This wine chat with wine expert Leslie Sbrocco dishes on making wine accessible for everyone, the blending of wine and travel, and recommendations for those new to wine.
I met wine expert Leslie Sbrocco more than twenty years ago on a Crystal Cruises trip to Alaska. Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line currently rebuilding with new ownership, celebrates education and typically hires well-known chefs, professionals in various sciences, exceptional art and music instructors, and more. The classes offered onboard their ships are free while cruising. Leslie was onboard to educate guests about wine. She is an award-winning consultant, speaker, author, and television host. Back then, I found her wine knowledge fascinating. Today, she marries her wine expertise with her impressive knowledge of food by pairing the two and presenting the information on prominent talk shows, her TV shows, in classes, and during virtual tasting events.
One of Leslie's many talents is making wine approachable to everyone. During a recent visit to my hometown of Petaluma, California—where Leslie has lived for more than 20 years—we met for coffee and conversation.
As a wine expert, how do you make wine approachable to everyone?
I make it about integrating wine into everyday life, and I don't set the wine aside and put it on a pedestal. Don't treat it like it is untouchable. In the past, I took winemaking courses at UC Davis. It was important to me that I understand the technicalities of making wine. It's really hard to make good wine; trust me, I've made it. I've also made bad wine.
Years ago, I decided that if I was going to be a wine judge, I needed to know everything about wine, including the technical pieces. It was my job to understand it all.
For example, if I am buying a car, I don't need to know everything about the engine and the carburetor; I rely on specialists. But suppose I am teaching about something like wine. In that case, I feel it is my job to understand the technical pieces and the specifics about the wine and then to wrap it in language that is familiar to people, comfortable, and relative to their lives.
What role does wine play in travel?
Before the pandemic, I worked for two years to launch a national PBS show called 100 Days, Drinks, Dishes, & Destinations. We produced 13 shows and got them aired right before COVID hit. Now the series is airing on 300 stations nationwide. The shows are all about looking at the culture, the place, the history, and the food; wine is just another piece woven into the fabric.
If I go to Budapest, I walk around and see what role Hungarian wines play in the country's history. I don't ever separate the wine from its history because it is part of the culture and the place. I believe in drinking local wine and dining on local cuisine; as the saying goes, “What grows together goes together.”
How did you get professionally involved and become a wine expert?
I got into wine through a very circuitous route, like Dorothy on the winding yellow brick road. I went to college to become a lawyer and then planned to go into politics. After getting my degree, I changed my mind. I moved to California wine country and decided that politics was not my path. I got a job at a law firm to pay the bills and took acting classes. After that, I worked on several industrial films and was approached one day by a woman asking if I wanted to be a hand model. My response was, Does it pay? She said, “yes.”
I spent years doing hand modeling commercials for the Pillsbury and Sharper image catalogs. You may have seen my hand poking the Pillsbury Doughboy.
During this time, I fell in love with wine from a consumer perspective. I was so into it. The intellectual part resonated with me, and I went to as many wineries as possible. I volunteered for harvest. I did everything I could to learn about wine. Back then, they didn't have the classes they have now. I learned by doing and tasting.
Most of my jobs come from referrals. I believe you need to work hard and do your job, keep your connections up, and follow up with people. When you do this, it seems like one thing leads to another. That is how you build any career.
Why do you love what you do?
I love the stories, people, and wine's role in culture, and I try to write about the people behind the wine. Teaching classes and doing virtual tastings help people discover why they like this or don't like that, but ultimately it's up to them to figure it out.
I love learning about the fascinating people and wine's role in life. I never glorify wine or separate it into a vacuum.
Do you have recommendations for someone new to wine? What steps can they take to overcome intimidation and build some confidence?
You must taste to learn. You need to figure out what you like and what you don't like. If you don't want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars, the best way to taste is to find out where you can taste. Search for wine stores that do tastings near where you live. Join or form a tasting group to share the wine cost with others. That is the best way; try it.
You can read books or get on the internet. You can take courses, but you still have to taste. For instance, how do you know what acidity is until you taste it? Acidity is the bra of the wine world; it lifts and separates and makes everything look perky. It wakes up the palette; it enhances everything.
Let's start with style, the lightest to the heaviest. Focusing on the grape variety is undoubtedly the easiest place to begin. Pick one varietal, like a Tempranillo from Spain. Purchase 100% varietal wines from different areas in Spain, and then really look at what grape varietals do in the different terroirs—the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
The internet offers a plethora of information on individual wines. Take a look at the different pieces of the puzzle. Look at the style profile: the grape variety, where it was grown, how it was vinified, what was done to it, who made it, and what other decisions affected it. How does that equal the style that is in the glass?
Should you taste wine with food?
When I lead a food and wine tasting, I have participants try the wine first, then try the food, and then put them together. There are no wrong answers—drink and eat what you want—but there are certainly better matches.
What were some of the most educational tastings that helped you become a wine expert?
I took part in a blending years ago with Jon Emmerich at Silverado Vineyards. He was the current winemaker. I sat in while they were making chardonnays. To go through the process with a real winemaker was incredible. Jon would say, “This chardonnay was from this block or this vineyard. These are the barrel differences. We have multiple barrels we age the wines in, and they have different toast levels. We have 30 samples.”
There are so many factors for a barrel-aged chardonnay. When you consider all those variables, it gets complicated. From the terroir to the block it came from—Carneros or somewhere in the middle of the valley—to whether it went through complete malolactic fermentation or partial, putting the puzzle pieces together was fascinating. A blending experience is a great way to learn, especially for someone who wants an in-depth education.
How do you think younger generations view wine?
I think there is a lot less intimidation for young people but also a lot less interest. There are more options today. I recently read that the younger generation is going through another temperance.
What prompted your TV shows?
I asked myself, how do I combine the two? How can I be on camera, speak to an audience, and marry it with wine? I wrote my first article about wine for a local newspaper about this time. I built from there. The internet got involved, and one of my wine-loving contacts at Microsoft hired me to be the wine producer of “Sidewalk,” Microsoft Corporation's attempt to create a group of comprehensive web portals oriented toward specific cities, basically a city guide.
After Sidewalk, I built a wine website for the local paper, the Press Democrat. The paper's parent company was the New York Times, and they asked me to create a wine website for them. I worked hard to build a network of people and wrote my first book, Wine for Women. After the book came out, speaking engagements followed. Later, I circled back into TV, did CBS Wine Minute, and the Today Show invited me on because of my book.
I just kept asking myself: What do I want to do? How am I going to be happy? What sparked my interest? Then I would go for it—grit, guts, and nails.
Wow, things seem to have fallen into your lap.
People often say that I make everything look easy. I believe in the old saying, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail,” and I consider myself the queen of preparation. People are always looking for shortcuts, and there are none. I overprepare for everything. Work hard, and you will get there. Those are the basics for any career.
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Increase your wine knowledge and watch Leslie Sbrocco on TV.
Leslie shares about wine on a variety of television shows. She was a featured judge on the PBS national series, The Winemakers, and wrote content for the TBS show Cougartown. Leslie frequently appears on CNN, the Hallmark Channel's Better TV, QVC, and NBC's Today show.
Leslie hosted a restaurant review show on KQED in San Francisco called Check, Please!, and her current new series, 100 Days, Drinks, Dishes & Destinations, takes viewers around the world. This show emphasizes Leslie's appreciation for understanding the history and culture around great food and wine.