Wine: The Big Picture

Marnie takes an uncommon approach to wine education, one that is refreshingly intuitive and highly effective. If you want to jump right in, look through the options below. If you’d like a sense of what’s different before you start, or are an educator yourself, scroll down to take a peek at her rationale under Why Do We Need the Big Picture?

Wine Tasting – Unlike many wine programs, we’ll start with how to taste wine first. Why? Because it’s tough to follow the thread of wine discussions on any other topic without understanding the meanings of the words we use – the wine lingo. Before we even tackle the basics of what wine is, we need to define our terms. What do we mean when we call a wine ‘dry?’ Which quality in wine is described as ‘body?’ Start here and get a handle on how we taste wine, which senses we use and what we look for. Learn how to taste wine like a pro first before moving on to other wine topics. You’ll be glad you did.

Wine Basics – Okay, now we’re ready to talk wine! This section is the meat of the ‘big picture,’ and provides tremendously useful information that applies to the entire wine category. Explore what wine really is and how fermentation works. Discover the winemaking process and how tweaking the steps will result in different wine styles, like red, white and sparkling.  Learn about the factors that change wine flavor, from grape variety to geography, from the use of oak barrels to the influence of history and culture. This is the place to get a grip on how the wine world works!

Wine Labeling – Wine labels are deeply perplexing for most wine drinkers, at root responsible for the vast majority of wine confusion. The label is where we want to find information to help us choose one over the others. This would be much easier if they told us what the wine tastes like, but that’s not how it works. Sorry. Instead, we’re given legal information on what the wine is made of, where it comes from and all sorts of other stuff, like alcohol content and regulatory statements. The wine business expects us to know what qualities Chardonnay grapes have or the typical characteristics of red wines from Tuscany. Argh! This section can’t make you an expert in minutes, but it can help you figure out what’s what. Not sure what’s a grape and what’s a region? Looking for clues in the small print? Take a look at these examples for a some hints on interpreting wine labels from countries around the world.

Why Do We Need The ‘Big Picture?’

Wine is Challenging
Compared to other foods and beverages, wine is harder to figure out. People feel paralyzed when faced with such seemingly endless variation in grape varieties, regional appellations, vintages and brands. For most people, wandering the aisles of a wine store can feel like browsing the shelves of a bookstore where all the titles are in a foreign language. Visit a winery, and you’ll discover that even within one vintner’s offerings from a single year, there may be multiple ‘cuvées’ of wine made from the same grape variety grown in the same region. Yoinks! Being faced with too many choices is stressful, right? Especially if we feel we don’t have the ‘tools’ we need to navigate the options.

A Different Strategy
Maybe it’s because I’m part of the ‘Sesame Street’ generation, or because both my parents were educators, but I teach differently than most of my peers. Most give only a brief overview before launching into the specifics of important wine styles. I understand why – they’re teaching the way they were taught. But, let’s be honest. Details like the soil types of Bordeaux or the grape recipe of Chianti or the sub-regions of Napa Valley are meaningless mumbo-jumbo if you don’t know why they’re relevant. Even if your goal is mastery of every nook and cranny of the wine universe, you’ll need a handle on the ‘big picture,’ a sense of context. Memorizing factoids is much harder if the minutia has no meaning.

So, when I teach, I spend more energy on a few broad concepts that help make wine easier to understand, emphasizing what is common to all wines before what separates them. We start by figuring out how the wine world works and what factors cause the variation of flavor that makes wine so fascinating. We’ll also tackle the sensory side head on – learning how our senses operate and which words we use for which wine features. I call this the ‘big picture.’

People who are already devoted fans of wine’s complexity and nuance may find the sweeping generalizations in this section to be ‘over-simplifications.’ But, we all need to learn to walk before we can run, it’s just common sense. If you’re here to learn, you’ll find great info on the ‘big picture’ wine concepts in this section, Wine Concepts – The Big Picture. Or, if you’re looking for more detail-oriented wine information, click over to Wine Specifics – Regions & Styles. If you’d like more info on how teaching the ‘big picture’ concepts applies to staff training in restaurants, click over to In the Biz – Beverage Management & Staff Training.