sounds like a great course to do. I love wine, but only have a very basic knowledge about the wines I drink. I would love to do something like this to have a greater understanding of the delish wines I consume around the world.

  12. I’m seriously considering WSET – they have offices and a school within walking distance of where I live in London. Did you start at level 2? That’s been suggested to me – but I’m not sure it’s wise.

    As for the spitting – I do a mix still (amateur!). When I first went on a wine trip, I was suprised by it.

  13. Travel is always so much more meaningful when you have some background info. Since you enjoy everything surrounding wine, this sounds like a great way to enhance your travel experience! Good luck 🙂

  14. That’s so cool that you’re going to “wine school”! Good for you for just doing it because you want to, I love that. We’ve been to quite a few wineries around the world and it would have been nice to know how to properly sniff, swirl and sip 🙂

    Cheers!

  15. Very sage & practical advice about the best way to enjoy doing a wine tasting tour in Napa! I would also add that if you’re coming from the East Coast, then take advantage of the time change and start when the tasting rooms open. Not many people drink wine at 10AM, but if you’re body is on EST, it feels like 1 PM.

  16. COngrats on your WSET Penny! It’s a really fab idea – I’m in the same boat re wanting to know what I’m doing when I go on a blogging trip to a winery – we passed through Napa earlier in the year and took in a few wine tastings though we’re absolute ametuers when it comes to wine, so a course probably would have been a good idea beforehand.

    Thinking I’ll check into whether or not there’s some kind of equivalent I can take here in Australia. Thanks for the tips about wine tastings too – I’m lucky that my husband doesn’t drink lol so I always have a designated driver on hand :D!

    • I’m sure there’s something in Australia. And there are online courses too. Check out the WSET website.

  17. Good luck with the course. I don’t know anything about wine really, but went to a few wine tastings before. Rather than spitting the wine out again, like I was supposed to, I swallowed it all though. Was more fun that way. 😉

  18. The Spanish University in my city is offering a master’s in eno technology – I’m fascinated at how drinks are made and how they’re consumed socially. I love living where good wine is cheap and plentiful!

  19. Great story! What I appreciate the most is your attitude towards wine. You liked it enough to push yourself to a professional way of tasting it. How wonderful! I’m pretty sure that from now on your experience of traveling gained additional dimension.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Agata. I’m looking forward to testing my new knowledge on my upcoming trip to Piemonte in Italy!

  20. What an intriging experience and so good for the soul….wine.
    Happy for you Penny. Sounds like a great way for you to enjoy wine as well as educate yourself to it’s difference.
    Next time your in the Hudson visit the Tuthilltown Distillery. Distilling alcohol is such a different procedure than wine. And they don’t spit out any product!

    • Haha! Spitting is ok. Otherwise I’m hammered in no time at all!

  21. Good luck making your way through the different levels. It’s such a feeling of accomplishment when you can take these courses and pass the exams. I’m the same as you where there is so much to learn in this world and further educate yourself and it makes you a better person a more experienced and educated blogger. Cheers!

    • Thanks Jennifer. I take the exam this weekend. Really looking forward to having it behind me. I don’t know what I’m going to do now as my taste level just shot up about 10 notches! LOL

  22. Oh Penny, you’ll dredge up any excuse to drink wine, won’t you? But good luck on those scholarly pursuits, you scholarly wino. Maybe next time we meet, you can educate me.

  23. Really enjoyed this post Penny. As someone who LOVES wine and LOVES to travel and also LOVES to learn new things, it really resonated with me. Also our first wine tasting tour was B.C. (before children) through the wine area of British Columbia, Canada, …..on a motorcyle. We had not learned the spit principle so very quickly were stranded at the winery until Bill was sober enough to drive us back to our campground. On this trip I fell in love with Gewurtztraminer, and to this day when I taste it I remember that trip. Great memories 🙂

    • Haha love the anecdote about spitting. I finally learned! It’s great! LOL Thanks for the comments.

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