Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review of Decanter Education's Mastering the Medoc and Graves course

Decanter (@Decanter, recently launched an education initiative (Decanter Education) designed to leverage its facilities, columnists, and wine experts to provide students “… unrivaled insight into the most fascinating and important wine regions in the world.” Decanter Education's offerings are divided into wine courses (£225; 10:30am – 3:00pm; three-course, wine-tasting lunch included) and evening master classes (£120; 6:15 pm – 8:30pm; welcome drink and refreshments included). The schedule currently provides for one wine course and one master class per month.

Launching an education initiative was a smart move for Decanter. It allows the company to take advantage of an existing base of experts, events staff, events facilities, and customers in a mutually beneficial manner. Further, by contributing to the increased wine knowledge of its customers, and being the source of that knowledge, Decanter aids customer retention on the magazine side of the business. Finally, students in this setting can be cross-sold on other Decanter products and services.

I first became aware of the Decanter Education program through where concise, clear descriptions of the offerings, speakers, and schedules were provided. Registering and paying for a class was a simple process conducted on the website. I registered for the course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves, a course to be led by Steven Spurrier who, in my opinion, has made an outsized (if, at the time, unwitting) contribution to the success of Napa Valley wines. Email confirmation of the order, along with an attached invoice, was received shortly after the booking. There was a slight glitch in that the invoice referenced a September course while registration was for an October course. Email correspondence with Decanter confirmed that the course was in October and that a system glitch was responsible for the September reference on the invoice. Tickets were received shortly before the course date.

I arrived at Decanter for my course on the morning of October 8. I was early but, after making my way to the reception area, was welcomed warmly by Emma Franc, Events Manager, who also has Decanter Education as part of her portfolio. This was only the third class given to date so senior management was still very much engaged. The Managing Editor, Guy Woodward, came over and spent time with the attendees, even taking us on a tour of the Persons of the Year vineyards on the 10th floor balcony. According to Emma, this initiative was one that had been bandied about for a bit but was only launched after she received some additional assistance (Joanna Przygoda, Events Executive) for the events side of the business.

The classroom setup was immaculate. A coffee and pastries table was set up towards the back of the room and a wine station – with all the bottles to be tasted -- was set up to the right of the entry door. Beyond that there were four rows of seating, each row consisting of two tables, each with two seats, and each angled in towards a dividing passageway. At each seating position, there were: two mats, each having named places for five wines; a bottle of water; course materials; and a tray with nuts, crackers, and grapes. The two seats shared a spittoon. At the front of the room was a large screen for the projection of presentation materials and, off to the right of the screen, a desk and chair and, studiously reviewing his presentation materials, Steven Spurrier.

The class started a little late to accommodate a few stragglers. Guy Woodward welcomed us formally before turning the class over to Steven Spurrier.

In his opening remarks, Steven mentioned that it was going to be a tasting course (new information to me) and proceeded to briefly introduce the course materials on our desks; material which, he said, would provide us with the required theory. At Steve’s direction the servers poured the initial two wines and continued to pour on his command for the rest of the class.

The wines which served as the basis for the class were drawn from a variety of producers and vintages in the Medoc and Graves. Steven walked us through the tastings, illustrating how each chateau and vintage was reflective of its region /commune of origin. He demonstrated a deep knowledge of the Left Bank and the families and corporations that make wine there. His presentation was peppered with personal anecdotes and tales of corporate battles over Left Bank properties, the telling of which took them from labels on a bottle to living, breathing personalities possessing the strengths and being prone to the petty jealousies that afflict us all.

I enjoyed the class and consider it a privilege to have tasted through this array of Left Bank wines with one of the world’s foremost experts on Bordeaux. I felt especially good about where we were tasting these wines; at the home of one of the leading wine publications in the world. There was something missing though, and, after giving it some thought, I arrived at the conclusion that it was context. While the course is titled: Mastering the Medoc and Graves, we were not provided an overarching framework at the beginning of the class; and how tasting these specific wines would allow us to attain those objectives. On a more personal note, I would have liked a mini-lecture at the beginning of the class. That being said, the material covered was of extremely high value.

At the conclusion of the session, we made our way to a large conference room, overlooking the Tate Modern, for lunch. Lunch was a spectacular affair with a gourmet menu and four additional wines and Decanter’s event experience was on clear display here.

The combination of excellent food and aged wines made for a very collegial atmosphere and the establishment of potentially valuable contacts. Steven was a gracious host at lunch as he continued to talk us through the wines that accompanied the meal. At lunch I conversed with him about his sparkling wine initiative and I will report on that in a future post.

All in all, a very informative and socially rich event. The unique melding of high-quality, expert-led education and insightfully facilitated post-course socialization – which included the speaker, event coordinators, and students – made for a very fulfilling day.

Keep doing this Decanter.

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