2013-09-27 / People


SMCC course aimed at improving wine knowledge
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Layne Witherell Layne Witherell When Layne Witherell started his career in the wine business in the 1970s, there were no mobile apps, websites or magazines devoted to grading brands and styles of wine. When he became a sales manager for Oak Knoll Winery in Oregon, Witherell’s job was to spread the word about wine to restaurant owners and customers completely unfamiliar with the product.

“They never had any seminars before, they had never seen Oregon wine, they didn’t even know what the stuff was. We barely knew what it was ourselves. We were inventing it as we went along, Witherell said. “It was a pretty glorious time. We knew it, but we didn’t know how glorious it was.”

Forty years later, the mystery and mythology about wine has been replaced by a deluge of information for aspiring wine connoisseurs. Today, Witherell said the challenge is not finding information about wine, but rather sifting the good information from the bad.

The Portland-based wine expert and author will teach a course this fall at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland designed to help students sift through the wealth of information to arm themselves with the knowledge to pick out the right wines in the right situations. The course begins Wednesday, Oct. 2 and runs for five weeks through the end of the month.

Witherell’s self-published a book, “Wine Maniacs: Life in the Wine Biz,” this year chronicling his 40 years in California, Oregon, Montana, Virginia and Maine as an importer, wholesaler, retailer and professor. But while the book tells the stories of the “gurus” who helped him along in his career – “and the bad guys too,” Witherell is quick to note – the course will focus on more practical information to help wine buyers on a limited budget.

“We’re not going to be tasting $100 bottles of wine. We’re going to be tasting things that lead you, on a Saturday night, to get a really excellent bottle of wine with your lobster. That’s my goal,” Witherell said. “I don’t wantlampRecyclePrintAD_anyone to go broke;5.16x4.onai the1 other7/1/2013hand2:I12:want50 PM everybody to be able to know what a good bottle of wine is and how to find out.”

Witherell said the first step to intelligently selecting a bottle of wine at the market or the restaurant is identifying the “gurus” with trustworthy opinions and the “bellwether” styles from different regions. That step, he said, will provide a starting point to help overcome the initial anxiety caused by the overabundance of information.

“People are frightened and mystified, and they always have been. When I started there was almost no information, and I was frightened and mystified because it was so hard to look up stuff,” Witherell said. “I found my gurus, I was lucky in that the people who taught me the subject really knew and lived the subject.”

As Witherell’s career progressed, wine became an increasingly important aspect of American culture. Wineries sprouted all over the country and their owners became minor celebrities. Restaurants’ wine lists became just as important as the food. The process took time, but Witherell remembers the exact night of wine’s cultural tipping point: Nov. 17, 1991, when CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a piece called “The French Paradox” about the health benefits of red wine.

“I remember that night distinctly; I was a distributor. That piece hit me like a ton of bricks. I went in to go to work the next day in this huge warehouse. There wasn’t one single case of red wine left in that warehouse,” Witherell said.

In the segment, 60 Minutes reporter Morley Safer interviews various experts to find out why the French’s diet consisting of fatty cheeses and meats did not lead to the same rates of heart disease experienced by Americans. To close the segment, he sits with a glass of red wine in front of him.

“The answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass,” Safer said.

Witherell’s Wine Appreciation Course at SMCC will consist of five sessions, each lasting 90 minutes. Students may register by calling the college’s continuing studies office at 741-5758.

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