Category Archives: Education

Get Schooled

Perhaps you’ve recently had an “Aha!” wine—the swirl, sniff, and sip that paused the spinning world. Maybe you’ve long ago fallen down the wine rabbit hole, and then started following the wine event calendars at your local wine shops. Or maybe you have ten years of wine geekery under your belt, and have participated in a monthly wine tasting group for a few years, where you endeavor to explore a specific varietal or region each gathering.

Regardless of your experience level, take another step. Curiosity desires knowledge and experience. Below you’ll find a collection of next steps, starting with the simple and moving toward the advanced.

Book shelf of the obsessed

Read

The sheer number of wine regions and styles overwhelms many new to wine. Now is the time to get your hands on one excellent wine book, ideally a thorough and approachable romp through the core regions and styles. Importantly, reading this solid primer provides enough information to make the next steps more comfortable and pleasurable.

Recommendations:

  • Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly
  • The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil — Don’t let the title mislead. I find MacNeil’s writing creative and buoyant. Read all materials prefacing the wine regions, and then read a handful of core regions to whet your appetite. Move on to the next step before finishing the book.
Flight of Syncline wines

Flight of Syncline wines

Flights

Start seeking opportunities to taste 3-8 wines at a time. Tasting wines in isolation provides little insight. The connective and comparative judgments fall short when three weeks have passed between your two most recent glasses of Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Subscribe to a handful of local specialty wine shops’ newsletters. Most of them, at least the ones worth knowing, hold tastings either weekly or monthly. Whether it’s a flight of wines from around the world, or a comparative tasting of five Washington Syrahs, the experience will elevate your understanding of and pleasure with wine.

Wine School

I can hear the moans. “Really?” Yes, really. Sitting down at a table with other wine curious individuals and a reputable teacher will take your understanding and appreciation to new heights. Depending upon the course provider, the costs need not be prohibitive.

Recommended Courses:

  • Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) — provides 4 levels of study. Level 2 is a great place to start for anybody who has already endeavored in steps one and two above.
  • Research “wine schools” or “wine classes” in your area. Many cities have unique institutions serving their communities, some of which partner with broader institutions like WSET.

Wine Tasting Group

This step can arguably be placed anywhere in the process. However, I have found most who participate in wine tasting groups have at least participated in two of the three steps above, if not all. Having a grounding in winemaking, regions, and styles greatly enhances a groups ability to dig in to thoughtfully procured flights. Plus, where else do you meet a group of 8+ wine lovers who want to gather weekly or monthly to focus on the wines at hand?

Fin

Take another step forward. The beguiling bottles that await will not disappoint. It is often a rabbit hole experience, and a wholly more pleasurable one than what we’ve started experiencing since January 20th.

Tasting a vertical flight of Apolloni Ruby Vineyard Pinot Noir

Ruby Vineyard vertical at Apolloni Vineyard

In-smell

I have a bias. I’ve long held this inclination, but have recently worked to expand my awareness. New in . . . sight has affirmed my bias—no more shame.

I care way more about the aromatics of a wine than any other factor. From the nose we can gauge nuance, complexity, layers, intrigue, depth, density, purity, specific aromas. . . you get the point. However, as a rather new industry-insider, many around me have emphasized the importance of wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Why? Points and the general public.

I submit wines for my employer (a producer of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) to nearly all of the major wine publications for review and a score. Conversations with winemakers, PR/Marketing specialists, and other industry insiders, in conjunction with a close following of the scoring publications, has undeniably confirmed the value of a wine’s texture, weight, and presence on the palate. Palate increases points—most want a suavely-textured wine.

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A captivating bottle produced by Owen Roe

I, however, put much less emphasis on mouthfeel when judging a wine. And after months of refocusing on texture, weight, tannins, acidity, and their interaction, the last two weeks have jilted my new practice. I recently caught the bug that gave my wife Pneumonia. While spared the clogged lungs, my head has suffered the consequences mightily, and so has my sense of smell. I’ve spent two nights at my WSET Level 3 in Wine course unable to smell the Pommard, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Côte-Rôtie wines tasted during the sessions. Zero smell. “Alright, a new chance to focus my energy on the palate,” I consoled myself.

Nonsense.

Wine is simply alcohol without our sense of smell. Yes, I could and did focus on these other factors while sick, but I could have instead drunk orange juice to play with acid, or whole milk to experience weight. Hell, combine the two—it wouldn’t have mattered. Smell makes wine the knee-buckling elixir that has captivated our minds for millennia. While not the only factor that makes a wine great, smell is primary.

If you, like the publication editors and reviewers, value a wine’s density and texture, more power to you. I’m going to keep swirling and sticking my nose in the glass, because I revel in the rapture of this rabbit hole.

The maker of the rabbit hole

The maker of the rabbit hole

How to Lose a Sale

Step one: Pull the cork on your winery’s award-winning Pinot Noir.

Step two: Fail to test the wine for flaws prior to pouring or test the wine and fail to notice flaws.

Step three: Pour two-thirds of the bottle to other tasting room guests (title shift, “How to Lose a Silly Number of Sales”).

Step four: Pour award-winning wine, while gloating over the award.

Step five: Fail to acknowledge a flaw (cork taint, aka TCA) when guest, backed by group of four other tasters, states the wine is corked. More specifically, taste the wine in question in front of the guest, then tell the guest that she is wrong. Do so while holding the questioned bottle, which now contains three ounces of award-winning Pinot Noir.

Step six: Admit to minimal wine experience during your time talking with this group.

Mission accomplished. Take a bow.

Chapter Deux

Starting today, I put all my chips into this world of bottled history and culture. Wagon Wine began in 2014 while I continued my full-time career teaching literature and writing. The site served as a creative outlet, a challenge to deepen my understanding of wine while writing engagingly. After a year of working both in the classroom and for a Willamette Valley producer, Fullerton Wines, I have accepted a full-time position with the Fullerton family. My wife says she can see the child-like wonder in my eyes—the thrill of fireworks on the fourth of July. I’m sure she can.

Expect more frequent posts as I jump head first, glass in hand, into my vinous ventures. I will also begin the WSET Level 3 Advanced Course in August as a way to broaden my perspective and palate. I anticipate the benefits of this study to flow into my writing and workplace.

A business trip to Elk Cove Vineyard this past week. Always beautiful in wine country, however, this site stands above the rest.

A business trip to Elk Cove Vineyard this past week. Always beautiful in wine country, however, this site stands above most.

Here are a few articles I’ve had published elsewhere in the past month:

Chapter one stirred the pot.

Chapter Deux

After embarking up the first mile of trail, a metamorphosis . . .

Thank you all for your support.

Visions through the Mist at the Oregon Wine Symposium

Last week’s Oregon Wine Symposium provided plenty of fodder for this curious mind. A few tidbits for you, my beloved readers, to ponder and peruse:

  1. 2015, the warmest vintage on record in the Willamette Valley, will become the norm between 2035—2045. The wine industry and many others (NASA, ski resorts, Inuit villages, farmers more broadly) take the projections seriously. We should all abide. While we often focus on air temperature increases, ocean and soil temperature rise both pose unique risks, many of which we do not understand well (or at all). Microbial life in the soils, for example, will change with the soil temperature increases we see today.
  2. The Willamette Valley and western Columbia Gorge, two of the only true cold-climate growing regions in the United States, are better suited for the warming future, though varietals will have to shift over time to accommodate the changing environment. Large diurnal temperature swings* have set the Willamette Valley apart from most growing regions in the United States. Unfortunately, average low temperatures have risen faster than average high temperatures, which will result in the Willamette Valley losing its diurnal edge.Some cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruitSome cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruit
  3. Consolidation within the wine industry, nationally and globally, inserts agitating slivers into the healthy flesh of Oregon wine. Large distributors have merged (Glazer’s and Southern should concern us all, for example), and the pace of vineyard and winery buy-outs has accelerated. This challenges the heart of Oregon wine, known rightly as the land of small, family wineries and vineyards with a keen interest in sustainable, life-giving operations. 5,000+ case wineries represent but a quarter of the Oregon industry, and vineyards over 50 acres hardly exist. You juxtapose this to California or even Washington, and Oregon looks like the land of peasant farmers on petite parcels. However, Oregon wine has justly earned a reputation for serious quality. The small-scale often allows winemakers to craft wines that sing siren songs to our passing ears.
  4. The fellowship and collaborative spirit within the Oregon wine industry sets the state apart from the rest of the wine world. Global wine industry folks have interned, settled, or partaken in the Oregon wine scene, and the outsiders and insiders unanimously rave about the familial nature of the Oregon wine industry. When combined with the small-scale production noted above, Oregon wines truly offer something unique to the world.
  5. What do we mean when we say we smell “minerality” in a wine? This word appears to serve as a catch-all to describe any aroma or flavor that doesn’t fall into the fruit or oak categories. Wine reviews and tasting notes have seen a significant rise in its use, and yet tasters disagree over what minerality actually means. Are the aromas actually reductive sulfides in the wine, or do vines transport mineral compounds from the soil into the wine? Science tells us that vines cannot carry soil minerals to the grapes, and yet savvy tasters frequently speak of smelling granite, flint, or wet stone in their wine. While the origin of the aromas remains elusive, know that higher acid wines more frequently carry these mineral notes, and Old World wines more commonly contain this needed acidity. I suggest tasting Chablis or Mosel Riesling to experience minerality yourself.

*Diurnal temperature swings refers to the gap in temperature between the daily high and daily low. The larger the diurnal shift, the more acidity the grapes will maintain in the evenings while still allowing for ripening thanks to the warm daytime highs.

Evolution at the Corner of Wine and Education

A recent article by Levi Dalton provoked my interest, churning the cream within my mind. I have taught writing and literature for five years and hold an MA in Teaching. While I have cut back my appointment to pursue a career in wine, I continue to thumb the minds of students. If attuned, the young people in any classroom reverberate a pulse that mimics the larger society.

Learners value independence, more so today than in the recent past. A profound distrust of the old wisdom has slipped into young minds like a fog on cat’s feet. Even proven facts warrant a lifted brow, and we see these realities resonate through our politics.

In his article, Dalton predicts that sommeliers, the pedagogically elite servers of the wine world, will continue to fall out of favor (as a top sommelier himself, he is positioned to make such claims). Thanks to the easy access to information today, wine lovers and newbies alike can seek insight from apps, blogs, message boards, and publications. This crowdsourcing of knowledge diminishes the need for experts.*

The end of the chalkboard education, though not the end of chalkboard use in wineries. The tasting room at Syncline Winery.

The end of the chalkboard, shut-up-and-listen education, though not the end of chalkboard use in wineries. Photo taken in the tasting room at Syncline Winery.

Plus, why sit passively when you can learn yourself? Participation in wine classes at local wine shops and formal wine schools has risen significantly in recent years. This aligns with modern learners’ desire for independence. The wine curious and lovers both prefer to participate in learning and decision-making rather than passively receive “truth” from an expert. I speculate that a survey of wine educators would corroborate that they have seen a corresponding rise in the questioning, doubting, and challenging of the old wine wisdom. Lord knows the wine elite have built one glitzy kingdom—the new generation has arrived with loupes* in hand.

Case in point. While listening to a panel of winemakers and industry elite from the Finger Lakes region at the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, one winemaker from a leading producer espoused the importance of moving the second-tier producers away from hybrid and native varietals. The use of grapes such as Maréchal Foch and Catawba tarnished the reputation of the region as a whole. Madeline Puckette, founder of the lauded website Wine Folly, raised her hand and asked, “Why are hybrids so inherently crappy?” Blasphemy! A defense of varietals lesser-than the great vinifera varietals of Cabernet Franc or Riesling!

“There is nothing permanent except change.”

As a Millennial waltzing between the poles of wisdom and modernity, I respect the role of expertise. The foundations of wine knowledge and science have led us to a brave new wine world. However, experimentation, newfound regions and varietals, and individual palates deserve the attention they declare today.

Hopefully I have made some butter.

 

*This is clearly debatable. It remains a strong perception of many millennials none-the-less.

*Loupe = a small magnifying glass used by jewelers and watchmakers.

Wine Literature Must Haves

In my previous post, Buying Wine, I mentioned the anxiety many feel when purchasing wine. The plethora of options at most wine retailers leads people to often reach for the comfortable–old trusty–or pick a varietal, price point, and label that aligns with their mood, and then speed out of that daunting environment. The following list of wine literature essentials will help move you from uncomfortable, to curious, to confident.

Wagon Wine’s must haves

Wine: A Tasting Course by Marnie Old

Marie Old, a sommelier based out of Philadelphia, has written the wine primer–the ideal introduction to wine. Covering varietals, winemaking, tasting, purchasing, and wine regions, this book is all encompassing without overwhelming. In fact, it can lead a wine newbie into the mysterious depths of the wine world, while still keeping the reader engaged, intrigued, and light on the toes. Tasteful graphics benefit and deepen the reader’s understanding. I recommend this book for anybody interested in learning more–anyone tugged by curiosity thanks to the experience with a delightful bottle, a first winery tour, or a life long enjoyment of wine without the accompanying awareness.

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

Does the original tug now have you bound infinitely to the glowing light, the mystery that is wine? Karen MacNeil has written my preferred reference book. I, however, fully encourage the passionate wine drinker to dive head first into this book and climb out at the last page. Many would recommend other books for this purpose and level of knowledge (Zraly comes to mind, and I do recommend Window’s on the World Complete Wine Course); however, I find MacNeil’s style and tone inviting, smile inducing, and profoundly insightful. I especially appreciate her writing in first segment, which covers varietals, winemaking, pairing, tasting, storage, vintage variation, serving…it is thorough. This is all covered in the first 110 pages before exploring the world of wine, the countries and regions any wine lover should explore. At 860 pages, this deserves the daunting title, though when you start reading your shoulders will relax, and your glass will swirl and tip back effortlessly.

Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt

Does Washington have your attention? Do you wonder what all the hype over Washington wine is about–the high scores? Are you part of the industry, but need to deepen your knowledge of Washington wine specifically? Paul Gregutt, wine writer and now winemaker, wrote this thorough book which covers the history of wine in Washington, the AVAs, varietals, noteworthy vineyards, reputable and up-and-coming wineries. The second edition was released in 2010, and I would imagine a 3rd edition isn’t too far off (though I have no knowledge of this). Some of the up-and-comers of 2010 have arrived! The world of Washington wine is evolving rapidly. This book fills an important niche in the world of wine literature.

The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode

This book explores the science behind most aspects of wine, including the vineyards (soil, pests, pruning, trellis systems, etc.), winemaking (oxygen, barrels, alcohol reduction techniques, sulfur dioxide, brett, closures, etc.), and our interaction with wine (tasting, psychology, saliva, flavor chemistry, etc.). While not written for the novice, Goode writes accessibly for those readers passionate about the content. A scientific background will benefit your understanding, but wade in to the depths even if you lack this expertise. This book deepened my understanding of the manifold factors influencing my experience with the wines I uncork.

Concluding Remarks

Remember, an excellent wine steward at a trusted shop will always prove invaluable, even to most wine fanatics. Wine stewards at any reputable store understand their inventory well, and familiarize themselves with the wines both academically and through tastings. No wine expert can taste every wine, and so wine stewards who passionately know and appreciate their bottles serve a needed niche. Take advantage of their knowledge.

Increasing your knowledge can reduce your stress and deepen your pleasure when both buying and enjoying wine. Cheers to the seductive allure of wine!