Legendary winemaker Bill Harlan’s Learning Center toasts a unique approach to wine education.
“Wine can be so much fun,” says Kelli White, Director of Wine Education at the Learning Center, which serves both the Napa Valley Reserve and Meadowood Napa Valley. “It is something to be enjoyed, not dissected. Yet, wine education often takes place in a very sterile room and is very serious and academic.”
The brainchild of legendary Napa Valley winemaker Bill Harlan, the Learning Center provides wine education for guests of Meadowood Resort (the five-star resort Harlan acquired in 1979) and members of Napa Valley Reserve, Harlan’s elite wine club. Unlike a traditional wine school, lessons often take place outside a classroom. They might be hosted poolside in cabanas or at picnic tables looking out across Napa Valley Reserve’s famed vineyards.
When concepting the Learning Center’s curriculum, White, along with Associate Director of Wine Education, Sarah Bray, looked at other educational programs around the world for inspiration, including the School of Life in London, the Aspen Institute, and the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France.
Unlike traditional wine education programs, the women will take a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching, including thought leaders from non-related wine fields and weaving intellectual through lines and cultural elements into their courses.
“Wine does not have raspberries in it,” observes Bray, a comment that immediately bonded Bray and White. “We’re already in this land of metaphor,” says White. “There’s no reason to expand it. We wanted to create a program where the aroma wheels go out the door and instead, we bring in the world of art, music, sports, finance, business, cars. We want to discuss how wine makes you feel in addition to how it tastes.”
Creative class topics include the art of the label, a deep dive into the relationship between iconic wineries and fine art, and the role wine has played in major wars. Many classes are Napa-centric, however White intends to also feature outside wines to compare and contrast terroir.
Bray says one major goal is to expand the vocabulary around wine. “We want to move away from technical descriptions like, ‘this wine is red fruited and has medium acid’ and get more evocative,” she says. “A wine can also be athletic or slow moving like a stream.”
White and Bray could both easily geek out on wine esoterica. As the first female sommelier in more than a decade at New York City’s Veritas, White oversaw one of the world’s most highly regarded wine lists. She then moved on to Napa Valley, one of the top luxury wine destinations, where she earned acclaim for the wine list at St. Helena’s Press restaurant and for the 2015 publication of her book, titled Napa Valley, Then & Now.
For her part, Bray’s impressive resume includes a stint as brand strategist for the wine auction division at Sotheby’s. She was also the European Director of VinConnect, where she developed marketing channels with such top European estates as Champagne Philipponnat and Château Léoville Poyferré.
“We want to cultivate long-term relationships with our clients around wine and education,” says White, emphasizing intimacy, a core foundation of the Learning Center mission. “We see ourselves as guides taking our clients on a wine education journey. Our mantra is meet them where they are and take them where they want to go.”
When staying as a guest of Meadowood Napa Valley, The Learning Center experiences may be arranged through Guest Services or Kelli White may be contacted directly at email@example.com. Classes are curated to guests’ preferences and pricing varies based on wine selection.