Odyssey Wine Academy, woman-run wine school in Healdsburg, first of its kind in Sonoma County
Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” chronicles the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his journey home after the Trojan War. In Healdsburg, Odyssey also is the name of a new wine academy — the first in Sonoma County.
Specifically, Odyssey Wine Academy offers classes for Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Certification, a program many oenophiles complete on their own journeys to learn more about wine. That the new program is run by a local woman with 20 years of experience in the wine business represents an epic of a different kind: the rise of women to leadership roles in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
The woman, Julie Rothberg, owns one wine brand and works for another. She is committed to democratizing wine education for all.
“The goal of Odyssey Wine Academy is to offer a wine education to everyone, not just those looking to advance their careers in wine,” she said. “Not only does this excite wine professionals, but it also appeals to locals with careers in technology, law and the arts who have an overwhelming interest to learn more about wine.”
As of press time, the school had enrolled 32 students in two courses. Enrollments are climbing, and Rothberg said she is hopeful for an even broader response as word spreads. She even hopes to eventually add a scholarship program and classes in Spanish.
“People have this idea that wine education is fancy or sophisticated,” Rothberg said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Founding a school
Rothberg never dreamed of starting a wine school. As the mother of twin girls, co-owner of 13th & Third Wines in Healdsburg and president of Medlock Ames winery in the Alexander Valley, she already had a full plate. She and her husband Gregg moved to Healdsburg from New York in late 2018 and spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic getting settled.
But last year, when she set out to enroll her Medlock Ames staff in WSET certification courses, she learned the hard way that the closest courses available were in Napa and San Francisco.
“People from our part of the county have been traveling to the Napa Valley or San Francisco to take these classes for years,” she said, noting that the WSET program is recognized globally as the international standard in wine knowledge. “All of a sudden, it just hit me: Why not change that?”
Rothberg did the legwork to set up the school, filing for accreditation through the WSET and securing classroom space at Bacchus Landing, a communal facility on the south end of Healdsburg where 13th & Third is one of seven wineries with a tasting room. She put a call out for educators and committed to teaching the first rounds of classes herself. Gradually, students started signing up.
One of the first customers: Bill Smart, general manager of Lambert Bridge Winery.
Smart had been looking for a way to interest his staff in professional development, and he jumped on the opportunity to bring everyone up to speed with a WSET Level 1 class.
Lambert Bridge enrolled 16 employees in all, effectively buying out the inaugural class at Odyssey Wine Academy back in early February. Smart said all 16 employees passed their Level 1 certification, and six have gone on to Level 2.
Smart said the experience was invaluable for his staff members, who now have a baseline knowledge that will only improve the visitor experience at his winery.
“We want to provide a wine education experience that is relaxed and informative, ensuring our team has a well-rounded knowledge of how wine enhances our customers’ experience” he said. “We don’t want to overwhelm clients with too much detail. Our goal is to develop a long-term relationship with everyone who visits the winery. One of the ways we do this is by providing a knowledge-based wine tasting.”
Building a curriculum
Currently, Odyssey Wine Academy offers courses from introduction (Level 1) through advanced (Level 3). WSET certification has one more tier — Level 4 — and Rothberg said she likely will add this to the curriculum as students matriculate and create enough demand for it.
In the meantime, the Odyssey curriculum follows WSET standards closely.
The six-hour Level 1 course explores the main types and styles of wine through sight, smell and taste. It also offers students basic skills to describe wines accurately and to make food and wine pairings.
At Level 2, students are introduced to the principal and regionally important grape varieties of the world, the regions in which they are grown and the styles of wine they produce. Through 16 hours of tasting and theory, Odyssey students at this level explore the factors that impact style and quality and learn how to describe these wines with confidence.
Those who make it to Level 3 get into vinification and gain a detailed understanding of grape-growing and winemaking. This program is 32 hours long, and Odyssey students will be able to assess wines accurately and use their understanding to confidently explain wine style and quality.
All courses are held in a classroom in event space at Bacchus Landing, in a room called the Wine Lab.
When students graduate from these courses, they receive a WSET Award in Wines for the level they have completed.
Rothberg teaches classes in such a way to make them approachable, no matter how complicated the topic. According to Catherine Bugue, vice president of education and co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy, another wine school in Napa, this kind of accessibility is one of the key factors that enable academies to survive.
“The core of a good program is providing professionally designed and researched curricula (that) focuses not just on knowledge but on providing the student with skills they can use past the classroom experience,” Bugue said.
“A great program goes beyond helping students to just memorize facts,” she added. “We teach our students to engage with the information, to form connections between facts and outcomes and to think critically and stay attuned to trends.”
Considering how new Odyssey’s program is, the next few months likely will bring more of the status quo: Tuesday night classes with summative assessments at the end and lots of certifications.
Rothberg has designs to add more teachers and incorporate Spanish-language classes for native Spanish speakers in the community. She hopes to offer a scholarship program for these classes and scholarships to vineyard workers across Sonoma County.
“I just want to help grow knowledge,” she said. “So long as people want to learn more, we’ll be here.”