We are a generation of consumers, and for the most part we pride ourselves on being smart about our purchases. We do our research. So why should buying wine be any different?
Why is going into a wine store so daunting? Perhaps it’s the shelves upon shelves of neatly stacked bottles, each vying for your attention. Do you ask yourself a series of questions before you make your decision, or do you grab a bottle you recognize and head for the register? Why is this commodity that we buy so frequently and that gives us so much pleasure equally intimidating?
Wine invokes a fear factor, and yet with a little education its mystique can be easily unraveled.
After all, when you break it down, wine is simply grape juice fermented into alcohol. The grape variety, where it is grown and the winemaker’s style for the vineyard and winery all play a part in the end result. Discovering the story behind a bottle will make each sip that much sweeter.
Jennifer McElveen is the Director of Education at Bacchus & Books, a destination for all things wine and literature in the French Quarter in Charleston. Her passion for wine is intertwined with her love of travel — one inspires the other. “After spending some time in Europe and being exposed to some wonderful wine, I decided to take a class to be a more informed consumer. It gave my wine travel more meaning.”
Motivated by her new knowledge, McElveen, an Orangeburg native, decided to take more classes and ended up finding a wine school in Washington where she started with a Level One Wine course offered by the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust (WSET), an internationally regarded leader in wine education. “It was mind-blowing. I had so much fun in this six-hour class geeking out with other wine nerds,” she exclaimed.
While the class inspired McElveen to pursue wine education, she was quick to point out that she has met many students along the way, ages 21 to 80, who simply wanted to learn and have fun. “When you go to a restaurant, most servers are going to sell you their preferences. Wouldn’t you prefer to drink something you really want and order with confidence? Whether you choose to study formally or informally, being an educated consumer is just a smart idea for any product. If you take the time to research the food you eat from a nutritional standpoint, shouldn’t you do the same with what you drink?” she asked.
Not ready to jump into a class? McElveen suggested picking up an introductory book on wine like “Wine Folly.” Colorful graphics, flavor wheels and bite-size information about each variety will instantly make you feel smarter. Choose one type of wine, then go buy a couple of selections and hold your own wine tasting in the comfort of your home. What do you smell; what do you taste? Pair it with food and invite a friend over for a socially distanced happy hour.
Getting out of your comfort zone and trying new wines is key, McElveen stressed. To do this, she highly recommended going to local wine tastings. “They are a great way to open your mind. It’s better than asking for a glass at a restaurant where you won’t know if the bottle it is being poured from was opened today or a week ago. At a professional wine tasting, you not only get to try great examples of that wine style, but you get a guide as well.” She noted a sparkling wine tasting she had recently attended at a brewery. “Everyone was in jeans, sitting outside, no pretension at all. It was interactive, collaborative and really fun. Get past the ‘I know nothing’ stage, and you will be fine.”
Because I find myself writing about wine on occasion, I took the WSET Level Two wine class and test last September with McElveen through the Wine School component of Bacchus & Books. With a class size tailored for COVID-19 and capped at four people, I choose the in-person option over online. I prepped hard, studying the material over and over despite the comments from my children who found it hard to believe that I didn’t already know everything about something I consume so much of. The class took place over a weekend. We spent the better part of it tasting 40-plus wines in different styles: reds, whites, roses and sparkling. We made connections back to the vineyard, the winery, and beyond. As McElveen said, “Learning about wine means diving into culture, history, traditions, food, music, languages, terroir, weather and people behind each bottle.” You can bet it was the most fun I have ever had in a classroom setting.
This year, McElveen created the Wine Passport Series at Bacchus & Books to give wine enthusiasts a fun way to learn about wines of the world. “Each month, we focus on one country, exploring history, growing regions, grape varieties and the effects of temperature and climate.” They will be starting with Australia in January, and six iconic wines will be served with food pairings. Each tasting will be limited in attendance to address pandemic concerns.
McElveen said her end goal is to never stop learning more about wine. Perhaps you too could turn into an oenophile? As for me, I passed my test with flying colors, so I’ll be celebrating with a trip to my local wine store. Again.