Grape Guru

If you sign up for San Diego State University's College of Extended Studies' Business of Wine program, it is very likely that one of your first teachers will be Deborah Lazear. A certified wine specialist, she designed two of the fledging program's courses and teaches them both. "The first class is 'Exploring Wine,'" she explains. "It's a broad overview: What is wine? What does 'well made' really mean? Just because you like it doesn't necessarily mean it's well made. What does terroir mean? What do earth and sunshine have to do with it? Why is this grape better in this country than in that country? How do you taste wine? How do you shop? How do you read a label?"

For homework on that last question, students might be asked to "go to a wine store, pick wines from four countries, examine the labels, and write down everything you see that's different. Then we'll have a class on labeling and laws. I assign you a country, and you go and create your own label. Then you present it to the class and explain it, making sure that it's true to the rules for that country."

Homework also involves a fair amount of reading -- the class uses Karen MacNeil's Wine Bible for a text -- but in general, Lazear is big on learning by experience. "As we go through, we identify the tasting profile for each grape -- what you should be looking for on the nose and the palate. Then I teach them how to create a wine-tasting book. They're assigned different wines to taste during the week, and they have to write their impressions in their book and share them with the class. They really learn to think and taste. I take students on a tour of the world, and we sample wines from all around. Our intent is to expand their comfort zone. When they leave, they've got a more educated palate, and they're ready to go on to the next level."

The program was designed, "first and foremost, for people who are in the restaurant business -- young people who need an education. And by 'young,' I don't mean an age; I mean an experience level. They need to be able to recommend the best wine for the meal. If they can suggest something other than red or white, that's very good, because wine can produce good profit in the restaurant business. But it turned out that the audience was broader than that -- it included consumers, people who like to buy wine and drink it with their meals."

For both groups, "the next level" means digging into Lazear's pet topic: pairing food and wine. "This year, Stuart Cellars in Temecula is hosting. It's going to be fabulous. I've got a working kitchen, and the chef has very generously volunteered to help out. I prepare all the food and transport it, but then it needs to be either cooked or finished, then plated, prepped, and delivered to the students."

"Exploring Wine" meets four times; the food and wine class is a one-day affair -- essentially, an eight-course lunch wherein what is consumed is also what is discussed. "Before class, you are instructed to write down some of your favorite food and wine pairings and to bring a couple of questions. You arrive in the barrel cellar -- it's cold, so you had better bring a warm jacket. You're greeted by the general manager of Stuart Cellars, and he talks a little bit about the place. I have a welcome wine for you -- probably a Prosecco."

Once the Italian bubbles have got you in the proper gustatory state of mind, "I start to talk about the different wines. As we talk, you taste. I give you some food to go with the wine, and then you taste the wine again. We move all the way through eight courses, from lighter white to deeper white, then lighter red, and so on, ending up with their Zinfandel Port. You spend quite a bit of time tasting and eating and talking -- we do recommend that you spit. It's important that you don't get blotto by the middle, because there's a test at the end."

Along the way, Lazear answers questions, talks a little about cellaring and glassware, and even starts poking about in the chemical realm. "Why do meat and red wine go together? We talk about proteins binding with tannins -- to give people an understanding that it's not just 'because somebody said so.'"

After the eight-course discussion, "You are put into small groups, and you have to create a dream menu. I'm looking for five or six courses and the wines you would recommend. You present back to the class, and you have to justify where your pairings are coming from. It's a very practical class."

And it, together with the rest of the program, has produced practical results. "This is our second year, so we've had a class graduate, and it has had value for them. I walked into BevMo one day, and at the back, they had a trade tasting. There was a young man there representing an importer, and I did a double take -- he was one of my students!" After the tasting, "I asked him, 'Are you enjoying it?' He said yes. I asked, 'Did you find what you learned useful?' He said, 'That's how I got the job!' And I have people from wineries. A general manager from Temecula drove down for all four classes to see for himself. He said, 'I want to send all of my staff.' Because Temecula is getting sophisticated, and they need waitstaff who can talk knowledgably."

The Temecula Valley Vintner's Association has donated glassware to the program, and Lazear has found them a helpful resource on the educational end. "They send me a list of all the wineries and all the varietals and who is making what. I give that to the student and say, 'Go to Temecula, pick one varietal, and taste your way through on that one only.' They have a focus. More and more students have been doing that and have been coming back with some good reports."

And apparently, they've been spreading good reports about Lazear. "I started getting phone calls to speak about wine for different groups. I've done some fundraisers -- it's the hot thing right now: wine auctions, wine-and-food pairing dinners." She has spoken at local meetings of the American Institute of Wine and Food, at cooking classes, and at the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival. Some gigs are even a little luxe. "The Southern California Institute is a group of professionals, and several times a year, they want a topic other than their basic topics. I started leading some classes for them. They provide a wonderful venue -- they give me a nice budget to bring in some good wines to sample. But nothing beats the students. Most of them are young, but I've had couples who are in retirement who come together. I do it because of the look on people's faces when they learn something -- all of a sudden, this little window opens wide, and they say, 'I can taste blueberries in this now! I never thought I could before.' Or, 'I can now read a wine label in a shop and make a decision.' It makes me very happy."

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