The year 2010 was pivotal for me. My mother had passed away; I was getting a divorce; I lost my home; and my identity had been stolen.

In hindsight, I find that last part ironic. At that point in my life, someone wanted my identity? You can have it.

The one thing I had was my career. I was flourishing here in the desert as a sommelier, working for a wonderful wine-distribution company, and hosting wine dinners, seminars and private tastings on the side. I knew this was what I was meant to do, and the blessing of being busy kept me from completely falling apart. My work was the one thing no one could take from me.

I’d heard that there was another wine organization that wasn’t hospitality-industry-focused like the Court of Master Sommeliers, but instead specialized in creating wine educators. They offered courses to obtain the Certified Specialist of Wine designation, and after a quick Google search, I signed up.

In 2010, the Society of Wine Educators’ annual conference was held in Washington, D.C.; it was at that conference I’d take my certification exam. I had never been to the nation’s capital, and as a political science major in college, the location took the nerd factor to a whole new level.

Hotel room—booked. Lectures—selected. Study materials—ordered.

I spent a hot and miserably humid July week in D.C. eating, drinking, exploring and learning—not just about wine, but about myself. Despite the sweltering conditions, it was quite possibly the best week of my life.

Over the course of three days, I met some of the most influential, successful icons of the wine world, like Doug Frost (my mentor and personal hero), Paul Wagner, Michael Weis, Miss Jane Nickles, Laura Catena, Jay Youmans and Terry Theise. I know these names mean nothing to the average Joe, but to me, this was like being a Trekkie and meeting Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. This was a BIG deal.

Once I got my exam over with (I was feeling pretty good about it, and when it was over, I wanted to run into the lobby and scream YEESSS!), it was time to relax and drink some of the best wine in the world—only to be made better by listening to the foremost authorities on the subjects at hand.

Every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., I was a student again—one of my favorite things to be—immersed in my all-time-favorite subject. I learned new teaching techniques, heard funny anecdotal stories, and was joyously proven wrong on food and wine-pairing methods. I was forced to rethink my stand on wines from Lodi and was reassured in my opinion on that price does not reflect quality.

When the school day was done, the culinary extravaganza began. Armed with a laundry list of restaurants and wine bars, I set out to eat my way through D.C.  My “no wine list left unturned” mission had begun, and after days and nights of extensive “research,” I felt like an authority on the D.C. restaurant scene—15 restaurants in six days.

I learned new teaching techniques, heard funny anecdotal stories, and was joyously proven wrong on food and wine-pairing methods. I was forced to rethink my stand on wines from Lodi and was reassured in my opinion on that price does not reflect quality.

The weekend was spent exploring what I think might be the greatest city in America. The Arlington National Cemetery made me cry. The Lincoln Memorial restored my hope. The Hope Diamond made me realize I live in a ridiculously affluent area. (I’ve seen so many huge diamonds that the most famous diamond in the world left me unimpressed.)

I wandered around the Smithsonian and saw Abe Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen, and the original Star-Spangled Banner.

I returned home a few pounds heavier and a whole lot smarter—with CSW added to the end of my name. Looking back, it feels like a dream—a wonderful, exhausting, drunken, food-induced coma.

This year, for the first time, the annual Society of Wine Educators conference will be held in the Coachella Valley. On Aug 10 and 11, participants from all over country will descend on our valley during the miserable dog days of our desert summer—and I’ll be right there with them.

We will spend two days listening and learning, studying and tasting, all in the hopes of becoming better wine teachers and mentors. Some attendees will kick off the conference with an exam they’ve spent months and years preparing for. Some will want to run into the lobby with a huge smile on their face knowing they aced it; some won’t.

There will be people who will make a week of it and explore our beautiful home—discover the canyons in Palm Springs, see beautiful works of public art and the murals in Coachella, or take in the sweeping vistas after riding up the tram.  

No matter what the agenda is for my fellow wine nerds, I hope they will have an experience like mine all those years ago. I hope they return home a few pounds heavier, a whole lot smarter, with CSW added to the end of their name—and just as enamored with our iconic desert as I was with our nation’s capital.

Katie Finn

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...