Saturday, January 3, 2009

Adventures in Wine Education in 2008

I began my exploration and adventures in wine tasting while I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido California. On June 12th 1999 I took my first trip to the Temecula Wine Country with a fellow student and it was there that I got the “wine bug.” After my first tour of a winery where I saw how grapes were grown and that wine was an art and science, I wanted to learn as much as I could about wine through reading books, magazines, watching videos and making frequent trips to wineries throughout the San Diego mountains and Temecula.

Shortly thereafter I took a trip up the coast to Santa Barbara and the Bay Area and visited wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. About a year later I moved back to the Bay Area and began exploring the Northern California American Viticulture Areas in Sonoma, Napa, Livermore, Lodi, the Sierra Foothills, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Clara, Monterey, and Paso Robles.

While all these trips have been an enjoyable and relaxing adventure they have also been an education and expansion of my understanding of wine. Each wine from a different AVA (American Viticulture Area) was a learning experience about the particular region, the way the particular varietal (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir etc.) is expressed in that area’s climate and soil as well as in the vintage.

More or less my adventures in wine for the past ten years have been nothing more than a hobby and a peculiar fascination. But last September my wine interests took a new turn as I began a formal education in enology (the study of wine) at Las Positas College. For years the idea of studying wine at a university or a college was a dream. It was an unlikely pursuit as U.C Davis was too far away from where I lived, my work schedule was not conducive to taking classes and it was unlikely that I was going to return to college, spending thousands of dollars, for another undergraduate degree.

But then Providence brought a change in my circumstances with a new job, a new work schedule that opened a new door to the Enology and Viticulture Program at a local college in Livermore California. Suddenly I found myself a student again, with text books, lectures, quizzes and exams.

This past semester I took three classes (Introduction to Enology, Wine Marketing, and California Wine Regions) and a couple weeks ago I took my last Final Exam for the Fall semester. To study wine formally in a classroom setting is a strange experience. Wine tasting had always been just a relaxing pass time, something fun to do with friends on a Saturday afternoon or around the dinner table at someone’s home. Now it was serious and I soon found out that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did about wine.

Studying wine in such a context has been a humbling experience, yet it also has been very exciting as new doors of exploration have been opened. I have had the opportunity and privilege of learning three nights a week from people who have “been in the business” for decades and who have made wine for some very well known wineries.

But it hasn’t been all fun and games. My day starts at 5 a.m. as I spend time reading before heading off to work on the other side of the Bay Area and then at 5 p.m. I drive back across to the East Bay in bumper to bumper traffic and then spend 3 hours in class, my day ending around 11 p.m.. Sometimes at 7 p.m. I am so stressed out from work that all I feel like doing is going to the gym, eating dinner and then going to bed. The last thing I feel like doing is listening to lectures about wine, taking notes, turning in assignments and taking a quiz or exam. Studying in a formal academic setting can take the fun, romance and glamour out of the love of wine. By the end of the semester I was just looking forward to being able to drink a glass of wine without having to analyze it to death and express my inept evaluation of it in front a room full of people.

To make matters worse, in the past if I had a bad cold and my nose was not functioning optimally I could choose not have any wine and would not take a trip to the wine country until my olfactory senses had returned to normal. But in an academic setting (or in the wine business for that matter) life cannot be put on hold until your schnoz is working at its peak efficiency. The result is that I often found wines to be disappointing as I struggled to accurately evaluate them because i was dead tired and was not feeling up to par. Evaluating wine is such a subjective experience and I soon discovered that when your proboscis has taken a holiday a $100 bottle of wine can taste like a bottle of vinegar poured over a salted pretzel. Many times the portion of he class that I looked most forward to became something to endure and I was greatly disappointed with myself in my inability to force my nose and palate (despite the illness) to tell me the truth.

But this too is a great learning experience. If you truly want to work within the wine world it is a lot of hard work with long hours and you will not always feel like doing your job. Life throws at you many unwanted and unexpected twists and turns, trials and tribulations, so if you really want to succeed it is going to take a lot of faith, patience, endurance and perseverance in and out of season. I am looking forward the next semester and I intend to buckle down and get even more serious about my studies, to be the best enology student that I can be.

However, the college isn’t the only place that I am learning about wine. Just a couple weeks ago I had my first day on the job working part-time at a winery. I was recently hired by Borra Vineyards in Lodi to work a couple Saturdays a month and so far it has already been an eye opening experience with many lessons in customer relations, seeing how various marketing ideas may be employed, brand names are utilizes, marketing niches and funnels are utilized but most of all how a family winery operates as a sort of communal gathering place for club members and devoted followers of the winery.

I think 2009 is going to be an interesting year, with more unanticipated avenues and new windows of opportunity for expanding my appreciation and love for wine.

No comments: