Wine Talk

Snooth User: Mary Margaret McCamic

Teaching Wine

Posted by Mary Margaret McCamic, May 15, 2012.

As I mentioned when I introduced myself as part of Snooth's Mentor Program, I'm a wine educator. I teach wine at a culinary school, and I instruct classes at local shops around my area in the Triangle in North Carolina. It keeps me on my toes, for sure - no matter how many times I've taught a concept or tasted a wine, something new comes up. 

Most of my students are total beginners, though I do find the occassion to work with other professionals or lead more focused seminars on advanced concepts. Regardless of the crowd, whether it's filled with the very green, seasoned pros, or more often, a mixture of both, people have their "special interests." That's just to say that someone might be completely lost when it comes to France, but a total geek when it comes to California. There's a constant dance as an educator to find a middle-ground - I have to cover the basics while still challenging those with specific expertise. It's interesting, and a lot of fun. 

As a result, I try a couple of methods. One is having students taste the wines for the class blind. I don't do it as a method of intimidation (anyone who has blind tasted for a test knows that it's quite a challenge with a purpose, not a parlor trick), but rather to open up their senses. We're all biased when we taste, and when we don't know what we are tasting, we tend to be truer to our own interpretation of what's in the glass. 

I also try to choose wines that dispell common misunderstandings. Dry Rieslings often do the trick, as do unoaked Chardonnays. These sorts of examples help show that there are no hard and fast rules about varieties and what they "always" taste like. Speaking of dry Riesling, I've got one from Alsace in hand right now. Delicious.

As daunting as the wine world may be, I also try not to oversimplify. It's easy to make sweeping generalizations about regions, countries, winemaking philosophy, etc. While there's always the risk of overwhelming someone, I think it's better to showcase how complex the world of wine really is. I'd rather a person walk away from one of my classes thinking, "Wow, I learned a ton, but there's so much more to know" instead of actually knowing very little and thinking they have it all figured out. A little learning is a dangerous thing, after all (I suppose my days of teaching English literature will never leave me, after all).

Do any other educators or students (though to be fair, we are all and will continue to be students of wine) have any favorite lessons or tastings that you've used in the past? Any fond memories of "a-ha" wines? I'd love to hear what others have experienced or are trying when it comes to teaching and learning. 


Reply by amour, May 24, 2012.

WECOME MaryMargaret!

Please share your special Alsace, and is it available in the USA?

One simple TIP....whenever I tried to teach French Wine in fun settings,...I always asked my students

to familiarise themselves with a general map of France and then a wine region specific map of

 France ......for starters......of course those who spoke French found it easier......

after all...language training is also culture training and that includes WINE!!

Reply by dmcker, May 24, 2012.

Hey there, would also be interested in hearing about good places in the Triangle to drink wine with food, whether winebars or restaurants or....  As many places and varieties of places as you care to mention!

Reply by Terence Pang, May 25, 2012.

Mary, I would love to hear your thoughts on pairing Sauternes and sweet German Rieslings with savoury courses. This is something i've been experimenting with in my kitchen.

e.g. I have a Coutet 07 with steamed scalloped with ginger and yuzu sauce. Worked a treat!

Reply by JonDerry, May 25, 2012.

Definitely agree that blind tasting can be important for people to figure things out with much less "noise" of branding and preconeived notions that may be misguided. Having said that, focused tasting itself, in general is the most important thing, the more regions and varieties the better.

You bring up dry Rieslings, do you have any "go to" dry Rieslings that you can recommend?

Reply by Mary Margaret McCamic, May 25, 2012.

Hey All,

Thanks so much for the replies - great tips and great questions. I absolutely agree that maps are so important to teaching wine! I tell my students that they better get good at world geography...I learned so much from consulting and then drawing out maps and tasting through wines from specific regions. I still can't speak French, but I know wine French!

Jon - I agree with you too, focused tastings are so valuable. I love getting the same variety from many different parts of the world and tasting them all in a lineup, noting the different expressions. It's also nice to do within a specific region to explore diversity within the same place. Nice point.

In terms of "go to" dry Rieslings, I definitely have a few. They're not limited to Alsace, though, so I hope that's all right. I've really love dry German Rieslings, too, as well as those from Austria and Australia - also dry. Here's a few that I'm always up for:

Dopff & Irion Riesling, Alsace, France - dry, fresh, and zippy with plenty of citrus

Pike's Riesling "Traditionale," Clare Valley, Australia - limey, with nice minerality

Clemens Busch Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany - concentrated on the palate, with peach and mineral notes

Gunther Steinmetz Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany (depending on the vintage, this starting-point Riesling can be off-dry - I've had several recent vintages and even with that touch of sugar, it's good. Just beware that it's not always made completely dry every year) - when totally dry, this wine is all about minerality and acidity, and it's so refreshing

And of course, I'm always up for a good bottle of Zind-Humbrecht Riesling, though the style can be much more dense and concentrated than any of the above.

At the time I wrote the article I was sipping on a glass of Helfrich Riesling from Alsace, $15 at my local Whole Foods. For the money, a tasty bottle.

To address the other questions - places in the Triangle to try for great wine and food:

Poole's Diner, Raleigh, NC - southern inspired food, awesome wine list. Really interesting, thoughtful selections.

3Cups, Chapel Hill, NC - this is is a wine shop focusing on unique, boutique wine selections. There are tables out front though, and you can get some small nibbles. My husband and I sat out front and sipped on some Manzanilla with some almonds the other day and it was just perfect.

Glasshalfull, Chapel Hill, NC - outdoor seating, nice big bar, small plates and a really well-done wine list - lots of Old World last time I was there, and this is usually the trend.

Vin Rouge, Durham, NC - French Bistro, really nice options. My friends and I go and order a bunch of small stuff. An all French wine list, but sometimes that focus is fun (plus, I'm kind of obsessed with France)

Those are just to name a few - there are many, many more. It also depends on what sort of wine you enjoy, and if you fill me in on that, I can give you more direction. Hope that helps!

Reply by Mary Margaret McCamic, May 25, 2012.

Terence - I didn't forget about your comment. The last post got so long, I thought I'd break it up.

To your point about savory dishes and sweet expressions of German Riesling, I think you're absolutely on to something. I've always been a fan of pairing spicy foods with off-dry Riesling, as the sugar calms the heat. When I lived up in NYC, I used to order green curry chicken and pick up a bottle of off-dry Riesling on my way home from work, and it was one of my favorite pairings. The beauty is that there's such a range with sweetness - from bone dry to very, very sweet - so everyone can enjoy and pair with "their" chosen bottle.

I also really enjoy things like pate with off-dry or sweeter styles of Riesling. Chicken liver pate can be a stunning partner for wines with a little sugar. It's not limited to Riesling, though - try a demi-sec Vouvray or an off-dry Pinot Gris from Alsace - they're delicous, too.

For thicker, even sweeter styles like Sauternes, I usually don't find myself pairing them with main courses, because they tend to be so much. But, that all depends on your taste. Have you ever tried Sauternes with blue cheese? It can be really good - the unique flavor and texture of Sauternes can matches well (most of the time blue cheeses are just too much for your palate to handle - it takes a special wine to take them on!), and it can be a nice end to a meal. 

I hope my thoughts help, and I'm sure you'll get many others - food and wine pairing is always an adventure.

Reply by JonDerry, May 25, 2012.

Thanks for all the suggestions Mary, I know what you mean about all the combinations of sweet/dry you can get with Riesling, just haven't had many on the dry side yet.

Reply by Mary Margaret McCamic, May 25, 2012.

Awesome - glad to offer some ideas. Have fun trying some drier styles, and let me know what you think!

Reply by EMark, May 25, 2012.

MaryMargaret, I am late to this conversation, but in reading your original post the words that really caught my eye were, "As daunting as the wine world may be, I also try not to oversimplify."

I am not a wine educator but over 40 years I have engaged in more than one conversation regarding wine.  The most frustrating question that I get from people who are just entering their wine experience is "What is the best wine?"  People want it to be simple, they want to take that little datum and sprinkle it into a conversation with their friends.  I, of course, respond poorly (in the questioner's opinion) and talk about different wines in different tasting environments or different wines providing satisfaction to different tasters'/drinkers' desires.  So, like you, I try not to oversimplify.

However, a little knowledge then becomes a dangerous thing.  As a person develops some experience and knowlege, he tends to overcomplicate:

  • OMG, that wine is so "yesterday"
  • OMG, you have to have the precise glass
  • OMG, the wine has to be a specific temperature
  • OMG, you've ordered a red Chianti with your dover sole, Mr. Grant
  • OMG, this wine needs six months' more aging (Six months?  Exactly?  Really?)
  • OMG, the ABV has to be exactly right
  • OMG, the '06 is nothing compared to the '82
  • OMG, you can't let a piece of cork fall into the glass
  • OMG, New World wines, which almost by definition are all high-alcohol, over-extracted "fruit bombs" will never be as good as Old World wines

I would think that at some point you, as an educator, would have reign back and start "under-complicating" the appreciation. 

Do you agree with me on this, or am I now just pontificating?

Reply by JonDerry, May 25, 2012.

If you want to over-simplify wine, one way to do it is just let them know it's mostly water and alcohol!

What seperates average, good, and great wine is part the terroir (region/soil/climate), part farming, and the winemaking. Assuming the wine has been stored correctly and all that jazz. 

Reply by Mary Margaret McCamic, May 25, 2012.

EMark - really interesting comments, and nice integration of OMG. Ha! I do agree with you on most points, and that's where education gets challenging, doesn't it? It's true with anything that you teach - I remember having the same sort of struggle when I taught high school English. 

In order to teach basic concepts, you have to generalize to a certain extent. Otherwise there's no foundation. But while you teach those basics, I believe that you can also impart a sense of wonder and interest in students, explaining to them that this one class or this one course is a jumping off point, and that there's so much more to learn. That's true at any level of expertise - there is always more to know. We are all students in some capacity.

That being said, the instruction definitely depends on the students and what the end goal is for them. If I'm teaching a wine tasting course that's focused on appreciation, I don't worry so much about conveying all the specific details about a region - I focus on the general concepts about the region that I think will help them better understand what's in the glass. When I'm teaching culinary students, I tend to focus a lot on pairing concepts instead of say, soil types. At the same time, though, if we are tasting a Riesling from the Mosel that happens to have some sugar in it, I take the time to point out that not all Riesling is sweet, and use the opportunity to explain why. That way they get it, but see that there's so much more. Does that make sense?

I am constantly trying to figure out how much to share, when to tell more, and when to hold back. Thanks for your comments - much appreciated conversation!

Reply by EMark, May 25, 2012.

Sorry, folks, that I mounted the soapbox.  I appreciate your response, MaryMargaret, and between the lines I can see your passion--not only for wine but for teaching.

I think I'll have a glass of water and alcohol, now.  The big question is will I pick one with some shade of red coloring or one with some shade of yellow coloring?  Decisions, decisions.  ;-) 

Enjoy the weekend, folks.  It's a 3-day weekend for us here in the U.S. 

Reply by GregT, May 25, 2012.

Hilarious emark, and spot on. I love being taught by people who've had a few dozen wines in their lives. I never had that kind of confidence.

Reply by dmcker, May 26, 2012.

No apologies needed, Mark, at all! Unfortunately I've met the breed you so obviously have.

Guess you have, too, Greg, and I also love that 'educational' bombast from people who only think they have lots of info and knowledge,  but do have some sort of agenda.

Margaritas in the sun on the building rooftop for me right now. Feeling no desire to try to match wine to Mexican nibblies...

Reply by Terence Pang, May 28, 2012.

Mark, I couldn't help but let out an audible laugh whilst reading your post, which probably annoyed the people around me given my open office layout. Fantastic use of 'OMG' if I ever saw one. Your point on the sterotyped impression of New World wines resonated with me more than the rest.

I think perhaps because I've been fighting to dispel that misconception that I find quite prevalent amongst French, British and American audiences. The British and American drinkers are gradually coming around, but the French always have a look of horror on their faces when they know they're being poured an Australian drop. Shan't get into who to blame for instigating the wave of big bold Australia shiraz and cabernet sauvignons that even I struggle with.

But that said, there are so many finer offerings of New World wine. No argument about the abundance of beautifully crafted wines from the USA (I'll make it a point to mention Russian River for one), South American wines get some attention when I serve them blind, and subtle wines from Australia isn't just a mythical creation - you just need some effort to find these as they are often produced in much smaller quantities.

Within Australia, I find that there is undue patriotism to support locally produced wines (which is a good thing), but there exists an unwavering notion that anything French or American puts the drinker into the 'wanky' snob spectrum is bloody silly. Strangly, this doesn't extend to the cheaper Chilean or South African wines.

Back to Categories

Top Contributors This Month

847804 Snooth User: EMark
33 posts
127503 Snooth User: rckr1951
31 posts
324443 Snooth User: outthere
12 posts


View All

Snooth Media Network