John JuergensLearning vs. Ignorance

There is an old saying that goes something like, "If you stop learning today, you will be ignorant tomorrow." This is especially true of wine since it is constantly changing, not only from year to year with each new grape crop, but also once it is in the bottle.

Wine can be so complicated and confusing because there are so many kinds of wine and so many different ways to make it. Wine can have an almost infinite number of different taste and aroma combinations, so the key to sorting out this conundrum is to take some kind of systematic approach to learning about wine.

There are several ways to develop your own systematic approach to wine education. If you are the kind of person who is so compulsively organized that even your pockets have file drawer labels on them, you can probably embark on a self-taught course with the aid of readily available wine reference books. However, if you are like most of us, you need something a little more structured with routine guidance and encouragement.

To get a solid understanding of wine, I think you need immediate feedback and discussion to get beyond just book knowledge. Consequently, I also believe the best way to develop an effective base of wine knowledge is first hand experience in some kind of directed course or wine club environment. And after any structured course you need to follow up with routine practice to firmly imprint that knowledge in the wine memory bank of your brain. Just as you need to break some eggs to make omelets, you've got to pull some corks on a regular basis with a coherent plan to continue your wine education.

So what should you expect to get out of a wine course? While it takes years of study and constant tasting to become truly proficient in wine knowledge, any course should provide a basic framework upon which you can hang your wine experiences. Once you have this structure solidly erected, you then have reference points from which to continue your exploration and discovery of the different types and styles of wine.

For example, once you develop a mental and/or physical profile for the many possible styles of Chardonnay, when you come across a new brand you should be able to flip through your basic stored profile to determine if this is something you would enjoy. You would consider variables such as the place of origin (e.g. country, state, county, valley, etc), the producer, whether the winemaker used oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, did it undergo malo-lactic fermentation, and so forth. Short of tasting the wine, all of this information taken together will give you a pretty good idea of whether this is the kind of Chardonnay you prefer. Any course should give you this kind of foundation upon which to build your wine knowledge for the most common grape types.

Again, the key is systematic attention to the basic characteristics of the wine. And the only way to do this is to take notes and to keep a record of each tasting experience. For each grape type you need to learn the acceptable parameters of style, flavors, aromas, and the components that contribute to these characteristics so that you can distinguish between stylistic differences among winemakers as opposed to a poorly made wine or one that has gone bad.

Not long ago I was at a wine tasting where the wines should have been very good. However, more than a few of the wines had gone bad, really bad, for one reason or another, but people were still sucking them down like it was top notch stuff. In other words, they didn't know enough about the basic nature of the wines to know they were bad.

Here's the approach I use in the basic wine classes I teach. Usually, I break the course into six or seven classes. I start off the first two sessions by going over the basics of wine evaluation and the kinds of things to look for in wine. I also conduct an evaluation of each student's threshold and sensitivity to sweetness, which is critical in evaluating wine. Then I walk the class through what I consider representative examples of wine made from the major grape types. I use a standardized aroma wheel from the University of California at Davis to help the students identify what they are smelling in each wine, but I don't get hung up on the snooty jargon of the industry. After we have the basic grape types down, I go into comparisons of styles of the same wine across different countries, producers, etc. I also try to include examples of wines near the boundaries of acceptability to illustrate the most important characteristics of wines.

Of course, in a basic course no one can cover all the details of a substance as complex as wine, not to mention the impact of the subjective nature of each person's perception of all those complexities. However, by the end of my class or any course, a student should be able to take most any widely available wine and, without knowing its identity, tell me whether it is an American or European wine, the approximate sugar content and acid level, the primary grape type, whether the wine was fermented in wood, and several other characteristics. This might sound hard to believe, but you would be surprised at how quickly most people can learn to identify wine characteristics when they focus on the wine with a little bit of guidance. But you have to practice, practice, practice.

To paraphrase another saying, "If you think learning about wine is an expensive hobby, try ignorance."

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