For the past year and a half I have been deeply immersed in getting to know Minnesota’s wine culture and sharing my excitement about things I’m learning about wine, from the roots to your table.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know several sides of the industry, from the hard working hands that are growing and producing local wines, to professionals shaping our local industry from import to distribution, service, and education.
Today’s spotlight is on the Saint Paul College (SPC) Wine Professional Program and highlighting graduates whose pursuit of knowledge — and willingness to share it, have the power to enhance your own enjoyment of wine.
“A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine.” – Ernest Hemingway
Lisa Lehar’s journey from flight attendant to wine aficionado seems a natural transition: “having traveled to many areas with unique wine cultures, it became a way to appreciate the traveling I had done, and learn more about the places I really loved,” Lehar said.
A self-proclaimed “eternal student”, Lehar adds she has a “love of learning and, always have a book in my hand.”
After completing SPC’s wine professional program, she was hooked — and also pursued two other programs with the Society of Wine Educators — Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS), in addition to an intro exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS).
Through the course of studies, she also learned about WSET – Wine and Spirits Education Trust; of which she is currently a diploma student, and in the process of opening Minnesota’s first WSET school, Vine Lab Wine & Spirits, with Nikki Erpelding.
It’s apparent that Lehar’s career choices have been based on doing what she loves, and that includes her enthusiasm for sharing knowledge and getting people excited about the things that go into what’s in a glass of wine: “wine is cultural, agricultural, scientific, artistic.. so many things are found in a glass,” Lehar added. It would be hard not to find something to love! Lehar has the distinction of being a WSET nominated instructor — which officially means you’ll have a top-notch experience in her class, (and personally, I can tell you you’re in for a good time as well!)
While Vine Lab isn’t officially open for registration yet — you can follow them on Instagram & tune in here as I’ll share the details as I have them!
Officer McNichols journey into the world of wine started with home brewing — when he retired from police work he took his knowledge of beer into a part-time service position in a liquor store.
Realizing how little he knew about wine — and possessing a strong desire to learn more — he enrolled in the SPC Wine Professional program, within 18 months found himself working as the manager of the New Hope HyVee liquor store.
Two things McNichols finds most rewarding about his new career are “how thoroughly I enjoy the relationships I have developed with customers, and getting people excited about trying new types of wines— they want to know the stories behind the products they are buying”.
As for how the SPC program helped prepare McNichols for his position? “It was invaluable — I am responsible for selecting, merchandising, and pricing all the items in my store. Without the tools I attained in this program I simply would not have been equipped for the job.”
What about a few of the challenges in his new role? “I enjoy the challenge of picking the right products to offer in my store. I want to have the right product for every type of customer whether they are looking for a $10 bottle or a $50 bottle. I want to be able to help my customer get the right product for his or her occasion and to leave my shop confidant that they have the right product.”
A long-time wine lover and home winemaker with a dream of having her own winery, Nicole Dietman attended the program in as part of a long-term business plan, and also a complete career change from the government sector.
How did the SPC program prepare her for being a business owner, viticulturist, winemaker and tasting room manager — just a few of the roles she dons running her own business?
“Learning not just to taste, but to analyze wine was crucial. The program was very influential from the behind the scenes work — sampling, adjusting, and blending wines — all the way to the front of the winery in providing an excellent customer service experience”, said Dietman.
Wine is an industry of passion for many — and it has to be for Dietman too, to juggle the many moving parts to keep a successful winery and vineyard running. Her pride shines through as a trade-off in doing what she loves, “the program was also an incredibly unique and fun experience”, she added.
A 2006 graduate of the SPC Wine Professional program, Nikki Erpelding went on after graduation to work as a territory manager for a local importer. Erpelding is also a WSET diploma candidate, as well as co-founder of Minnesota’s first WSET school, Vine Lab Wine & Spirits with Lisa Lehar.
In 2011 she came back to Saint Paul College — though this time not as a student, but to fill the role of instructor for the Wine Professional Program, an appointment she continues to hold.
As for what you can expect in her program? Approximately half of class includes sensory evaluation — learning about wine regions, tasting and pairing, and the rest focuses on the business side — marketing, retail management, creating and managing wine programs, and much more. Students of the course range from wine enthusiasts, to individuals in all aspects of the food, beverage, and service industries.
Erpelding’s love for learning is contagious, as is her enthusiasm for all aspects of the industry. After our first visit — which was simply informational for me to put together this piece, I had little interest in “going back to school” — I ended up signing up for SPC’s Wine Professional program for this fall! After our last visit, I had a small library of wine books on-order that I can’t seem to put down myself.
If the pursuit of knowledge is infections — maybe you even want to join me? SPC’s Wine Professional program runs for 18 weeks on Saturdays (10a-3p) starting August 26th. If you’re not up for an 18-week intensive program, keep your eye on single courses offered through SPC Continuing Education, here.
Wondering if you should you pursue formal education in wine? Twin Cities based award-winning wine blogger Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick.com summarizes his decision to enroll in WSET — and I share his sentiment!
“For an enthusiast & blogger, the reasons may be less obvious. I decided to enroll partly to provide some credibility, i.e. I’m serious enough about this to be certified. Also, education is in our family’s DNA, and the academic appeal is undeniable. Besides it sounded challenging and fun!” – Jeff Burrows Read his full post, here
As for what I plan to do when I finish the program this winter? I hope to follow Erpelding’s advice to “specialize in something”, but she adds — “sometimes you find it, and sometimes it finds you”. For me, it really is about the journey, and I’ve no destination in mind: the joy of learning, and sharing it with others. And, that might just be a specialization right there!
A look inside Saint Paul College
Is this a commercial for Saint Paul College or WSET? Heck no! If we ever had any sponsored content, you’d be the first to know (or know first, because we’d list it at the top of the page).