Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” chronicles the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his journey home from the Trojan War. In Healdsburg, Odyssey is also the name of a new wine academy, the first of its kind in northern Sonoma County.
Specifically, Odyssey Wine Academy offers courses for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) certification, a program that many oenophiles take on their own travels to learn more about wine. That the new program is led by a local woman with 20 years of experience in the wine sector represents an epic of another kind: the rise of women to leadership positions in an industry traditionally dominated by men.
The woman, Julie Rothberg, owns one brand of wine and works for another. It is committed to democratizing wine education for all.
“The goal of the Odyssey Wine Academy is to provide wine education to everyone, not just those looking to advance their career in wine,” she said. “Not only does this excite wine professionals, but it also attracts locals with careers in technology, law and the arts who want to learn more about wine.”
At press time, the school had enrolled 32 students in two courses. Registrations are growing, and Rothberg said she hopes for an even wider response as the news spreads. She even hopes to eventually add a scholarship program and classes in Spanish.
“People have this idea that wine education is fancy or sophisticated,” Rothberg said. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Found a school
Rothberg never dreamed of creating a wine school. As the mother of twin girls, co-owner of 13th & Third Wines in Healdsburg and president of the Medlock Ames winery in the Alexander Valley, she already had a full plate. She and husband Gregg moved to Healdsburg from New York in late 2018 and have spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic settling in.
But last year, when she set out to enroll her staff Medlock Ames in WSET certification courses, she learned the hard way that the closest courses available were in Napa and San Francisco.
“People from our part of the county have been traveling to Napa Valley or San Francisco to take these classes for years,” she said, noting that the WSET program is recognized globally as the international standard for knowledge of wine. “All of a sudden it hit me: why not change that?”
Rothberg did the legwork to establish the school, applying for WSET accreditation and securing classroom space at Bacchus Landing, a communal facility on the south end of Healdsburg where 13th & Third is the one of seven wineries with a tasting room. She appealed to educators and pledged to teach the first series of classes herself. Gradually, students began to enroll.
One of the first customers: Bill Smart, general manager of Lambert Bridge Winery.
Smart was looking for a way to get his staff interested in professional development, and he jumped at the chance to get everyone up to speed with a WSET Level 1 course.
Lambert Bridge recruited a total of 16 employees, taking over the inaugural class of the Odyssey Wine Academy in early February. Smart said all 16 employees passed their Level 1 certification and six moved on to Level 2.
Smart said the experience was invaluable to his staff members, who now have a basic knowledge that will only enhance the experience of visitors to his winery.
“We want to provide a wine education experience that is relaxed and informative, ensuring that our team has an in-depth knowledge of how wine enhances the experience of our customers,” he said. “We don’t want to overwhelm customers with too many details. Our goal is to develop a long term relationship with everyone who visits the winery. One of the ways we do this is by offering knowledge-based wine tasting. »
Build a curriculum
Currently, Odyssey Wine Academy offers courses from Introductory (Level 1) to Advanced (Level 3). The WSET certification has an additional level – Level 4 – and Rothberg said she will likely add it to the program as more students enroll and create sufficient demand for it.
In the meantime, the Odyssey program closely follows WSET standards.
The six-hour Level 1 course explores the main types and styles of wine through sight, smell and taste. It also provides students with the basic skills to accurately describe wines and make food and wine pairings.
At Level 2, students are introduced to the major and regionally important grape varieties of the world, the regions in which they are grown, and the styles of wine they produce. Over 16 hours of tasting and theory, Odyssey students at this level explore the factors that impact style and quality and learn to describe these wines with confidence.
Those who make it to Level 3 go into winemaking and gain a detailed understanding of viticulture and winemaking. This is a 32 hour program and Odyssey students will be able to assess wines accurately and use their understanding to confidently explain wine style and quality.
All classes are held in a classroom in an event space at Bacchus Landing in a room called Wine Lab.
When students graduate from these courses, they receive a WSET award in wines for the level they have completed.
Rothberg teaches the courses in a way that makes them accessible, no matter how complex the subject. According to Catherine Bugue, vice president of education and co-founder of Napa Valley Wine Academy, another wine school in Napa, this kind of accessibility is one of the key factors that allows academies to survive.
“The heart of a good program is to provide professionally designed and researched curricula (that) focus not just on knowledge, but on providing the student with skills they can use in the future. beyond the classroom experience,” Bugue said.
“A great curriculum is about more than just helping students memorize facts,” she added. “We teach our students to interact with information, make connections between facts and results, think critically and stay tuned to trends.”
Given how new Odyssey’s curriculum is, the next few months will likely bring more of the status quo: Tuesday night classes with summative assessments at the end and lots of certifications.
Rothberg has plans to add more teachers and incorporate Spanish classes for Spanish speakers in the community. She hopes to offer a scholarship program for these courses and scholarships for Sonoma County vineyard workers.
“I just want to help build knowledge,” she said. “As long as people want to know more, we’ll be here.”