I started in Food & Beverage in a West Coast family restaurant chain working my way through all the different front of house positions. I didn’t get into wine until after I graduated college and went to work on the Las Vegas Strip, managing both casual and fine dining restaurants. I realized my education up until that point hadn’t provided me the level of beverage knowledge I needed to succeed at that level, so I began my wine education with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
As I worked, I completed through WSET Level 3, and realized how much I loved wine education. Shortly after I was asked to teach undergraduate wine courses at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and that’s where it all started. I realized how much I loved to teach, and that it was time to bring WSET courses to Las Vegas. There were no providers here, and I saw how many of my students were going out into the workforce and were wanting some certifications to help bolster their careers. It’s difficult being fresh out of college, looking for that entry-level management position, without having those certifications.
I began my doctoral program in Hospitality in 2017, and continued to teach undergraduate courses while Wine Academy of Las Vegas got up and running. It has been so rewarding to be able to use some of the educational techniques I’ve learned in my PhD program, and apply them to wine education. We’ve seen some really great results with students’ retention and test scores. It’s so beneficial, to be around students so hungry for knowledge and learning, and it really helps me stay motivated in my own wine studies, I’m currently working through my WSET Level 4 Diploma. So being able to teach has been great preparation for my own exams as well.
I think all in all, my journey into wine education was more of a life shift, and realizing that what I loved even more than working in the industry, was teaching. But having that industry foundation has been invaluable both in my own education, as well as ensuring students can also have industry perspectives and practical knowledge in class.
Tell us more about the Wine Academy of Las Vegas, your wine school. What type of education experience do you provide that you think sets you apart?
I founded Wine Academy of Las Vegas, to be the wine school that I wish I would have had, and would want to have. Being from the industry, and a hospitality education background, I treat my school as I would any food and beverage fine dining venue. We’re not just providing wine education, we’re providing a service and an experience, and we want to exceed students’ expectations while they’re studying with us. The level of care and personal service that we put into every aspect of our courses, is one of the reasons I think we have such a high pass rate and returning student rate.
With no providers in Las Vegas, I had to travel out of state for classes and exams. I was usually one of the only students that came from out of state, and sometimes it felt like if you weren’t local that you would slip through the cracks. So, one of the things that we’re so conscientious about, is making sure that our out of state/out of town students feel supported. We make sure there’s a flow of communication back and forth, structure for courses and exam prep, answering questions promptly, providing any recommendations for close-by places to stay, and making sure they don’t fall through the cracks. Simple, easy things that make a real difference to students who have to study remotely.
Another crucial asset that we have, is our educator team. All of educators have industry experience, whether it’s with distributors, food and beverage venues, wineries, you name it. We’ve trained staff at venues, we’ve done industry trainings, we have specialized areas of knowledge, and we’re constantly increasing our own knowledge. Every educator on our team right now is currently studying for one of more wine exams of their own.
Being able to have industry knowledge and supplement the course material with it, is another way to just enhance the students’ experience and provide as much knowledge as we can during a course. We try to get as many wines for our students to taste as possible, to get as much tasting practice as possible. Wine education courses can get expensive, so giving our students as much as possible to make sure the value is there is key for us. We have service backgrounds, and can provide education in an approachable, unintimidating way, that’s so crucial for allowing students to grow without feeling inferior, unintelligent, or intimidated.
Do you think that the WSG programs could fill any gap in the way wine professionals can study wine in Las Vegas?
I am really excited about the opportunity to offer the Wine Scholar courses, I think they are going to be so beneficial for students here in Vegas. With so many specialty restaurants, with extensive wine programs, these are going to be an invaluable resource for students who work at those venues. We have specialty restaurants that focus on all of the different Wine Scholar courses (French, Italian, and Spanish). For a server, beverage manager, sommelier, etc. to be able to take a course focusing on exactly the region their restaurant specializes in is going to help set them apart from other staff members, help them advance their careers, and provide higher quality service to guests. Other wine education programs provide an overview of these countries, but there is so much information that it’s difficult to go very in-depth. But if you’re working at a restaurant that is heavily-focused on these regions, you need more than just the overview.
I think these programs also have a very special place for enthusiasts and connoisseurs. We are fortunate enough to have access to such a wide variety of wines here, not only in restaurants and bars, but in our retail outlets as well. The ability to give consumers the opportunity to increase their knowledge in a region they’re really interested in and passionate about is going to help them make better purchasing decisions, and discover wines they wouldn’t otherwise have known about. French and Italian wines can be very intimidating to both professionals and consumers, and being able to just lay all the knowledge out there, in such a great textbook and structured class sessions, is really going to be able to provide a great value and experience to students.
Gina, if you were a wine, which one would you be or like to be?
This is a tricky one, I think I would have to go with a Cru Beaujolais. I think sometimes it’s easy to be underestimated, and Beaujolais is definitely an underestimated region despite the amazing wines they produce. They have pure, delicate flavors, but have a complexity, but they’re not overpowering. The region has tradition, I definitely have some old school tendencies that are more Baby Boomer than Millennial. But they’re also able to not take themselves so seriously, and chart they’re own course. All in all just really great wines, proud of what they are, whether its consumed young, or those that have the ability to age.