Your First Wine Class – A Survivor’s Guide

There are people who attend Vinho verde classes with an agenda other than to learn about wine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A class is a great way to meet other people, in particular, people who also enjoy wine. It can be a fun night out for a small group of friends, and sometimes, towards the end of the class, when enough of it has been consumed to raise the volume of chatter louder than the instructor’s voice, it can more resemble a Friday night happy hour than a serious classroom. But that’s also part of its appeal.

If your objective is to learn, attending a class on any subject can be a little intimidating, especially if the subject is one that you always have struggled with to understand. Whether it’s the first day of first grade or the start of an adult education class to learn a foreign language, the adrenalin flows just a little faster in anticipation of it. And the composition of the students in a wine education class is just like any other–some will appear to be more knowledgeable than you while most others will not be.

But simply sounding wine-savvy is easy to do. People in my classes do it often, probably without realizing it. During the lesson on the proper steps to taste like a professional, someone will throw out terms or expressions that I know they don’t really understand, but have obviously heard uttered from others. Take the word “earthy,” for example. Wine critics use it often as a descriptor for some very fine wines made in Burgundy, France, indicating an aroma of truffles, or mushrooms, or when the aroma is reminiscent of the air on a cool morning in the woods. It has happened that someone would use this word to describe a wine in class and, invariably, everyone would look at him or her in complete amazement, as if that student is a ringer–someone who actually knows a ton about the subject and is in the class only to show off their expertise.

It’s not that “earthy” is a bad word to use–it’s just that it is not one that a typical beginner would think of using. They must have heard it or read it somewhere and remembered it. Fact is, when it comes to tasting and smelling wine, you can really say almost anything when it comes to what you detect. And who’s to say that some people don’t smell earth when they stick their noses in the glass? It does sound good, and it does impress others in a beginner’s class. The point is not to be intimidated if someone uses an “expert” word like earthy, instead of how a more humble wine drinker once described it when asked what comes to mind after a good sniff: “It smells like dirt,” which is also perfectly acceptable.

With a beginner’s class, keep in mind that anyone who sounds like they know more than you has chosen to attend the same beginner’s class. It’s like a situation that sometimes happens when I play golf. I am just an average golfer, who plays only several times a year, usually at friendly golf tournaments for charities, organized by a local association. But when I just go out and golf with my wife it is inevitable that someone playing behind us is significantly better than either one of us. When we see him waiting impatiently as we hack away needing five, six, (yes, sometimes more) strokes to finish the hole, the natural reaction is to think we’re not good enough and that we are slowing down his game. But we choose to play at the easiest, most basic courses in our area. I would never even attempt to play at a professional course where I really would feel bad about holding up better players behind me. But on an elementary, easy-rated course, it’s the impatient guy behind me who chose the wrong course for his level of ability, not us.

The same holds for basic wine classes. If this is your first class and you choose one that is designed for beginners, then you should never feel uncomfortable asking questions or admitting that there is something you don’t understand. My old instructor at the Chicago Wine School used to say that there are no stupid questions at his school. Then he would add, “Well, there has only been only one stupid question in all the years of the Chicago Wine School that is still asked every now and then.” Inevitably, someone would have the courage to ask what the stupid question was. Patrick Fegan, the Director, would wryly respond, “The only stupid question comes from people who call the school and ask me if we teach wine classes here.”

Maybe you just don’t smell or taste the same aromas or flavors that most other students are experiencing. Maybe you detect licorice while others get black cherry. You’re both right. That’s perfectly OK. Take your time. Be a beginner and enjoy it. Some of the best questions and comments in the classes I’ve taught have come from the people with the least amount of wine knowledge or experience. Just as playing golf should not be rushed, neither should the process of learning and savoring wine.

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