The Instant Sommelier: Choosing Your Best Wine

Course No. 9033
Instructor Paul Wagner, Wine Author and Lecturer
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Course No. 9033
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers You will understand the variations in wines and better appreciate your own tastes: what you like and why you like it.
  • numbers You will be able to confidently order wine in a restaurant, purchase wine at a store, find the perfect gift, and speak knowledgably to a sommelier.
  • numbers You'll gain practical tips for everyday GOOD wine drinking.

Course Overview

With nearly 150,000 wines for sale in the U.S. market, the world of wine can seem needlessly complex. Cut through the clutter with eight down-to-earth, practical, and accessible lessons that will take the intimidation factor out of choosing, drinking, and enjoying wines, led by Professor Paul Wagner, who has dedicated his career to what he calls, “democratizing wine appreciation.” From swirl to finish, he’ll introduce you to the vocabulary you need to speak intelligently about wine and to understand what each term means when it comes to finding wines you’ll love.

The same can be said with wine. You don’t have to master the entire repertoire of grapes, techniques, ingredients, variations, and other components to truly appreciate the wine you’re drinking. Simply armed with the senses you already have, an expert guide, and a glass of your favorite, you can learn how to better enjoy the wine you’re drinking, while at the same time gaining a deeper recognition of your own tastes.

But let’s face it. Choosing wines can feel daunting. There are nearly 150,000 wines for sale in the U.S. market alone. And there are just as many books, articles, websites, and other resources instructing you on the plethora of ways to choose, drink, and enjoy wine. So, how do you cut through the clutter and find the best wines for you? Paul Wagner, an instructor for Napa Valley College’s Viticulture and Enology department has spent the last 25 years helping people do just that. He’s dedicated his career to what he calls, “democratizing wine appreciation.” After spending years working in wineries, leading hundreds of tastings, and having hands-on experience in every aspect of winemaking, he shares his deep and comprehensive wine knowledge through the eight down-to-earth, practical, and accessible lessons of The Instant Sommelier: Choosing Your Best Wine, which will take the intimidation factor out of choosing, drinking, and enjoying wines. From swirl to finish, he’ll introduce you to the vocabulary you need in order to speak intelligently about wine and to understand what each term means when it comes to finding wines you’ll love.

Explore Each Glass

In addition to each insightful lesson, Professor Wagner includes tasting exercises, where you’ll flex and develop four of your senses:

  • Vision. Examine how really looking at wine and understanding how to identify the color and clarity of the wine can allow you to assess if it is fresh and lively, or older and more evolved.
  • Smell. You’ll hear sommeliers go overboard describing all the essences they can smell from one glass, but the reality is you’re looking for two basic smells: fruits (from citrus to berries) and vegetables (grassy or herbal). Knowing what smells appeal to you in a wine can help you find more wines you will probably like.
  • Taste. Cooks can tell you there are six basic flavors: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, spicy hot, and umami (a meaty flavor). Learn how to translate what flavors you like into wine descriptors—sugar, acid, and tannin—and how to use that information to select new wines you will love.
  • Touch. Far from dipping your finger into your glass, the term “touch,” in wine, refers to the body of the wine, which is determined by how it feels in your mouth. The richer flavors of a fuller bodied wine such as a Chardonnay or Cabernet often go well with richer foods, while a lighter bodied wine will be more refreshing.

Economies of Wine and Taste

Most important, Professor Wagner’s lessons are eminently accessible. You won’t be dealing with rare vintages or bottles that cost more than your mortgage. In fact, as you better understand your own tastes and pair reds, whites, and rosés to your own personal palate, you’ll discover that the “best” wines—the award-winners or most expensive bottles—are not always YOUR best wine.

But before you discover this, Professor Wagner breaks down exactly what makes some wines better than others and why you do often pay more for them, including:

  • The region of the vineyard,
  • The conditions during the year the grapes were grown,
  • The ripeness of the grapes,
  • The balance of acid, and
  • The equipment used in the winemaking process.

Given that winemaking is a wonderful combination of art, science, and the unpredictability of Mother Nature, it's no wonder that the old saying goes: “The best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large fortune, and then watch it slowly dwindle away.”

However, even understanding the expensive grapes, techniques, labor, and equipment that go into creating a “great” wine—and thus, raising the cost per bottle—it’s often difficult to taste the difference. When it really comes down to it, your preferences are all that matter. As Professor Wagner states, “If you want the wine that you love, you have to pay what it costs to buy that bottle. That’s why it’s so important to understand what you like.”

Red, White, and Bubblies

Many people can tell you they prefer whites, reds, or rosés, but it gets more complicated beyond that. Professor Wagner spends one lesson each digging into the different nuances between each genre of wine and suggesting what food best complements each type. Among dozens of options, you’ll examine:


  • Muscats: These include Moscato, Moscatel, Muscat of Alexandria, Gewürztraminer, and similar styles, which have a lovely floral character in the nose, a pure flavor of fruit, and relatively low acidity. The sugar found in these wines pairs well with spicy foods.
  • Chardonnays: Oak aging and powerful flavors provide winemakers with additional flexibility to create new style options that can pair well with richer foods such as roast chicken and creamy sauces.
  • Sauvignon Blanc: An herbal white wine, often without oak aging. They typically offer notes of herbal green grass, green peppers—and even a note of what Professor Wagner claims to be similar to cat pee. Don’t let that turn you away. A good Sauvignon blanc can be delicious and can perfectly complement a seafood salad.


  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Flavors of plums and blackberries, sometimes with a little bit of

green olive, these full-bodied wines are typically aged in barrels to soften up the tannins and add nice notes of vanilla and cinnamon to the wine.

  • Pinot Noir: Often drinkers will taste black cherries, strawberries, and sometimes a little hint of something like leather or even a bit of mushroom. The variety of flavors it presents, and the medium body, means it pairs well with a huge range of foods.
  • Merlot: Boasting aromatic notes of plums and sometimes even licorice, Merlots are medium-bodied, and with tannins that are soft enough to enjoy when the wine is only a few years old.

Bubbly and beyond:

  • Sparkling Wines: See how Prosecco, Asti Spumante, Champagne, and other similar bubbly wines can be enjoyed with most dishes that pair well with white wines. But they will also surprise you by working well anytime you might choose to drink a beer—for example, with Mexican food.
  • Sherry: Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Cream Sherry, and Amontillado, among others, make wonderful aperitif wines to stimulate the appetite, but the sweeter ones can also work well after dinner with dessert or on their own.
  • Madeira: The founding fathers reportedly drank about a bottle of Madeira a day while they debated the writing of the Constitution. A rich and powerful wine, it’s fortified and essentially indestructible. The notes of deep rich flavors include orange rind, figs, and vanilla, perfectly complementing blue cheese or dark chocolate.

Building Your Wine Confidence

Once you understand the differences in each type of wine, Professor Wagner introduces you to the history of wine, tracing the evolution of this globally celebrated drink back to ancient Babylon. And he’ll review how to put everything you’ve learned throughout this course into practice when ordering or buying a wine.

Many people look at a sommelier as a tool of the restaurant whose job is to help increase your bill! But a good sommelier understands how to help you find a wine that will make YOU happy—regardless of the price of the bottle. As mentioned, there are 150,000 wines in the United States alone, and at a good restaurant, it can feel like they offer at least half of those on their wine list. The sommelier is there to help you wade through the clutter and find something you will like, so it’s important to know what you like, why you like it, and how to explain that to the sommelier. And don’t let the presentation ceremony intimidate you. Professor Wagner walks you through exactly what to expect and how to respond to each step, including why smelling the cork isn’t necessary.

If you enjoy drinking wine, want to learn more about wine, or you’re just curious what all the fuss is about, join Professor Wagner for this short course jam-packed with everything you need to know about wine on an everyday basis. All you need is a corkscrew, a couple of wine glasses, and an open mind when it comes to the wonderful world of wine.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 22 minutes each
  • 1
    How to Explore Your Glass of Wine
    In this lesson, we explore how to use four of our five senses to explore a glass of wine, and what these senses can tell us not only about the wine, but also about our own taste profiles and sensitivities. This is the first step toward determining which wines we really like the best. x
  • 2
    Key Elements in Wine and How to Taste Them
    When sommeliers talk about wine, they focus on a few key elements that define wine style and character. Now that you know how to use your senses to taste wine, let's use those tools to identify these elements and help you understand them. And in the meantime, this will also let you speak to those crazy sommeliers in their own language! x
  • 3
    Choosing White Wines
    What kind of white wines do you like? In this lesson, we'll explore the best-known white wines and get a basic idea of what each one tastes like. Once you are familiar with these, you'll be able to talk to a sommelier in a restaurant without fear, and you'll be able to use these examples to understand thousands of other wines in the world. x
  • 4
    Choosing Red Wines
    Now that you have a firm grip on white wines, let's tackle red wines using the same basic techniques. And since there are even more styles of red wine than white, this one will be even more fun-and more helpful in your visits to a restaurant or wine shop. x
  • 5
    Choosing Sparkling and Dessert Wines
    While 90 percent of the world's wines fall into the categories of red and white, here is where we discover the rest, from sparkling wines and roses to legendary dessert wines and aperitifs. Sure, sparkling wine may be perfect for celebrations, but by the time we are done with this lesson, you'll use it for far more than that. And you'll have a lot of other wines that will serve just as well. x
  • 6
    The History of Wine: From Babylon to James Bond
    Since the beginning of recorded history, wine has enjoyed a special place in social celebrations around the world. In this lesson, we follow the course of wine's role in society and how it affects the way we enjoy wine today. x
  • 7
    The Wine Service Ritual in Restaurants
    There are few things that cause as much anxiety as ordering wine at a fine dining restaurant. And yet, it doesn't have to be this way. This lesson explains each step of formal wine service, gives tips on the best way to proceed, and focuses on how you can you best use this moment to make sure that your wine, and your dinner, are a success. x
  • 8
    Having Fun with Wine
    Wine isn't just another drink. It's part of a meal, part of a celebration, or maybe just a celebration in itself. This lesson will lead you through the ways that wine can add joy to lots of different occasions and guide you to find the ones that might be best for you or for your guests to enjoy in any situation. x

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What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Ability to download 8 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 8 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Charts & diagrams
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Questions & answers

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Your professor

Paul Wagner

About Your Professor

Paul Wagner, Wine Author and Lecturer
Paul Wagner is a Viticulture & Winery Technology Instructor at Napa Valley College. He is also a guest lecturer at many universities, including the University of Rovira i Virgili, the University of Bordeaux, and the University of Porto. He has judged more than 100 international wine competitions and has spoken at more than 80 conferences throughout the world on wine, wine tourism, wine education, public affairs, and...
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The Instant Sommelier: Choosing Your Best Wine is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 27.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent introduction to the Basics of Wine! Excellent introduction to the basics of wine. It contains everything you need to know to select and enjoy a good wine. If you're new to wine, this course provides you with a good first step into really getting to know wine.
Date published: 2020-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Course was refreshing, like a nice summer wine! This course was the first course that I took as part of my GreatCoursesPlus subscription. Knowing a little bit about wine is very useful in social and professional settings, and in this course Mr. Wagner gives you information that will enable you to serve wines that you and your friends and colleagues enjoy. The lectures are well-organized and the appropriate length, and they provided coverage of most varieties of wine. I did not often drink wine while watching the lectures, but I walk away with some great notes and some wonderful experiments for wine tasting parties. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wine made fun Anyone new to wine should view this course. It takes all of the mystery and apprehension out of wine.
Date published: 2020-08-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Stimulated enjoyment The extensive varieties and qualities of wine are presented in a comprehensive yet fascinating manner. The experience will stimulate your enjoyment of wine as well as broaden your appreciation for wine. At times the discussions can not go into the depth necessary for true understanding. You will come away better able to present an appreciation of wine to you friends.
Date published: 2020-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy to understand and use to choose wines, short enough to see again and again to stay current.
Date published: 2020-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Wine For All of Us Paul Wagner made this discussion of wine so interesting with his comfortable style of sharing his knowledge and organized presentations that I thoroughly engaged with each lecture. I learned new ideas and added to my wine taster's tool kit. If you are looking for very indepth concepts, then this course is not for you, although it wouldn't hurt to come at wine from a consumumer's point of view. Wine drinking should be fun from the purchase to the drinking opportunities with others.
Date published: 2020-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Instant Sommelier: Choosing Your Best Wine Paul Wagner is one of the best instructors I've had in 50 years. I've been enjoying wine for over 50 years and I thought I knew a little about wine. Mr. Wagner taught me the nuances of selecting and enjoying wine. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Instant Sommelier Been to a number of live wine talks to compare to. This lecture has good information and presented in a enjoyable way. Speaker has good knowledge but more important he comes across in a friendly and comfortable way.
Date published: 2020-05-21
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