Love of Wine Drives Student to Create Her Own Educational Experience
If you could get a degree in whatever excites your passion most—the thing that makes your heart beat fast, or makes your taste buds sing—what would that degree be?
Simone F.M. Spinner, CWS, CWE (Certified Wine Specialist and Certified Wine Educator), has a BA in Wine—more specifically the Study and Enterprise of Wine. She created the degree herself while studying at Metropolitan State University of Denver (Metro), and she is now developing her Master in Humanities at CU Denver along the same trajectory. Spinner loves wine so much she’s not only made it her own life’s work, but she’s also opening doors for others to follow. She started her MA in the summer of 2011 and says that, "At CU Denver the curriculum, the teachers, all of that is fantastic."
But finding her way to studying her passion has been a long and winding road. Spinner says, "I was a dance major at Boulder, classical ballet, which led me to a career in music. I was in the music business doing lighting design for concerts for many, many years. And doing that, I always had to have second jobs, usually in liquor stores or as a cocktail waitress or something like that. I worked at Applejack Wine and Spirits eighteen years ago, and there was a guy named Robert Hall, who was the wine department manager, and he is this wealth of knowledge, and would just talk to me about wine all the time—so after a while I knew that when I got out of the music business I wanted to get in to the wine business."
She adds, "I went back to college to finish my BA and to study wine. I had already received several academic wine certifications at that point, and knew I could develop a Bachelor’s degree to incorporate and complement my studies." She was able to do this through Metro’s individually structured major. In fact Spinner was so successful in crafting her degree that Metro has developed a Beverage minor based on her course of study. She was also responsible for developing articulation agreements with the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) and International Wine Guild (IWG), so that now students can earn credit while getting certifications through these groups, setting precedent for other colleges to do the same. She will earn six independent study credits toward her MA by taking classes through the Sommelier Diploma Program, the terminal degree for ISG. Spinner says, "I was talking to a classroom full of students, saying ‘I have done this, and now you can do it too.’ I set the precedent, and now the doors are open for others to follow."
Although Spinner praises the program at Metro, she came to CU Denver for her graduate studies because, "I wanted to go to the humanities program. My degree at Metro was so narrow and so finite, crafting it with a specific purpose for myself and for others to follow, and I wanted to study a broader range of things. I wanted to get a little more art and philosophy in my background, which I wasn’t able to do with my undergrad." She met her advisor, Margaret Woodhull, Director for the Master of Humanities Program, and immediately felt CU Denver was where she wanted to go. "I spoke with Margaret, and she’s a huge wine lover, and so she said let’s take a gamble and see what we can come up with."
"My undergrad took 22 months to develop and gain approval for. My Masters program has been more challenging, "observes Spinner. Her advice for students who want to establish their own program of study: "Get the best advisor you can, one who understands your vision—and it may not be the advisor you are assigned. Be tenacious, and don’t give up. Having discipline is very important. I refused to take no for an answer, because I knew there was validity in what I was doing."Creating a degree from scratch hasn’t been without its set-backs. For example Spinner has faced challenges with courses not being available when she needs them. "I’ve had to refocus my direction a couple times. I’ve had to be craftier than I thought I could be." She also recommends students take time to get together a well researched plan, with concrete objectives and learning goals, adding, "With, my graduate degree I have an extremely clear idea of what I want to do; you have to be very clear within yourself to make something like this happen."
Spinner is teaching wine courses at Metro, and once she completes her degree she hopes to teach courses about the aesthetics and cultural relevance of wine as a part of the humanities curriculum at CU Denver. She says, "In the class I currently teach, you learn all about the history of wine, the geography, viticulture (what it takes in the vineyard, the culture and the agriculture). And then we talk about how to make wine, the process, the different regions and the culture of those regions and how that affects the wine. And we taste wine, every night, so you learn about different styles of wine, and what wine goes best with what food." Spinner is also developing a Wine Business class, drawing on her ten years of experience in the wine business. Spinner has fourteen wine credentials, including membership in the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and Advanced Sommelier training from the Court of Master Sommeliers. In addition to all her study, Spinner is a "supertaster," which means she has an acute, heightened sense of taste. "It’s an added benefit, but not all sommeliers have it. Only about three percent of the population is supertasters," she explains.
She hopes to develop her Master’s thesis into a book on the Cultural and Aesthetic Value of Wine which will discuss the question "Is Wine Art?" Spinner says, "I really believe that in some cases it is, and there’s a lot I want to explore in that capacity." She is also tremendously passionate about preserving wine as a traditional art form. Like so many agricultural endeavors, wine producers are facing modern challenges on multiple fronts. "There are tremendous innovations going on in the wine world right now. First of all, climate change is having a huge impact: traditional regions have their traditional grapes that are the standard, but producers are having to find different ways to do things because certain grapes like certain climates, and in some places conditions are changing."
Spinner adds, "Technology is also having a huge impact. Wine is a very agricultural, romantic concept, and technology and traditional/romantic ideas often don’t play well together. Technology is really bringing homogeny to wine, making it all kind-of the same, a little boring and losing a certain edginess, where in the traditional realm of winemaking there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on." Giving specific examples, Spinner notes, "You have these small independent producers, garagiste and terriorists. They’re these really interesting, innovative people—expanding and challenging boundaries. Or there are these hardcore traditionalists, and they’re doing it the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did it 500 years ago." In contrast, she says, "Then you have these giant corporations, who are like the Monsanto of wine, and they make huge amounts of wine, they are hugely popular, and they are what everyone drinks because of giant marketing campaigns... and there’s no stopping it."
For those who want to explore the world of wine beyond the big brands, Spinner recommends starting with a good, local wine shop; she prefers Divino, on Broadway, or R&D, on South Gaylord. She say don’t be afraid to ask the enthusiasts who run these places for help. Spinner stresses starting with affordable wines, "Don’t feel like you need to spend a lot of money, or scare yourself off with something you hate and pour down the sink." You can also read classic publications like Wine Enthusiast and Food and Wine, or find a wine reviewer in the popular press you agree with. Spinner reads The New York Times’ Eric Asimov religiously. There are many blogs popping up giving advice as well, including Spinner’s own in 303 Magazine. Finally, she says, "For people who are really interested in learning there are many classes out there to take. There are dozens of wine classes happening in Denver every week."
Spinner teaches the "Get into the Glass" educational series to the public through her company, Wine Rocks, LLC. Although she doesn’t offer public classes while she’s focusing on her academic studies, she can be hired to attend dinner parties, book clubs, or other gatherings. For more serious wine lovers she conducts private acquisitions and cellar appraisals (more information on these can be found on her website). But while Spinner has made wine the center of her academic life and her future livelihood, she says she never lost sight of the fact that, "Wine should be fun. It’s grape juice, fermented, that’s it. It’s something that should bring joy. Always."