Improving Your Beverage Knowledge

There are a number of ways to boost your product knowledge. They include:

Comparative Tasting

Without tasting yourself, anything you learn about wine, beer or spirits will remain abstract and therefore easy to forget. You should begin to taste as you begin to learn. Even when you eat out, try new things. Step outside the realm of your experience, and even of your personal likes and dislikes, and explore the full spectrum of styles out there.

Tasting more than one wine or beer side by side changes the learning curve dramatically. If you try one wine today and another tomorrow, you won’t remember much about them, except maybe which you liked and which you didn’t enjoy. But, if you compare two, you can figure out why by noticing their differences. Maybe one is too strong for you or too sweet for you – the only way you’ll know is if you get a chance to compare them in real time.

This is one reason why classes are so useful; almost all use side-by-side comparison to illustrate the lessons. However, if classes aren’t available near you or an option you can afford, you can do this on your own or with a group of friends. Assuming you’re of legal age, you can try this in conjunction with:

  1. Restaurants – Look for restaurants in your area that feature wine ‘flights’ – these are like mini-tastings, featuring 3–5 wines in small portions. Or, have everyone in the group order a different wine by the glass, and pass them around for everyone to taste. This is particularly interesting to do in a ‘mix and match’ style, where each participant tries more than one wine with the dish they ordered.
  2. Retail Shops – Depending on where you live, wine and beer shops may offer samples or host regular tastings. These are particularly interesting when a particular region or grape is being featured. 
  3. Wine Events – Wine tastings and dinners provide terrific opportunities for both learning and fun.  One great resource for finding them in your area is www.localwineevents.com
  4. Online Courses – Long distance learning can bring the wine class to you. Most will provide a list of specific wines or wine styles for you to shop for, and then taste along with a video lesson or on your own as ‘homework.’ Check out mine, designed for beginners – Wine Online with Marnie Old.  [link to UD course]
  5. Books – There is one terrific book in particular I recommend for people trying to do comparative tasting on their own. It’s called Great Wine Made Simple by Andrea Robinson. She provides terrific little ‘mini-lessons’ complete with specific brand recommendations and handy charts showing what to look for.
  6. Your Own Plan – Are you a self-starter? If you’re online and have access to a wine store, you can make your own tasting plan. Start by first comparing broad categories, like white, red and sparkling wines to compare the influence of winemaking techniques. Then, start comparing different grape varieties within white and within red to learn the typical styles associated with these different ‘wine ingredients.’  Finally, try looking at wines made from the same grapes that come from different parts of the world to get a sense of how geography and culture make their mark. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.

Reading

Wine, beer and spirits are complex topics, but they’re not rocket science. A little familiarity with the terminology and the fundamentals goes a long way. Besides, these topics are so interesting, they make for a good read even if you’re not in the business. For my list of recommended reading, check out the Other Books page, where I’ve collected a list of the titles I recommend most for those of all levels of beverage knowledge.

Hands-On Learning

For some reason, people are more willing to spend their time and money taking classes than they are to spend their time alone gaining the same knowledge by experience. The best way to learn anything is to immerse yourself. Consider taking a part time job stocking shelves in retail, sign up to help the sommelier with deliveries and inventory or even volunteer as a pourer for wine classes and tastings. Anything that gets your hands on bottles regularly will help. Plus, if you play your cards right, you could position yourself to be in the right place at the right time. If you want someone’s job, the fastest way is to become their right hand man.

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Taking Classes

Wine classes are great fun, both informative and delicious. For entry-level wine drinkers or those with a purely amateur interest, I generally find that any wine class is a good class, providing an opportunity to taste wines comparatively and discuss them in a learning environment. They are also a great way to meet new people with shared interests or to bond with family and friends.

However, wine education isn’t regulated the way law school or dental college would be. You can’t just set up shop as a lawyer or a dentist without training or credentials, but in most places anyone can open up their own ‘wine school.’ Some organizations, courses or instructors are more reputable than others. If your desire for classes is to build your resume, you may want to check out the respect industry professionals grant a given program.

Marnie is the Director of Wine Studies for the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, whose focus is hands on learning and ‘big picture’ concepts that have practical application. She also teaches seminars that feature her distinctive approach to wine, beer and spirits at New York’s Astor Center and Philadelphia’s Temple University. See the links below for more information about these organizations, or see the calendar of events for upcoming listings.

French Culinary Institute
http://www.astorcenternyc.com/instructor-marnie-old.ac

Astor Center
http://www.astorcenternyc.com/instructor-marnie-old.ac

Temple University – Non-Credit Programs & Continuing Education
Find out more…

Marnie also recommends the programs of study offered by two internationally recognized organizations:

The Court of Master Sommeliers
http://www.mastersommeliers.org/courses

The Wine & Spirits Education Trust
http://www.wset.co.uk/

Intensive Study

If you’re already beyond the basics and are looking to ramp up your wine knowledge in preparation for expert level examinations, I have some advice:

  • Focus on ’testable’ material
    As you study, you’ll encounter more information than anyone could possibly retain. Ask yourself as you go whether the information in question lends itself to an exam question before you memorize it. Every system has different criteria, it’s true, but you should have had at least some exposure to the applicable one to get this far. It’s the same thing you’d do if you were preparing for the SAT’s or LSAT’s.
  • Make your own maps
    Trace the boundaries of regions from books and fill them in yourself in different colors. Use the same color to spell out the appellation names and regulations. There’s a reason medical students use coloring books to learn complex anatomy, your brain connects the name and information via use of the same color. Once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll be able to ‘visualize’ the region as if you’d been there.
  • Make your own ‘flash cards’ or spreadsheets
    No single resource will be adequate, so you will need to compile information from multiple sources and keep abreast of recent changes. The act of transferring the information into your own ‘database’ will help reinforce it in your mind, while simultaneously building a resource you know you can rely on.

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