15 Sommelier-Level Moves for Learning About Wine
Learning about wine can seem like a daunting task. While mastering it is a lifelong journey, the good news is that starting out can be really fun—I mean, it involves drinking wine, after all. If you’re trying to become more wine literate but not sure where to begin, here are 15 tips provided by some of the country’s top sommeliers.
Know the Basics
Ashley Broshious, wine director of Charleston’s Zero Restaurant + Bar, suggests starting slow. “Start to understand a region first, with its grape varieties, styles of wine, people, landscape and culture,” she says. “This will give you a solid foundation and will help someone just learning become excited about the wines.”
Know the Why
After nailing down the basics, Tali Dalbaha, advanced sommelier and US Market Advisor for the Bordeaux Wine Council, suggests figuring out the ‘why.’ “It’s better to focus on understanding why things work in the wine world, such as why specific grapes grow in certain areas and why they pair well with local food,” she says.
Remain curious and don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way. “There's no substitute for going to tastings, meeting the people who work in these wine regions, and asking questions,” says Jane Lopes, wine director of Melbourne’s Attica. As they say, there’s no such thing as a dumb question, especially in the world of wine.
Visit Local Wine Bars
Fabien Piccoli, sommelier at Antica Pesa in Brooklyn, stays up to date by frequenting local wine bars. He suggests attending tastings, events, and seminars hosted at local spots to learn about new bottles, producers, and vintages.
Have a Mentor
Bill Burkart, sommelier at The Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, suggests having an ongoing dialogue with someone who’s more experienced. “I started asking the wine director to spend a few minutes with me each day to teach me at least one thing I didn’t know. You’d be surprised by how the little things add up over time.”
Taste As Much As Possible
Most sommeliers agree that tasting as much as possible is the best way to learn about wine. Ronald Buyukliev, lead sommelier at Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, uses a two-step approach. “First, you have to read. Once you have [the basics] down, you have a solid theoretical background and can go to step two, which is taste.” Buyukliev suggests familiarizing yourself with the classic style of the region first to best understand the typicity of a classic regional bottle. For instance, if you're curious about Tuscan wine, start by trying a Chianti Classico rather than a red from a more obscure part of the region."
Katherine Dandridge, sommelier at Quill, recommends following tasting up with doing something related to the region. “Reading about the history or eating regional food helps to enhance my overall enjoyment of the wine by setting the scene,” she says.
Splurge Once in a While
Ashley Broshious says you should try to save up and buy a high-end bottle from a region you’re studying. “Wine is one of the few things in the world that stimulates all five senses and your intellect at the same time. Wine is multifaceted, and your studies should be too!” she says.
Take a Class
For some people, learning in a more traditional setting works best. “I took the WSET Advanced when I was first getting into wine and I found the classroom environment at that time very helpful,” says Stacey Gibson, partner at Portland’s Park Avenue Fine Wines, who later went on to study with The Court of Master Sommeliers.
Sometimes, simply taking notes makes a world of difference. “At this 20 years now, I’ve had to adapt the way I approached absorption,” says DLynn Proctor, Master Sommelier and director of Fantesca Estate & Winery. “Now I just plant myself in a place and write notes. Notes about everything around me: the soil, the smell, the landscape. The actual wine is often the last thing I write about,” he says.
Visit the Source
“Seeing where the grapes came from and what the soil feels like is key,” says Proctor. “Invest what you can on getting to these regions and learning from the growers, winemakers, and proprietors.” Luke Sullivan, head sommelier of New York’s Gran Tivoli and Peppi’s Cellar, echoes this sentiment. “You can read all you want about Burgundy and draw out all of the maps, but if you ride a bike through the grands crus in the summer, you’re guaranteed to understand them better,” he says.
Katey Walker, wine director of The Essex, agrees. “Walking through a vineyard and tasting with the winemaker; learning about the geography, soil, farming practices, and winemaking style, and viewing first-hand where different varieties grow best on their vineyard is an amazing learning experience,” she says.
Put Pen to Paper
Getting creative with your studies is also important. Victoria James, beverage director and partner at New York’s Cote, says that she uses flashcards and records herself reading them aloud. “I’d listen to these recordings on the train, even while sleeping at night,” she says. “Somehow it all gets absorbed with enough time and dedication.”
Take a Stab at Blind Tasting
Gibson also recommends trying your hand at blind tasting. It will force you to fully assess a wine without any sort of bias and help you learn the jargon used to describe wine. “Assessing fruit quality, balance, tannin, acid, and more without any preconceived notions helps to expand your palate and understand the wine more,” she says.
Marina Baronas, director of restaurants at The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, frequently asks servers for blind tasting pours. “I like to taste at least one new variety each month and venture into different wine regions whenever I can,” she says.
Resources, Resources, Resources
Nearly every sommelier I interviewed recommended GuildSomm, Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine, and Jancis Robinson’s website as top resources. James also cites Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That podcast. Dandridge suggests reaching out to local tourism boards as well, noting that these agencies can put consumers directly in touch with growers and vintners.
Learn Something New Every Day
“Every day, I always learn something new,” James says, “about current events in the wine world, regions, grapes, producers, etc.” This can be as simple as reading a quick trade publication or skimming an article in a magazine. “Pick up a beginners’ book, like Wine for Dummies, and read a chapter a day. The next day, make sure you are reviewing what you've read and quiz yourself.”
Ask More Questions
For Lopes, simply paying attention is imperative. “Every meeting I take with a distributor or winemaker, I'm clarifying issues for myself. What was that vintage really like? What issues are affecting this region? Are there any new trends or legislation that's important?” James echoes this, noting that putting wine into context is also imperative. “The most important thing as a sommelier is not just educating yourself on wine, but also the broader picture, like how beverage fits into our culture.” To do this, James recommends reading non-wine books and the newspaper. “Know the world around you first. I check the weather on my phone in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, and Tuscany every day. It's good to be aware of what's happening around the world.”