If you're wondering whether the recent dry spell in Mendoza will mean trouble for the next round of Argentinian wines, Jess Gualano will gladly geek out with you. But the 30-year-old owner of Asheville Wine Consulting — and the resident wine expert at West Asheville's Hops & Vines — would rather field questions like the one posed by a recent customer who needed booze for his upcoming backpacking trip.
"So is Malbec, um, a grape?" he asked, scrutinizing the wine Gualano pressed on him.
Gualano seized the teaching moment, and ended up sending the backpacker home with a highly sustainable one-liter carton of rosé. To Gualano, getting a man to buy pink wine in a box represents the pinnacle of consumer wine education.
"I got him to go there with me!" she exclaims, her enthusiasm's contagion quotient rivaled only by a few choice diseases on the CDC's watch list.
"You can put pretension and snobbery into any hobby, but if you leave it out, you can get so much more done," Gualano says, explaining her layman-centric approach. "I never think, 'Oh, you stupid consumer.' I think, 'Oh, you're the perfect person for Wine 101."
Gualano has established a mini wine-education empire in Asheville, organizing a twice-monthly wine club for women, hosting wine dinners and leading wine-appreciation classes. She's now hoping to cement her credentials as the area's top wine teacher by earning her Master of Wine qualification from the Institute of Masters of Wine, widely considered the most prestigious certification of wine knowledge in the world. Only 74 women have been named Masters of Wine since the program began considering women's applications in 1970.
"I'm a little crazy," says Gualano. "My parents were like, 'We knew you'd find a way to make this wine thing academic.'"
Gualano had planned to become a French professor, but her undergraduate studies at Colby College entailed spending time in France, where she first had the chance to drink really good wine. While earning her master's degree at Colorado State University, she began to appreciate how much wine knowledge she'd absorbed abroad. She took a job with a wine distributor in Washington, D.C., but found her most satisfying oenophiliac experiences occurred after hours.
"I'd be talking about the wine at a friend's party, and I'd have people standing around me saying, 'Can you say that again?'" Gualano recalls.
Gualano's ultimate goal is to become "a household name in wine education." She wants to mold her generation's wine-drinking habits — or at least help fellow millennials figure out their own tastes in wine.
"I had a girl come in here and she said she just loved merlot," she says. "I asked her what she loved about merlot, and she didn't know. You need to figure out what it is in merlot you like. It just opens up the world for you."
Providing new wine drinkers with a language to describe their likes and dislikes is extraordinarily important to Gualano, who urges her students and customers to greet their wine with gusto.
"If we talk about saddle leather, they want to know why they can't smell that," Gualano says of shy drinkers who haven't adopted her techniques. "You've got to look at it, you've got to swirl it, you've got to stick your nose in it."
Still, Gualano isn't abashed about her own opinions, which she dispenses in refreshingly lingo-free fashion.
"If you're stuck in a grocery store, do not buy Chardonnay!" she exhorts a tableful of tasters.
Pinot noir? "It demands food!" she prods a customer planning to do some pre-meal sipping.
Gualano will also cheerfully remind customers where certain grapes grow and how to correctly pronounce "meritage" — not because she cares, of course, but because someone else they meet might.
The examiners at the Institute of Masters of Wine will likely care deeply whether Gualano gets her pronunciations right. The exam, which generally requires two years of full-time study, comprises 36 blind tastings, four papers on wine theory and a 10,000-word research paper. The casualness Gualano espouses has no place in the institute's curriculum, which emphasizes rote learning and the memorization of lengthy varietal charts.
"To become an MW, one has to pass everything," the institute's Web site proclaims ominously. "There is no such thing as a part MW."
Gualano is pursuing a home study course, which means she relies on a textbook and regular tasting sessions with other wine drinkers for training. The pass rate for the exam hovers around 30 percent. And, to Gualano's mind, of those wine experts who do manage to earn their Master of Wine stripes, far too few are reaching out to young drinkers reared on craft beers and artisanal liquors.
"There's a void there," she says. "I know it sounds lofty, sitting in a small town in North Carolina, but my goal is to speak to our generation. Wine isn't just boring and stuffy stuff."