What Makes a Wine Instructor “Outstanding”? (The Systematic Approach to Teaching)

People often ask me what I plan to do with my WSET Diploma certification when I complete the program (Hubs is probably THE most frequent inquirer of this information). My usual answer – after informing them that no, I’m not going to become a “Somm” – is that I’d like to teach and/or write about wine. And while I have this blog to keep my writing dream alive (barely), I’m leaning towards teaching wine courses as the more viable alternative to actually earning a living.

To that end, I recently got my feet wet by co-teaching a couple of courses over back-to-back weekends in the Pacific Northwest.  First was a trip up to my beloved Washington state and my favorite wine region – Walla Walla – for WSET Level 2.  The following weekend I headed back north to Portland to teach a few sections of Northern Italy for the Italian Wine Scholar course.  Luckily for students enrolled in those classes, I taught alongside two of my favorite instructors and mentors: Mimi Martin and Tanya Morningstar Darling.

While I was excited about these opportunities, I was also nervous! I’ve taught several consumer level wine classes, but these have been “just for fun” – both for me and the attendees.  With certification courses like WSET and IWS – there is an exam to pass at the end of the curriculum.  As a result, there’s an additional level of stress (and not just for the students!) because I want to give the class the information they need to pass the exam, but still want them to “have fun.”

Now that my first teaching hurdle is over, I’ve had some time to think about what qualities make an outstanding wine instructor. I’ve been fortunate to have had several fantastic teachers in my wine education thus far, and I’m trying to figure out what it is/was about them that made them so.

In the WSET world, we students follow a “Systematic Approach to Tasting”  which allows us to evaluate a wine on a common scale.  So, in the spirit of WSET (and to the annoyance of my Hubs), I’ve outlined below my “Systematic Approach to Teaching.”  These are the factors that I believe make up an “outstanding” instructor (as opposed to just a “good” or “acceptable” one) as well as the ideal level of these factors.

WSET Grid 1
How to Assess the Quality Level of a Wine Instructor

Enthusiasm – High.

As I’ve mentioned before, it wasn’t a bottle that turned me on to wine – but a person.  My first ever wine class was taught by the incredibly dynamic Reggie Daigneault and I credit her with being my wine “a-ha” moment.  I had no idea that there was so much to learn and appreciate about wine – beyond what was in my glass.  Reggie’s high level of enthusiasm was infectious and made every class enjoyable – even when we covered topics like “must adjustments”.

Unfortunately, a lack of enthusiasm can also be contagious.  A few years ago, I had a very knowledgeable instructor who, on the first day of class, walked in and announced to us students “I don’t know why they picked ME to teach this class.”  What a dreary way to start off the semester!

Election movie chalkboard
Don’t phone it in like Mr. McAllister!

In any case, there was minimal further dialogue that day as we ended up watching a film for the rest of class. This took me back to my high school days when the football coach taught government – and most classes consisted of him pressing “play” on the VCR (I recognize that millennials and younger generations may need to look up that particular acronym – I assure you that is was part of our daily 1980s life). Thankfully, this wine instructor’s enthusiasm level increased a bit over the course, but it still clocked in at about a medium minus overall. And not surprisingly, mine did too.

Responsiveness – Medium Plus.

Perhaps I overvalue this factor more than other people due to my past experience in the corporate world where responding to an email within 24 hours (or sooner!!) was simply standard operating procedure. Now that I’m in the wine world, I’ve noticed that responses often take several days.  Which, when you’re a stressed out student, feels like waiting for a Brunello di Montalcino to open up (Hubs: these lame inside wine jokes will end shortly – I promise).  I think aiming to be like a Rosé – short time on the skins, 48 hours or less – is reasonable (Hubs:  Another one). And even a short “let me get back to you on this!” is better than no response at all.

Personal Stories – Medium Minus.

Most wine instructors have traveled to a number of wine regions and met countless names in the wine industry. Sharing these personal experiences with students can definitely help certain wine concepts come to life.

For example, one of my instructors has family in Umbria, and she told us about how the locals were always very clear that the Trebbiano grown in their region was not Trebbiano Toscano (the grape used frequently for bulk production) but rather Trebbiano Spoletino.  I can still envision an old Italian lady shaking her finger in correction.

Spoletino!
Sei un idiota – é Trebbiano Spoletino!

Differentiating between these two Trebbianos ended up being a question on my Italian Wine Scholar exam!  And, thanks to my instructor’s story, I recalled this information immediately and easily answered the question.

But while some of these stories are entertaining, they can also be detracting from the class, waste valuable time, or be simply irrelevant. For example, sharing your experience of strolling through Grand Cru vineyards and consuming trophy/unicorn bottles with famous winemakers probably isn’t doing your students any good.

Bottom line: It isn’t about you (see ego category below). If a personal story will help students learn/remember something – share it.  But if it’s name dropping – leave it out.  Or put it on Instagram.

Staying on Course (aka Teaching to the Test) – Medium.

Instructors are often told to not “teach to the test.” But I struggle with this because these certification classes that I’m teaching culminate with an exam.  Yes, hopefully, students will also gain knowledge beyond what’s needed for the test – but their end-goal is to pass the exam and obtain the pin/certificateJessie with lasso.

To ensure a student’s success with this goal, it’s important to stay focused on the material and to stay out of time-sucking rabbit holes as much as possible. One of my instructors has an amazing ability to corral students and keep us on the right route during class. I swear she must’ve worked on a ranch in her past life.

I put this factor at a medium though, because I think some degree of diverging from the path is beneficial.  It encourages class participation and keeps the students engaged.  And prevents the class from becoming a lecture.

Ego – Medium Minus.

The further I go in my wine studies, the higher the ego levels seem to go as well. Thankfully, I’ve heard that it drops back down a bit when striving for the highest level qualifications like MW or MS.

I’m optimistic about this being true – my newest instructor recently achieved MW and she is incredibly humble and easygoing.  For example, the class had to drag information out of her about becoming an MW and it was only after incessant questioning that we learned she had received the highest score on the tasting portion of the exam.  I admired her even more because of her humility about this amazing accomplishment.

Patience – High.

We’ve all been in classes where one student just does not understand a concept and cannot move on from it – often to the detriment of the rest of the class. Or there’s an obnoxious student who “corrects” the teacher about the distance in kilometers between two Burgundian villages (yep, this happened to me and we’re revisiting it again!). In either case – an instructor needs to come to class loaded up with a high level of patience for situations like these.  And maybe some Sancerre in your S’well bottle.

Even though wine classes are attended by adults, they bring their own set of challenges that require calm, level-headed responses.  Not unlike a class full of kindergarteners.

Kindergarten-Cop
No Mr. Kimble, the distance between Meursault and Pommard is 5km, not 6km!

Knowledge – Medium Plus.

Now, you might be thinking: shouldn’t knowledge of the subject matter that you’re teaching about be HIGH? Isn’t this the most important factor in being an outstanding wine instructor? Honestly, I don’t think it is.

Many wine folk possess a massive amount of knowledge about wine and have lots of letters after their names to prove it.  However, teachers need to be able to convey this knowledge to students in a manner in which they can understand.  And ideally make it interesting and memorable as well.

You can know a whole lot about a lot, but if you can’t explain it to someone else so that they can understand it too – you’re not going to be an outstanding instructor.

Ability to Have Fun – High.

I recently attended a masterclass focused on the Champagne house Bollinger. At the start of class, the instructor whipped out a saber and asked “who here wants to saber one of these?!”  What a freakin’ awesome way break the ice (almost literally)!  A few students who had never sabered before volunteered and they nailed it!  This set the tone for the rest of the class which was engaging, energetic – and so much fun.

As a newbie wine instructor, I certainly don’t expect to hit all of the factors listed above right off the bat.  But someday, I hope to have the same effect on a student that my outstanding wine instructors have had (and continue to have) on me. At the end of the day, wine is meant to be enjoyed . . . and learning about wine should be as well.

 

 

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Wine Instructor “Outstanding”? (The Systematic Approach to Teaching)

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