Everyone I know in the wine industry has had their own personal “Ah-ha!” moment—when wine became more than just a classy way to get drunk, when we went from simply enjoying the way the wine tastes to becoming consumed with every aspect of it.
Where was it grown? How was it grown? How did the winemaker ferment it? How long was it in a barrel, and what kind of barrel was it, and how big was the barrel?! That’s the moment we realized the wine was alive, has a personality and wants to be understood.
For me, that moment happened when I was in college. I applied for a job at a prominent steakhouse while going to school; I knew the difference between white and red, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Thankfully, this steakhouse took a chance on me and informed me that if I was to keep the job, I would need to study the wine list and service procedures inside and out, and pass a test. Being the obliging little student that I was, I hit the books. I studied the regions, the grapes, the soils and the different price points. I bought every different (cheap) bottle of wine from Vons that I could afford and practiced opening them every night with a steady hand. I was determined to master the fine art of pouring without dripping on my makeshift tablecloth, which at the time was nothing more than an old dish rag. The more I immersed myself into the wine world, the more infatuated I became.
At the end of my training, I sat down to take the test I had so diligently prepared for … and I passed with flying colors. The reward for my hard work was a post-shift training meal with the managers. They ordered a few beautiful steaks and a couple of mouth-watering side dishes so I could experience the menu and better describe the flavors to the guests. As the chef approached the table to explain his creations to the neophyte I was, he asked the bartender for a specific bottle of wine. Within minutes, the cork was pulled, and the glasses were filled with my “Ah-ha!”
I was immediately struck with herbs and flowers and spice. There were beautiful aromas of cherry and figs intertwined with pepper and sweet cigar. As we sat and dined, I listened to Chef describe the food, but all I could think about was the wine—how, with every sip, I tasted something new. The wine was constantly evolving in my glass, and just when I thought I had it figured out, like a chameleon, it changed on me. I had never tasted anything like it.
That was the moment I knew this was going to be more than just a job to get me through school. This was going to be my career. A lot of years, and a few post-nominals later, I managed to prove my very Irish family wrong: You can, in fact, get paid to drink.
One of the most frequent questions I am asked by budding wine enthusiasts is how they, too, can become a sommelier. The short answer is: You don’t. The common misconception is that sommeliers are the only body of wine knowledge out there, but the Court of Master Sommeliers is solely designed for those in the restaurant industry. This is a good thing: No average wine consumer should ever be subjected to the nerve-racking, hair-falling-out stress levels associated with the service practical. The blind tastings and exam are enough to give someone night terrors.
Much like the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators also has its own accreditation program where you can become a Certified Specialist of Wine and ultimately a Certified Wine Educator. These exams are incredibly difficult, not to mention expensive; while you don’t have to be in the industry to qualify for these tests, it really doesn’t make much sense for the average consumer to hold such a title.
But … chin up, my budding wine-lovers! There are still lots of ways you can enhance your knowledge and become a credible wine consumer.
If you’ve truly found your passion and want to delve deeper into that beautiful glass of “Ah-ha!” the No. 1 resource I recommend is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (wsetglobal.com), or WSET for short. This is the perfect information hub for someone who loves wine socially, but wants to take it more seriously—or perhaps even begin their own wine career. The trust has several levels that cater to individual wine prowess that get increasingly difficult as your knowledge progresses. You’ll need to commit to driving into Orange County, Los Angeles or San Diego to attend live classes and tastings, but there are online options available as well.
Speaking of online options, if you want to gain your information digitally, the Wine Spectator School (winespectator.com/school) and the Napa Valley Wine Academy (napavalleywineacademy.com) are fantastic alternatives to live classes. They both feature a ton of content and different classes specializing in specific regions or areas of knowledge.
Locally, there are a few places where you can go to taste and learn. While you won’t receive any credentials for attending these classes, they are easy and fun ways to expand your palate and gain a little more knowledge.
I recently went to the Bordeaux tasting at Total Wine and More in Palm Desert. For a meager $20, we tasted eight wines covering both the left and right bank, and even had a beautiful charcuterie spread prepared by The Real Italian Deli. Other than the fact that the last red wine we tasted had cork taint, and they served me warm Sauternes, the wines were decent, and the information was a pretty comprehensive Wine 101. They threw in a little humor here and there, and all in all, it was a pleasant way to spend the evening.
In La Quinta, yours truly hosts wine education afternoons once a month at Cooking With Class (cookingwithclasslq.com). We taste five to six wines, accompanied by artisanal cheeses, in a casual setting. The tastings usually last about 90 minutes and are designed to be fun and informative. I focus on food pairings, the stories behind the wines and unique varietals.
Lastly, you can always seek out private wine-tasting groups via Facebook, localwineevents.com, or your local wine shop. I know that Desert Wine and Spirits (desertwinesandspirits.com) in Palm Springs has great tastings once a week, and Dead or Alive Bar (deadoralivebar.com) always has unique, palate enhancing wines open to try. Desert Wine Shop on 111 (desertwineshop.com) also hosts regular wine get-togethers that are informal and social.
Other advice: Keep a wine journal. Take tasting notes. When you taste a wine, close your eyes; stick your nose in that glass; and inhale deeply. Be present and mindful, because wine is the greatest time machine there is.
The wine I tasted that fateful night was a 2001 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape. I will never forget it, and it will always be my first love.
Your “Ah-ha!” moment is waiting … go taste it.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.