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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Gewuztraminer. 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?
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.