Mine and James’ friendship is based on a lot of similarities:
- We were both raised in Yorkshire
- We’ve both lived in London and made it through a stint in recruitment
- We share an insatiable love of food and wine
- We jointly possess almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Fun fact: this would be James’ specialist subject on Mastermind)
- We’ll happily admit to having a slightly unhealthy obsession with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
However, even though our wine knowledge is matched to a certain extent – with each of us having specialist areas that we’re stronger on – our journeys into the world of wine were actually very different.
James found his feet in a very practical, hands-on way: years spent working in restaurants and bars, chatting to customers and colleagues, learning by talking, tasting and serving. The breadth of information he’s picked up is very impressive and it’s the kind of understanding that comes with time, effort and many hangovers. (I’ll stop with the compliments now before it goes to his head, we wouldn’t want him to outgrow his beanie hats.)
I’ve worked in hospitality throughout my adult life too but, in comparison, I’ve only been actively building on my wine knowledge for a relatively short period of time. As I’ve said before, my interest really peaked in 2014 during a wine tasting in New Zealand and I’ve never looked back. My learning curve has therefore been a little steeper than James’, which is why I decided that I wanted to get some formal training earlier this year. I needed to catch up!
Luckily enough, I was given the opportunity to study for the WSET (the Wine and Spirit Education Trust) Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits through work – definitely one of the perks of working at a chef school. Their qualifications are globally recognised and they have various learning centres around the world that you can study at to gain certification. Check out their website here.
Apart from anything, studying for the qualification gave me the chance to explore the weaker parts of my understanding without feeling embarrassed. There’s something really comforting about being in a class full of people who are learning at the same pace as you.
Having taken five months’ worth of classes, sitting the exam in May this year, I can definitely recommend taking one of the courses if you’re able to. However, I know this isn’t possible for everyone, so here are my five tips on how to build on your wine knowledge in everyday life.
- Always ask and never apologise – The simplest way to pick up information about grape varieties and wine styles is to ask if there’s something you don’t know or understand about the wine you’re drinking. Even if you think it might be obvious. Even if you think it might make you sound uninformed. There’s absolutely no shame in wanting to learn and you’ll often find that the people who are able to give you the answers will enjoy explaining it to you. So next time you’re in a restaurant/at a dinner party/up the pub and you’re not sure about something: ask!
- Be aware that sometimes you won’t be very good at tasting – Even if you find yourself growing in confidence when it comes to detecting flavours and aromas, you will have days on which you just miss the mark. If you’re recovering from a cold, for instance, your tastebuds might not be as sensitive because your airways will usually be blocked – taste is so dependent on your ability to smell properly. It can also depend on your energy levels, whether you’re slightly hungover or rundown, where you are in your menstrual cycle (if you’re a woman), how strong your perfume or cologne is, and even your surroundings. It’s very difficult to taste properly in a room that contains strong food smells, for example. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re having a bad day.
- Give it time – Some people are able to pick up and retain information very quickly and reliably, whilst others will have to engage with a fact over and over again before they can recall it on demand. It can be very frustrating to find that you fall into the latter category but, if that’s the case, you’re just going to have to go to more tastings and drink more wine so that you can really absorb the knowledge – poor you!
- Remember that you’re entitled to your opinion – When you’re starting out, one of the hardest things to do is to disagree with people about your experience of a wine. If you’re really not enjoying a bottle you’re sharing but the other person seems to be orgasming over each sip, you shouldn’t feel like you have to knock it back with a grimace to keep the peace. Likewise, if you’re loving the smoky, vanilla notes of an Australian Chardonnay and your friend is finding it to be too sweet for them, don’t be offended. Difference in opinion and taste is what makes the world of wine so exciting. One person’s opinion has absolutely no bearing on the quality of your own opinion and you’ll get much more out of the experience of tasting if you can be honest about what you think.
- There is always more to learn, so don’t be a snob and stay open minded – Once you’ve started to develop your personal taste profile, it can be easy to stick to what you like and dismiss styles that you think you don’t like. However, try not to limit yourself in this way and remember that there’s always room for exception. With there being so many different grape varieties grown and styles made in the different producing regions, it simply doesn’t make sense to write off a region because of a past experience – so try not to make sweeping statements like, “I’m not a fan of Chilean wine.” Equally, grapes are grown and used in such different ways from place to place and climate to climate, so it would be a shame to write off a particular grape variety because you didn’t enjoy that Riesling you had after work one time. Sometimes the best wine is the one that changes your perception.
Ultimately, have fun with it! And remember, you can seriously love wine without taking wine too seriously.