As I prepare for my seminar later this summer at the Society of Wine Educators conference, I am reminded of Miss Jane and the interview I did with her some years ago so here it is. Sometimes you meet people only for a brief moment in time and they leave a big impression on you. Sometimes of course the opposite is true, even of people you have known for many years. Miss Jane A. Nickles, CWE is one of those people who left a mark on me after taking one of her classes on the wines of Texas at the Society of Wine Educators conference a number of years ago.
Jane is a wine educator with over 15 years of experience in the culinary field as a hotel chef and food and beverage director. For the past 20 years she has been a wine educator and instructional designer, teaching professional wine studies, beverage management, and food and wine pairing classes both on the ground and online. “Miss Jane”, as her students call her, is also the author of “WineSpeak 101.” She’s also got a popular blog called, “The Bubbly Professor.”
All of that is part of her official bio but what I remembered most was the way she taught her class. She made Texan wines seem as if they were Pomerol or Lafite. She talked up that wine to such a degree that I remember leaving and thinking I have been missing out not drinking Texan wine. What was it about her teaching that left such an impression on me? I think it was her cheerful demeanor, her sexy approach to it all and the fact that she was playful. Of course, she knew her stuff perfectly but that I would expect. I didn’t expect her to be so refreshing.
The new format of my Friday interviews with women is to send them a series of questions and to publish their answers. I think this works well with some people and less so with others. With Jane, it was a perfect way to give a sense of her.
How did you get into the wine business?
I’ve been in the hospitality business all my working life. I started out cooking in restaurants as a college student, and after I graduated (with a degree in Political Science, no less!) I just continued on that path. I stayed in the kitchen, working my way up the “chef ladder” for about ten years, then moved to the front of the house as a manager, and eventually ended up as a Hotel Food and Beverage Director. During that time I had my “falling in love with wine” epiphany and just took every opportunity to learn about wine and put on wine events in my hotels. One day the President of the Texas Culinary Academy came to one of my wine dinners and asked me to be a guest speaker at his school. After that, he offered me a full time job teaching his wine classes, and I’ve been a wine educator ever since…for about 20 years now.
What has been the hardest part of the wine business for you in terms of gender issues, if any?
As a wine instructor I haven’t felt any gender pressures, maybe because teaching in general has often been considered “women’s work”, or maybe just because now I am older and I just don’t pay attention to all that! However, back in the day when I was working in hotels there were very few women working in food and beverage. This was in the 80’s. I knew lots of women who were working in hotel management positions but they were almost all in sales, housekeeping, or human resources. I really didn’t know any other female food and beverage directors. I will never forget the time I attended a food and beverage directors’ conference in Houston…there were 200 F&B Directors and I was the ONLY female in attendance. Luckily, I knew many of the attendees and they were my buddies. I kind of found my through in the male-dominated field by being “one of the guys” – I just kind of rolled with the punches and laughed at or ignored a lot of things that might be a bit sexist or non-PC today. I have to admit the guys were great to me. At the conference’s closing dinner, they gave me a standing ovation as I walked in the room. That was pretty cool!
What trends and changes have you seen since you started? What do you see happening in the next 5 – 10 years in your sector of the industry?
My experience in the wine industry, at least for the last 20 years, has been pretty specialized. I’ve never really sold wine, worked as a somm in a restaurant, or made wine. As a matter of fact, I hesitate to say that I worked in the wine industry, but I can certainly speak to the wine education part of the industry. And even within the wine education industry, I’m pretty specialized as I have always taught at the college level, and not so much for consumers or wine professionals. So, I can definitely speak to wine and culinary education trends in colleges! First of all, wine and culinary education has exploded at the college level. Many community colleges and traditional colleges now have culinary programs, complete with culinary labs and student-run restaurants. Proprietary schools such as Art Institute, the Escoffier Academy and Le Cordon Bleu-North America (where I work) now collectively have hundreds of campuses all across the country. Each of the programs has at least one, and sometimes several wine classes in their curriculum, and some also offer wine certifications as part of their programs of as an elective. So we have tens of thousands of students a year getting a good solid foundation in wine education.
As for trends, the obvious development is towards online education. I would say in the last 6 years of teaching wine full-time, half of my classes have been taught online and half have been brick-and-mortar. A lot of people are amused by the thought of teaching wine online, and I can understand why! The online format of teaching, in my opinion, is great for teaching the grapes and places, the laws and regulations, the steps of service, the history, and so on. In other words, online classes are a great place to teach knowledge. However, as any trainer knows, we teach Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes – KSA. As for the skills of wine, tasting, how to pour, how to pair, those will always be best taught face-to-face. As for the attitudes of wine service, such as how to interact with guests, how to give service without being overbearing, how to keep the pretense out of wine, I also think that is best taught in person, although I am sure some could argue it can be done online via video. So while online education is here to stay, I think that there will always be parts of the wine experience that just need to be taught in person.
What do you think about the level of wine education in the US?
I think consumers and chefs alike are much better educated in all things wine than they were 10 years ago. When I first started teaching wine classes, most of my students had never even tasted wine! I had to spend the first hour of class explaining why Boone’s Farm and Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers were not “real wine.” These days, I would say at least 50% of my students show up on the first day of class with some significant wine knowledge or experience. Which means, of course, that over the years I have had to “up my game!”
What advice do you give to aspiring wine educators?
Three things: First, Spend just as much time studying and mastering presentation techniques, public speaking skills, and audience management as you do studying wine. As a matter of fact, spend more time studying them. Knowledge is everywhere in our society…every student in your audience has all the information you are going to spill forth for them readily available on the little e-gadget they have in their pocket. They don’t need you to provide them with information…they need you to provide them with a way to understand, remember, and be engaged with the information.
Second, if students are answering questions or describing wines, find what’s right in every contribution. No one should ever be embarrassed or belittled for speaking up in class. Appreciate everyone’s attempts to answer your question or participate in your class even if they are technically “not correct”.
Third, don’t quit your day job. Very few people make a living teaching wine classes. However, there’s nothing wrong with working the floor of a retail wine shop, pouring wine samples in a grocery store, or waiting tables to make ends meet. While working at a retail store might not be your dream job, a job at a retail store (or restaurant or grocery store) just might lead to many opportunities to teach if you are willing to “make it happen”.
Don’t you just love her? I think her answers to these questions show exactly why I found her such a joy in the seminar on Texan wines. I look forward to seeing her in Orlando in July at this year’s Society of Wine Educator’s conference.