By: Hillary Lyons
It used to be that wine education lay firmly within the confines of longstanding institutions catering to sommeliers, connoisseurs, or cork dorks as Bianka Bosker so aptly puts it. But in recent years, the phenomenon of wine education for the layman has skyrocketed.
Whether you’re a total novice, or seeking to expand your technical knowledge around your favorite wines or regions, formal education offers invaluable insight into wine and winemaking, enriching our minds and our ability to appreciate this timeless beverage. This month on the All the Swirl, Charles Communications interviews David Glancy, Director of the San Francisco Wine School, to learn more about the rich field of wine education.
Charles Communications Associates: How did you first get into wine?
David Glancy: I’ve always had a passion for food. I started working in restaurants at 15, and at 16 I got the opportunity to spend part of a summer in France. The first thing I learned was how to order beer on a train. It was also in France that I learned to love wine. One day by chance I ordered a Vouvray demi-sec and though it was sheer dumb luck that I chose a wine with minerality and acidity (a wine so different from the overly sweet American wines I was familiar with), I was immediately hooked. It wasn’t until 1993 that I got really serious about wine, while I was working at an Italian restaurant in Macau. The high rollers drank only the best wines, but they never finished the bottle so I got to sample wines I would never be able to afford otherwise, and I started to teach myself the fundamentals of wine tasting. The only wine book I owned at the time was Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, but I bought each new edition and read it religiously.
CCA: What was the most challenging part of obtaining your Master Sommelier?
DG: Well it was the rigor of studying for the certification that finally convinced me to leave the restaurant world and focus exclusively on wine. I think one of the most difficult things is finding mentorship. You have to work in the very best restaurants to be taken seriously - it’s far better to be a busser in the best restaurant than a manager of a mediocre one. Another factor is balancing pragmatism and art. There are plenty of wine geeks who could talk about the merits of a wine or winemaker all day, but who have no idea how to manage wine for profit. On the flip side, there are bean counters who know how to run a successful wine program but could never speak to the soul of a wine. The SF Wine School is well respected because it teaches both.
CCA: Why do you think wine education is important?
DG: There are many very talented people in the industry without certifications, but there are also frauds out there. Credentials help set a universal standard, and teach much more than just wine knowledge. Hospitality is essential to the wine industry, and not everyone is born with the skill and grace to master it. These credentials help ensure that your employees have a well-rounded skill set.
CCA: What inspired you to make wine knowledge more accessible?
DG: For the longest time, people relied on a handful of experts like Jacques and Julia, Bon Appetit or New York Times to advise us where to eat and drink each week. There was a barrier between the public and these gastronomes, and people assumed they could never hope to reach that same level of expertise. The Food Network and the rise of the internet democratized this culinary knowledge, and allowed people to pursue these passions. I started my own consultancy service in 1999 and began offering consumer classes so people could tap into this wealth of knowledge. Our role as wine lovers and experts is to welcome new members to the club, no matter their level of expertise or their tastes. It’s not about teaching everyone to appreciate the “best” – it’s about understanding the consumer, and helping them find what will make them happy.
CCA: How have you seen the field of wine education change over the years?
DG: It’s grown tremendously. Independent wine retailers began educational experiences to compete with the big box stores, then the chains followed suit. Courses have continued to expand as consumer demand has increased, especially as sommeliers have reached the status of celebrities in recent years which is both a good and a bad thing. I think the biggest changes I’ve seen are the dissolution of rigid boundaries between different schools of thought, and the rapid proliferation of educational opportunities with the internet.
CCA: What do you think is the biggest challenge to your industry?
DG: I think too many people or companies aren’t willing to invest in their future, both in terms of time and money. The kind of education these programs provide is invaluable. It opens your mind to new flavors, new regions, and working alongside people with similar passions is invigorating. Also, there can be too strong a focus on the celebrity chefs or sommeliers, but you don’t have to be a rockstar somm to invest in wine education. All you need is a thirst to learn.
CCA: What is your favorite wine region right now?
DG: I’ve always been a sucker for Champagne, but right now I’m particularly interested in Tokaji. I was lucky enough to visit Hungary recently, and I am fascinated by the rich history of this region and the metamorphosis these wines continue to go through.
The San Francisco Wine School offers various certifications including WSET (through grape experience), and various global and regional programs that help students on the long journey towards Certified Wine Educator, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. They also teach career specific courses and workshops for enthusiasts from beginners to serious collectors. To learn more about the school and their programs, visit sanfranciscowineschool.com.