Tastemakers and Palate Education: In Conversation with Evan Goldstein MS

Evan Goldstein MS is one of the USA’s most distinguished educators. He became an MS at just age 26, then the youngest American ever to do so. He is a founding board member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and has since written three books. In 2020 — just in time for the pandemic and the rise of Zoom tastings — he launched his Master the World kit, a wine subscription service that sends out six wines each month, to people who want to practice blind tasting.  Subscribers can join a live YouTube tasting where the sommeliers discuss the wines before revealing what they are.

In this conversation, he discusses wine education and tasting in a world where more and more wines are becoming inaccessible, while others are losing their typicity.

Tastemakers and Palate Education: In Conversation with Evan Goldstein MS, recorded September 2023

Areni: Do you think there is a need to rethink education in terms of wine and in terms of trade?

Evan Goldstein MS:

I think there’s a dramatic need for the reshaping and the rethinking of education. The world is not a static place, as we know. And education and learning is also a non-static discipline. Back in the day when I was learning about wine, there was no internet. There were no immersion trips, there were no tasting groups, there were no formalised education programs out there. You were very much self-study individual, and everything that you did was on your own terms. It was essentially all book reading. If you fast forward to today, there are so many opportunities out there.

The internet has facilitated a lot of this stuff and much of it for the good; the ability to get up- to-date, factual information is amazing. The fact that you and I can be in two different countries having a conversation today live and in living colour, despite the fact we’re on two continents, two time zones, eight or nine hours apart in time zone is amazing.

We’ve learned that people learn in different ways. Some people are very visual, some people are very auditory, some people are very experiential. What people seek out as their way of being educated will also vary based on what works for them. And fortunately for them and for all of us, there are many ways of learning out there today, whether it’s a podcast or reading a book or attending a webinar, going to a class, going to tastings, or attending educational programs such as the WSET. 

What has changed the most, that might require we change the way we train and learn?

First of all, the whole sommelier trade has exploded. Back in 1987 when I was passing my Master Sommelier exam, people didn’t even know what a sommelier was. I was one of seven back in the day today. There are 273 of us in the States that have passed the actual program.

If you were a sommelier, you worked the floor. Today, the opportunities for people with accreditations have evolved dramatically, to working in varying supply lines, to becoming winemakers themselves, to educators, to everything and anything. So it’s a much more broadened field that one is entering. And I think that because of that, people are gravitating more and more towards this very sexy, interesting wine-charged field that we all live in. And as such, they’re seeking more points of entry for their educational way of doing it. And some go very classic and traditional using established institutions like the Court, like the WSET, to build their learning. Others are simply going for it on an ad hoc basis with varying levels of rigour and discipline. And then there are some people who are just sort of picking it up on the fly.

The question that bears asking: do we need education with everything available 24/7 at the click of a mouse?

If you were a sommelier, you worked the floor. Today, the opportunities for people with accreditations have evolved dramatically, to working in varying supply lines, to becoming winemakers themselves, to educators, to everything and anything. So it’s a much more broadened field that one is entering.

Evan Goldstein MS

It has always surprised me in all the certified programs—the MS might be slightly different—but with the WSET and the MW programs, is that you learn a lot of facts and information about wine, but not that much about how to be good at your job. A wine education is not going to teach you how to be a good buyer.

A segment called the Business of the Sommelier was specifically built into the program because we found that there were a number of people who could regurgitate all the Premier Crus in Chablis, but they couldn’t run an effective cost-sensitive beverage program. So we’ve realized that there is certainly the book and palate knowledge piece of what wine is all about, but then there’s the actual application of it into the real world.

Do you see the historical education body proposing it more and more?

It is happening slowly. I would say that decanting a bottle of wine, serving Champagne correctly, making sure you’re rotating the table, that you’re understanding people’s space, that you can handle the incoming questions as you’re trying to decant a bottle of wine: those things have always been taught and will continue to be taught, especially today, where the institutional knowledge of the sommelier and the server is challenged by the fact that there are fewer and fewer of them. A lot of the good ones have left the trade because of the pandemic. We’re actually having to double down on the basics.

The institutional knowledge of the sommelier and the server is challenged by the fact that there are fewer and fewer of them. A lot of the good ones have left the trade because of the pandemic. We’re actually having to double down on the basics.

Evan Goldstein MS

If you had to summarize, what would be the ideal impact or the ideal outcome of getting a wine education today?

I think that the question really comes back to the reality of: if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will get you there, right? So it’s important that you have a sense of what your end game is. Do you want to be a sommelier? Do you want to be a writer? Do you want to work for a distributor? Do you want to represent a trade association? All of these different wine-related opportunities that exist professionally will probably help you carve out what’s the best path to take to getting there. For example, you don’t need to know the skills of building and constructing a wine program in a restaurant or hotel and how to work on the floor if that’s never your intended goal. If you never plan on hitting a dining room or restaurant, taking a WSET diploma route is a much more logical way to go.

A conversation that I had with quite a lot of Master of Wine students is that because it’s a lifelong learning cycle, maybe those institutions could propose something for people who have achieved the highest certifications. People sometimes forget that when you get the MW or the MS letters behind your name, you’ve never finished. You still need to continue learning.

That’s an extraordinarily important question. I think that most professional bodies have failed thus far in providing ongoing continuing educational opportunities to do so. It’s interesting how you have to renew a driver’s license. There is the possibility of becoming sated and done and wiping your hands. And if you choose that, it not only will become evident to yourself over time how you’ve sort of frozen yourself into suspended animation, but also if you do plan to be an educator, students who are hungrier than you are will be able to tell within about 10 minutes of having a conversation with you if you’re up to speed on what’s going on or not.

If we were to reimagine certification as not the end of something, but something that lives within a cycle of learning and teaching and mentoring, then probably those bodies would be structured slightly differently.

I think it’s actually incumbent on these organisations to not only look at how you bring people in, but what do you do them with them when they’re there.

There’s a reason we pull the car keys away from our parents when they’re in their late eighties, because their ability to hit the road is not the same as it once was. And I do think there is nothing worse than somebody who is not up on their information.

I want to talk about tasting, because usually when we look at wine education, there are two separate parts. There’s the theory part; it can be really important to know the theory behind the wines. And of course, there are the tasting skills. There are challenges at the moment for tasters, whether because the wine styles are changing, whether because some of the wines that used to be part of a classic education are less accessible, and also because the diversity is growing.

My first question is: what makes a good taster? What should be the ultimate objective when you’re trying to develop your palate?

First of all, I want to get back to what you said at the beginning, which I think is really important. You cannot decouple theory from tasting, right? If you do not know where Burgundy is, and then you don’t know that Pinot Noir is made in New Zealand and Oregon, you’re not going to be able to reach that pinnacle of tasting skill. At the Court, we decoupled theory from tasting years ago. The reason is we found is that if people didn’t have a strong theoretical background, even if they had incredible sensory, analytical skills, it was meaningless without theory behind it.

If people didn’t have a strong theoretical background, even if they had incredible sensory, analytical skills, it was meaningless without theory behind it.

Evan Goldstein MS

If I take the parallel with art or music, it means that just appreciating the piece of art wouldn’t be enough, if you didn’t know anything about art.

I think it’s a good analogy. I mean because do you have to have taken an art appreciation course to walk into a museum? The answer, of course, is no. It’s easy to go stand in front of a piece and say to yourself, “I like it”.  Having said that, if you do have a modicum of information that would be helpful and provide context to you, the experience will be richer.

I’ve already talked about benchmarks and it seems to me then when I was growing up, benchmarks were easy. Chablis tasted like Chablis, and Beaune tasted like Beaune. [But they have changed.]If you want to understand the world of wine, do you choose the Chablis that tasted like 20 year ago, or do you pick four to illustrate that it’s actually complex and diverse?

It’s challenging. If you’re trying to pick one example of what Chablis is, it’s difficult. I think that the knee jerk for all of us is to try and find that gritty, limey chalky example that is increasingly a unicorn in the world. So I think you’re better off, if anything, trying to find a ‘tweener’, something that is maybe closer to the old tradition but is well aware of the fact that things are evolving. It also provides you a good conversation piece to discuss the evolving role there.

Can you walk us through how you did it for Master of the World? What’s your entry point? Region style, grape variety — how long do they keep their place on the line-up, and what example of that style, grape variety or regional expression do you choose?

Within the six wines that you’re offered in the course of the month, you might get a few that are slam dunks: Mosel Kabinett Riesling, New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina Uco Valley Malbec.  I also want you to have a discovery or two in there. I had a Canadian Okanagan Syrah in my last kit.

I’ve received pushback from people that say, why are you including non-testable varieties in your monthly kit? And I say to them, as a wine professional, regardless what your end game is, you need to be aware of what’s going on there.

But in deference to those people who all want to be Jedi knights, I want to provide them a vehicle that speaks to them of what they want. So we’re literally launching a set of kits that are exclusively wines that you could be tested on in your Court journey, in your WSET journey.

I did a kit recently where I put two Pinot Noirs, one from Chile, one from Burgundy. The Chilean one was cooler climate, the Burgundy was a 2020, it was fat. The people picked Chilean wine as French and the French wine as California. It was a great conversation to be able to have about how things are changing—the role of climate change, international winemaking style and all those other thing.

Are we going into a world where if you are at the bottom end, you have to be typical and you have to be expressive of your region, because you sell your wine in supermarket and people don’t want to be surprised, and at the top end we encourage [individuality]?

No, I don’t think it has to be. If the only people who have to play by the rules are the people at the bottom, that’s not going to be helpful, because we also know you can’t get place in a wine that costs $5 a bottle. But I think at the level that you are wanting to teach about wines being of provenance and of place, you do have to be able to have some benchmarks out there.

We don’t want to encourage too much shock jocking out there in terms of just throwing it out there for the sake of doing it and being the person who goes left when everybody else goes right. I don’t think that’s not necessarily a healthy thing to do. I don’t think we can squash innovation either way. 

You mentioned smoke taint and VA and everything. There’s an internal debate about how much time you should dedicate to identifying them, because some people think that it takes away your genuine appreciation of wine. But if you don’t learn to recognise them, then of course it’s a missing part in your range of skillset. How important is it to teach about faults?

I think it’s important for people to be able to identify wine faults. I think people all have different sensitivity levels to specific faults. I think some people will call VA out and for other people, the wine needs to be basically vinegar before they will call it. I think that smoke taints being a newer vernacular for everybody to have to address these days. I think it’s important. I think that we can become overly focused on faults to the point where we lose any hedonism in wine. I think that’s wrong. I also think that certain amounts of fault are attributes as we’ve all talked about. I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard 12,000 times. I guess it’s just at what point is Brett no longer an attribute and is it a flaw. VA is no longer an attribute but a flaw, whereas something like mercaptan is a flaw. Smoke taint is a flaw and people need to be able to recognize that.

Some wines are getting inaccessible either because they can’t be found or because they can’t be bought, because of the price tag. Do you have to experience fine wine in order to be considered a complete taster?

For an educator, for somebody who does what I do, they’re not given a hall pass anywhere. They have to. I think when you decide to do that, you accept that role.

For a lot of people, it really doesn’t matter. Does it taste like good Pinot Noir or not? Is the wine balanced or not? I think teaching people about balance and equilibrium is as important as teaching place and typicity.

This transcript has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity. You will find the full interview on the podcast.

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