Your First Wine Class – A Survivor’s Guide

There are people who attend wine classes with an agenda other than to learn about wine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A class is a great way to meet other people, in particular, people who also enjoy wine. It can be a fun night out for a small group of friends, and sometimes, towards the end of the class, when enough of it has been consumed to raise the volume of chatter louder than the instructor’s voice, it can more resemble a Friday night happy hour than a serious classroom. But that’s also part of its appeal.

If your objective is to learn, attending a class on any subject can be a little intimidating, especially if the subject is one that you always have struggled with to understand. Whether it’s the first day of first grade or the start of an adult education class to learn a foreign language, the adrenalin flows just a little faster in anticipation of it. And the composition of the students in a wine education class is just like any other–some will appear to be more knowledgeable than you while most others will not be.

But simply sounding wine-savvy is easy to do. People in my classes do it often, probably without realizing it. During the lesson on the proper steps to taste like a professional, someone will throw out terms or expressions that I know they don’t really understand, but have obviously heard uttered from others. Take the word “earthy,” for example. Wine critics use it often as a descriptor for some very fine wines made in Burgundy, France, indicating an aroma of truffles, or mushrooms, or when the aroma is reminiscent of the air on a cool morning in the woods. It has happened that someone would use this word to describe a wine in class and, invariably, everyone would look at him or her in complete amazement, as if that student is a ringer–someone who actually knows a ton about the subject and is in the class only to show off their expertise.

It’s not that “earthy” is a bad word to use–it’s just that it is not one that a typical beginner would think of using. They must have heard it or read it somewhere and remembered it. Fact is, when it comes to tasting and smelling wine, you can really say almost anything when it comes to what you detect. And who’s to say that some people don’t smell earth when they stick their noses in the glass? It does sound good, and it does impress others in a beginner’s class. The point is not to be intimidated if someone uses an “expert” word like earthy, instead of how a more humble wine drinker once described it when asked what comes to mind after a good sniff: “It smells like dirt,” which is also perfectly acceptable.

With a beginner’s class, keep in mind that anyone who sounds like they know more than you has chosen to attend the same beginner’s class. It’s like a situation that sometimes happens when I play golf. I am just an average golfer, who plays only several times a year, usually at friendly golf tournaments for charities, organized by a local association. But when I just go out and golf with my wife it is inevitable that someone playing behind us is significantly better than either one of us. When we see him waiting impatiently as we hack away needing five, six, (yes, sometimes more) strokes to finish the hole, the natural reaction is to think we’re not good enough and that we are slowing down his game. But we choose to play at the easiest, most basic courses in our area. I would never even attempt to play at a professional course where I really would feel bad about holding up better players behind me. But on an elementary, easy-rated course, it’s the impatient guy behind me who chose the wrong course for his level of ability, not us.

The same holds for basic wine classes. If this is your first class and you choose one that is designed for beginners, then you should never feel uncomfortable asking questions or admitting that there is something you don’t understand. My old instructor at the Chicago Wine School used to say that there are no stupid questions at his school. Then he would add, “Well, there has only been only one stupid question in all the years of the Chicago Wine School that is still asked every now and then.” Inevitably, someone would have the courage to ask what the stupid question was. Patrick Fegan, the Director, would wryly respond, “The only stupid question comes from people who call the school and ask me if we teach wine classes here.”

Maybe you just don’t smell or taste the same aromas or flavors that most other students are experiencing. Maybe you detect licorice while others get black cherry. You’re both right. That’s perfectly OK. Take your time. Be a beginner and enjoy it. Some of the best questions and comments in the classes I’ve taught have come from the people with the least amount of wine knowledge or experience. Just as playing golf should not be rushed, neither should the process of learning and savoring wine.

Relax. Here’s What To Expect:

Every class that I’ve ever attended or am aware of involves tasting wine. Classes for beginners will always include tasting because their purpose is to teach the essence of wine–the complete process of tasting, from observing color to describing what you taste, to thinking about whether or not it pleases you.

In my classes, I sometimes start out by asking a very simple question: “By a show of hands, how many people here drink wine?” It’s an odd question to ask a wine tasting class. Obviously, the response one expects is a raised hand from nearly everyone. And that is precisely what happens. But then I pose the follow-up question: “Now, by a show of hands, how many people here taste wine?” Here is when everyone looks at the others around them and looks back at me like maybe I’ve lost my mind. “Did he just ask the same question in a different way?,” people are wondering. But these two questions presented back to back serve as good shock therapy.

Students instinctively react as if I asked the same question twice until they take a moment to think about it. My point is this: anyone can drink wine, but trained drinkers taste wine. Drinking is simply the process of consuming, and nothing more than that. Tasting wine involves a thought process, and, if the wine is remarkable, the added bonus of savoring it.

A good class for the novice will focus on tasting, not drinking. It will help you understand the reasons for observing a wine’s color, swirling it in the glass, smelling it. Most important, perhaps, it will assist you in finding the words to describe what you smell and taste. When you start thinking about wine as you drink it, not only do you begin to enjoy it at a new level, you automatically start building a “virtual wine database” in your mind. From this memory bank, you will withdraw some of that saved information upon future tasting experiences. You will start comparing wines that you’ve tasted in the past with the one in front of you at the moment. And you will learn to compare them fairly and consistently, which leads to more cost-effective buying, better enjoyment of food, and more meaningful conversations with other wine lovers.

I admit that sometimes I will just drink wine and not think about it. The reason is usually because it is not compelling enough to think about. But the vast majority of the wine I consume is tasted–seen, swirled, sniffed, sipped, swallowed and savored: also known in some classes as the six “S’s” of proper tasting. I’ve applied these basic steps of tasting ever since I learned them in my very first class on basic wine tasting in 1994.

And with practice, you will get better at it until it becomes automatic. Sometimes I catch myself swirling and sniffing my orange juice or sparkling water, which can be embarrassing. But when you take your first tasting class, be sure to learn these steps. It is the foundation of every wine experience.

What Not To Do

So much of what you taste depends upon what you smell. To be able to clearly identify the many aromas your nose must not be distracted by non-wine fragrances, such as perfume or cologne. If fragrances are applied heavily, you will not learn much about the wine when you stick your nose in the glass and smell nothing but Calvin Klein Obsession. If you feel that you cannot go out of the house without a body fragrance, keep it to a minimum. And
if you don’t wear perfume or cologne, be sure to avoid sitting near someone in class who does. Now, picture yourself walking up to each person in a classroom and taking a good whiff of him or her. Just tell them that you’re deciding where to sit.

Next in importance after utilizing your sense of smell when participating in a class is applying your sense of taste. When you sip samples, your entire palate will be coated with wine and your tongue’s ability to sense flavors and textures will be greatly diminished if there is residue of other flavors. I strongly urge people to avoid the following items within a couple of hours of taking a tasting class: gum, mints, toothpaste, beer, soda, hard alcohol, coffee and very salty or spicy foods. Even ice-cold water can temporarily numb your palate for a few minutes and make a fair evaluation impossible.

Avoiding these items in advance of class gives the wine a clean chance of receiving your approval. People unfairly reject so many wines without realizing that it’s not the wine’s fault. They may have just eaten something that created a huge clash in flavor, and just because the wine was the last thing to enter their mouth, the wine is blamed.

If you ever had an experience when you tasted a wine once and absolutely loved it, then tried the exact same wine again at a later date and absolutely hated it, I am confident the reason is related to a tainted palate at the time of the second tasting. So, be fair to yourself and the wine, even if you have breath and body aroma that aren’t exactly April fresh. In the end, you’ll get more from the class than those who do.

The Classroom

A wine class can be conducted almost anywhere. All that is needed is a fairly quiet environment to aid concentration, good lighting, to observe color, and enough space for each setting to have up to six glasses. Usually the glasses will be arranged in a row across a white place mat. Samples are poured in each glass, 1-2 ounces apiece, starting on the left with the lighter wines, then progressing to heavier ones on the right.

Because the objective in the class is to evaluate, compare, and then discuss conclusions with the instructor, everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to tasting. You can’t be on sample number two while everyone else is sipping number three. Be sure to keep wines in the order in which they were poured, and if you think you moved a glass out of order, be sure to let the instructor know. Otherwise, you’ll be even more confused about wine when you leave class than when you arrived.

Taking notes is encouraged when learning to taste, and I don’t mean just notes on what the instructor says. It’s a good idea to start writing down your thoughts on what you taste. At the very least, for classroom experiences and any other times you drink wine, write down the name of the producer and the region where it comes from. Get into this habit. This information alone is helpful in building your mind’s “wine database.” Even if you don’t jot down detailed tasting notes, you will subconsciously associate the wine with either pleasure or disappointment. Being able to go back and identify that wine, its region and producer, is invaluable in your education process.

I’m a strong believer in looking at the labels of the wines I taste. It makes a good visual impression that stays with me. If you are at a restaurant and happen to like the house wine being poured, ask the server to bring the bottle out so that you can read the label. Do the same when enjoying a bottle at a friend’s house. Keep building your database. Look at labels, take names.

In class, you’ll likely be asked to describe what you taste and smell because that is the essence of the process of learning to taste, rather than simply drinking wine. But writing down what you taste and smell makes a better “imprint” in your mind and helps to trigger other descriptive words. Even better, save your class notes on each wine that you taste and refer to them the next time you taste one of the same type. Over time, and after jotting down thoughts as you taste, you’ll see for yourself how chardonnay, for example, will exhibit certain characteristics consistently, every time you taste chardonnay and regardless of where it came from. Other characteristics will come not so consistently.

You then decide which traits you prefer over the others. Your virtual wine database will begin to alert you to what stands out as a pleasant trait or unpleasant. After time, refer to your previous notes to see which regions are producing the chardonnays that regularly possess the preferred traits and I guarantee you’ll never drink a restaurant’s house white wine again without asking first what type it is and where it comes from. With a little practice and minimal wine knowledge, you’ll be able to smile with a polite request, “Do you happen to have a lightly oaked chardonnay from the Sonoma side of Carneros?”

Who Teaches About Wine?

Wine classes are like people. They come in all different shapes and sizes and personalities. And just like it’s nice to have met a variety of people in your life, the same holds true for classes.

There are classes that focus on specific countries of origin, like Italy, for example, which has hundreds upon hundreds of grape varieties that are unique to Italy. There are classes that focus on a single grape variety, such as cabernet sauvignon, arguably one of the world’s finest. A class like this could compare cabernet sauvignon from a variety of countries or a variety of regions in California. There are classes that explore differences in vintage years within a single region, using a single grape. The possibilities for different class subjects are endless. Trying as many as possible is not only fun, but a valuable education as well.

Class instructors can have credentials ranging from college professor to sommelier to distributor sales manager. And although the basics of the tasting process can be taught by any one of them, their perspectives are different. In the examples above, the professor tends to be more analytic from a scientific standpoint and able to answer questions about chemical compounds in the wine and the flavors that they produce. The sommelier has probably tasted thousands of wines and is current on what is popular today. Someone who sells or distributes wine will have thorough knowledge of his or her brands and how they compare to one another and competing brands.

Every one of these possibilities for wine instruction is valuable for basic wine education. In fact, I encourage you to take basic classes from as many of these various experts as you can. You can learn a lot by simply listening to the words they use to describe wines, and you can start building that other virtual database in your head that collects descriptive words about wine. Then, above the clamor of chatty wine lovers at the end of class, you’ll sound like the ringer when you describe the wine as ” having an earthy elegance.” And you’ll mean it.

Jobs In A Box – Easy Career Classes That Pay Quick And Big

While most secure professions require many years of specialized education and hands-on experience to master workplace related tasks that earn a fair wage, many modern jobs are relatively easy to train for and can generate respectable incomes in short time. In truth, there are many 21st century vocations that can be learned in under a month of training, and in circumstances whereby required classes are either on-the-job and paid, or offered without charge, and often available locally online for free. And where related work openings are easy to secure in areas across the USA, and come with pay scales in the medium income range of what most American families earn ($40,000), then move upwards thereafter, with increased income and title advancements as short years pass – even when not supported by a college degree or decades of job experience – even right out of High School!

Sound too good to be true? It’s not!

Typically, and it is true that, training and vocational know-how trump all other topics when trying to impress potential employers. Firms who employ such high-focused individuals don’t mind to pay a reasonable wage to people who match the training sought, even when those job seekers have only limited workplace experience. That includes newly certified job candidates within job specialties whose class education included practical on-the-job intern or externship duties, or outright employment, even short-tenured employment, within a particular industry of choice. Such job candidates thereby match employers’ specific hiring needs. Many employers only hire job candidates with such specialized training. In other words, individuals with very specific job, industry or trade know-how that repeats within other similar workplace environments are in demand by employers.

Some of these specialized job titles may sound familiar to you, having heard them in the past on broadcast T.V. or cable or in radio commercials. These reliable vocations include jobs for: Legal Secretary, Office Administration jobs and Administrative Assistant jobs, and File Clerk openings, Medical Aide and other Health Assistant positions, and Culinary Arts oriented titles, such as Food Prep and Cook, Serve Staff, and Counter Clerks in the Fast Food sector, and Chef jobs or Shift Leader openings, and, of course, Retail and Sales jobs, at all levels to do with customer service jobs, sales clerk jobs, shift manager jobs, and to include allied retail employment such as auditing, merchandising, entry-level management, transportation and delivery, and many more.

Some of the training programs for these and other allied vocations are available online at no cost whatsoever to students, except to do the work at your own pace to completion. Other free and low-cost programs are found at local technology training centers and community colleges and city/county/state career centers, whereby classes are often melded within a workplace experience, by offering on-the-job internships that coincide with class-work. In some cases, such programs require additional fees for books/supplies and low-cost tuition.

Many High School and other local School District Career Centers offer short adult classes in some of these in-demand jobs, including basic machine shop jobs and manufacturing jobs training, assembly jobs, even design jobs of various types, especially in computer Help Desk job training, customer service and sales job basics, telemarketing jobs, bookkeeping jobs and accounting clerk jobs, and others. Even as some still believe it is still difficult to find a good job, thousands of High School graduates each year start $40,000-to-$50,000 per-year jobs the week after grad ceremonies, as a result of having been trained in some of job titles mentioned herein.

Wonder why you hear so much on T.V. and radio about, and read about in newspapers and magazines, of the job titles mentioned above? It’s because demand to hire individuals trained in those vocations will continue to grow for years to come, as confirmed by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you are trying to decide on a career choice, or a career change, that offers short training classes, quick employment at a growing rate of pay, and opportunities to advance – then re-read this article, then begin to research and plan your own career future.


Is the Carrot and Stick Method Useful in Higher Education?

Consider how the process of learning begins for students. As a general perceptual rule, when students begin their degree programs they hope to obtain good grades, useful skills, and relevant knowledge. The tuition paid assures placement in a class and there are implied results that students expect as a product of their involvement in that class. In contrast, instructors expect that students will obey the academic rules, perform to the best of their abilities, and comply with specific class requirements that include deadlines for completion of learning activities.

For students, grades serve as an indicator of their progress in class, a symbol of their accomplishments and failures, and a record of their standing in a degree program. I have heard many students state that their primary goal for the class was to earn what they refer to as “good grades” – even though they may not be fully aware of what constitutes a good grade for them. When students aren’t achieving good grades, or the minimum expected by instructors and/or the school, instructors may try to nudge them on – either through positive motivational methods such as coaching and mentoring, or negative motivational methods that include threats and a demeaning disposition.

I found that many educators dangle a carrot in front of their students through indirect methods, such as the potential to earn a better grade, as an “A” in an indicator of the ultimate achievement in school. There may be incentives given to prompt better performance, including additional time or a resubmission allowance for a written assignment, as a means of encouraging students to perform better.

My question is whether the focus of teaching in higher education should be on the carrot we dangle in front of students to perform better or should there be more of a focus on what motivates each individual student to perform to the best of their abilities? In other words, do we need to be dangling something in front of students to serve as a source of motivation?

What is the Carrot and Stick Method?

I believe that most people understand the meaning of dangling a carrot in front of students to motivate them. The phrase is actually based upon a tale about a method of motivating a donkey and while the carrot is dangling in front of it, the stick is used to prod the animal along. The carrot serves as a reward and the stick is used as a form of reinforcement and punishment for non-compliance.

This approach is still used in the workplace, even subconsciously by managers, as a method of motivating employees. The carrot or incentives may include a promotion, pay increase, different assignments, and the list continues. The stick that is used, or the punishment for not reaching specific goals or performance levels, may include demotion or a job loss. A threat of that nature can serve as a powerful motivator, even if the essence of this approach is negative and stressful.

The Carrot and Stick Approach in Higher Education

If you are uncertain about the use of this approach in higher education, consider the following example. You are providing feedback for a written assignment and it is now the halfway point in the class. For one particular student, you believe they have not met the criteria for the assignment and more importantly, they have either not put in enough effort, they did not perform to your expectations, or they did not live up to their full potential.

It is worth mentioning that your beliefs about students are shaped by how you view them and their potential. In other words, I try to see my students as individuals who have varying levels of performance and that means some will be further along than others. In contrast, instructors who believe they do not have enough time to get to know their students as individuals may view the class as a whole and set an expectation regarding the overall performance level that all students should be at for this particular point in the class.

Returning to the example provided, my question to you is this: Do you reward the attempt made by the student or do you penalize that student for what you perceive to be a lack of effort? As a faculty trainer, I have interacted with many faculty who believe that all students should be high performers and earning top grades, regardless of their background and prior classes. When students fail to meet that expectation, there is a perception that students either do not care, they are not trying, or they are not reading and applying the feedback provided. The instructor’s response then is to dangle a carrot (incentive) and use the stick to try to change the necessary student behaviors.

Relevance for Adult Learning

There is a perception held by many educators, especially those who teach in traditional college classes, that the instructors are in control and students must comply. This reinforces a belief within students that they do not have control over their outcomes and that is why many believe grades are beyond their control. I have seen many students stop trying by the time they were enrolled in a class I was teaching simply because they could not make a connection between the effort they have made to the outcomes or grades received. In other words, while they believed they were doing everything “right” – they were still getting poor grades.

At the heart of the adult learning process is motivation. There are as many degrees of motivation as there are types of students and it is not realistic to expect that all students will be performing at the same level. I’ve learned through time and practice that adult student behaviors do not or will not permanently change as a result of forced compliance. However, behaviors will change in time when an instructor has built a connection with their students and established a sense of rapport with them. I encourage instructors to think beyond dangling a carrot and try to influence behavior, and not always through the use of rewards.

From a Carrot to a Connection

It is important for instructors to create a climate and classroom conditions that are conducive to engaging students, while becoming aware of (and recognizing) that all students have a capacity to learn and some gradually reach their potential while others develop much more quickly. My instructional approach has shifted early on from a rewards or carrot focus to a student focus. I want to build connections with students and nurture productive relationships with them, even when I am teaching an online class and have the distance factor to consider. I encourage students to make an effort and I welcome creative risks. I teach students to embrace what they call their failures as valuable learning lessons. I encourage their involvement in the learning process, prompt their original thinking during class discussions, and I teach them that their efforts do influence the outcomes received.

I recognize that this type of approach is not always easy to implement when classroom management is time consuming, and this is especially true for adjunct instructors. However, at a very minimum it can become an attitude and part of an engaging instructional practice. I encourage instructors to include it as part of their underlying teaching philosophy so they recognize and work to implement it. Every educator should have a well-thought out teaching philosophy as it guides how they act and react to students and classroom conditions. A student focus, rather than a carrot and stick focus, creates a shift in perspective from looking first at the deficits of students and seeing their strengths – along with their potential. It is an attitude of looking away from lack and looking towards meaning in the learning process, and a shift from seeing an entire class to viewing students individually. My hope is that this inspires you to re-evaluate and re-examine how teach your students and consider new methods of prompting their best performance.