Thursday, August 25, 2011

Basic Essentials Classes 101

If you were to take a class named Wine Essentials, with the following description...

Whether you are just discovering wine or an enthusiast who needs a refresher course, our Wine Essentials Course will provide you with the building blocks. You will learn the five S's of wine tasting as you explore 8 different wines. This class focuses on the 'classic' grapes, where they grow and why they grow there.

...what would you expect the class to entail? How advanced would you expect it to be?

How about a class named Smoking 101?

Maybe my reading comprehension needs work, but I thought it was a safe assumption that these classes would be geared toward beginners who are looking to be eased into the intimidating worlds of wine and barbecue.

We took the “Wine Essentials” class recently at Cellar Rat, which is a nice store in the Crossroads with a good selection. Those who read this blog know I’m more a beer guy, but I do enjoy a good wine and have always enjoyed visiting this shop. They go out of their way to be enthusiastic and not pretentious about wine. They organize their store by price: the entire center section is wines under $25, while the more expensive bottles line the walls.

We and seven others sat down for the class. There was a group of 3--a set of parents and their daughter--down the table. The mom gleefully explained that the daughter was an architecture student and had just turned 21, and they wanted to set her off on the right foot. The mother also explained that they had drunk wine all over the world, but had never taken a formal class.

Oh boy.

The instructor was a friendly guy in his late 20s who started by giving us a brief history of wine. He then explained a technique for tasting wine, using the five ‘S’s – see, swirl, smell, sip, savor.

For the first wine, he asked us questions, like “What do you see?” Someone said “it’s really light,” and a comment from our resident experts was something to the effect that the color was normal for a Riesling.

When someone asked if we should rinse our glasses for the next round of wines, our experts piped in before our instructor, “No! No, you should never rinse your wine glass with water. There’s chlorine in water.”

Later, when the instructor asked what scents we picked up in one of the wines, the response was a sigh, a faraway gaze, and a longing “Napa Valley!” Never mind that it was a French wine…

The question of how to taste that first little sip that the waiter pours in a restaurant came up. The instructor mentioned that the cork is not presented to smell, and before he could finish our experts said, in unison, “No! You don’t smell it, you squeeze it to make sure it's wet,” with requisite hand gestures.

The daughter, who at 21 possesses more self awareness than her parents, hit her dad on the arm and said, “Let the instructor answer!”

We also got the story of how the sommelier at 40 Sardines (the former Leawood hotspot owned by Michael Smith and Debbie Gold pre-divorce) was their FAVORITE, and the sommelier was so good and knew them by name, and when they ate at Michael Smith they asked what happened to the sommelier, and Michael Smith said, “He’s right up the street! He opened his own shop!”, and she walked in and he was so happy to see them, and he remembered us and walked right over to pick up some of their best “buttery” Chardonnays because he knows exactly what she likes, and we just let him pick our wines because he’s so good…

The class itself was great, as was the instructor. Just...don’t be those people.

(Favorite line from the instructor: People say the most obnoxious things about wine. "Oh, it's fruity and precocious!" You know what? YOU'RE fruity and precocious.)


My wife and I were excited to take the smoking class a while back at the KC Culinary Institute. I had received a “starter” smoker for Christmas, and we both wanted to learn more about using it. We arrived there on a cold, rainy day ready to learn. As an introduction, the instructor asked how many of us were brand new to smoking. Only a few of us raised our hands. We found most of the class had been smoking for years, then he asked whether there were any COMPETITION TEAMS in the class. At least 10 people raised their hands, and they represented at least 3 separate groups.

Again: Competition teams. IN. SMOKING. 101. WTF???

Unfortunately, this meant the class moved way too fast. The basics were sloughed over in favor of more advanced techniques, even when we and the few other neophytes tried to slow it down with questions. It felt like the instructors were trying to show off for the barbecue nerds who were drooling over them instead of teaching those of us who hadn’t dropped a grand on a Traeger fully automated pellet smoker.

Now, I don’t deny the instructors’ knowledge whatsoever. They knew their stuff, and the main instructor is a published author, decorated BBQ cook, and professional chef. I also don’t deny that I learned some stuff, even if much of it went over my head.

I simply deny that this was at all a class for beginners, and should not have been billed as such.

My favorite parts:

1. We were asked what the best barbecue in town was. Someone said Oklahoma Joe’s. Get this – the instructor said NO. Pointed at the next person. NO. The next. NO. After about 6 of these, he said Danny Edwards. Hands down the best barbecue in town. I like Danny Edwards. It’s not the best barbecue in town. And don’t be an asshole and tell me I’m wrong.

2. After the class, we tried to ask a question on how to adapt some of the techniques for use on our basic electric smoker. We were basically scoffed at and told it would do a nice job “perfuming” our meat, but we’d best upgrade our equipment if we really want to do this. Well, maybe part of taking a class called SMOKING 101 was figuring out if we “really want to do this,” jerk.

Oh, and for the record: taking that class cost us more than TWICE as much our meat perfuming machine smoker which, as it turns out, makes really good meat with real smoke rings and everything.

Taking any “adult education” class is something of a leap of faith. It’s rare that there are meaningful reviews that one can consult in deciding what is or is not a good value. But let’s agree to stick to these rules of thumb:

1. If you call your class “basics”, “essentials”, “101”, etc. you should teach it as such, and you should definitely not condescend to the very people who took it for that very reason.

2. If you are a fairly knowledgeable person (or god forbid an expert) regarding the subject matter being taught, and choose to take a “basics” class anyway, you will shut your mouth and not come off like a pompous know-it-all ass.


Kim said...
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Kim said...
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Kim said...

To reiterate what JJS stated about the wine class...I learned a lot, the instructor was knowledgeable, personable and took the pretentiousness out of wine. I happily endorse Cellar Rat.

Two additions:

1. When JJS asked what the best wine decanter to use is, 'the experts' jumped in to instruct him on surface area.

2. When the class was over 'the experts' told us that we really should take more classes to further our 'wine knowledge'. I told her we are beer people and are just interested in the basics of wine (I may have added a sarcastic look). She didn't say another word.

As for the KC Culinary Institute, I can endorse their classes as long as they are taught by one of their instructors. Issues come into play when one brings in some 'expert' (who now becomes a representative of the organization) without someone from the actual organization observing for quality control.

kcmeesha said...

I always thought about taking one of those classes, but I would probably not be so patient with all-knowing douchebags

Chimpotle said...

The fundamentals of Asian cooking class we took at the KC Culinary Institute was pretty good. I think a class like that, where technique varies with each course, keeps expert a-holes from attendance.

I also took the beer class Boulevard offers through UMKC Communiversity a few years ago. It was really good.

I think a lot of it comes down to the instructor not letting those types of people take control. The smoking guy sounds like a hard-on.

JJSKCK said...

LV - I forgot about the decanter. Good call.

Meesha - It's totally hit or miss; we've just missed a couple times.

Chimpo - We took a sushi class at the Culinary Institute, and it was excellent. By and large I've heard good things about the classes there, but they do tend to be quite expensive and when you don't feel like you got the class you signed up for you feel let down.

David said...

I deal with your wine expert types all the time. I refer to them as the "When we were in Napa" crowd. They drive me batty. I think Stephen Hawking said it best. "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge."

JJSKCK said...

That's a great quote, David.

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