According to James Christopher Tracy, “The funny thing about wine education is that, ultimately, it’s about pleasure and enjoyment.”
And he should know: The energetic young winemaker, who was recently enlisted by the Center for Wine, Food and Culture at Stony Brook Southampton to teach a new wine course this spring, made the comment recently during an interview at Channing Daughters Winery, where he is both winemaker and partner.
He had been delivering a rapid-fire account of the course and its creator, the prestigious British-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), when he cut to the heart of the matter, mindful perhaps that in his enthusiasm for the course’s highly professional approach and many fine features, the point of it all might be missed.
Yes, he acknowledged, studying wine has its “very esoteric, very specific” aspects, but in the end, he asserted, “it gives you the understanding and knowledge that enhances the potential for pleasure.”
Mr. Tracy, who has pursued his own wine studies to the highest levels, is well positioned to offer this assessment. Born in California, where his family had a vineyard, he came to Manhattan to study performing arts but soon found himself drawn back to his roots. While
working as a chef, he completed studies for a sommelier certificate, after which he went on to pursue the WSET curriculum to the top, earning its highly regarded diploma.
Then, last fall, he decided “to bite the bullet,” and go for the no plus ultra in wine world distinctions as a candidate for the Masters of Wine.
It could be argued that when Mr. Tracy and Stony Brook’s Center for Wine, Food and Culture Director Louisa Hargrave teamed up on the WSET venture, the partnership represented a depth and breadth of experience unrivaled anywhere.
Ms. Hargrave, who is well known on the East End for having established the first North Fork vineyard with her husband Alex in 1973, spent the next 27 years farming the land, learning the hard way but learning well. That expertise led to her leadership of Stony Brook’s Center for Wine, Food and Culture, where she created a wine education program that took a variety of forms before she decided last year to go for accreditation from WSET.
Ms. Hargrave explained that decision in a conversation last week at her Stony Brook office, noting that WSET is known all over the world. “They teach this very well structured series of courses,” she said, “and the student gets a certificate that is recognized worldwide in the wine business.”
She said she expected that the course would appeal to sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine retailers as well as to those who are simply interested in becoming more knowledgeable about wines and refining their tastes.
It was not easy to become accredited by WSET, she said, “It required all kinds of documentation.” And once the coveted “Approved Programme Provider” designation was obtained, there were strict guidelines to follow. The test that students take at the end of the eight-week intermediate course (the only level, so far, that the Center is authorized to offer), “is freighted in from London and must be kept under lock and key,” said Ms. Hargrave. The completed multiple choice exam is then sent back to England for grading.
At the intermediate level, “almost nobody fails,” said Ms. Hargrave, “If you go and you read the stuff, you pass. The advanced level is much harder and the diploma is really hard.”
Ms. Hargrave said she is looking ahead to possibilities for expanding the offerings with more advanced WSET courses and perhaps a one-day intensive course that would be “really introductory.” The series would fill “a real need on the East End,” she said, “… really on Long Island, and we are very excited about it.”
Exciting was also the word Mr. Tracy used to describe Southampton’s link with WSET. “This is a great program,” he said, “an internationally recognized program.” For people working in hospitality, retail and wholesale, “the credentials have weight,” he said.
Like Ms. Hargrave, he was eager to show off the stylishly produced packet of materials each student will receive and to laud its contents. The study materials are indeed impressive, not just for their artful graphics but for their clarity of approach. They include tasting guidelines, for example, that advise on what to look for in a wine’s appearance, its “nose” and palate.
Students also are exposed to factors influencing a wine’s style, quality and price, and to grape varieties, key wine-producing regions of the world and much more.
“It’s a very professional approach,” said Mr. Tracy, “a great fundamental education in wine style, production methods, tasting techniques.”
But can people without any particular sensory gifts really hone their sniffers and palates to new levels? That is a question many are likely to have pondered and to which Mr. Tracy has a one-word answer: “Absolutely.”
Of course, he conceded, there are some whose sense of taste or smell is superior at birth, but, he insisted, “education can make you a competent taster and evaluator of wine. That can absolutely be learned, taught, studied.”
Ms. Hargrave agrees and goes further, suggesting that if anybody can prove the point it is Mr. Tracy himself. “Chris is my dream teacher,” she laughed. ?”He is so charismatic, knowledgeable, and has one of the best palates I have ever encountered. People who take his course are the luckiest people on the planet.”
The course, which will meet on Tuesday evenings beginning April 1 in Stony Brook Southampton’s Chancellor’s Hall, costs $650 per person, which includes materials, text, tastings and exam. Online registration is at www.stonybrook.edu/winecenter.