Monday, May 14, 2007

Wine Classes

I start with a disclaimer: I designed and taught a wine class called “What is wine?” I developed the class after being taught by two great wine professionals: Eddie Osterland and Rory Callahan, at the original International Wine Center in New York City. I am grateful to each man for my grounding in wine.

~Mr. Osterland and I submitted a wine education proposal in the 1980s to the then new NY Wine and Grape Foundation, but they didn’t buy it. Oh, well, we each moved on, as I assume the Foundation has in its new offices at the recently established New York Wine and Culinary Center (NYWCC) located in Canandaigua, NY, in the Finger Lakes region.
~NYWCC is a beautiful facility with top-notch training equipment for cooking and for learning about wine.
~When I operated my winery, and afterwards, as I worked as a wine salesman, I had developed classes for consumers and for the restaurant trade. My aim was to make the classes practical, to bring wine to the dinner table without the diner having to become overly proficient at naming the top wine chateaux of France, etc., in order to have a good dining experience.
~I have since presented those classes under the title, "What is wine?" in restaurants in New York City and at Cooper Union College, also in NY City.
~When NYWCC opened in 2006 I had great hopes for it, and so I made a bid to teach my classes there.
~The idea of the classes is to give people what they need to know about the make-up of wine, from vineyard to bottle, as it relates to enjoying the product with or without food. It seemed an ideal fit with the NYWCC mission.
~So many wine classes take students to certification and beyond, as in the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine degrees, which is fine for helping people develop the rote powers that most of us have and can fine-tune with practice.
~I’ve always felt that the expensive certification programs are essential if you want to be able to identify wines by pedigree so that you can become a major wine buyer for Chrystie’s Auction House or at one of the top Michelin star restaurants in the world. Other than that, the general consumer’s money for a certificate seems to buy a talent suitable for parlor games, which is also fine, if you like that sort of activity.
~Besides, wine certification programs are mainly skewed toward a wine hierarchy system that—in my view—should have been if not abandoned years ago at the very least updated. Knowing the names of and how to identify wines you can’t afford, well, what’s the point?

Although wine interest on the consumer level is growing nearly exponentially in the U.S., we still have a long way to go before most adults drink wine everyday with dinner, which is the experience that should be the aim of wine education.


Yet, while many wine professionals complain about the general lack of consumer awareness and consumer interest, classes continually eschew practical wine education, preferring instead to offer the stuff of wine snobs.


Makes little sense to me.

~It seems that the latest in the long line of certificate programs is now offered at the NYWCC in the Finger Lakes.
~The first thing that bothers me about this development is that I was under the impression that NYWCC was to be devoted to New York wine. If the certificate is offered for that purpose, I can’t see why spending a few hundred dollars on that would be worth the price. There isn’t even a wine hierarchy in New York about which to teach!
~My assumption, of course, is that NYWCC has opened its scope, and the class is the same certificate program that leads to the Master of Wine program that was established in Britain.
~I wish NYWCC well, but I still think it is not what the general consumer needs. But then, in its first year, the NYWCC found it difficult to sell practical wine education programs. I don’t know if it was the fault of the offerings or the NYWCC promotion effort, such as one existed. Maybe they expect to have better luck selling the certificate classes, and I hope they do but I want to make one more disclaimer:

Last year, I was one in a small list of wine educators hired to teach classes at NYWCC. Most of us seem to have been removed form the list. I admit that I still would love to teach practical classes at NYWCC, even though I am peeved at the lack of professionalism in the way I found out my services are no longer required. I had to guess; not even an email or phone call to break the news to me.

~Anyway, last night I drank Traminette with a spicy chicken wok dish—the wine provided a perfect pairing with the food. The Traminette was ginger-like, with just a touch of sugar to foil the heat of the dish. Goose Watch Winery, in the Finger Lakes, produced the wine. I doubt you would learn about Traminette or Goose Watch (not to mention the pairing with spicy wok cooking) in most wine certificate courses, but if you must spend your hard-earned money, here are two places to begin:

NYWCC, IWC,

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
May, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

2 comments:

RM Dustin said...

My wife and I have a small retail shop in Washington State. Granted, we are near enough to wine country to be part of a more demographically sophisticated interest in the grape than probably most areas of the country. Even so, many of our customers could care less if a wine goes great with food or not. They see it as a stand alone beverage with a nice numbing residual. We are desperately, slowly, and determinedly trying to change that perception. Our wine classes are all centered around the premise... wine is food, food is life. We bring in winemakers to give 2 to 3 hour presentations on how they got where they are at and why their wine is different from others'. We serve food paired by the winemakers specification. We have yet to get any industry "professional" to attend a class. Your statement about the useless point of learning about wine you can't afford, or even have access to if you could, hit the nail on the head. We do not even put rating tags on our bottles unless they are of extreme value. We educate at the tasting bar daily. Now if we could only get the State Liquor Board to see the value in that.

Thomas Pellechia said...

Yes, when I operated a wine shop in Manhattan I had the same general experience as you recount.

The best part for me was watching the students who intrepidly took our class, the ones who realized that wine is not a numerical sport, but a wonderful food accompaniment.

One of the best statements i ever heard after a class came from a woman in her mid forties: "After having taken three wine classes, this is the only one that really taught me something I can relate to everyday. Now I get it!"