Monday, June 19, 2017

My Incredibly Fun & Harrowing Journey From Intrepid Oenophile to Certified Wine Professional

When I signed up for the Wine Professional Class at Saint Paul College, where, full disclosure, I also happen to work as a librarian, my aim was to expand my wine repertoire, discover my next delicious bottle of wine and bring an end to my naive wanderings through the wine shop, held hostage to the tastes of the person forced to help me once I finally gave up and begged for mercy and aid. Of course, there wasn't anything wrong with these kind souls' recommendations except that they were all based on their own personal preferences and not mine and that often led to disappointment. The good (and, probably unsurprising) news is that every bottle of wine gets better with each subsequent glass, especially if you drink it all in one sitting, aided and abetted or otherwise, so there were no truly unhappy endings; but still, I would rather enjoy the journey from first sip to last as I am sure you will agree. I had no idea this condensed, 5 class, 9 credit semester, taught by the incomparable Nikki Erpelding and supported by the monstrous tome by Steven Kolpan and Brian H. Smith titled Exploring Wine (seriously, 6.9 pounds, 800 pages) would not only teach me, but would also challenge and try me in so very many ways.

I was also completely unprepared for receiving a job offer based both on Nikki's stellar reputation and that of the class before the semester even started! I wandered into a wine shop one day last summer, looking for half bottles of wine so as to circumvent the "I'm drinking this alone and don't want to waste half a bottle to oxidation in case I fade and don't finish it," problem, and, so, struck up a conversation with the shop manager. After he steered me to the half bottles, we chatted amicably and I happened to mention that I was hoping to advance my knowledge of wine by taking a Wine Professional Class in the coming fall. He responded, "At Saint Paul College?" I said, yes. "With Nikki Erpelding?" Yes, again. "Well, come see me when you're done, and I will have a job for you!" he generously enthused. I was charmed and delighted and didn't give him any hint that the first thought that flitted through my mind at his offer was, "Wait -- what if I fail the class?!?!"

There wound up being about 23 students in this class, ranging from professionals already in the industry who were just looking to beef up their resume and tweak their knowledge all the way down to ignoramus me -- an adventurous lush as the editors of GQ so aptly put it in their recent article, The 20 New Rules of Drinking (and Buying) Wine. When I asked my husband if he would mind if I took this class, which met every Saturday from 10a to 3p, he surprised me, as a former non-wine drinker, by suggesting that he take it with me! 200 wine tastings, give or take, later, he is now a devoted wine consumer and fellow Certified Wine Professional/partner in crime. Husband didn't speak a lot in class, being more the laconic type, and so also became an enigma to everyone while simultaneously being lauded for his extreme commitment to his wife's desperate endeavors to score better wine. Hero/mystery man = win-win!

To simply state that this class was fun would do everyone involved a grave injustice. This class was like going through an enormously scary haunted house in the pitch dark with a group of friends all clinging to each other for support and comfort while everyone anxiously cracks jokes to dispel their nerves. Yes, I know it is hard to believe that it could have been THAT nerve-wracking and fun, but there you have it. (One fellow classmate likened the experience to being closely followed by a Mack truck, so it wasn't just me!) Long-suffering, but, lucky for us, patient and good-natured Nikki expertly steered the class through viticulture, wine service, wine marketing, food and wine pairing and the flavor dynamics of wine tasting. Every week we tasted on average about 12 wines in class (except, of course, for the one, infamous week in which one fellow classmate will readily tell you, we tasted what felt like 450!) working our way through the grid and even attempting blind tastings. I only managed to id one wine in a blind tasting, and since I know you're curious, I will reveal that it was Merlot. In case you are inclined to allow this fact to impress you to any degree, I must dissuade you immediately, because the truth is that I only knew it was Merlot because I have consumed approximately 913 million gallons of Merlot in my lifetime, which is a gross, bald-faced lie, but seems reasonable when I reflect back on it. 913 million gallons of wine is actually the amount of wine consumed by all the U.S. residents in 2015, according to The Wine Institute and I mention that in order to point out the fact that I am in good company if we are drinking enough wine to fill one and a third Olympic-size swimming pools (according to Wikipedia, anyway) per annum. (I think we can do better, though, don't you? Let's try to do better, people!)

What's really funny, though, is the fact that several folks from the class have told me privately that they don't feel that they earned the title of Certified Wine Professional and they will not be convinced otherwise, no matter how much I try to do just that. I get it. I feel the same way to some degree. But then, someone who knows I just took this class will ask me a question about wine and I will give them a semi-informed answer, then an hour later, I will realize to my great surprise that I have just chatted knowledgeably, touching on the topics of wine bottle closures and cork taint, mega purple and other FDA approved wine additives, the effect of oxidation on the bouquet and flavor of wine, etc. But, I digress, and while I am really good at commandeering attention, especially in my own blog, this post is not supposed to be about me, so let me get back on track. It boils down to imposter syndrome, I think, and it requires some wisdom from a recently, and very sadly, dead actor and a wizened children's book author to countermand. "Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What's important is the action. You don't have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow." -- Carrie Fisher (aka, Princess Leia from Star Wars). "Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." --A. A. Milne

The truth is that people who are new at something are usually not very good at it on day one, or day two or day three, even. While there are natural talents who pick things up seemingly effortlessly, most of us struggle to acquire new knowledge or a new skill. Most of us have also embarrassed ourselves exceedingly at least a few times in our lives, sometimes with our ignorance, sometimes with our cockiness, sometimes for any number of inexplicable reasons. Once you've done it out of cocky over-confidence, you quickly learn a humble attitude will best preserve you. Learning to say, "I don't know," without embarrassment will also serve you well, especially if you follow it up with, "But, I will do my best to find out for you."

Good, good, fine, fine. The hardest thing to learn is not how to avoid embarrassment but to embrace it. And by that, I mean, you have to learn to laugh at yourself. People who can't laugh at themselves might as well paint a bulls-eye upon their own backs and fronts and the top of their heads because others are not only going to laugh at you, but they are going to laugh mercilessly at you if they perceive your inability to laugh at yourself. If, instead, you do manage to laugh at yourself, you will find people will feel a certain level of respect and admiration for your good sense of humor. What a payoff! Plus, you get to laugh, and who doesn't want that? Sometimes I find myself laughing raucously at yours truly even when I am all alone and there is no possibility that anyone else could have seen the stupid thing I just did. I'm not gonna lie. It happens a lot. Graceful, I am not.

So, to my fellow Wine Professionals -- you know who you are -- I want to say, you earned it, you learned it (more than you think you did, anyway) and I believe in you! To the rest of you, I strongly encourage you to enroll in the next Wine Professional Class at Saint Paul College or at whatever location is near you. You may question your decision for a few brief moments when the Mack Truck is bearing down and the monsters are surely there in the dark, but in the end, you will be glad you did it.