When you think of class warm-ups, you might remember the old days of a sample question on the overhead projector or a quick set of math problems to see if you remember what last night’s homework supposedly taught you.

In the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California’s (near San Jose) Intensive Sommelier Training course, you taste wine blind as a warm up. No, this isn’t just tasting wine casually as if you’re cruising Napa in a limo or deciding which of the dozen choices is best for joining a wine club. This is an educational wine tasting, setting a foundation for aspiring master sommeliers, those who determine if that wine does indeed have notes of ripe pear and fennel root. It’s just as serious and focused as any math problem set or mini-essay on history at the start of class would be.

Ready for tasting at the International Culinary Center, Campbell, CA. All Photos ©2014 Trevor Felch, unless otherwise noted.

Ready for tasting at the International Culinary Center, Campbell, CA. All Photos ©2014 Trevor Felch, unless otherwise noted.

Behind the glass wall separating the class room from where we were in the cellar, the day’s instructor Ian Cauble told me the students are blind tasting a Pinot Grigio and a Crozes-Hermitage, as he clandestinely decanted both. The class should know both wines since both have been covered. The Crozes-Hermitage has a distinct rusty texture and strong herbal notes. The Pinot Grigio has a unique stale beer note, phenolic bitterness, and a light texture for the back porch.

For almost a half hour, the class swirls, sips, ponders, and fills out their “grid” quietly, acting as if this is the actual exam. The grid asks about aroma/flavor assessment, structure assessment, and initial and final conclusions. All categories include multiple choice answers.

The ICC Exam Grid Used in Tastings

The Sommelier Exam Grid Used in Tastings

Stale beer for giving away Pinot Grigio? Well, I must admit I’ve never used that as a tasting term for Pinot Grigio or any other variteal. Musty and hoppy…yes.

Soon, back and forth ensues between the class and Cauble. “Phenolic bitterness” comes up at least two dozen times.

Could it be Sauvignon Blanc? Nope, there’s none of that Sauvignon Blanc “burn” that comes from pyrazine, a molecule in the grape that’s also in bell pepper, connecting why so much Sauvignon Blanc boasts that trait. Then Cauble reminds the class that only New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre would be on the test, not Napa. Focus on Napa Sauvignon Blanc after the test.

It’s determined it can’t be Chablis either because it’s missing its oyster shell notes. Ditto for Albariño or Grüner Veltliner since those don’t boast phenolic bitterness or stale beer notes.

If it’s “fresh and snappy” and “boring, easy drinking,” boasting phenolic bitterness, you’ve got to choose Pinot Grigio on the grid.

The same discussion ensues with everything from “jerky” and “tar” to “raspberry jam on toast” thrown out for the red. It’s a cold 2009 vintage from a small producer, Domaine Mucyn. Cauble says he wouldn’t recommend buying it. I’d agree. It’s harsh and dry.

Blinding Tasting Pinot Grigio and Crozes-Hermitage

Blinding Tasting Pinot Grigio and Crozes-Hermitage

The atmosphere reminded me of the cramming in a high school AP class in the final month before the exam, without the internal competition between students. There is a palpable spirit of respect and camaraderie, besides the obvious age difference of these students and high schoolers.

Dorothy Cann Hamilton founded The French Culinary Institute in New York in 1984 and the West Coast branch started four years ago, curiously taking over two floors above a Gold’s Gym. Both New York and California campuses were rechristened “The International Culinary Center” when the Campbell branch opened. With the new ICC name arrived this wine program inside a sparkling $1 million room and cellar. The ICC’s two branches boast a dozen master sommeliers, along with some pretty well known cooking instructors and deans with familiar names like Jacques Pépin, André Soltner, José Andrés, and David Kinch.

On the wine front, class options for the “Intensive Sommelier Training” in California are either ten straight weeks for five days a week or 17 weeks for 3 nights a week. Yes, it’s intensive. Roughly 300 wines are tasted in total and countless pages read about varietals, wine-making methods, and the world’s wine-growing regions.

I accepted an invitation from the ICC to shadow a class for a day recently and thoroughly enjoyed meeting instructors, students, and learning the many different stories that led both to the Campbell classroom. Students told me in the classroom and instructor Alan Murray echoed to me in a phone conversation later that students come from far and wide for wide range of reasons to the class. In theory the program gears students to pass the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Introductory and Certified Sommelier Examinations, then leading to careers ranging from brand ambassadors to a restaurant sommelier to even starting their own wine bar.

In kitchen training at the ICC. Photo: Courtesy The International Culinary Center

In kitchen training at the ICC. Photo: Courtesy The International Culinary Center

One student was a former chef. One was a film producer taking the class for fun. There were former computer programmers. There were mid-life career changers and young students just beginning adulthood. One student moved for the 10 weeks from Ohio. Another student commuted each day from Stockton in the Central Valley, at least three hours each way. Interestingly, very few students seemed to have their eyes set on being actual restaurant sommeliers. Some were determined to go to the retail side. The majority seemed in flux as to what to do with a certificate.

Almost all students agreed that the faculty, including the dean, Larry Stone, and master sommeliers like Cauble (one of the stars of the 2012 documentary Somm) and Murray (who served as sommelier for years at San Francisco’s legendary Masa’s) are what sets the ICC above all other wine education schools.

The class is divided into eight general units spanning different wine regions, wine characteristics and basics, wine program organization, and beer and spirits, complimented by various field trips to Napa, Sonoma, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Students told me in class about a visit to nearby Ridge Winery (and even if some are still learning about wine, they definitely know the difference between good and poor hospitality in a tasting room after the stories I was told). A visit to Scribe Winery, a decidedly smaller and more casual operation than Ridge, was on the agenda for the weekend.

Blind Tasting Line-up

Blind Tasting Line-up

The ICC in New York has the Finger Lakes and Long Island, along with urban wineries in Brooklyn and the resources of Manhattan restaurant and wine bar scene. But California seems to have the advantage in terms of geographical convenience for wine studies…

With the eight units, the class needs to operate on rapid fire. The Iberian Peninsula is divided into six days. The day before my visit, Rioja and Navarra got the spotlight for a whole session. The next week Sherry gets a whole day, as do Port and Madeira. The rest of Portugal also is one day, from Vinho Verde to the Douro. Today is a similar grand concept with “The Rest of Spain,” reminding me of the days as a college student when studying abroad and on long breaks you’d visit Budapest today, Munich tomorrow, and soon hit 20 cities in 21 days.

Classes are divided in half by lunch prepared by ICC chefs (a nice perk). The first half is lecture and the post-lunch half is for tasting and discussion of wine examples. Students take notes, sometimes on paper, more often on laptops. They’re engaged and listening. Even during the lecture there is much more interaction than the typical university class. Think of it more as a participatory seminar. Some students sip on iced coffees. Most have the textbooks next to their laptops.

After initially stating goals to know by the end of the class like “Name the principal red grape(s) of Priorat (Garnacha, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) and “Name a synonym for the grape Tinta de Toro,” (Tempranillo) here comes Spain in a Day.

Slides hopscotch around the country’s appellations with students learning about the difference between DO and DOCa, the grape varietals and climate of a region, perhaps even some history. Slides are accented with personal anecdotes on the wines or firsthand visits.

Though Spain of course has hundreds of producers worth knowing, a few are particularly selected, who are noteworthy and you’ll see well represented in the U.S. like Alvaro Palacios of Priorat and Vega Sicilia of Ribera del Duero.

Not all regions are mentioned, and Cauble reminds the students that this exam is not meant to be comprehensive. A good rule of thumb for what’s important at this point is if the wines are sold in retail stores in the U.S., you should know it. Somontano DO and the Alcanon grape? No. Not until the Masters Exam.

Many of the details are so in-depth many lifelong wine experts and collectors might not know them. The three main white varietals for Cava and the three sub-districts of Penedès DO (and Alta Penedès is the only one focused on Cava)?

Maps play a key role for the students understanding the regions. Ian encourages them to trace maps, an active way of understanding appellations and also understanding how terrain and climate varies, say why Albariño is so at home in Rías Baixas and not Jumilla.

2012 Txomin Etxaniz Getaria Txakolina

2012 Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina

Txakolina gets some fun when it comes to discussing the typical effervescent style of the wine, the dramatic pouring style into a glass, and some of the pronunciations of the wines.

After lunch comes the fun part and for wine as an academic subject the most fundamental part: the tasting. There’s no better way for sommeliers to learn how to spot a corked wine and which wine has heavier tannins and which has red fruit notes.

The first wine actually tasted before lunch, the 2012 Txomin Etaniz Getariako Txakolina is a thirst quencher that proves very popular. Everyone wishes they could have some with lunch. Who doesn’t?

Wines two through eight were tasted with one student getting the spotlight to run through their notes. The format seems formal like “Jeopardy,” always beginning with “The wine is…” and then leading to other students adding additional notes in agreement or disagreement. In theory, there’s no wrong answer in wine tasting notes (at least I like to say that for flavor profiles) but there are correct/incorrect answers when it comes to physical wine characteristics.

The second wine, a 2013 Orballo Albariño from Rías Baixas, was “green, not harsh, and like the inside of a banana skin.” The fifth wine, a Jorge Ordóñez Botani dry Muscat from Sierras de Malaga, proved controversial because of its high AbV at 14%. Wine six, a Priorat, boasted extremely heavy tannins, “black fruit notes, notes of over-steeped black tea, and arugula.” Arugula?! Cauble explained to the class the wine was fermented heavily with stems, giving it a puckery texture and bitterness that indeed provides notes like arugula. A good catch by the students.

2013 Orballo Albariño, Rías Baixas

2013 Orballo Albariño, Rías Baixas

A special wine is selected as a bonus contrast to that opening Pinot Grigio. It’s not from Spain is the hint. It’s a Huet Vouvray Sec, a good lesson on wines right at the border of dry and off-dry. The Vouvray is oxidative with notes of cheese and lees and an apple cut an hour ago. It tastes like it has residual sugar but really doesn’t have much—it just seems sweet.

After sitting in on the class, there’s no doubt that ten weeks of days with these instructors will provide a serious and broad wine education. But it also falls right into the debate going on in the food world, do chefs want to hire aspiring chefs who are self-trained or culinary institute trained? Which is better?

To me there is no answer either way. You can’t not benefit from this sommelier training. At the same time, the class isn’t good for learning about esoteric wines that are so popular these days. Since the class’ brevity doesn’t allow for much focus, you get the quick introductions like how I overheard that Kendall Jackson and La Crema should be tasted as homework of what California Chardonnay tastes like. In a vague, general way, that’s true if you’re gearing for the exam but not the best if making a wine list.

Classroom at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, CA. Photo: ©2014 Trevor Felch

Classroom at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, CA.

Most sommeliers I’ve worked with on articles aren’t actually certified sommeliers—a reason they like to call themselves “wine directors.” They’re self-taught and simply incredibly fervent about the subject of wine. They devour books, maps, and tastings. Their lists are intimate and personal quite often.

There’s nothing wrong with that route. It’s just a lot harder to succeed that way until a mentor is found to latch on to and gives the aspiring wine director a chance.

Now, to really be the top level, Master Sommelier is a whole extra beast. Over 40 years, only 211 professionals worldwide have received the title of Master Sommelier by passing the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Diploma Exam. This makes an MBA seem like a cake walk. You better celebrate if you pass that exam.

2012 NavaHerreros, Vinos de Madrid DO

2012 Bodega Bernabeleva, Blanco, NavaHerreros, Vinos de Madrid DO; Grapes: Macabeo & Albillo

For bubbly to celebrate, I asked Murray if students learn how to saber sparkling wine bottles. He explained that’s a bit much for an introduction class but they do learn to open a Champagne bottle and he’s never seen a bottle “go bang!” That’s good to hear for instructors and students.

Some of those Champagne bottles will be popped by the ICC this Fall, celebrating three decades of sending chefs and sommeliers into the real gastronomic world. But first, those aspiring sommeliers must determine the acidity and fruit specific descriptions of wines on the exam, never easy no matter how much studying they’ve done.

About Author

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Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Trevor is the chief content officer for the social neighborhood mapping program Urbane, a restaurants writer for SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner. He’s doing his best to be a world traveling meets joie de vivre combination of Hemingway, Bourdain, and Cary Grant. If you really want to charm him, serve a full, earthy Oregon Pinot Noir or a slick Sauternes, and pair them with 80 % or above dark chocolate.

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