- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
An Educated Palate: Teaching Wine
In the best of all possible worlds all of us should think that the work we do is special and important. Too often, however, our work is alienating and enervating to our mind and spirit, serving only to produce a paycheck that allows us to pay the bills so that we can keep working to pay the bills. We are on a treadmill, running in place, trying to keep up, rarely able to take the time to think about work that would be more satisfying, more suited to who we are as people, and more rewarding on a professional level. Far less hassle, far more passion.
I consider myself truly fortunate to have found a job and a career that stimulates both my intellect and my soul. My job has allowed me to travel the world, meet incredible people, make lasting friendships and professional connections, write and publish some books and hundreds of articles, learn more about a subject I love than I ever thought possible, and perhaps most important, nurture and encourage some of these same possibilities in the lives of thousands of young aspiring professionals.
My job is a privilege. My career is a pleasure. I teach wine.
Almost every day I can be found in the Wine Studies classroom at The Culinary Institute of America teaching 30 to 35 students about wine; its history, culture, viticulture (grapes), viniculture (wine making), the classic and emerging wine regions of the world, what wines are made from what grape types and where those wines come from, and of course, wine-and-food pairing. I lead a daily tasting of 10 to 12 fine wines from all over the world, and get student feedback on the connections between color and aroma, bouquet and age, flavor and texture, and what food would taste great with what wine. Over fourteen days, Institute students taste more than 120 wines, and get a more-than-basic-bordering-on-advanced education in a subject that almost all of them knew nothing about when they entered the classroom.
While it’s easy to see why I like my job, my students have to work a lot harder than I do. In addition to spending four hours per day in class – three hours of lecture, discussion, questions and answers, plus one hour of tasting – our students have an 820 page, eight pound textbook to contend with, as each of them must read just about the entire book over the fourteen day class. Every night each student must read chapters of 50 to 80 pages, answer study questions based on each chapter, learn key terms, and prepare for four rigorous examinations, including:
Exam #1: Viticulture, Viniculture, Wine Service, US Wine Laws and Label Terms, California and other North American wine regions (especially New York, Oregon, Washington State, and Canada) The Southern Hemisphere (with a focus on Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa);
Exam #2: France: Wine Laws and the wines (and constituent grapes) of Champagne, Alsace, Loire, Burgundy (including Beaujolais), Bordeaux, and the Rhône Valley.
Exam #3: Italy, Spain, and Portugal: Wine Laws and the wines (and constituent grapes) from the major regions, including table wines and the fortified wines of Sherry, Port, and Madeira.
Exam #4: A 70 question final exam.
In addition, each student must write a food-and-wine pairing essay based on a class luncheon that is held for each class in one of the four Institute public restaurants. I huddle with the chef-instructor to produce a three-course menu that pairs with six wines (two wines per course) that I choose for each class. The students must report on not only if they liked the pairings or not, but why or why not, citing body, intensity, acidity, tannins, structure, flavor, and texture of the wine on its own and when paired with the food. Finally, they have to choose six alternate wines, and explain why those wines would work just as well with the luncheon.
There is no doubt that this is the most rigorous “introductory” wine course given anywhere. And our students’ reactions to this hard work? Miraculously, student evaluations consistently contain two comments: 1) They loved being challenged by the course and 2) They wish the class could be longer, because they know they are really ready to learn more.
The course textbook, Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America’s Complete Guide to Wines of the World was co-authored by myself and my two Institute colleagues and fellow wine educators, Brian Smith and Michael Weiss. I am proud to say that Exploring Wine, now in its third edition, has become a standard text at dozens of colleges in the United States and abroad, including the University of California at Davis enology and viticulture program, and is used by many sommelier societies and prestigious professional groups for both basic and continuing education.
Exciting things happen everyday in wine class. Students ask good questions, challenging questions, and I have to come up with the answer. By teaching this subject I have truly never learned more about wine, because my students keep me on my toes, and it is my job to be one step ahead, to anticipate that question, and answer it, hopefully before it is asked, but correctly and clearly when it is.
At the Institute we’ve introduced some high-tech innovations to the teaching environment. The students (and I) get to play with some really good interactive wine software (I especially recommend Oz Clarke’s Wine Guide CD-ROM) that I project on a big screen (soon to be upgraded to two jumbo plasma screens; the colors and digital sound jump out at you). In addition, I have placed all of my lecture notes on PowerPoint, so I can address and enhance the salient points of the lecture. What is really great is that the Institute has a dedicated computer site that is available to all students so they can get these same lecture notes anytime they want to access them; months before they take the class if they want to, or at least preview them the night before I give that lecture.
Ostensibly, the students I am teaching are aspiring chefs. Wine knowledge is increasingly important in today’s competitive restaurant business, especially if the chef is going to be an owner of a restaurant. Increasingly, however, we see many of our students get “the wine bug,” and they make a commitment to focus on wine as a very important part of their culinary career, and in some cases make a career centered on wine.
I can rattle off the names of dozens of Institute graduates, all of whom were students in the wine course (yes, it is required of all degree students in the culinary programs) who today are recognized wine professionals: everything from restaurant wine management to wine journalism to wine export and distribution, and even a few graduates who are making wine (Total disclosure: both the editor and the associate editor of the Wine Report are former students of mine and graduates of the Institute). I hear from these former students, now friends and colleagues, almost on a daily basis, seeking career advice, or letting me know what wineries they are working with, or for what restaurant wine programs they are directing or consulting on, or just to tell me what wine they just tasted for the first time at a very special dinner, and what did I think of that wine? Many of our guest lecturers in the wines class are, increasingly, Institute alumni who only a few years ago sat where their student audience is sitting, learning more and more about wine.
Admittedly, teaching wine will not bring world peace (although a glass of wine with dinner might mellow and civilize our world leaders a bit) or cure disease (but wine, in moderation, enjoyed with food, has been proven time and again, to be a healthful beverage), but it does have its earthly rewards. Teaching, writing, traveling, meeting and befriending so many wonderful people, mentoring, and, oh yeah -- did I mention tasting some of the world’s great wines and getting paid for it -- makes for a career based on learning and sharing, invigorating the mind and feeding the soul. Far less hassle, far more passion.