Get Schooled

Mimi Martin's Wine & Spirit Archive educates professionals and enthusiasts

Photo by Kathryn Elsesser

BY Richard F. LaMountain

Few have better articulated the key to a happy, productive life than twentieth-century philosopher Vernon Howard: “Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn, and you will.”

In Oregon’s wine community, few have followed this path more tenaciously than Mimi Martin, director of Portland’s Wine and Spirit Archive, or WSA. A self-described “school junkie,” Martin’s pursuit of knowledge fueled a passion to share that learning— manifested when she founded the WSA. Martin’s diligence and entrepreneurial zeal have built WSA into one of the nation’s premier independent wine schools, educating thousands of amateurs and industry professionals alike.

Learning, Teaching and Falling in Love with Wine

Martin was born in Albany, Oregon, spending her childhood there and in Alaska. After high school, she studied for two years at the University of Oregon before transferring to New College in Sarasota, Florida— graduating in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. Motivated by a lifelong interest in gastronomy, Martin next studied at New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute, briefly working as a chef after completing her coursework.

Driven by what she calls an “education addiction,” Martin enrolled at New York University, earning a Master of Arts in Food Studies. She then served eight years on the faculty of NYU’s Food Studies Department— rising to director of undergraduate food studies and food management.

During her master’s studies, Martin’s interest in wine led her to a course titled “Beverages,” taught by Linda Lawry, director of New York City’s International Wine Center, or IWC. At the time, it was the only U.S. institution commissioned by the London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust, or WSET— widely considered the world’s preeminent wine school— to teach its curricula. While still teaching food studies courses, Martin earned several WSET qualifications at IWC.

Convinced she wanted to shift her career to wine education, Martin hatched plans to return to Oregon and open her own wine school. Impressed by Martin’s first-class academic background and passion for teaching, Lawry, who was working to expand WSET’s U.S. presence, helped qualify Martin’s new school as the Northwest’s first approved program provider of WSET curricula.

In 2006, Martin returned to Oregon, achieving rapid success after founding the WSA. Subsequently, several members of the then-new Oregon Wine Board completed the school’s first class (WSET’s intermediate, or Level 2, qualification in wines), word spread quickly about the quality of instruction. The school’s reputation was burnished further by sponsoring a “Careers in Wine” symposium.

Says Martin, “The event provided a good opportunity to meet a lot of people working in the industry and share what we were doing.” As more students enrolled, she expanded her course offerings and began assembling a faculty.

From the beginning, WSA has been “a wine and beverage school offering training for dedicated wine professionals and wine lovers at all levels.” Its underlying philosophy: “wine should be fun, that enjoyment increases as knowledge grows and it always tastes better when shared with others.”

Who comprise WSA’s students? “A good solid third are hobbyists who are passionate about wine,” says Martin. But “the heart of our program is WSET wine education for professionals and aspiring professionals.”

Program Provider for International Wine Schools

WSET, Martin asserts flatly, awards “the best wine certification in the world.” Offering an exhaustive, globe-spanning overview of viniculture and winemaking, its courses are designed both for industry professionals and enthusiasts.

From its inception, WSA has taught the intermediate and advanced tiers of the WSET curriculum (known, more simply, as Levels 2 and 3). In mid-2020, WSA won approval to award WSET’s highest-level qualification as well: its Diploma of Wine. Courses in the two-year diploma program encompass wine production, the wine business and the world’s light, sparkling and fortified wines. “We just graduated our first four diploma students,” says Martin, and 40 more are working toward the certification.

Since 2018, WSA uses curricula developed by the Wine Scholar Guild, or WSG. Its courses explore how history, climate, geology, geography, and ancient and modern winemaking practices converged to produce the iconic wines of France, Italy and Spain. In 2019, WSG honored Martin—who names Sangiovese as her favorite variety— as its Italian Wine Scholar Instructor of the Year.

WSG courses “are a really nice addition to our program,” observes Martin. “They’re so in-depth and bring such great color.” Maxine Borcherding, chef, sommelier and the Northwest’s first WSG French Wine Scholar instructor, collaborates with Martin and other WSA faculty members to help teach the WSG program.

Tangible Professional Benefits

Credentials from WSET and WSG, Martin contends, produce tangible professional benefits to culinary and wine-industry workers. First, she says, undertaking and completing these programs “demonstrate your seriousness of purpose both to potential employers and to yourself . . . You’re setting yourself up as someone who’s serious about wine and learning about it in a rigorous way.”

Further, the programs broaden students’ knowledge, perspective and reach. “It forces them,” Martin maintains, “to look beyond what they’re personally interested in, to look at wine as an industry.”

For instance, she notes, “We get students working in the industry in the Willamette Valley, and they know their companies’ wines. But now they are exposed to all the important wines of the world. They can then compare Oregon’s Pinot Noir to one from New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Or they learn something about a Semillon from Hunter Valley in Australia, which they may not otherwise have encountered.”

Third, via WSET’s patented “Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine,” says Martin, students “learn to taste wine as a professional”— to expertly assess a wine’s quality based on a critical evaluation of its body, tannins, acidity, flavor characteristics and alcohol level.

Finally, students develop friendships and professional relationships that can help advance their careers.

As well as the school’s WSET and WSG offerings, WSA lists a full suite of classes conceived, developed and taught by Martin and her faculty. For novices, courses have included “Introduction to Wine,” “Palate Primer,” “Wine from Grape to Glass” and “Food and Wine Pairing.” “These help people understand why every bottle tastes different, how to anticipate those differences and find wines they’ll love,” says Martin.

For exceptional students, courses have included, among many others, “Advanced Blind Tasting,” “Advanced Sensory Workshop” and “Iconic Italian Grapes and Their Legendary Wines.” “Once you start learning about wine, you feel compelled to keep learning about it,” explains Martin. “For many of our students, wine is something they don’t want to just drink, but to immerse themselves in, and these classes provide new avenues for them to explore.”

As its name implies, WSA also includes courses on spirits. Although the spirits track was curtailed due to the pandemic, says Martin, “we’ll get it rolling again this winter.”

Fun, Engaging Educators

WSA takes pride in a distinguished, 12-person faculty, each member an expert in a specific sector of the wine industry. It includes Tanya Morning Star, one of 60 official global ambassadors of wines from France’s Burgundy region; Regina Daigneault, an authority on wine’s tastes, aromas and overall sensory experience; and David Rosenthal, maker of white wines at Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Also gracing WSA’s faculty are two Masters of Wine: Bree Stock, an education consultant to the Oregon Wine Board, and Nicolas Quillé, chief winemaking and operations officer of the Crimson Wine Group.

Faculty members’ common talent: “They not only know about wine, they can communicate that knowledge and make it easy for students to digest,” says Martin. “They’re fun, engaging educators.”

A Permanent Home

For most of its existence, WSA operated from a number of Portland rental locations. In 2020, after a long search, WSA purchased a commercially-zoned house in southeast Portland. In the school’s front yard, Martin planted three rows of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapevines. To demonstrate three major vine-training techniques, one row is head-pruned, another Guyot-trained and one cordon-trained. Aroma-descriptor plants, including red currant, black currant, gooseberry and honeysuckle, grow along the school’s facade; during sensory-development classes, students pick fresh samples to familiarize themselves with common wine aromas. A fenced backyard is conducive, during warm weather, to outdoor classes and the occasional tasting.

Shortly after WSA moved to its new home, COVID descended. “Our first question,” Martin relates, “was how to get our students through classes they’re already enrolled in?” Though no substitute for the intimacy and camaraderie of in-person classroom, Zoom enabled completion of courses already underway. As the pandemic continued, all courses were moved online.

To stay current on the ever-evolving world of wine, says Martin, “I keep taking classes,” augmenting her own knowledge. “It helps me appreciate our student experience, too.”

Currently, Martin is enrolled in WSG’s Bourgogne Master-Level certificate program, a “deep dive” into the wines of Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Mâconnais and other sites. She also participates in workshops sponsored by Oregon State University’s Extension Service, visiting vineyards with agricultural scientists to study vine training, water availability and pest infestations.

What are WSA’s future plans? “We’ll continue to strengthen how we teach— supporting students with solid strategies for study and test-taking, and adding a Student Experience Coordinator,” says Martin. She’s developing new continuing-education courses for advanced students, which should increase enrollment in the WSET diploma program. And Martin is planning to organize an annual dinner for WSET diploma students and hopes to expand her alumni’s social and professional connections. Last, she intends to “grow the number of educators” by encouraging and motivating advanced-level students to become wine instructors themselves.

Over the past decade and a half, the Wine and Spirit Archive has educated thousands of Northwest oenophiles. From beginners, new to the magic of wine, to professionals seeking advanced credentials, each has reaped the benefit of Mimi Martin’s vision, work, talent— and, above all, lifelong passion for learning.

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