Back in November 2019 I noticed this tweet from Grace Alchini:
Last weekend I finished ( as a trainer) the English for wine tasting module, part of the sommelier training program run by Ronda de Vinos in Puebla. It’s been a pleasure to work with Aldo Guerra, a great professional and a dear friend, and to break new grounds in my ELT career. pic.twitter.com/9Mm1CXWmMr
— Grace Alchini (@GraceAlchini) November 26, 2019
I was intrigued so asked her to write a guest post about what the course involved. (Sorry for the delay Grace!)
Around 5 years ago, after almost 3 decades in ELT and an operation that made me bed-ridden for nearly a month, I decided it was time to start a new hobby or develop a new skill. That is how I joined an Introduction to wine tasting course, together with my husband. We both enjoyed wine and had been impressed by a sommelier who had once run a wine tasting session in a restaurant, showing expertise and the ability to help the client understand wine, and who was opening this course. That was the beginning of a series of around 10 modules of 15 hours each and several wine tasting sessions, which opened the door to a fascinating world in which our senses rule, and culture is present through the explanation of processes, geography, history, gastronomy, and the list goes on.
Aldo, the sommelier, and I became friends, and one evening over dinner he told me about one of his trainees, who spoke good English but had been unable to talk about wine in the United States because he lacked the vocabulary to do it. A few minutes later, we started imagining a course aimed at sommeliers who had to serve foreign clients or work abroad. The project materialized several months later.
The objective was clear: to train these Spanish-speaking professionals to provide their service in English. That meant being able to run a wine tasting session (which involves colour, smell, taste and mouth-feel description), suggest wine and food pairings, and speak about the winemaking process, among other tasks. The course took twelve 3-hour sessions, and each of them addressed a different topic: each of the stages in the wine tasting session, types of wine, the grapevine, the process at the winery, pairing, and service. A TBL approach was used. In the first part of the session, I provided the participants with the vocabulary and language they would need (making use of articles, videos, and infographics on which we worked), and then, there was the task: wine tasting in English, focusing on the topic of the day.
We tasted 3 or 4 different wines every session, and as there were around six participants, everybody could practise in front of an audience every class. The rest of the participants made comments, sharing their own perceptions, and I gave them feedback as regards language use. Aldo was present too, in order to contribute to the session with his experience and knowledge.
Needless to say, it was essential for me to have some knowledge in the field, and those 150 hours of previous training were more than useful. I knew what I had to include in the course, and I understood what the different specific terms referred to as I prepared the sessions (or else I asked my teacher somm). Also, I devoted hours and hours during several months reading specialised books and watching videos to make both my understanding of the subject matter and my vocabulary wider. At the same time, in every single class I became a student too because there was always some new concept to learn from the participants.
If you asked me what type of language is used in a wine tasting session, I would say it is mostly descriptive: adjectives related to colour (hues and depth), nouns that mention countless aromas (evoking fruit, herbs, flowers, spices, wood, leather and even unusual smells like horse sweat or a wet band-aid), a large number of adjectives to describe acidity in wine (zesty, tart, crisp, flabby, just to name a few) and expressions to explain mouth-feel sensations provoked by characteristics like astringency and heat (the presence of alcohol). When dealing with the growth cycle of the grapevine and the winemaking process, as well as the different types of wine, there is a wide range of specific terminology which led, in my case, to learning about the many procedures behind a bottle of wine. Also, there is the need to cover the functional language that is required in the performance of wine service. Last but not least, the creation of metaphor is a vital component of the skills a sommelier needs to develop. Many aspects of wine can be more easily understood when expressed in terms of a person, a painting, a moment of the day or a piece of music.
It was interesting for all of us to see how certain common words in English were a bit different in the world of wine. For example: flavour in general tends to be associated with taste. However, when referring to wine, flavour comprises taste, mouthfeel, and aroma, that is, what is perceived by the taste buds, the rest of the mouth and the nose respectively.
How useful was the course?
As I mentioned before, in each session participants put the language of wine tasting into practice, and in the last classes, when they had already dealt with the different steps and contents of a wine tasting session, they showed they were confident enough to do their job in English and communicated their passion for wine clearly and effectively. Furthermore, what has been a true discovery, at least for most of the participants, is the fact that doing their job in English is not just a matter of using a dictionary and translating. Words in any language may express perceptions, and these vary from culture to culture. Therefore, many participants could experience new ways of understanding and interpreting wine, which enriched their profession. Mine was definitely enriched too.
Grace Alchini is a freelance teacher of English, business communication and ESP trainer, and conference speaker based in Mexico. She has over 34 years ‘experience working at universities and providing in-company training. For the last couple of years, she has mainly focused on preparing pre-service graduate students, trainees and employees for the workplace.