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Wine Education

March 24, 2010

I have enjoyed reading a great many of the posts at Ampelography and a recent post on wine education spurred me to comment for the first time on a wine blog that does not belong to a friend of mine. It also made me think about a bunch of stuff that wouldn’t fit in a comment. The following post is part response and part its own esoteric discourse.

I agree that there could be more wine education in the world. It could benefit the many people out there selling wine and also the great deal more who drink it and want to know more about it. I also agree that there could be more wine educators  especially those who have no connection to a sales-force. I do not think that educators associated with sales and marketing cannot do a good job but I do think that separation of these two things is for the better. I don’t agree that testing is unproductive. Preparing for tests is a great motivator and getting things wrong on tests can teach us more than getting things right.

It seems that blind tasting is alternately revered or maligned. I put stock in the blind tasting I’ve done and look forward to doing alot more because I’m confident it has been a great teacher. Trying to blind taste alone as an amateur or in a group of novices is likely to get you nowhere fast but in a classroom setting or with a group of trusted colleagues it can be a great tool.  Blind tasting is not a trick but a honed skill. It is as far as I know the best way to hone your skills of analysis for wine tasting. If you taste a Chablis or Savennieres knowing what it is you will automatically assume it has relatively high acidity because that is the normal state of these wines. Blind tasting these wines will allow you to make a judgment that is untainted by considerations of such norms. It is entirely possible to accurately analyze a wine even when you know what it is but it is more difficult without some background of blind tasting behind you. One must remember when blind tasting to be sober, take your time and clear your head of any considerations that are not relevant to the sensible qualities of the wine in front of you. I believe that blind tasting is something any wine professional should get used to because it is one of the best educational tools at their disposal. If a reputable organization seeks to include only those who show honed tasting skills then blind tasting is the best way for them to judge this.

One of the problems with blind tasting is that it is intimidating.  You can have blind tasted successfully many times but if you are in the wrong state of mind at the time of a new foray into obscurity you will find yourself completely lost.  I have been all over the map at any point in my blind tasting career. When I have blundered I have always tried to maintain that same sense of calm that is necessary to blind taste in the first place because I know that I can look back on the mistake an learn something. Embarrassing appraisals can teach you not only about the skill of appraisal but also about yourself. One thing that I can’t remember hearing often in school is that the right answer teaches less than the wrong answer. If you know why you’re wrong you move forward as new questions and answers spring to mind. Knowing you’re right is informed stasis. Why does it feel so much better to be right? Blind tasting has afforded me many opportunities to be wrong and I’ve always tried to remember that a sense of accomplishment is not undue as long as I’ve kept my mind open to change.

Memorization is so important but not just for its own sake. Memorizing facts regardless of their relevance and spewing them is trivia. Keeping a great deal of significant facts stored away for the day you have to construct a coherent argument out of them is a pinnacle of scholarly achievement. One of the ways to make sure that all those facts that don’t come up in everyday conversation (unless you happen to hang out with a bunch of folks who are studying for their MS or MW) stay in your head is to forget about the noxiousness of triviality and make those flash cards. Memorization can be an important part of blind tasting as well. You should keep track of as many varietal identities, climatic characteristics and regional styles as possible if you want to be any good at it.

I don’t know what to say about certifications. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to say I’m a certified sommelier because I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I do however usually qualify ‘sommelier’ with ‘certified’ because I’m thinking of this. I am however never embarrassed to talk about the education I received at the Boston University wine school. Blind tasting is an integral part of the curriculum there and the program might not be for everyone, because it is intense, but I cannot recommend it highly enough to those who want to learn everything they can about wine.

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