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WHERE'S THE BEEF? Potatoes were one of the few vegetables to make an appearance at the charcuterie 'family meal' prepared by ICC students.

Happy Hour

The students say they smell papaya, flowers, spices and mushrooms—most certainly mushrooms. "Definitely," says Eric Entrikin, the ICC's head instructor for sommelier studies. Best known for creating the first wine list at Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, Entrikin is a master sommelier and 2008 recipient of Wine Spectator's Best Award of Excellence. His status pairs well with his crisp dark suit, accented by a light blue shirt and yellow tie, and he nods with gentle support when his students come close to hitting the mark.

The room is subdued as Entrikin tests their palettes, drawing out answers slowly, like a well aged cork. These are the beginners—Stage 1—and there are four stages in total. As a guest and ignoramus, I tread somewhere in null territory and keep my observations confined to a notebook.

In front of each of the seven students are small sinks to pour out excess wine—a lamentable cost of learning—and a shelf that holds a numbered placemat for seven glasses of white Burgundy. Behind the instructor, two flat-screen TVs and a projector screen that lists the dozens of ways to judge a wine, there is an impressive wine cellar. I'm told it holds 1,550 bottles.

These students will taste more than 300 wines over a 10-week course (17 weeks if done at night), according to my first chaperone, Rachel Lintott, associate wine director at ICC. This is part of the reason the students shell out thousands of dollars on tuition, but they also have a reported 90-percent pass rate on their ensuing sommelier certificate exams. I find that success rate to be amazing when the class discussion turns to attributes of the wine I hold in my hand.

The students lift the wine to see the way light refracts at different angles. They gauge the viscosity. I follow suit but quickly understand that the students and I are looking at two completely different drinks. Where they see secrets in the shards of light, I see a couple tablespoons of uninterrupted liquid gold. Should I have brought my glasses? I take a sip and it's delicious and sweet. It tastes like a pear, maybe a yellow apple, says one of the students. Lanolin, says another. I hadn't realized it, but I do smell wool. There is some vanilla, something nutty, adds another person. "That's what I get out of this wine, more of a pear smell," says Entrikin. Vanilla and clove, adds another student. "I get a little bit of that," the instructor allows. They soon lose me at "minerality."

The class passes around a rock taken not far from the French vineyard of the wine we drink. Water is poured on the rock to enhance students' understanding of "minerality," and a young woman exclaims how it now makes perfect sense. I sense no rocks in my wine, just like I discovered no great truths in the passage of light. But I played along like a phony diamond inspector, staring up for a socially acceptable period of time, because, after all, it was good wine.

Rachel tells me that some of these students will become sommeliers. Others might already be chefs looking to expand their knowledge. And then there are career paths as high-end distributors or even bloggers about wine. The last one gives me a chuckle. Paid to write about drinking wine—that would be something.

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