wine education

I’m Going Back to School

I’m Going Back to School…WINE SCHOOL!


san-francisco-wine-school-logoLast week I was contacted by the San Francisco Wine School to see if I would be interested in attending.  I looked into the program and it looks pretty interesting so I jumped at the opportunity.

Starting June 9th I’ll be taking the 9 week online CWAS (California Wine Appellation Specialist) course.  The course offers a guided approach to learning about all of the various wine regions of California.  Although the online courses is “at your own pace”  students need to complete their weekly segments on time.

San Francisco Wine School founder and CEO David Glancy

San Francisco Wine School founder and CEO David Glancy

The San Francisco Wine School was founded by David Glancy in 2011.   Mr Glancy’s wine credentials are spectacular:  He is one of only 211 Master Sommeliers in the world.  Not only that but he is 1 of only 12 Master Sommerliers to have also passed the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) exam.  But wait, there’s more.  He also sits on the board of Society of Wine Educators, is on the Editorial Advisory Board of Sommelier Journal.

The San Francisco Wine School exists to “provide world-class wine education and professional wine training”  To that end Mr Glancy has enlisted the services of 6 instructors, each of whom have their own amazing wine credentials.  ( see the list of instructors here)

That's a whole lot of wine tasting!

That’s a whole lot of wine tasting!

Now you might be thinking, hey how hard could online wine classes be right?  The “In Class” version of this course boasts over 60 different wines in 9 weeks, that’s a different wine every day from June 9th to August 3rd.  The online course’s  minimum requirement is only 16, but students are totally welcome to taste more!

So wish me luck, as I head back to school and this time – this school- I plan on finishing!



Certified Wine Educator Exam steps up the Intensity

Society of Wine educators logoRigorous entrance examinations, hour-long graded essays, and spiked drinks. While you might think I was describing typical Fraternity life at a big U.S. university, it’s actually all part of the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) exam. I was lucky enough to sit in on the exam, administered by the Society of Wine Educators as a guest.

The class typically runs for at about a cool $300, with the actual CWE exam costing $450. The CWE program may be slightly less entailed than both the Court of Master Sommelier and Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) programs, but make no mistake about it… passing the CWE exam is no easy task, I quickly learned.
The program was developed in the late 70’s with a mission to advance wine education through professional development and certification. 1983 saw the introduction of a CWE examination, and has since grown to an organization that recognizes just more than 3,000 worldwide members, only 319 of which have passed all portions of the exam. If that wasn’t enough to showcase its difficulty, this statistic surely will. Only 12% of all applicants pass the CWE on their first attempt, the majority of which spend 1-2 years preparing for. What’s more, in 2010 the CWE has stepped it up a notch, making their exam that much more difficult.
The exam consists of 3 major segments; written, wine identification and a components/imbalances portion. The written part consists of 85 multiple choice questions, covering a range of all wine regions and grapes. This is followed by an essay, which students are given one hour to complete.  A sample question for the essay:
Compare and contrast the major production techniques used to make sparkling wine and Champagne and their relative potential for quality and what factors make Champagne unique compared to other sparkling wines?
It’s no wonder why a staggeringly low 22% of students pass this portion on their first attempt.
The second component concerns wine identification.  You are given 4 white wines and 4 red wines in a blind tasting. You must deduce the provenance of each wine from a list of 10 wines, meaning that there are more potential choices given than wines, requiring exam takers to nail 6 of the 8 wines correctly, with detailed written rationale, to pass.
The third, final, and trickiest portion of the exam is “wine components and imbalances”.  This proved brutally difficult, with only one person in my class passing. Nine samples of wine are provided, one labeled “control”.  Amongst the other 8 glasses is an unadulterated wine identical to the “control” wine, which you must identify.
But wait… there’s more!  The exam also required us to correctly identify the wines with added sugar, sulfur dioxide, vinegar, tannin, oxidation, acid and alcohol.  These modifications are far from obvious. To give an idea, the alcohol added to one of the wine was a 200 proof neutral spirit, at only 114 parts per million.
The CWE exam provided me a lucky sneak peak at their rigorous exam, providing me with a new found realization and appreciation of its difficulty. With the increased difficulty of the testing process, added prestige should come to the certification. Fingers crossed, I hope to be one of the 12% that passes on their first attempt. If not, I’ll at least I’ll have the company of the other 88%.
Edited by Jon Troutman

The Best Way to Learn About Wine is to Taste it, and Lots of it

Mark Tarbell Over the years, a number of people, with little to no wine drinking experience, have asked for my advice as they start their wine education. While wine blogs and internet references have made factual education easier than ever to obtain, the number one educational tool will always be tasting. There is no need to sacrifice your first born in order to learn by tasting Grand Cru. A solid foundation can be built on very short money, and I’m eager to spread that word. I thought rather than answer everyone’s questions individually, I’d compile the following advice for people interested in empowering themselves with some educational wine ammunition.

wine tastingThe first thing I recommend is determine what your monthly “research and development” budget will be. Like I said before and contrary to popular belief, you do not have to spend a lot to learn a lot. I would start out on the less expensive side, perhaps $10 a bottle. Drink that very same bottle over the course of three nights to see its evolution from the time it’s popped until the last glass is poured, about 72 hours later. Many wines can become flat and dull by day three, but this is all part of the education process. Recognizing how the wine has changed, for better or worse, is enlightening. This game plan can cost less than $100 per month, assuming you’re going to be tasting wine each and every night.
Wine listExperimenting with a wide range of wine styles is probably the most essential step. Start by investing in 12 bottles of wine, a “mixed case”, of 6 whites and 6 reds, all different styles.  The basic, most quintessential red and white varietals are a good stepping stone – Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir,  Merlot and Malbec for your reds and Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Gewurzatraminer and Chenin Blanc for whites. I would not recommend spacing these 12 bottles over 12 months. Instead, try at least 1 bottle per week.  In the beginning, the objective should be to expose yourself to as much as possible, discovering what styles excite us… and which leave us flaccid. Once the 12 wines have been polished off, move onto more esoteric grapes and other styles of sparkling and dessert wines.
You’ve no doubt seen movies, TV shows, or your more wine-smart friends tasting wine.  They sniff the wine, gargle it, seemingly getting off to it. After tasting, you wonder if they need a post-coital cigarette. What the heck are they doing?
champagne glasses


Why not just drink it already? Understanding that our sense of smell is how we percieve most of what we taste is very important in wine tasting. The wine’s aroma is often times just as important as the taste. Take several sniffs, searching for essential characteristics that will give you hints about the wine’s style and production. Do you get aromas like butter, cream, vanilla or smoke? These are all indicators that the wine was aged in oak. Does it smell like jammy, sugary fruit? This might be an indication that the grapes were grown in a warmer, New World climate.

Arizona wine cheers

Wine is best shared with friends

Finally, we’re ready to actually taste the wine. Take a sip, holding the wine in your mouth, suck it back and forth between your teeth like mouthwash.  This may seem odd or downright inappropriate, but what you are doing is “Priming” your palate.  Forget what your mom told you about playing with your food, this method is the best way for analyzing all that a wine has to offer. It’s important to get the wine into all the far corners of your mouth.  There is a sort of memory to our palates,where the second sip activates the memory of the first sip, and even though the second sip is much quicker than the first, it almost has the same effect.  If you do not prime your palate on the first sip, the second sip might be somewhat unremarkable.

thinking about wine


After swallowing (or spitting it out), genuinely reflect on what you’ve tasted. Again, you’ll want to look for specific flavors that will tell you about that wine’s origins. Does it make your mouth salivate or slightly pucker? This is an indication of high acidity. If it’s dry and leaves your mouth feeling like sandpaper, then the wine is probably rich in tannin. Finally, use your past experiences to draw conclusions – don’t try to use fancy jargon if you’re not comfortable with it. Cassis, quince and minerality are often tasting notes used by “the pros”. But if a wine tastes like your grandma’s blueberry pie, don’t hesitate to say it. There are no “rights” and “wrongs” in wine tasting. The more you taste, the more readily you’ll be able to identify descriptors.

Perhaps the most essential step for future reference is taking notes. Taking notes will reveal certain things about your palate. If you routinely enjoy wines with peach and apple characteristics, you might notice a trend. Maybe these are all wines made from a specific grape varietal or country, and you’ll know to buy them in the future.
You are armed with notes on which wines you liked, which were just okay, and some that were “less than okay”. Over time, you will probably have determined whether you have a preference for reds, whites, sparkling or dessert wines. Knowing your preferences among a wide range of wine styles is the most essential step for making an informed purchase.
There you have it – the key, introductory essentials to personal wine education.  For some, this may seem common sense. We can all read text books, blogs and wine forums until our eyes bleed, but there’s no replication for actually tasting the stuff. Experiencing wine through experimentation is not only educational, but the most hands-on, fun way to learn. After all, it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it?
How have you learned about wine so far? Have you tried any of my tips above? If you’re a seasoned wine drinker, how have you explained the learning process to others?  Did anyone ever provide you with an invaluable piece of advice that you still follow to this day?

Society of Wine Educators Certified Wine Educator Preview

Earlier this month I was invited to attend the Society of Wine Educators CWE (Certified Wine Educator) preview which was held at The Camelback Inn in Arizona.  The day long course is a preview to the actual CWE exam.

The Society of Wine Educators was founded in 1978 by people with a background in education.  Over the next few years they developed the curriculum and testing process that has been in place since 1983.

New for 2010 are some changes designed to make attaining the CWE certification more prestigious and meaningful, not that it isn’t already.  The testing processes starts out with 85 multiple choice questions with a one hour time limit.  Many of the questions require knowledge across multiple subjects.  For example a question like “Name the first locale north of Bordeaux which contains a Classified 1st growth”.  You would need to know your geography and your list of 1st growths.  In addition many of the questions have more than one potential answer, and you must select the most correct answer.

Next, candidates must complete an essay in one hour.  Essay questions typically involve general knowledge plus making and defending a position.

Both these tests are conducted in the morning, after lunch the tasting portion begins.  First is the tasting rationale segment.  4 white wines and 4 red wines are poured for the candidates who must then write a detailed tasting rationale for one pre-determined wine, as well as assign from a list of 10 wines the correct names, appellations and varietals to the remaining wines.  There are more wines on the list than actual wines which is an added level of trickiness and candidates must correctly identify 6 out of the 8 wines.

Finally candidates must complete the “Components and flaws’ segment.  9 glasses of wines are arranged in front of the candidate, one of them is labeled “Control”  Candidates must correctly identify the identical wine from the other 8.  Among the other 7 are wines with added alcohol, sugar, tannin, Sulphur Dioxide, Tartaric acid, vinegar and oxidation, candidates must correctly identify 7 out of the 9 wines.

There are just over 300 people world wide who have passed the CWE since its inception in 1983 and only 12% of them passed all 3 components on their first try.  Most people study for 1-2 years before attempting and make an average of 2 attempts before passing.

Most people who take this route to certification do so because it is much less expensive and quicker than the Sommelier route, but make no mistake it is not an easy alternative.

Society of Wine Educators Website