By Emily Merrell
“Excuse me waiter: I’d like the bold wine, I mean the sweet wine, I mean the dry wine.” Explaining wine is hard! Especially to a stranger who doesn’t know you. What if learning how to articulate wine could be fun and educational? Meet Lauren Volper, founder of WineUp: the San Francisco wine education organization popping up in chic clothing stores like Birdies to all sorts of Bay Area corporations. After years in the food and beverage industry, Lauren has made it her mission to educate wine drinkers to be more confident in their wine ordering habits.
SDS: What is WineUp and why did you start it?
LAUREN VOLPER: WineUp is a pop-up wine tasting events company. At WineUp, I focus on FUNctional wine tasting. My passion lies with relaying pertinent wine facts backed by my experience serving wine in restaurants and bars for over a decade. I started my business because I saw an incipient need for clear-cut wine tasting facts when I was waiting on the general public. Most often I witnessed people simply not knowing how to describe what kind of wine they liked or mixing up words like “tannins” for “dry”. The conclusion that I came to is that people (particularly the millennial segment) are intimidated by wine and afraid to sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I started WineUp so I could address the myths and make tasting wine accessible, inclusive and practical.
SDS: Why do you think individuals need wine education and how do you work with clients?
LV: Everyone needs wine education, not just people who drink wine. There will come a time where you are out with a group for work, or meeting your significant others’ family, or networking — you’ll be surprised by how a tiny bit of wine knowledge can come in handy. Much like how a sporting event is very personal to the fans, an author can captivate a reader and a piece of artwork can awe a collector, wine preferences are highly subjective and personal. You wouldn’t want to offend your boss who loves a certain football team by saying you hate football, would you? No, you would try to throw out some anecdote about an experience you enjoyed, if you had one.
People want to share experiences with others; it makes us connect, feel alive, and unravel our coils a bit. I work with clients so they feel comfortable with wine lingo and can connect better after grasping the fundamentals. I don’t just work with people who want to know more about wine, but with companies that want to host an event that is highly engaging, interactive and rewarding for their employees. It’s not always cost effective or feasible to take a team to Napa, and once everyone is there it becomes all about drinking — not navigating through a new activity to build team morale. I teach the blind tasting method that was taught to me in sommelier trainings, because it’s highly interactive and insightful, especially for team dynamics.
SDS: What are the most common misunderstandings of wine?
LV: That it’s a classier drink than beer. It’s fermented grape juice! Beer is fermented grains — the methods for production are actually pretty similar. Why is one deemed classier than the other? It’s like ordering apple pie versus chocolate cake for dessert — sometimes I’m in the mood for cake, and sometimes I just want some apple pie! Another common misconception is that dry wines are classier than sweeter wines. You’d be surprised by how many people actually misuse the wine term “dry” — all dry means is an absence of sweetness. Almost all red wines you will encounter on a wine list are dry, so no need to say you like dry red wine. It’s like saying you like your water wet!
Most white wines are pretty dry too, meaning they don’t have a lot of residual sugar. The driest white wines are Muscadet (not a grape, but a region, and definitely not the same as Moscato), Sancerre (region in France known for Sauvignon Blanc), Gruner Veltliner, and Vinho Verde to name a few, but there are dozens of others! There are thousands of grapes used to make wine. Most people can just name around ten, but I am constantly learning new wines! It’s ok to not know all the grape varietals and factoids, just know how to describe what wine YOU like, so you can explain to a server and they can recommend something new.
SDS: As someone new to drinking wine where do you recommend they start?
LV: Taste, taste, taste. Trader Joe’s is a great place to give yourself an affordable wine education. I like to go there a play a game called “under $10 a bottle, choose your own adventure”, and go on Instagram to review it. Sometimes the wine is bad, or bitter, or too acidic, and sometimes it is surprisingly good. The best way to start with wine is to taste different kinds of wine, then google it and see what facts you can find. I use Vivino, which is an app that you can track wines you have tried. I also like Wine Folly. The co-founder Madeline Puckette is a Certified Sommelier and graphic designer, so she is always creating understandable infographics that explain more complex topics.
I try to oversimplify everything because things are easier to retain that way. If I had a Syrah I didn’t like, I won’t say I don’t like Syrah, but I will think maybe I don’t like Syrah from this particular region. So I’ll try other regions and compare, or other vintages from the same region and compare those too. There really can be a bad year, bad bottle, faulty cork…so many factors can go into why a wine is not agreeing with your palate. Not all Rieslings are sweet and not all Chardonnays are buttery, so don’t discount entire varietals of wine based on a couple you’ve tried. I also create content around hacking wine and optimize some useful wine facts for more novice wine drinkers on my IG @getwineup.
SDS: Is it horrible to order the cheapest bottle of wine on a menu?
LV: Never horrible to order the cheapest anything. It’s no secret that when dining out there is a markup on wine. If you are confident you are going to enjoy that $30 bottle of wine more than you would the $60 bottle of wine because that’s all you want to spend, then you need to order that $30 bottle! I am all about ordering cheap bottles of wine because I am going to enjoy it with great friends and food. It’s not about the money. I rarely order a bottle of wine more than $50 because I can buy it elsewhere for half the price and enjoy it at home. Occasionally, I do order more expensive bottles, or bring an expensive bottle and pay a corkage fee.
The choice is yours, and no one should judge you for ordering what you like. “You get what you pay for” doesn’t even always apply with wines. I have found some amazing wines for under $15 a bottle retail, and my favorite rosé is in a can. Don’t get me wrong, I love more expensive styles of wine (my favorite is Chateauneuf du Pape), but for everyday wine, I’m spending about $15 a bottle. I stay away from mass produced wines that you can find in any corner store because those are the top selling wines on the market. I would rather support up and coming labels or discover new wines I haven’t tried that I can review for my audience.