Note: This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on July 15.
"I've taken all the drinking classes so this sounded like the next best thing," joked the man with the distinguished grey at his temples, in response to that inevitable question on the first day of class, "Why are you here?"
Why was I there? In VWT 241 class, Wine Marketing and Sales, at Napa Valley College? I had recently moved to Napa and understood that if I was ever to be accepted in my adopted home, I had better learn a little bit about the industry that employed what seemed to be 99.99 percent of the population.
It was only later, as I furthered my wine education, that I learned that wine is the perfect subject for the dabbler and the dilettante, someone like me who is happy to flit across the surface of history, geology, horticulture and chemistry with a warm wine buzz and some tasty food thrown in. If not in the classroom then, at least, doing "homework."
I hasten to tell you that they don't really offer drinking classes in Napa Valley College's Viticulture and Wine Technology program. Tasting, yes. Drinking, no. Spit cups are required. They are usually the large, red Solo brand you may remember from kegs in college. Tasting 30 wines in three hours, we filled and emptied them often. They also came in handy for drooling, yes drooling, which we did in Sensory Evaluation (VWT 173), when we tested the viscosity of our saliva. "Don't watch your neighbor," cautioned our teacher.
What do you learn in wine college? A lot. That pyrazine is the chemical responsible for the tomcat smell in sauvingon blanc, our three-tiered distribution system for wine is a by-product of prohibition, the French ranked their first-growth wines in 1855, a ranking that has remained frozen (save for one exception) ever since, and, when a plant passes something called the "permanent wilt zone," there's no coming back, a fact all too familiar as I look at the snapdragons on my deck.
Some of my classmates were preparing to go on to four-year degrees at Fresno State, Sonoma State and U.C. Davis. Others were home winemakers or vineyardists exploring the transition from hobby to career. Many of my classmates were working in local wineries, product managers, biodynamic advisors and "cellar rats," all continuing their education and sharpening their competitive advantage.
If the Viticulture and Wine Technology program is college, then the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) course is the SAT. In two days we covered what seemed like every wine in the world, with a primer in vodka, Scotch whiskey and other spirits thrown in. Even with my trusty spit cup, I absorbed enough alcohol through my skin to feel a little woozy at the end of each day. With the hefty fee, the No. 2 pencils and exam results you get in the mail, the process really did have the feel of an expensive prep course for a critical exam. What you get for your trouble is a nifty certificate and an international certification of wine knowledge that is more concise than a listing of your coursework at Napa Valley College.
On test day, our group could hear one of our classmates, who had arrived late, arguing loudly and vigorously with the proctor because he was prohibited from taking the test. Quite a change from the affable guy we had been swirling and spitting with a few weeks ago. His fury was no doubt fueled by the knowledge that he would have to return to his employer with $800 of coursework and no certification.
Vacaville is located almost equally close to two premiere venues for wine education, U.C. Davis and the Napa Valley. Whether you choose to go slow and easy or fast and hard, I recommend you get your wine geek on and try a class. Don't forget your spit cup.