COVID Wine Life: Fine Vintage Ltd. Food & Wine Pairing Online Course

5 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

Living pandemic life feels strangely like becoming a new parent for the first time.  You rarely leave your house.  There are places you suddenly just can’t go.  At times you feel like your very will to persist is being sucked from your body.  And you need to find other ways to pursue your interests, in those slices of time not taken up by survival interest and existential pondering.  When my first son was born back in 2011, he was a less-than-ideal sleeper, and there were only so many late evenings that I could spend watching bad TV, waiting for the next wake-up, so that my wife could get a few uninterrupted hours of unconsciousness.  My need to find a better way to spend that time led to this blog, which is now 9 years old and over 600 posts strong.  Now my kids sleep fine (except when they don’t), but during our current times of COVID-19 distancing, that same feeling of isolation weariness started to arise.  It was promptly banished, and my similar hope of avoiding stagnation was satisfied, by a virtual trek through the online Food & Wine Pairing certification course offered by Fine Vintage Ltd.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.

I was highly familiar with Fine Vintage already, having already taken my WSET 2 and 3 classes through their excellent Calgary-based school, one of 18 locations they have across Canada and the US.  Founded by Master of Wine James Cluer (who memorably was a substitute teacher for one of my WSET 3 class days), Fine Vintage has enlisted some of the most respected names in the Calgary wine industry, Matt Leslie and Jennifer Book, as course instructors.  But what if you can’t currently sit in a classroom and share wine with 30-odd strangers in the name of wine education?  Fear not – they now have COVID-friendly solutions too.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.

Fine Vintage has assembled a series of online wine certification courses to help fill the void while the in-person sessions are on pandemic hiatus.  Compiled by James Cluer himself, along with fellow MW Phillip Goodband, they do not result in any formal WSET classification (the WSET, or Wine & Spirits Education Trust, is an independent education and qualification body based in London that only governs over its own licensed courses) but do culminate in a final exam and a Fine Vintage certification.  There are three ascending levels of wine courses, an introductory course on spirits, and the course in which I have been immersed over the past few days, the Food & Wine Pairing Online Certification Course.  This is a 4-6 hour crash course (including the exam, it took me just shy of 5 hours total to complete) about the basic principles and some of the more advanced concepts behind properly matching food and wine.  It costs $99 USD to register and consists of 8 different modules that can be completed in stages at your leisure, from the sanitized comfort of your own home; from my experience, the collective content is easily worth the registration fee.

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Not a good pairing match, as it turns out – soft cheeses can clash with tannin. No big reds.

The course begins with an outline of the core tastes and textures present in food and wine and highlights those that best complement and conflict with each.  It then launches into the basic philosophies behind pairing, the primary styles of wine and types of food, and the key components in each that dictate what best matches with them.  Next comes a surprisingly extensive global tour of specific regional cuisines (ever wanted to know what goes with a Shandong feast?) and the individual challenges associated with finding workable wine pairings.  This is a task that can at times answer itself in classic Old World wine regions, where local cuisine and corresponding wines have developed hand-in-hand over centuries, but that is anything but obvious in those world locales where wine production is non-existent and wine consumption is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Finding a pairing for a Burgundian beef bourguignon is fairly straightforward and tends to be rooted in the region’s own vines, but how about Caribbean food?  Cajun?  Malaysian?  A guide to each awaits.

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Big reds and big meats?  Much better.

The final modules of the class fan out a little more widely, covering everything from what wine styles go best with family-style dinners (hint: not big reds — versatility is key) to what ingredient adjustments you could make while cooking to allow your wines to better shine (easy on the chilis) to how you can use the helpful components of your meal to allay the anxieties of the more challenging elements of your wine, and vice versa.  Little mini-comprehension tests along the way keep you focused, and each module ends with a quiz that generally involves a trial mixing-and-matching exercise based on the various principles you have just studied.  The course culminates in a review module featuring global wine luminaries, including German winemaker/rock star Ernst Loosen, describing their own personal pairing experiences in short vignette videos.  Then there’s the test:  50 multiple-choice questions, 1 hour time limit, 65%+ passing grade.  It feels similar to the WSET 2 exam if you have previously experienced that; the more the principles feel like common sense by the time you get there, the easier it will seem.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.  Ernst Loosen!

The Food & Wine Pairing class does not have any prerequisites for registration and is pitched as being “perfect for beginners”, so I was not sure how detailed it would end up being or how deep it would dive into this endlessly expansive topic that is the source of innumerable books (including this one, which remains my go-to to this day).  Its focus is definitely on the core building blocks, but I still found myself coming across quite a bit of new information, including the ins and outs of pairing with various different types of vegetables, the magic of molecular matching, successful approaches to umami, and the utterly shocking miracle pairing ability of White Zinfandel.  OK, that might be stretching it a touch, but White Zin makes repeated appearances as a valuable food-matching tool, as its combination of fruitiness, fuller body and residual sweetness allows it to tackle a weirdly varied array of culinary challenges.  I’m as surprised as you are.  City & Country White Zin, I’m looking at you in a whole new light:  pairing overlord.

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You know that one damn question continues to eat away at me.  I still say it was a toss-up.

The course tries its best to appeal to beginners and experienced wine geeks alike, but an absolute wine neophyte will probably struggle with many of the vinous concepts discussed — it probably took me the better part of a year to understand what tannin was, but if you don’t know that before going into this class, you’re going to struggle with it.  It is easy for me know after 10 years of being heavily into wine that Muscadet goes with oysters, but if you don’t know what or where Muscadet is, this will plainly be less evident.  Some foundational level of wine knowledge is likely a must to get what is intended out of the class.  I found some of the suggested pairings scattered throughout the modules to be oddly specific, and it’s important to understand that these are likely suggested as archetypes as opposed to exclusively workable pairings.  If you can’t find the exact Ribera del Duero Tempranillo recommended for a given dish, don’t worry, there are other regions (Toro, for instance, or even Washington) that can fill the gap.  That said, I thoroughly enjoyed expanding my pairing understanding in the course and was admittedly quite excited to download my online certificate at the end of it all.  If COVID ennui is beginning to seep into your bones, and if your wine brain is itching for activation, I have found your solution.

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