At Europe's top wine schools, a little learning is a wonderful thing.
Occasionally, my wife says she wishes that I'd never set foot inside the school run by The Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London. That happens most often when I'm spending too long poring over a restaurant's wine list. But, for me, attending wine school was the second best thing I've ever done. I acquired not only a new passion, wine, but a new career: wine writer. Wine school transformed me from a jaded freelance copywriter into an ardent oenophile. It persuaded me to change my life, and it has been a great inspiration ever since.
You may feel the same way after attending one of the study programs at the following three wine schools. Yes, they are overseas (in England, France and Germany) and, yes, some of the courses can be demanding. But for any serious student of wine, they're well worth the effort, as they are among the best of their kind in the world. They can also be enormously fun on their own or as part of a longer vacation. All of the classes at these schools are conducted in English by noted wine professionals who tailor their instruction for the benefit of amateurs.
The best thing I've ever done? You'd have to ask my wife.
WINE & SPIRIT EDUCATION TRUST
School The 30-year-old Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) operates out of an imposing turn-of-the-century building in the heart of London on the Thames River.
Course Sign up for the Wine Appreciation Summer School (April 6-8 and July 26-28). Classes, which are held from 9:30 A.M. until 4 P.M., deliver an overview of all the leading wine regions of the world, plus lessons in food and wine matching and wine-tasting techniques.
Cost $320 per person, which includes lunch daily, lectures, tastings and course materials.
Tasting notes You'll try around 65 wines from every major wine region, mostly in the $16 to $20 range. There's a blind-tasting test at the end of the course.
Food for thought The school provides three-course buffet lunches with a choice of two main courses--the food is good, though hardly great. For a more sophisticated meal, take a trip across the river for dinner at Le Pont de la Tour (a Terence Conran restaurant) or Oxo Tower (which is owned by Harvey Nichols). Both restaurants serve modern British cuisine and have superb wine lists.
Rooms with a view You will have to make your own hotel arrangements. There are no good hotels nearby. I'd recommend Blakes, the Dorchester or the Stafford, all West End hotels that are fairly close to the school.
Extracurricular activities The Globe Theatre and St. Paul's Cathedral are cultural diversions near the school.
Last word Don't forget to take home a copy of the very useful WSET textbook, Behind the Label.
Contact The WSET registrar; 011-44-171-236-3551.
GERMAN WINE ACADEMY
School The 25-year-old academy, located near Oestrich, holds many of its classes at the Romanesque Kloster Eberbach, a stunning Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century. Students take field trips to nearby wineries and vineyards, tasting wines and talking with winemakers.
Course While special courses can be arranged, I recommend the five-day introduction to German wine seminar (October 3-9). A typical day might run from 8:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.
Cost From $1,200 per person, which includes accommodations, meals, lectures, tastings, excursions and taxes.
Tasting notes You'll try wines from such noted Rheingau producers as Schloss Vollrads and Max Ferdinand Richter, as well as some exquisite Beerenausleses, Trockenbeerenausleses and Eisweins. Lectures on the influence of climate and soil and on grape varieties are combined with visits to several of Germany's best producers and wine regions, including the beautiful Rhine and Mosel River valleys.
Food for thought Most meals are served at hotels and restaurants in the wine regions visited, making use of local ingredients like wild boar, lamb and fish. Classic Rhine specialties may be offered, too, such as sauerbraten, a hearty, rustic dish of beef marinated in wine and flavored with spices.
Rooms with a view Students stay at the romantic half-timbered Hotel Schwan in Oestrich. Built in 1628, it has been owned by the same family ever since. Rooms are small, but they have views of the Rhine River.
Extracurricular activities Highlights are a cruise down the Rhine and a gala farewell dinner at the monastery.
Last word Don't worry about failing the one-hour written examination and blind-tasting test--no one ever does.
Contact Sabine Stock; 011-49-6131-28-29-42.
L'ECOLE DU BORDEAUX
School L'Ecole du Bordeaux is based in the recently restored Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, a 17th-century manor house with five acres of vineyards and formal gardens. Neighbors of the 10-year-old school include such renowned châteaus as Latour, Mouton Rothschild and Lynch-Bages.
Course The wine and food adventure program gives students the flexibility to attend one to five days of classes from February through December. It's best to go during the week, as the top châteaus are closed on the weekends. It's also a good idea to avoid harvest time (mid-September to mid-October) since most wineries are too busy to entertain visitors. Classes generally begin at 9 A.M. and finish at 6 P.M.,and invariably there are field trips to the region's greatest cellars and vineyards, where students meet the owners and winemakers and may even help blend wines.
Cost From $375 per person per day, which includes accommodations, meals, lectures, tastings, excursions and taxes.
Tasting notes You'll try a wide range of Bordeaux, from first growths to petit château wines. (A vertical tasting of Pétrus is not an unheard-of possibility.) Classes cover tasting techniques, winemaking styles and grape-growing methods.
Food for thought Some lunches are held at local restaurants in different regions of Bordeaux. Two of the best are Le Saprien in Sauternes and L'Envels du Decor in St-Emilion. Dinners, which are served at Château Cordeillan-Bages, focus on classic French preparations.
Rooms with a view Students stay at the château, a very comfortable and sophisticated four-star Relais & Châteaux hotel.
Extracurricular activities Don't leave Bordeaux without exploring the medieval town of St-Emilion.
Last word Check out Bordeaux prices at your local wine shop before leaving home so you can compare them with the prices in France. Wine stores in the States may offer lower prices for certain vintages than the châteaus themselves.
Contact Stéphanie Destruhaut; 011-33-556-59-66-12.
John Stimpfig is an English freelance wine and spirits writer who is currently based in Philadelphia.