When Laurie Forster was a software sales executive for I2 Technologies, one of her favorite tasks was taking high-end prospects to high-end restaurants — until it came time to order wine for the table.

The Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Hauts Doix Burgundy or the Ironclad Bordeaux Blend Waihekie Island? Which year? What did that mean, “a soft attack … with notes of smoky cedar and spice”?

Forster grew up in 1980s New Jersey thinking “wine came in a box and was pink.”

After too many panicked moments in front of bosses and buyers, she decided, “If I could sell complex software to Fortune 500 corporations, there had to be a way to understand the world of wine.” So, she took a few online classes, then gourmet pairing classes, where she met her husband, a chef.

Forster left her software job, and the two moved to Manhattan, where she worked at a wine store and earned a certificate in viticulture (grape growing) and vinification (wine making) from the American Sommelier Association. Eventually, after a scare from living blocks from Ground Zero on 9/11 and with entrepreneurship in mind, the couple moved to Easton, Md.

With her growing expertise plus her business background, Forster launched a series of wine dinners and tastings.

“Wine tastings are the new golf outings,” she explains. “Believe it or not, a tasting is less expensive — and it’s an icebreaker that people can learn from and use the next day.” But her study and work weren’t always enough to answer clients’ questions. “Wine has a different vocabulary, not only in English, but in French and Spanish and German,” she notes.

Simplifying this world for others meant more complex study for herself. Accordingly, Forster has been working her way toward the elite Wine & Spirit Education Trust diploma at Jay Youmans’ Capital Wine School (301-467-7927).

Capital Wine School holds most classes above Bell Wine & Spirits in downtown D.C. Its most popular class, the monthly Introduction to Wine Basics, is two hours and costs $75; that includes lecture notes and 10 tastes. A $595 prep course for the Society of Wine Educators’ Certified Specialist in Wine exam starts April 23.

“Sixty percent of our students are not in the wine industry,” Youmans says. “They may want to open a retail store or an import company; become a sommelier, a wine writer or a serious collector; or just impress their friends.”

Youmans consults for East Coast wineries and has done distribution and importation, owned a wine bar, written for the International Wine Review and served as a wine judge. He teaches the Wine & Spirit Education Trust certification courses and the Certified Specialist in Wine course.

“I warn lawyers and lobbyists they won’t make the same salary” by switching careers, Youmans says, “but they don’t care.”

Neither did Forster, who six years ago rebranded herself the Wine Coach and branched out into tours and corporate events such as those she used to host as a sales executive — but this time as a consultant.

When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had a wine tasting after a session on communication protocol, she tailored her event to the steps participants had learned — evaluating the situation, organizing their thoughts, expressing opinions. When Jagen Investments hired her to do a session for CPAs, she called it Wine by the Numbers and had participants compare their own ratings with a critic’s.

Forster now teaches at Anne Arundel Community College, a Baltimore wine shop and Capital Wine School. She writes for the Washington Times and Baltimore’s Style magazine, and appears on WTOP and Martha Stewart Radio. She puts on an annual wine luncheon for congressional spouses and speaks at wine festivals from St. Michaels to National Harbor, often signing her 2008 book, “The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine.”

Capital Wine School is a great local resource, Forster says: “If you want to master wine, you need classroom training as well as travel and real-life experience. And as a career changer, you have to show you’ve committed yourself to learning.” Calling her work “edutainment,” she notes, “Most great businesses come from creating something you want after not being able to find it.”

“It’s a blessing to do what I love,” Forster said last month before jetting off to Napa Valley and France. “It’s fun, something new all the time, and it helps others. People shouldn’t have to be scared by fermented grape juice!”

Written by Ellen Ryan
Photo by Richard A. K. Dorbin/Paragon Light