Kelsey Fernandez was in a rut. The Fullerton man had been a bartender for years but wanted to work in a fine-dining restaurant that served good wine.
After getting hired at the Old Vine Cafe in Costa Mesa in October 2010, his new bosses gave him a suggestion: Take Wine and Spirits Education Trust, or WSET, classes with master sommelier Peter Neptune.
“My bosses at Old Vine had also taken the classes from Peter,” said Fernandez, 29. “My bosses knew the value of the classes and what I could learn through his programs.”
Fernandez became lead server at the restaurant after completing the level 2 and 3 courses. After completing the level 4 diploma course, he is now working in wine importing and distribution while aiming toward becoming an advanced sommelier candidate.
(A wine basics course with three classes is also available for $180, but many people can skip it and jump right to level 2.)
Neptune finds himself again partnering with Nancy L. Milby, having located his Neptune School of Wine in her LCA Wine location at South Coast Collection, or SoCo. LCA Wine sells 400 varieties of bottles for between $7.50 and $115.
Milby founded the Laguna Beach cooking school Laguna Culinary Arts in 2001. Neptune brought a wine element to the business in 2004. And the two moved to Costa Mesa in 2014, with Milby closing the Laguna business.
The two say the pairing of wine courses with a retail business works for both of them. And not only that, but Milby, after being taught by her partner, joins him in teaching the wine classes.
Level two, taught by Milby in an eight-week course plus exam for $775, and level three, taught by Neptune in a 12-week course plus exam for $1,275, focus on why particular wines taste the way they do and what drinkers can expect from certain wines.
Milby said the main lessons are about how to taste and evaluate wine for quality through appearance, aroma and structure. She noted that some wines are much more expensive than others because of rarity but that quality isn’t dependent on the cost of the wine. She also added that personal preference can’t be ignored in the judging of wine.
Students will be taught about wines of the world and grape varieties, with a focus on where the grapes grow and what different styles of wine can be expected from different places.
If students choose, after the completion of levels 2 and 3, they can move on to the level 4 diploma level, which will help them eventually move into more master and certifying levels, perhaps enabling them to be recognized by the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Institute of Masters of Wine.
Neptune, who is one of 220 master sommeliers in the world, also has a branch of the school in San Diego.
Neptune says the wine education courses, which carry internationally recognized certification, are for those who hope to work with the libation in their careers — but they are also good for enthusiasts.
“We live in California,” he said. “A lot of people who claim to be wine enthusiasts only know about California wine, so all of a sudden, they’re taking level 2 and getting exposed to six wines a class times eight classes. That’s 48 bottles of wine, and they’ve probably never had 40 of those before.”
“With wine, it’s a lifelong pursuit,” added Milby. “No one will ever know everything about wine. You’re always learning.”
With the classes, the average enthusiast will get “a feeling for why they like a particular type of wine and what to expect from a particular wine, so they can go into a restaurant or wine shop, look at the selections and have some idea of what the heck they’re going to get,” she said.
Wendy Robb, who completed levels 2 and 3 with Neptune and is currently taking his diploma class, said she credits him for her progress in the restaurant industry.
“It’s incredible the jump that I’ve been able to make from where I was a year ago,” said Robb, who started off as a hostess at Napa Rose in Anaheim before taking Neptune’s classes and now works as the sommelier and wine director at Taco Maria at SoCo.
“Much of the staff at Napa Rose are sommeliers, five of which are advanced sommeliers. My time there reinforced the belief that a wine education in this industry is important.”
Neptune School of Wine and LCA Wine are both in the SoCo center, at 3315 Hyland Ave. in Costa Mesa. Level 2 classes begin Jan. 13, and level 3 classes begin March 28.