This is the first Uncorked column -- and hopefully not the last -- written in direct response to e-mails from readers.
I have received numerous inquiries regarding wine education. The question keeps coming up, "I really like wine and want to learn more ... where do I start?"
I will add a few of my own comments later, but I thought it best to talk to one of Milwaukee's up and coming wine personalities to get the answers to your questions.
Katie Espinosa is the sommelier and a manager at Mr. B's, Bartolotta Steakhouse. In the span of a few years, she has gone from server to manager and sommelier and her wine knowledge has absolutely exploded. She passed her certified sommelier exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers and is studying hard to take the advanced exam. When she passes, and I'm sure she will on the first try, she will be one of only two people in the state of Wisconsin to have passed the test.
Since she has learned so much so fast, I thought it fitting to ask her what she thought were great ways for you, the reader, to increase your wine knowledge.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you get your start?
Katie Espinosa: I was hired as a server at Lake Park (Bistro). Since the wine list is all French, I wanted to learn more about French wine quickly. I wasn't management and didn't have the opportunity to taste with vendors, so I needed to learn on my own. Initially, I just bought some books to study. I needed to learn more about the different regions and geography in particular.
OMC: Once you got the basics down, how did you go about increasing your knowledge?
KE: By really studying the different countries and wine regions, subregions and wine making styles. I also focused on the individual grapes grown in each region. I bought Wine Spectator, which was very helpful for me to read about wine regions that I hadn't been exposed to at the time. Food & Wine is also another good one, especially when it comes to food and wine pairings for people in restaurants. Also, having dinners with friends, people I work with and family really helps with tasting wine.
OMC: What advice would you give the average consumer looking to develop their knowledge?
KE: Start with the basics: regions, grape profiles. Understanding concepts like European wines and the grapes and regions they are grown in. Labels are so much harder to read. What is Red Burgundy? That can be hard to understand at first.
OMC: What advice would you give the average consumer looking to develop their palate?
KE: Tasting -- lots of tasting. It's very important to get together to talk about wine. Different palates learn from each other. Each person has a unique perspective to bring to the table. Also, get recommendations from a trusted source. They will help you develop. A trusted retailer, a sommelier, someone you can build a relationship with. That's what we do here all the time. It's a lot of fun to be able to give recommendations on what people should look for. We do that all the time.
OMC: How are you studying for the advanced exam?
KE: More academic than anything. Specific regions, countries, vineyards and growing techniques. Every vintage brings a whole new set of knowledge with it. I am spending a lot more time with regions that I don't get to work with every day at the restaurant. The smaller growing regions of the world.
OMC: What are your favorite wine books?
KE: "Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine." I really learn best from books with maps. It helps me visualize where the particular regions are and what grapes are grown there. "The Wine Bible" is a good read. It covers interesting things that you might not get from other books, little unique things that can lead in a whole different direction. Believe it or not, "Wine for Dummies" is a great starter book. It covers more than just the basics, but doesn't get too complicated.
OMC: What is your favorite reference book?
KE: "Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia." Although I don't find myself opening it that often, because when I do, it's so in depth that it leads in so many complex directions.
OMC: What is your advice for anyone wanting to "come up" in the wine business?
KE: Study the concepts so you can have the confidence to say what you think. Retailers are different, but in restaurants, service is very important. Study food and wine pairings to be able to take service to the next level. I think that getting together with friends on the same level of wine knowledge and studying in groups is very helpful. Keeps you motivated, kind of like working out with someone at the gym. Also makes people bring something new to the table every time.
OMC: What is your motivation for taking the advanced exam?
KE: Personal satisfaction mostly. It's a huge step from the certified to the advanced. It takes quite a bit of discipline to keep going. But it opens so many doors for knowledge and for the experience of tasting new wine. It really makes me want to travel. My husband loves to travel, too, and we want to go to some of the places that I only read about now.
Espinosa is super fun to talk to, extremely passionate not only about wine itself, but about making sure she finds the perfect wine for you to be passionate about, too. If you want to go pick her brain in person, make sure to check out the sizable wine list at Mr. B's in Brookfield.
A few of my own comments ...
Book knowledge: It is important for understanding the why where and how. I agree with Espinosa that "Wine for Dummies" is actually a pretty good place to start. From there, the styles of wine books range from super dry and dull to glossed over and cheeky and the worst part is that there are countless to choose from. I recommend getting a library card or buying used books to make sure it's the kind of read that suits you-they can be awfully pricey.
Tasting: Unless you taste wine for a living, tasting wine should always be focused on having fun. But along the way there are some tips for retaining a bit more knowledge as you go. I seriously recommend taking notes. You don't have to start with fancy quotes or descriptors, and your palate will grow and be able to discern more as time goes on, but jotting down impressions and reviewing those tasting notes periodically can accelerate your knowledge quickly. A plain notebook works, or there are all kinds of fancy label savers and leather bound wine note diaries available.
Tasting blind and tasting with friends are two great ways to expose you to more wine in one sitting, which is key for comparison. There is also the extra good natured pressure of others present which can make you focus a bit more as well. Just make sure the friends you chose are the kind that enjoy other's opinions and don't try to act all snotty when they can't tell a merlot from a pinot -- It's all about learning together and having fun.
Wine Selection: I plan on talking about this much more in depth when I write a retail focused column, but I completely agree with Espinosa when she encourages you to build relationships. Nothing is better than finding a trusted retailer or sommelier to help you in your development. Make a list of things you have tried, what you liked, or what you might like to explore. Any good retailer or sommelier worth his / her salt will try as hard as possible to steer you in the right directions. He / she stands to gain everything when you keep coming back for more great recommendations and you stand to gain everything from trying great wine. Just make sure to keep track of what wines he suggested the last few visits so they can keep you moving in the right direction.
As always, I'm sure there are many other great ways to learn for beginners and advanced wine students alike. If I missed any that have worked for you, please make a note. Also, I would love for this reader inspired column to be the first of many, so if you have any other wine thoughts bouncing around your head that you would like to explore in depth, send me an e-mail and I'll try to spin another column from it.