Wine 101: Where does one even begin?

“How did you learn about all this!?’  It is a question I am familiar with, as my job is to daily assist people with their wine purchases. These purchases often lead to discussion on wine pairing, regions, wine styles and varietal differences. Other times, we talk about organic, biodynamic, sulfites, tannins and alcohol levels. No matter the topic, customers and friends always want to know how to learn more.

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It’s a hobby, right? So don’t get so overwhelmed. I chose to do wine as a career, so not only do I spend 40 hours in a store, I also spend several hours researching and writing, not to mention drinking and thinking. And on top of that, I am always tinkering with some certification or another, so I force myself to study. A lot. It takes around the clock obsession for me to feel that I can answer half the questions that come my way. There is a lot to know… and that knowledge keeps growing by the millions of bottles every vintage.

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So where to start? I decided it was time to write down exactly what it is I recommend to those who want to know how to excel in their wine skills. Take it as far as you want. Tips begin gradual—bottle by bottle. But if you are starting to think this might be the line of work for you, there are suggestions on where to begin on that journey as well.

1. Think while you Drink: Buy a notebook. Record every wine you bring home. Jot down a few simple things about your initial impression: smell, taste, like, dislike. Google some info on the varietal (i.e. Cab, Chardonnay, Syrah, Albarino), region (i.e. Bordeaux, Rhone, Sonoma, Barossa Valley) or producer (i.e. Seghesio, Rodano, D’Arenberg). That’s how it started for me.

2. Free Local Wine Tastings: Check out free local wine tastings at legitimate shops that are really into what they do. My shop, Little’s Wines & Spirits, offers two tastings a week with a focused theme. This weekend, we are learning what the terms ‘traditional’ vs ‘modern’ style winemaking means as well as how to choose the correct wine for cooking certain dishes. It’s fun, free and as educational as you make it!

3. Attend Wine Events: Sources like www.localwineevents.com and the local newspapers have an ongoing list of events you can take advantage of in your town. Some are free…some are not. But you can choose what’s right for you.

4. Read: There are so many books out there that have helped me understand wine along the way—from hobby sipper to certified sommelier. Check out the following:

How to Taste, by Jancis Robinson

Windows of the World: A Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly

Red Wine with Fish, by David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson

World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson

Oxford Companion to Wine, by Jancis Robinson

Adventures on the Wine Route, by Kermit Lynch

A Life Uncorked, by Hugh Johnson

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5. Take a Class: This will be different for every city, so if you need some help finding your way outside the Denver area, don’t hesitate to drop a note. If you are, however, in the mile high city, here are a couple places that always offer wine classes:

Cook Street Culinary School: http://www.cookstreet.com/index.php

International Wine Guild Public/Consumer Courses: http://www.internationalwineguild.com/public-programs

Colorado Free University: http://www.freeu.com/

Local Wine Events: http://www.localwineevents.com/

6. Keep your Day Job, but…: If your passion is seriously making you reconsider your career, then it may be time to stick a nose in the trade. Figure out what appeals to you most and acknowledge your natural talents. Is it business? Perhaps you can combine accounting with a shop or a small wine bar. Maybe you will eventually want to start one yourself. Is it sales? There are hundreds of wholesalers and distributors in the state. Perhaps a small one would let you try it out part time. You can make good money if it’s second nature to you. Always wished you could have lived your life at a fancy restaurant, pairing one exquisite bite after the next with the perfect wine? If you’re sniffer and palate is up to par, you just may be the next Master Sommelier with time and dedication. Dream of writing and traveling in far off places, like Austria, the Mosel and the Rhone (ahem…this is my dream), it’s next to impossible. But… it’s not entirely so. Therefore, you keep your day job, start a blog, hope to God you get a couple unique visitors a day, and tirelessly submit work to publications (I have yet to honestly do that last part… I need to get over rejection!).

Get Certified: Okay, so you were bitten by the wine bug. You’ve turned in the resignation letter or gotten your useless degree in Leisure Studies, told your family you are going to dedicate yourself to alcohol and gotten your dream job at the local [insert career here: liquor shop, bar, door to door booze salesperson].

It’s time to make it official.

wine cave.

Some people turn up their noses at Academia, so if it’s not for you, it’s not a big deal. That said, depending on the route you take, it may be crucial to consider some credentials. Here are some terrific programs:

International Wine Guild Professional Program: http://www.internationalwineguild.com/professional-programs

WSET: http://www.wset.com/ or, for Denver specifically go to http://www.wsetdenver.com/

Court of Master Sommelier: http://www.mastersommeliers.org/

Society of Wine Educators: http://www.societyofwineeducators.org/

I joke, but this was the best decision I have ever made. I was neck high in term papers, getting through graduate school, staring at a bottle of wine when it occurred to me that if I applied the same energy to studying viniculture and viticulture as I did to Virginia Woolf, I just may have a shot at making a successful career at my hobby. It was a huge risk. I always thought I wanted to be a professor. But the truth is… I only have one life. I couldn’t see arguing over beautifully written language for the rest of my life. I love literature and writing. I’m just not cynical enough to hack it with the academics. Wine offered a way for me to endlessly learn, research, write, educate, interact and feel alive. It is a way to see the world, understand soils, climatic influence, food pairing, culture and customs.

You choose how far you want to take it. Regardless, wine studies is a path you won’t regret.

[Courtesy of  The Persistent Palate--another fun source for education]

About Ashley Hausman


Originally from Wisconsin, Ashley moved to Colorado to hike and climb mountains as soon as she had a B.A. in hand. Quickly she learned, she needed to find a career. So she went back to grad school to get her PhD in English & American Literature, beginning with a Masters at New York University. A few long papers, a thesis and a masters degree later, she found wine was not only an incredible way to enhance Derridean studies, but it had its own story to tell: of regions, soils, cultures and farming. While Woolf still had her heart, Burgundy was creeping in… She decided to postpone the PhD and go for the plunge. Now, she manages Little’s Wine & Spirits near the University of Denver. She orders by day, sips and tells all in her blog by night, and runs private wine parties in between in addition to giving advice on cellar building, wine vacations and food pairing. It’s a passion that grows only more complex with every passing vintage.

  • james groves

    Just would like to know more about wines

    • http://www.littleswine.com Ashley Hausman

      Hey James,

      The best way to learn, is to taste. Come join us for our free weekly tastings at the store I manage: Little’s Wine & Spirits. I will be updating our tastings online today: http://www.littleswine.com.

      I am also teaching formal wine classes through Colorado Free University and the Alliance Francaise. I would love to see you attend one! This Fri at CO Free I am doing a wine & food pairing class.

      Finally, anytime you have a question about wine–anything! (from screwcaps and organics to sulfites and health benefits–just shoot me an email! I am happy to help you with your wine education!

      Cheers!
      a.