John Harahan was a self-described "beer guy" with a penchant for Belgian and German brews. But last year, Harahan, the owner of Telegard, a $1 million, five-employee telecommunications-consulting firm in Wayne, Pa., decided to broaden his drinking horizons. He signed up for an introductory wine class at the Wine School of Philadelphia. "I wanted to get to the point where I could say to someone why I like what I like," says the 47-year-old.
Harahan has lots of company at the bar. Wine schools may have gotten a bump from Sideways, the Oscar winner about two friends on a road trip to the vineyards around Santa Barbara, and Mondovino, a documentary about the viticulture industry, but since then the field has held its own nicely. Wine educators say enrollment in wine schools is up about 25% from a year ago. The pinot noir class at the Wine School of Philadelphia had 196 students this summer, up from 41 in 2004.
GETTING A TASTE
Whether you're daunted by a restaurant wine list or hope to open a wine-related business, the growing popularity of wine classes makes it easy to find one that meets your needs. Independent wine schools have opened in many cities. Universities, restaurants, and wine stores also sponsor classes. The classes aim to "dispel the myth that wine is only for the elite, that wine is a class-based kind of drink," says Keith Wallace, a former journalist who founded the Wine School of Philadelphia in 2000. The Society of Wine Educators (SWE), a Washington (D.C.)-based wine association that began in 1977 with 168 members and now has 1,450, has a list of schools and instructors who have passed its certification exam on its Web site, wine.gurus.com. Or ask the experts at your local wine store about classes near you.
Choosing the right class depends on how much you know about wine and how much time and effort you want to put into learning. If you've only recently acquired a taste for the grape, try an introductory class such as Harahan's. He and his classmates sampled about a dozen wines at each weekly session, comparing their color, clarity, smell, and taste. They learned about the nine major varietals (sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, sangiovese, merlot, cabernet, grenache, and syrah) and the five S's (see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor) of tasting. The seven-week program costs $425.
More advanced classes might focus on a particular varietal or region. The Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., holds one-to-five-day programs, ranging from $150 to $995, that include tastings, vineyard tours, and discussions of food pairings. The center, run by Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and a winner of a James Beard Award, also offers courses on wine-growing regions and on the wine business.
Before you enroll in any class, do a little homework. Harriet Lembeck, a founding member of the SWE who has taught wine classes in New York for 30 years, suggests that students ask about the diversity of wines covered (not the number of wines you'll quaff), the make-up policy for missed sessions, and the instructor's experience. Instructors should be versed in all aspects of winemaking, from soil and climate to barrels and corks.
Harahan's introductory course was just the beginning. He has since installed a 500-bottle wine cooler in the basement of his Jeffersonville (Pa.) home. This fall, he'll take a three-month advanced tasting class. "I'm drinking wine 9 to1 over beer now," he says. And knowing a bit more about why he likes it so much.
By Julia Cosgrove