A Conversation with Jonathon Alsop: Author, Keynote Speaker, Founder and Executive Director of Boston Wine School at 1354 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Ma. 02134. Website: http://www.bostonwineschool.com.
In June 2015, I had the opportunity to interview Jonathon Alsop about himself and the Boston Wine School. From a midwest child excelling in math and science to a college graduate with a degree in Journalism, Jonathon Alsop became a corporate speech writer and in 1988 was writing sales presentations for a computer company. The company had a wine tasting event. They chose him to write about it. This led him to a career better than even he could have imagined. Here is an excerpt from our dialogue where he shares ideas on wine education:
Q: Jonathon, are you originally from the Boston area?
A: I grew up in Southwestern Ohio, north of Cincinnati, in a little town called Centerville. “We could never figure out what Centerville was the center of, it seems to be the center of nothing. In fact, in Centerville you have to stand on a chair to see nothing.
Q: It’s a good thing you’re tall, Jonathon.
A: Yes. ( smiling )
Q: Growing up, was wine part of your family, did your parents have wine at the dinner table?
A: Absolutely not. My family is all Southern, from Kentucky and Ohio. Wine was a foreign and imported thing at that time.
Q: When did the Boston Wine School first open it’s doors?
A: It opened May 2007. We just celebrated our 8th anniversary.
Q: How many students have passed through your door?
A: You know, it’s funny I was just estimating that the other night. About 15,000 students have been to the Boston Wine School.
Q: That’s many lives touched.
A: I hope so.
Q: Jonathon, our readers want to know: do students have to do homework?
A: Absolutely!! and it will be the best homework you ever had! When we do multiple week classes, we will have wine tasting homework between those classes where we will say to students – go out this week and find a bottle of wine made with a grape you’ve never heard of before, discover a new grape and be ready to talk about it.
Q: Fun homework!
Q: What is the philosophy of Boston Wine School?
A: We recycle paper, glass and plastic. Menus and tasting sheets are printed in-house, using 2 sided prints to save paper.
We describe Boston Wine School as a 100% snob free zone where no matter how much you know or don’t know or how much you think you don’t know, no matter who you are, if you love wine, if you love people, if you love food you can find a home at the Boston Wine School. That’s our philosophy. It’s wine for everyone, for anyone. People often say they don’t know anything about wine. People know more about wine than they realize. They know about food, history and geography but they just don’t know that all these things relate to wine. So they have the knowledge inside of them. The word education, from latin word educare, means to lead out. So, one school of thought says the educator is leading the student out of ignorance by dropping all the bombs of knowledge onto the student. For me however, I look at it as students have this knowledge inside and don’t know it. So the process is about getting to what you know, you know so much more than you think you do, and then putting it together. So it’s not leading you to the knowledge, it’s getting that knowledge out of you, so that you can access and use it.
Q: That sounds very different from many wine educators.
A: It is. Most wine education is from the outside in. You go to a class and they’ll say here’s a glass of Chablis. This is what you should smell and taste and what you should see. At Boston Wine School, we work hard to make the education from the inside out. So we say here’s a glass of Chablis, now what do you taste? Look inside yourself, don’t ask me what you should taste.
Q: That seems to go along with the snob-free philosophy, it seems less intimidating.
A: You know what, I’m going to disagree with you. It’s actually very intimidating. I think for a lot of people, it’s much easier and much quicker to just receive the answer from someone else, an authority wearing a bow tie, standing in front of the class telling you that you smell minerality in the glass and I think in some ways, that’s much easier. It’s harder for a student to say in class what his/her idea is, it might sound crazy, not everybody is going to agree with you. That can be very intimidating. Especially for Americans. We don’t typically smell things. Then people come to wine class and we say get your nose down in this glass and smell something you might not like 100%. I see in classes that this can often be the first time someone actually smells something on purpose.
Q: People slow down a bit? are more attentive to what they’re actually doing?
A: Except for jet travel, almost everything is better when done slow.
Q: My readers have told me that wine descriptors can be confusing.
A: First of all, the language of wine is a language that was invented by drunk people. So if you don’t understand it, you can not blame yourself. The language is very imprecise, psychedelic. The way I like to look at wine language is to put a question mark at the end of your descriptor, rosemary? pineapple? instead of a pronouncement or judgement. A lot of wine tasting notes leave out the all important statement, it reminds me of… the wine made me think of… Let’s make it a conversation.
Q: You’ve had a wonderful career in the world of wine. Is there an unforgettable moment?
A: On a trip to Germany, I visited the wine cellars at Schloss Johannisberg and went down this incredibly narrow and steep staircase and the entire cellar was illuminated by candlelight. I thought of all the people who had walked on these gravel floors, you know Napoleon walked on this gravel floor, he heard what I’m hearing, he saw what I’m seeing. We transport wine to places so we can have it, but wine transports us and when I was in that cellar with only candlelight, seeing some of the same wine barrels as Napoleon, I felt transported. The story is what makes wine different from other things.