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How do you know if a wine is “off”?

How do you know if a wine is “off”?

The short answer: if a wine smells or tastes unpleasant then it might be “off”. To be more specific, if you smell things like rotten eggs, burnt matchstick, vinegar, a musty wet cardboard aroma, then the wine may well be “off”.

But the fact is that it can be quite difficult to tell if some wines are “off”. I’ve shared bottles of wine with some of the top winemakers in the world and towards the end of the bottle they have questioned whether the wine is “in condition”. Why? We all have different thresholds for noticing certain smells and tastes. There was a famous incident when a wine critic found an entire batch of wine to be “corked”, but after the winery did a blind tasting with a focus group they decided that the taint was below “threshold” and continued to sell the wine.

Cork taint is the major fault to look for. Corks can sometimes harbor a fungi which can develop into potent organic compounds, notably one called TCA. This can dull the aroma of a wine, make it smell musty, like wet cardboard, and make the fruit taste dried out and astringent on the palate.

One of the other major faults is oxidation, which happens when excessive amounts of oxygen come into contact with the wine. This can start during the winemaking process as soon as the grapes are picked. Just like an apple, the juice can start to turn brown. Sometimes you can tell an oxidized wine just by the color. Look for white wines to have an unusual amber or dull golden brown color. The nose can smell dull, lacking freshness, and with some heavy nutty and caramel notes. Tired and stale are hallmarks of oxidized wines.

There are several other potential faults but in my experience the incidence of faulty wines is decreasing. The good news is that many good retailers in the world will replace any faulty bottles. Just don’t confuse that with a wine you personally don’t like the taste of.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

How important is the vintage of a wine?

How important is the vintage of a wine?

The importance of vintage depends on the region of production and the quality of the wine.

The vintage date can be of critical importance in cooler, more marginal climates. If it was a good year then the wines can be dramatically better in quality compared to a year when the heavens opened at harvest time and the crop suffered from dilution and rot. Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne, Piedmont, Tuscany, parts of Germany are typically more susceptible to vintage variation. Prices can fluctuate according to the quality of the vintage, so it is important to ask a Product Consultant or check on the internet for the reviews.

In some regions there is little vintage variation because the weather is quite consistent from year to year. In hot parts of Australia and California I’m really not too worried about the vintage date, but more concerned about the maturity of the wine. That’s to say that inexpensive wines are usually best drunk young while they are fresh and fruity, whilst top quality red wines often benefit from some age.

So I would be more concerned about a wine from a lesser region, or of lesser general quality, being too old. A Chardonnay that is 5 years old from California’s Central Valley, exhibiting a worryingly deep gold color, is cause for concern. It’s an unlikely scenario though.

On a few wines there are no vintage date and so it’s not an issue. Non vintage Champagne is a classic example, and so are Ruby Ports and Sherries. This is because several vintages are blended together so the producer can achieve a degree of consistency in the house style.

Yes, it is difficult to keep up on the merits of vintages in dozens of wine regions around the world and few people have the time or inclination to stay up-to-date. But if you are buying some more expensive wine from classic areas it’s definitely worth finding out because it can mean the difference between a great bottle and a disappointment. When in doubt, turn to Wine Spectator or Decanter for reviews.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

How to start a career and get a job in the wine industry.

I’m fascinated by wine and want to make a career change. How can I get a job in the wine industry?

There are so many different options for working in the wine industry. The two key sectors are production and sales, but there are dozens of others to consider.

If you want to get into production then the best way to start is by getting a job at a winery as a cellar hand. Simply go and visit, and ask to speak to the Winemaker. It’s remarkably easy to get a job helping out during the harvest, which is the most exciting time of the year.

Obviously a job with a fair amount of physical labor won’t pay a fortune, but you’ll quickly figure out if production is for you. Make sure you work for someone who speaks your language, and someone who will take you under their wing. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea why you’re doing the various tasks. Ask to spend 2-3 days doing a task like operating the press, doing punch-downs or working in the lab, and then move on. It’s pointless to spend 3 months doing the exact same thing in a winery.

If you like working in a vineyard or a winery, then it’s time to take some courses. UC Davis in California is well regarded, and they have some good courses in Washington State too. Obviously France, Australia and NZ have some of the very best schools but perhaps less convenient depending on where you live or want to go.

These days it’s important to have formal training. Some growers and winemakers seem to just take a few courses here and there, and miraculously declare themselves as professionals. There’s a frightening amount of this in Canada. My suggestion, if you want to be serious, is to get a degree.

Whilst studying you could start to specialize in a certain area, because expertise in a particular field like irrigation or oak barrels will help you tremendously in your career. Maybe you can be the world expert on a tiny bug that attacks the vine, or develop a new technology to help with the science of winemaking. Then you have something…

On the sales front, many people start in wine retail. It’s pretty easy to walk into a shop and ask for a job paying a low hourly rate. But it is a great place to start. You’ll have the chance to taste lots of different wines and learn from your colleagues. Most importantly, you’ll start to understand consumer behavior and that will be invaluable in the years to come.

Alternatively, one of the best jobs is as a Sales Rep. I loved the freedom to disappear into the city with a trunk full of samples. You’ll get to meet dozens of customers in the hospitality and retail industries. Along with a start in wine retail, this is probably the best way to learn the ropes.

In terms of formal education in Sales and Marketing, you could do an MBA at a number of different schools. Sonoma State, Bordeaux and Adelaide have excellent programs. Having these qualifications, which can often be done part-time over 12-18 months can really open doors and help with your career. And don’t forget, there is much more money in sales and marketing compared to the average salaries in production so that’s something to consider too.

After getting some formal training like an MBA, you could consider working in export sales. It can be fun to fly around the world selling wine, although after a few years hotel rooms and airports quickly lose their appeal. Eventually, many people working in sales start their own import companies or become brokers, or develop their own trading business of one type or another. These can flourish.

There are dozens of other niche businesses. If you want to be a wine writer then getting accredited is a good start, although it doesn’t seem to be mandatory. Writing doesn’t seem to pay much for all but the top 10 in the world and even they seem to moan about the low pay. But they do like the incredible experiences, the travel, the wonderful wines and effectively they can live like a millionaire so that counter-balances the fees paid by magazines and newspapers. Sadly, very few people in the world are interested in reading about wine, at least compared to food.

Designing packaging and websites could be another area to consider, and the top designers can do very well. Or maybe you want to be a professional Wine Buyer or Consultant; although a certain amount of training is required before you make purchasing recommendations or dish out advice. Or maybe you want to rep a line of glasses, or have a wine storage business, or do in-store tastings en masse for large companies, or analyze wines at auction to see if they are fake, or be a Sommelier, or work in logistics, or, or , or… The good news is that there are hundreds of options. Just start thinking out of the box.

To get started you can visit www.WineJobsCanada.com , www.WineJobsUSA.com, www.WineJobsEngland.co.uk, or one of our other sites in HK, Oz, or NZ. I hope you’ll find the perfect job that meets all your needs.

What’s the story on wine education? What path should I follow?

What’s the story on wine education? What path should I follow?

If you want to take a course that will result in professional certification with international recognition then, in my opinion, there is only one choice: Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is the world’s leading independent wine education institute, operating in over 75 countries and 20 languages. It’s the gold standard, simple as that.

There is an introductory WSET course called the Level 1, which is perfect for beginners. You can progress up to the Level 4 Diploma, which is a challenging 2-year course. After that, the next step is to apply for acceptance into the Master of Wine program. So the WSET offers a clear and structured path.

You can pursue other paths. There is the SWE and ISG, but those organizations have comparatively limited recognition and are more orientated towards the hospitality industry. There are also non-certificate courses by the boatload run by community colleges, private individuals and so on. Some can be good, but all too often the “curriculum” has been made up without the same professionalism you’ll find at serious institutes dedicated to wine education. So buyer beware…

For myself, I took the WSET courses for a reason and then decided to teach them precisely because I thought they were excellent.  

What’s the story on all the different wine education providers?

Now that you’ve chosen a path you need to chose a guide. And not all Sherpa’s will get you to the top of the mountain.

I started our company Fine Vintage precisely because I was horrified by the terrible experience I had at some other schools. Shitty wines, boring instructors, and presentations that were as exciting as watching paint dry. Harsh, but true.

You have to be taught by someone who has some qualifications and experience themselves, otherwise it’s like the blind leading the blind. If the instructor doesn’t really know how to taste then they might do you more harm than good. So check-out your instructor. Ours all have the Level 4 Diploma, are in the MW program, or are industry veterans.

Then you need to taste good wines and lots of them. You don’t learn much by tasting a couple of wines that all cost under $20, but the wine school sure saves money… We spend over double, often triple what other wine schools spend on wine. Yup, it stings when I see the monthly wine expense report.

But it’s our Fine Vintage mantra to pour outstanding wines and lots of them. That is a key reason why we have over 4,000 students per year coming back to take their next course with us. We all fell in love with wine because of the amazing aromas and flavours we discovered in that first magic bottle, and that’s why we come back again and again.

Another major point for you to consider are the exam pass rates at the various schools. Obviously with the higher Levels the onus becomes increasingly on you to study and prepare for exams because the body of knowledge is too voluminous to be covered exclusively in the classroom. But your Sherpa should be able to help you stay on track, on a schedule, and ensure you know what lies ahead.

At my own schools we have one of the highest pass rates around the world, and have been nominated and awarded as WSET Educator of the Year more times than any other school in the world in the last 10 years. Every day I receive copies of student’s exam results and it’s always a thrill to exchange a few e-mails with our wonderful instructors congratulating them, and then be able to tell our students the good news.

For more on our courses check out www.FineVintageLtd.com