Ellen Nordberg, Author

Wine Tasting 101

Boulder Lifestyle

Appeared in Boulder Lifestyle Magazine 8/13.

Ellen and her sister, wine tasters

At the university I attended, there was a school of hotel management. One of the most popular courses amongst non-hotel students was “Introduction to Wines.” We liberal arts and engineering majors snickered like fifth graders taking a second-grade spelling test. Rumor had it you sat in a huge lecture hall and sampled wines all afternoon. How hard could that be?

My sophomore-year roommate and I eagerly signed up, high-fiving each other for the fun we anticipated. We had already obtained an “introduction to wines” at many a fraternity formal, and we were well acquainted with the names Chardonnay and Zinfandel. We were confident we’d ace it all.

At the first class, we sat in the back of the three hundred-person auditorium. Somber-looking teaching assistants with v-neck sweaters passed around racks of shot glass-size wine samples as if we were participating in church Communion.

No one monitored whether you took one sip or several before you passed the tray down the row. (Lucky for us!) Then the TAs handed off a cardboard bucket – the theory being you’d swirl the wine in your mouth for the flavor and then spit it out like mouthwash.

We gaily passed along our unused bucket.

As the semester progressed, the professor put up slides of wineries in France and Napa, lists of grapes, types of soil and various weather conditions. Classmates shushed us as we whispered about the latest “Love Boat” theme party where the boys of the XYZ fraternity house were rumored to be flooding their basement.

As the semester moved along, we donned our down coats and slogged through snow drifts to get to class. We sipped our way through Merlots, Cabernets, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Tawny Ports.

One night in December, my roommate came home and observed me in our bean bag chair studying People magazine.

“You ready for the wines test?” she asked.

“C’mon,” I said. “How hard can it be, right?”

The next day I sat down in our row, not to racks of tiny wine glasses, but to a one-hundred-question exam.

Sample questions:

1. True or False: Chaptalization is associated with cool climates.
14. Explain micro-oxygenation.
27. What is the difference between Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Labrusca?

I had one year of high school Latin. WTF? I was an English major and could BS my way through an essay, but these science questions? Perhaps I should have been paying closer attention.

I muddled through as best I could and assumed I’d done well enough to pass.


The grades were posted in a very public hallway several days later. Final grade next to my roommate’s name: C-. Next to mine: F. Kind of embarrassing, but I laughed it off and took extra credits the next semester. I kept the whole experience on the down low until my sister attended the same university two years later and actually majored in Hotel Administration.

“Ellen flunked wines,” my father gleefully informed her.

“How does anyone flunk wines?” my sister asked, as confounded as if he’d told her I’d forgotten how to swim and nearly drowned in a puddle. My sister went on to become a professional wine sales rep, traveling to exotic wineries in Oregon and Argentina. You can find her bantering animatedly with the Sommelier at any fancy restaurant. Me? I’m sticking with margaritas and my husband’s gluten-free beer.

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