Master of Wine

By PATRICK FRANK | Special to the Palisadian-Post

Palisadians excel in many fields, but in the realm of wine education, none surpass Monica Marin. From her post at the Wine House near Pico and Sepulveda, Marin teaches several classes per week on all types of wines: She has probably trained more Angelenos who work in the beverage trades (and more mere amateur wine fanatics) than any other instructor.

A recent visit to one of her classes—a half-day seminar on Bordeaux—shows why she is so successful: Both knowledgeable and charismatic, Marin is a born teacher, at one moment explaining the tortuous complexity of the ranked Grands Crus Classées of St. Emilion and a second later getting the class chuckling about the fact that the most recent ranking of those winemakers ironically led to lawsuits.

Marin’s path to Pacific Palisades was long but not unpleasant. A native of Spain, she grew up with wine on the table and a Real Madrid soccer poster on the wall.

She earned a degree in communication at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, one of the country’s most prestigious.

This led her to work in public relations, where she specialized at first in corporate hospitality. She staged banquets and events for music companies such as Universal and Polygram, where her natural inclination toward the wine portion of the events drew the attention of her superiors.

Her PR firm sent her to wine school in London, where she mastered Levels 2 and 3 of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust curriculum. She soon added Level 4, and today she teaches all four levels in classes at the Wine House.

The WSET courses are intended for professionals in the business and retail parts of the wine world (rather than restaurant service, which has its own sommelier curriculum). Each WSET level is more difficult than the last.

Level 1 can be done in a day; Level 2 requires 18 hours of class time; Level 3, 34 hours; while Level 4 takes two years of classes on alternate Sundays. Each level goes more deeply into wine law, customs and wine types across the world. A testing and certification program provides structure similar to any college degree.

If the levels sound serious, they are, but they are considered only background preparation for the degree Master of Wine, which requires further individual study, tasting, research and writing.

Recently, in a required research paper on the relationship between grape yields and wine quality, Marin wrote that lower yields mean higher quality.

Wrong: It’s not that simple, so she had to rewrite the paper.

“It was very painful,” she freely admitted. She is now about halfway through the MW course and hopes to join the elite group of only 46 Masters of Wine in the United States.

Marin lived in London for 10 years, during which she married a man in the entertainment industry and had a daughter. However, “I didn’t enjoy the quality of life in London,” she said, citing the climate that choked out the sun and grated against her Mediterranean sensibilities.

The family relocated to Santa Monica, and then, about eight years ago, to the Alphabet Streets where they still live. Impelling that move was the quality of Palisadian schools, she said.

Now Marin spends about 80 percent of her workweek at the Wine House, one of the very few wine shops in this region that has an education program.

The majority of her WSET students are in the business, alongside a substantial minority of both curious consumers and future wine geeks. The more commitment-phobic can sign up for one of many single classes on various wine regions and styles that she offers every month. 

The half-day Bordeaux seminar featured three tastings of five wines each, covering most of the subregions and even a couple of aged bottles. About a half hour in, someone asks a sophisticated question about the Carménère grape, which is widely planted in Chile. For decades the Chileans thought it was the Merlot of Bordeaux until recent genetic research clarified its identity.

Favored vintages
Photos courtesy of Patrick Frank

So what’s the difference between the two? Marin nails it: Carménère makes more spicy wines, while Merlot has more pyrazines, which yield green pepper notes, especially in youth. Her competence puts the class right at ease.

This was very much a guided tasting, as she encouraged tasters to spot aromas and flavors, picking out traits of the different grape varieties and commenting on bouquet, texture and aging potential of the wine in the glass. This got especially interesting as the class nosed a 1994 Chateau Pontet Canet: “Prunes, peppercorns, vanilla, tobacco, clove” she called out, and we nod our heads; it’s all in there. Testing your palate alongside such a professional is always enlightening.

Tastings were interspersed with well-organized lectures on geography, climate and soils of that region. The teaching materials come from the Ecôle du Vin de Bordeaux, a coalition of growers that supports training and certifies instructors, including Marin.

But she’s so committed to education that she added to the lecture several photos of Bordeaux dirt that she took herself, noting clay, gravel and limestone soils that make a difference in the texture of the final product.

The class also gets solid consumer-oriented advice: “Nobody thinks about white wines from Bordeaux,” Marin said as we swirled a $20 white from the Graves subregion. It’s delicious, with vanilla, lemon and soil notes.

“White Burgundy costs double and is not as good,” she explained. The new Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, created in 2009, is bringing “affordable wines of quality” that are “honest and direct.” Not at all snobbish like traditional Bordeaux can be. We leave the class carrying a sheaf of papers, maps, tasting notes and better appreciation.

When she’s not teaching, Marin organizes private tasting events and wine cellars for clients while she writes and translates wine education materials in English, Spanish and French. Personally, she’s exploring wines of France’s Jura region these days, in search of new vinous thrills from that cool-climate zone between Burgundy and Switzerland.

Despite her deep knowledge of European regions, she does not neglect California: She raved recently about some Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Santa Rita Hills. As for her spare time, she said, “I like to cook, to eat, to drink great wines and to travel to South America and Europe, where I can continue eating and drinking more great wines!”