Wine Certifications – The Needs

Wine Tasting
Wine Tasting

If you want to become a Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, WSET, or other wine expert, there’s a lot of stuff you gotta learn. Except for honing your tasting skills, it’s mostly science.

I felt I had to write this because of a conversation I had last week. We were discussing our various interests, and I happened to mention my wine certifications, what I have planned for my post-retirement future, and how wine is a huge part of it.  His comment?

“It’s just wine.”

You have to know science for starters. What sciences do you have to know to become a “wine expert”?

I looked at him, but I wasn’t upset. Why should I be? I remember being bewildered when I learned that the University of California at Davis had a highly respected wine program and offered degrees in wine. “Wine degree? Why do you need a degree in wine?!?” I asked myself. After all, the “wine expert” is that arrogant guy who sells you a bottle of overpriced wine for your dinner (red for meat, white for fish), pops the cork, pours into your glass and that’s it. What’s to know?

You have to know science for starters. What sciences do you have to know to become a “wine expert”?

Geology and Soil Science

Geologists go nuts trying to tell wine folks that soils’ character really have little more than a minimal effect on wine, but then can’t explain how tasters can tell the regions and types of soils that a particular grape may have grown in.

You must learn about the soils in different regions (even if the same type of soil is in a different country) and how the soils affect the wines. Geologists go nuts trying to tell wine folks that rocks and soils’ character really have little more than a minimal effect on wine but then can’t explain how tasters can tell the regions and types of soils that a particular grape may have grown in. That said, Wines & Vines published an in-depth and fascinating article about the soil types of Napa and Sonoma in January of 2013. Written by William A. Fuchs, a geologist (neener neener to the non-wine geologists) Viticultural Geology: How what’s below the surface affects wine quality, this is a good place for the wine student to learn more about how the earth below affects the wine in our glass.

And then there’s soil science which from a layman’s standpoint, is essentially a relative of geology. But not.

Soil science is more directly related to agriculture. A soil scientist is called a pedologist (from pedology, meaning “soil study”), and primarily works with the agricultural community. Because nothing’s more important than good dirt! Soil Science Society of America (soils.org) published a great article in July of 2013 entitled From Soil Profiles to Flavor Profiles: Is there a connection when it comes to winemaking?

Geography

Wine regions of France
Wine regions of France

Remember maps? Those were the big paper things you consulted before the days of “Hey Siri, give me the directions to Walmart.”

Geography, in this case, is not the same as knowing the capital of each state. It’s much more challenging. You have to know each wine region (AVA, DOCG, AOC, etc.), the types of wine they produce, and the laws surrounding each area. You have to know, for instance, on which side of the country Burgundy, Languedoc, or Bordeaux are located, the subareas of each, the varietals of wines they produce, and, when you get to the higher levels of certification, the wineries, winemakers, and quality of wines they make. And that’s just a couple of regions in France. Multiply that by the rest of the world.

Oceanography

What?!? Yup.

You will have to learn how currents affect grapes grown in maritime climates (Oh. Didn’t I mention climatology?), the names of those currents, and how marine fog affects grapes. Whether it’s the Humboldt Current (Chile) or the Buguela Current (S. Africa), you need to know the basics in order to get past the first level. An interesting article written by Wayne Belding, Current Affairs: Oceans in Motion, appeared in the November 14, 2017, issue of wine review online.

Botany

Rows of grapevines.
Rows of grapevines.

Of course botany! I probably should have mentioned this first since it’s the one that immediately comes to mind. Well. Maybe after the drinking part. You must learn all of the parts of the grapevine, from the trunk to the roots to the parts of the grape, how the seasons affect the vines, and the stages of growth, grape production, and ripeness. GENCO (Garage Enologists of Sonoma County) has published a thorough, educational paper about grapevines entitled Grapevine Structure and Function by Edward W. Hellman. This is ideal for the student of wine because it covers nearly every aspect of the vine and is as thorough a treatise on grapevines as I’ve ever seen.

Chemistry

Grapes are a unique fruit in that after fermentation, they can mimic characteristics of other things, such as pears, lemons, blackberries, and plums.

While the average person may expect terms such as sugars, sulfides, and acidity, the wine student must know more. Phenolic compounds, Monoterpenes, Brettanomyces, TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), TBA (2,4,6-Tribromoanisole), Tartaric acid, Malic acid, and the list goes on. Grapes are a unique fruit in that after fermentation, they can mimic characteristics of other things, such as pears, lemons, blackberries, and plums.

A short article entitled The Chemistry of Wine was published by ACS Axial, an online science site, and briefly outlines basic information about all of the chemicals encompassing wine science.

Metric System

Rosé wine and food.
Rosé wine and food.

Those of us in the United States have been brought up on the British Imperial Units of measurement: foot, yard, ounce, etc. Ironically, Britain is now using the metric system almost exclusively.

While the British Imperial Units are handy for construction, social, and personal use, the rest of the world uses metric, and guess what you will learn!  I know what a hectare is, that 750 ml is a regular bottle of wine, 15.24 cm = 6 in., and that a mile is way farther than a kilometer, despite the number of letters! While it felt like learning a new language – and I’m speaking it with a decided accent – I’ve enjoyed learning about it so that I can “converse” with those who speak it fluently. Fortunately, because there are so many great conversion tools online, the learning process has been relatively painless.

And There’s More

Grapes
Grapes

We haven’t even touched on the actual art/science of farming grapevines, winemaking, palate skills, service, cigars, sake, food pairing, spirits, and beer. And of course, the amazing history of wine and how it began as a life-saving beverage. As you can see, becoming a “wine expert” is pretty intense and requires the candidate to study, learn, retain, practice, and interface with others. It is challenging and easily explains why the higher levels of wine certification – Master Sommelier and Master of Wine – are considered the most difficult tests in the world.

Make no mistake about it. It is hard work and requires incredible dedication. There’s a reason why since its inception in 1969, only 236 people have passed the Master Sommelier examination. The Institute of the Master of Wine began in 1953, and there are only 370 current Masters.

Still want to become a wine expert? Think about taking a beginning class or workshop such as the WSET Level 1, which is an excellent way to start and as much as most interested people want or need. If it sounds like too much bother (and money!), just enjoy the wine, chat with your “wine expert” friends, and just drink. After all, ultimately, that’s all you need to do.

Thanks to the wonderful photographers at Unsplash.com for the fabulous photos attached to today’s post. Awesome site!

 

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