Sunday, November 11, 2018

Restoring the "Master Class" for the Wine Trade

It is very fashionable these days to call something a master class. Do a search and you will find any number of master classes, with famous folks like Martin Scorsese, Dan Brown and Oprah Winfrey presenting a path to mastery. But what really is entailed in a master class about wine? Who is qualified to lead such a class, and how should those classes be structured? These are some of the questions I have been pondering of late, in my search for the paths to mastery.

In today’s hyper-aggrandized environment for aspiring wine professionals, where certification is all the rage, one would think that someone like a master sommelier or master of wine could be more than capable of teaching such a class. And many are. Likewise, I’ve been in master classes led by master sommeliers who had me squirming in my seat for their lack of preparation and dissemination of faulty and incomplete material. After all, they too, are only human. But there is an expectation around an event like a master class, that one who attends such a seminar comes away having greater knowledge of the subject than what he or she had before such an experience. It isn’t necessary that such a class be taught by a master, but it should be handled by someone who has mastery of the subject and is fully capable of communicating the necessary information.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with an outline of pertinent features I’d like to see in the next master class I attend (or give). And hopefully, those readers who are looking for such continuing education will benefit from this outline. And if, by chance, there are those who engage in teaching master classes, this might also help inform them for future reference, myself included.

The Subject – If one is teaching a master class in, let’s say, Sangiovese in Italy, the subject matter should reflect the many iterations of Sangiovese in Italy. It should cover the basic kind of Sangioveses produced in Italy, from Chianti to Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano in Tuscany, to the various entry level Toscana IGT that are Sangiovese-based. As well, such a class should cover the higher expressions of Sangiovese based wines, such as Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile (once called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano), the various higher expressions of Chianti, such as Chianti Classico, in the normale, the riserva and the Gran Selezione examples. And there are those Chianti’s that are not in the Classico zone, from Montespertoli to Rufina, etc. Most of these wines should ideally be 100% Sangiovese based, so when tasting them the attendees will not get confused by the flavors of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, or even Canaiolo or Colorino, or any of the other once traditional blending grapes. I know this might be difficult for wines like Nobile or Chianti Classico (or Carmignano or Torgiano, etc.), but wherever possible, for the purpose of more greatly understanding the nature of Sangiovese, 100% Sangiovese wines should be sought out.

And not to restrict oneself to just Tuscany. There should be some discussion of Sangiovese from Emilia Romagna. After all, it is a very important grape for the region.
From there, one should mention Sangiovese in other regions such as Marche, Abruzzo, Veneto, Molise, Umbria, Sicily, etc., but note that the majority of those wines made are blends.

Finally, there should be a tasting that encompasses many of the wines that represent Sangiovese in full blown 100% expressions.

This would be easier to do with a Nebbiolo master class. And likewise, with Nebbiolo, one should seek out those wines from the great appellations, not just Barolo and Barbaresco, so one could come away from a seminar better understanding a particular grape variety.

What about wine from places where the identity of the wine is not so exclusively driven by one particular grape? Let’s say, Etna Rosso? While Nerello Mascalese is somewhat of a dominant grape for the wine in question, there might be other determinants. Such as, the other grapes (known and unknown) that go into the making of Etna Rosso as we know it. As well, there are the weather factors, the geological factors and the socio-economic factors that have created a particular area which has become (or is becoming) famous for their wine. This isn’t just restricted to something like Etna Rosso. Those factors also are important in a master class in Sangiovese or Nebbiolo. Or Aglianico or Verdicchio. All this to say, one who teaches a master class needs to be super prepared. There is a responsibility to represent what mastery of a subject means. And, stepping back just a bit, the reality that one can never really impart 100% of the knowledge or information necessary in a master class. It is the first step of many. But these should be solid steps that won’t lead the seminar attendee astray. This is no place for moonbeams and butterflies. And while it shouldn’t be droll and clinical, it should be authentic and well presented. Passion will follow. But information must be straightforward and truthful.

A master class is no place to bullshit or promote an agenda or a particular product. I’ve witnessed more of those than I care to, seminars promoted as master classes, in well-regarded conferences, that were an embarrassment to those who came to truly learn. If only the person who led the master class had taken the time to research the subject and didn’t rely on their effusive personality to carry the session. Hopeful attendees are not well served by something proposed as a master class that is a waste of time. OK, enough of that.

There is an expectation, these days, that the term master will be magical if it is used in relation to some goal we want to achieve. But here in the 3rd (or maybe 4th) quarter of my game of life, I’ve come to know that experience, maturity and humility play a great part in the mastering of a subject or a skill. One might graduate from Julliard but still not be able to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor, Op. 30. And even when the pianist finally gets down to completing the piece, they may be years from mastering it. And as the artist matures, so does his or her idea of life change, and the interpretation of something (like the Rach 3) evolves. Mastery is not static. It is not a place. It is not an ultimate destination. It is a goal, a path, an aim. And likewise, the aim of a master class should be to solidly put the participants on a steady path forward.

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