Learning About Wine
From Major Courses To Single Tastings
Some of us have always preferred to entertain at home. But with many feeling more prudent with our budgets, inviting friends home for dinner is becoming even more popular.
We spend most of our time at The City Cook focused on food, but wine is a big part of the pleasure of the meal. It's often said that wine is something we can enjoy without much knowledge. Still, the more we know, the more we can appreciate and enjoy what we're drinking. Plus we're likely to buy better and smarter.
We recently spent some time with Andy Fisher, the founder of Astor Center, one of the best additions to the New York City food and wine community in a long time. Andy and his family have owned and operated Astor Wine & Spirits since 1946 and in 2008 they opened the Astor Center in the De Vinne Press Building at 399 Lafayette Street, at East 4th Street in Manhattan. Astor Center is a place to study, experience and enjoy cooking, great ingredients, wine and beer and spirits, the talents of our best chefs and food merchants and producers, and everything else that defines our shared tables. Our conversation with Andy was about the wine basics that any city cook should know, with some focus on the best wines for Thanksgiving dinner.
We'll bring our Andy Fisher audio podcasts to you in the new few weeks. But sitting with him on a late October morning in their handsome Gallery on the second floor of Astor Center's 1885 landmark building that's been so lovingly restored (and made green, we can add), I was impressed by the many ways we can become smarter about wine and get more enjoyment from drinking it.
Not surprisingly, New York is rich with ways to learn about wine. In addition to Astor Center there are other wine schools, single seminars, multi-week intensive courses, classes in food and wine pairings, tastings, and visits with producers and sommeliers. You can become an aficionado of Spanish wines, rare Bordeaux, matching wines to Chinese cuisine, vintage Champagne, and much more. A group of friends can pool their time and money to do a self-managed on-line wine course, complete with a wine shopping list and weekly quizzes. Thinking of a career change? Serious wine students can get a certificate that will help get a job in a restaurant as a wine director, sommelier or serious bartender. Or you can just have fun and spend an evening with a group of strangers, all of whom share an interest in knowing more about the almost endless possibilities in a glass of wine.
I'm sure we've missed some very good resources, but as a start, here are some of the places where you can learn more about wine (and spirits) in New York City. We've started with the more serious programs -- serious in terms of time, commitment and cost -- but include less formal and less costly ways (some free!) to explore wines. Prices and schedules are subject to change.
International Wine Center
350 7th Avenue
These are serious courses taught by a professional faculty that is affiliated with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London. At the end of the course you're required to take a final exam and receive a certificate of completion that is recognized and valued by many in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Intermediate course with 8 sessions is $768; advanced course with 15 sessions is $1388 and there is also a two-year Diploma in Wine and Spirits and a Spirits Professional Certificate, both of which you can call about for more details.
307 West 38th Street
Four and 8-week courses, with weekly sessions, costing $324 and $695 respectively. They also offer a 2-day intensive course for $295, plus single, more recreational classes such as Wine 101 and wine and cheese classes for about $75 each.
Harriet Lembeck's Wine & Spirits
203 East 29th Street
A program that originated in 1940 was taken over by Ms. Lembeck, the former wine director at The New School, in 1975. They offer a 10-week wine course for $995 and a 7-week spirits program for $925. They also do custom classes and wine-based corporate events.
Windows on the World Wine School
16 Woodstock Lane
New Paltz, NY 12561
Founded in 1976 by Kevin Zraly who created the original wine list at our tragically lost Windows on the World restaurant, and is the author of several well-regarded books and a James Beard Award winner (Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year). The school claims 18,000+ graduates and offers a popular 8-week course, held in weekly evening sessions, for $995.
Casual Classes, Courses and Events
399 Lafayette Street
Single sessions held in an amphitheater-styled classroom that gives each student their own flush sink (you may decide to spit) and lightbox for checking the appearance of a wine. Thanks to the room's smart design and multi-media equipment, there's not a bad seat in the house.
Faculty include some of the best chefs, wine and spirit directors, and sommeliers in the country. But don't be intimidated: you can take an introductory class in the basics, matching a single type of wine with meals (including wine with pizza or wine with Chinese food), or learn more advanced principles and ways to "develop your nose." Prices start at around $65 for single sessions.
French Culinary Institute
888-324-CHEF or 212-218-8890
FCI offers two wine courses. Fundamentals of Wine is part of its Advanced Studies division and includes 8 two-hour sessions that can be taken on consecutive Wednesday nights or in one intensive weekend for $995. For what they refer to as "serious amateurs," Food and Wine Pairings is a 6-session course, 2-hours per session, held in evening classes over 3 weeks for $995.
Institute of Culinary Education
50 West 23rd St.
Consistent with the catalog of cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education, their wine courses are also mostly individual classes, although there are a few two-session courses. Most cost between $70 and $145, with the prices reflecting the variances in the costs of the featured wines. Most of the classes are taught by ICE's Wine Studies Director Ron Ciavolino and topics include a basic wine introduction course, sessions about single types of wine, and a few classes in food and wine pairings.
NYC Wine Class
NYC Wine Company
167 West 23rd Street
This school's director is Andrew Harwood, the former assistant wine director at Picholine who gained much of his wine expertise during years spent working and studying at vineyards in France and Hungary. Most of the classes are single sessions and cost $90.
On-Your-Own and Tastings
Wine Spectator School: an on-line wine school
Brought to you by the same people who publish Wine Spectator magazine, this on-line course is called "Tutored Tasting." For $39 for a 3-class "ABC" course, or $149 for a more extensive "Understanding" course, the school gives you course materials, on-line support, a wine shopping list, and access to a wine instructor. You buy your own wine and follow the course materials to run your own class. I guess if you can teach chemistry and biology using on-line "distance learning," why not wine?
The program estimates that the wine for the 3-session course will cost about $60 to $90, and about $200 to $300 for the "Understanding" class. So you can pull together a group of friends, split the cost of the course materials and the wine, and combine learning about wine with evenings together. Wine Spectator also offers on-line classes in single wines, such as one for Bordeaux, 3 sessions, $49 plus the cost of wine.
This method may depend on the honor system but the course is serious and includes quizzes, a final exam, and upon completion, a certificate.
Wine Store Tastings
Across New York dozens of wine stores regularly hold tastings for their customers. Nearly all are free and are used to engage with customers and hopefully, sell some wine. Most wine stores hold tastings on weekday evenings and Saturday afternoons and if you have a nice wine store in your neighborhood, a tasting can be a very pleasant way to spend an hour or so on a Saturday. You'll get to know your friendly wine merchant, maybe meet some neighbors, and you just may taste some excellent wines. Sometimes a producer's representative will be on scene to answer questions, which is another easy way to learn.
Here are some stand-out wine stores that hold their own style of tastings:
In Park Slope, the Prospect Wine Shop at 322 7th Street holds tastings every Saturday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. During the months when the weather is nice, the tastings are held on a deck that's at the back of the store, opening into the leafy backyards of Brooklyn brownstones. In colder weather, the tastings continue inside the store. Prospect Wine Shop is one of the most welcoming neighborhood wine stores in the city and if you live nearby, they're worth a visit.
Also in Brooklyn, just down the street from Prospect Wine Shop, is Slope Cellars at 436 7th Avenue. It's a friendly shop, with a smart staff that also knows a lot about food and cooking, and they do tastings every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, with cheeses provided by GRAB, the wonderful next door market.
In Manhattan, most wine stores also regularly do tastings, especially on weekends, but Union Square Wines & Spirits at 140 Fourth Avenue at East 13th Street does something that's different. They offer their customers membership in the "Savvy Sippers' Club" where you earn five points for each dollar spent. The points are stored on an ATM-like card that's used to operate three self-service wine tasting machines located throughout the store called the "Enomatic Wine Experience." The machines contain 48 wines (the selection is changed monthly and listed on their web site) that are always in operation, including one machine with chilled white and rosé wines. It's a great way to taste before you buy without being restricted to that day's featured tasting.
I'm sure there are many other wine schools, courses and store tastings that I've left out. You'll be amazed how once you begin to look around that you'll find that New York is a wine lover's town.
So if you feel totally ignorant about wine and want to learn the basics, or you want to deepen or widen the knowledge you already have about the remarkably interesting and complex world of wine, you've got lots of choices for how to do so.
Take a course, take a class, or just take a sip. Whatever you do -- enjoy!