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The Top Wine Education Experiences in Napa and Sonoma

Rob Mondavi Jr. of Michael Mondavi Family Estate winery leads the class at the CIA in St. Helena,  May 1, 2014 / Photo by Tyffani Peters-Sedgwick, CIA

A memorable Wine101 session isn’t simply sitting in a classroom with some wines to sample and a PowerPoint show. Much better is interacting with the actual winemakers, tasting a rich array of varietals, comparing notes with fellow wine lovers, and enjoying perfect food pairings, too.

Here are classes that are well worth the price of admission, where you’ll not only learn some deep secrets, but have a wonderful time doing it.

Culinary Institute of America’s Eat. Drink. Learn.

This new series brings top names to the intimate, 40-seat Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA Greystone. The evening begins with a one-hour discussion and tasting from a significant winemaker or winery owner like Rob Mondavi Jr. of Michael Mondavi Family Estate winery. Mondavi, for example, might taste you through more than a half dozen wines, while sharing insider cellar facts like how infrared photography helps vineyard managers chart soil heat, and how you need to listen for “clicking and ticking” sounds in barrels to track malolactic fermentation as living lactic acid bacteria work their noisy magic. The session is followed by an al fresco dinner overlooking the St. Helena vineyards, crafted by a top CIA chef for expertly paired dishes like mustard crusted sea scallops with lemon aioli, crisp bacon, frisee, and spring peas, alongside Isabel Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay. Periodic Thursdays through October 2014. $115 per person.

Healdsburg Shed Hands-On Explorations

The modern grange offers sophisticated seminars hosted by the beverage legends themselves. Topics change each month, covering everything sippable and delicious, from mastering local wines, to appreciating bitters (learn to how blend digestive tincture bitters for an electric taste sensation), to making your own beer (a home brewing workshop from The Beverage People explores how to make cream ale). These are small gatherings, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to pick the beverage makers’ brains, and sample as many flavors as they like. Food is available from the Shed Café, showcasing locally-produced artisan eats. Dates, times and ticket prices vary; check online calendar for details.

Single Vineyard Sundays at Dry Creek Kitchen

One Sunday each month, the Charlie Palmer restaurant digs deep into its cellar of rare or unique vintages crafted from a single vineyard, and presents an evening with multiple winemakers discussing the trials and tribulations of their chosen terroir. The evenings begin with a casual walk-around tasting and one-on-one talk with the stars behind such iconic estates as Saralee's Vineyard, winemakers from longtime favorites such as Joseph Swan and Arrowood, the boutique Holdredge Wines,and La Rochelle Winery, or small, up-and-coming producers Arbe Garbe Wines and Two Shepherds. Guests learn how a single vineyard can produce such a diverse array of flavor profiles – Saralee, for example, features ten different grapes varietals, and more than 50 clonal selections. The “classes” are followed by an optional four-course dinner with wine pairings by DKC chef Dustin Vallette. Through October 2014, $60 tasting / $150 tasting and dinner.

Cooking with Julie

Twice a week, former globe-trotting/current Wine County resident chef Julie Logue-Riordan leads students on hands-on shopping trips at Napa Valley gourmet markets, farmers markets, and specialty food producers, where students work with the purveyors to select the best seasonal ingredients. Then, everyone visits wineries for private tastings and education on how to select wines for that day’s meal. Next, it’s on to Logue-Riordan’s kitchen near Oxbow Public Market, for a roll-your-sleeves-up cooking class. Finally, everyone eats and drinks their education. The day-long (8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) immersion includes tours and tastings, hands-on cooking class, recipes, a three-course lunch with Napa wines, and a logo apron. Year-round, check online calendar for details. $225 per person.