This is not the first time I have written about wine education. I keep returning to the topic because pretty soon in anyone’s experience with wine it becomes evident that the opportunities and questions this liquid opens up are vast beyond imagining.

Anyone who enjoys drinking wine but in describing his preferences says, “I just know what I like, and that’s all that’s important,” has somewhere a half-buried inkling that he’s wrong. Not about what he likes, but about the insignificance of his preferences.

Once that inkling nudges into consciousness, it can’t be ignored. Inquiry begins. If as an adult you come to wonder why you’ve always been critical, negative or unhappy, you go to a psychotherapist. If you drink more than a dozen different wines, you begin to wonder why they’re different. Ignore your demons or wine’s provenance at your own risk.

So it seems to me that learning about wine is intrinsic to wine. We long ago were booted from the Eden of blissful ignorance. One can idealize the tiny Italian village where all the residents bring their jug to the local winery every few days to fill up on the local juice, and it costs 2 euros a liter, and they drink that every night, and it’s amazingly good wine so why treat this like an academic subject? Because that idealization is possible only in a culture where the context stays constant. But our landscape is defined by constantly shifting contexts.

It was this instability that stymied me as I sought to design a curriculum for a series of wine classes I recently taught. Do we organize it around structural components, as many established programs do: body, flavor, aroma, etc.? Or should each class focus on a specific grape? What about parts of the globe? What about practical concerns such as value, how to choose a wine at a restaurant, storage, headaches? How can this immensely complicated realm be “simplified”?

It can’t. If you want simplicity, do not drink wine. What wine offers is the opportunity to aspire toward understanding, wonder, appreciation. Because we ingest it, the body of knowledge it represents becomes our body. We can’t learn about it without learning about ourselves. Pay attention to wine and you pay attention to the lens through which you’ve chosen to view it.

The lens determines the view. We can drink 10 Sauvignon Blancs and gain a better understanding of that grape. We can drink 10 wines from Sonoma and reach a deeper familiarity with what that region does to its vines and grapes. We can drink 10 wines made without added sulfur and learn the pros and cons of “untouched” versus “adjusted” wines. We can drink 10 Côtes-du-Rhônes with a variety of dishes to learn how certain flavor profiles align with certain foods.

Each adoption of a given lens plays off the other and provides insight into the larger picture. But it aids true understanding only if you realize that the lens of the moment is limited and refracts in particular ways. The more lenses you put on and take off, consciously, the better able you will be to triangulate the perspectives each provides. And the picture will become clearer. So that you realize how little you know.

On a practical level, a funny thing happened as my students and I played with these concepts. No matter which lens we were temporarily adopting, we always ended up discussing place. We tasted an array of wines from the Loire, to see how that broad valley’s variety of soils affected which grapes, and which vinification methods do best in which zones.

We tasted Chardonnays from California, Mâcon and Chablis; Pinot Noirs from Oregon, Burgundy, California and Italy – all in an effort to pinpoint what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are. But our discussions were about soils, temperatures and techniques tied to the traditions and climatological demands of their respective environments.

We drank a broad swath of wines from classic areas suited to blending – Bordeaux, the Rhône, Vienna – and one place with scant tradition of it (California). It started to make sense that, for the most part, winemaking regions with single varietal wines are in cooler climates where only certain grape varietals can thrive, whereas regions famous for blends are in warmer climes where almost anything can grow well and so more is up for grabs.

No one much cared what the percentage of Syrah was in the wine from Costières de Nîmes. We were more interested in how it was possible that the Domaine de la Petite Cassagne, with so much earthy richness and dark fruit, could cost only $12. The discussion moved on to world economics, soil fecundity and organic viticulture. It wasn’t so much a class on wine as it was a symposium on places, people, culture.

This might sound obvious – wine comes from grapes that grow in particular places – but to so many consumers, it isn’t. As a retailer, I get asked categorical questions (“What class of wine is this? Do you have a white that’s like a buttery Chardonnay but isn’t Chardonnay? What will be a good red wine for fried chicken?”) much more often than geographical ones. Those are the right questions to ask. The amazing thing is how the answers, for true wines, are always about places and people.

For my classes, I tried to choose wines that were first and foremost delicious, but also were representative. In the Handley Estate Chardonnay 2012 ($23) from Anderson Valley, California, we found a balance of acidity and richness, pure and stripped to essence.

In the Weingut Christ Wiener Gemischter Satz 2013 ($19), we found in some ways the opposite, since this wine is made in the traditional way of Vienna agriculture: many grapes all mixed together in the vineyard are harvested and crushed together to create a layered combination that seems to go in 20 directions at once: spicy, lively, long, succulent, intensely aromatic but thrillingly dry.

In the Castello di Meleto Chianti Classico 2011 ($15), we found poetry in the suitability of a given set of grapes – in this case, majority Sangiovese along with some supporting players – to a particular place, the hills of the original Chianti zone in Tuscany. Tuscany is sunny and romantic, over a substructure of complexity and woodsy wild. So is good Chianti, as it plays the fresh red fruit flavors of Sangiovese off the rigorous sandstone soils in which the vines grow.

We saw how the Cabernet Franc that is the sole grape used in both the Domaine du Bel Air Bourgueil 2011 ($15) and Domaine de la Noblaie “Les Chiens-Chiens” Chinon 2010 ($22) adjusts according to which side of the Loire the vineyards are on (Bourgeuil on the cooler north side, Chinon on the warmer south). The wines are both peppery, floral and silky. Both immediately suggest grilled meat. Both are made similarly, and simply, with little manipulation. Yet each is so different from the other. Why?

It’s all about the place. It’s all about things that we usually acknowledge only in passing: the weather, the feel of the ground under foot, the distance to the coast. It’s all about the things that used to matter more than anything else, but which our technological prowess has rendered seemingly tamable.

Yet one need only look at the violence of so many recent floods, hurricanes and storms to see how in attempting to tame the earth, we have mostly just exhausted our capacity to co-exist with it. Perhaps the most valuable thing I’ll find in trying to teach people about wine is that wine is better at teaching us about ourselves.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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