At Melanie Hankins Booth’s wine education and tasting class Thursday night, the attendees all raised their glasses and toasted: “Here’s to being here.”
Booth, a wine educator and Starkville native, encouraged these wine-drinkers not just to drink their glass of wine but to experience it. The “WEEBs” in her class — or wine education and experience buddies — looked meaningfully into each others’ eyes as they sipped their Italian primitivo.
“You only have one opportunity to be in this place at this time with these people doing this thing, so you might as well be in the moment, be present and enjoy it,” Booth said.
Whether it’s out at a sporting event, powering through a long work day or just sipping on a glass of wine on a casual Tuesday night, Booth believes moments pass quickly, and too often people neglect being in them. Every opportunity in life is significant because that time will never come again, she said.
Booth’s wine knowledge came from a young age, learning what “good wine” was from her older sisters. She skipped the stage of drinking bottom shelf $5 blends and instead moved straight to drinking Napa Valley California cabernet sauvignons.
She began traveling to different regions of the world to expand her familiarity with the vast array of wine selections. Notably, her friends in Sonoma County, California, taught her the culture and importance of wine — they highlight the grape as an agricultural product like Southerners value corn. While Booth has traveled all over the world to wine destinations such as Italy, she said delectable wine is available all throughout the United States, so people do not have to leave the country to find it.
After becoming a certified specialist of wine — a title only 30-40 percent of the people who apply obtain — she started sharing her knowledge and love of wine to the world.
“My website says it best: ‘I combine my love of teaching with my natural gift of hospitality’,” Booth said.
Booth teaches classes with restaurants, “fun stuff” for civic and charitable groups and most prominently private classes for both veteran WEEBs and beginners wanting to learn more about the art of wine. Booth also teaches continuing education classes at Mississippi State University for those of all ages wanting to further their knowledge of wine, and teaches classes at the Mississippi University for Women Culinary Arts Institute.
Her purpose is not to sell wine but to teach others how to learn about it and appreciate it, she said. She wants her students to learn which wines they enjoy with her and then go to local restaurants and retailers and buy wine from them to support local businesses.
“I think she has shown (her students) so much more about the wine and how to experience it in so many more ways than just having a glass of wine,” said Susan Seal, Booth’s longtime friend. “She gets people to stop and think that it’s not just a glass of wine.”
An entertaining part of drinking wine to Booth is getting to experience its culture. She said there is no better way to bring culture into a living room than wine. Each bottle comes from a different region, embodies a group of people and has new things to learn, and all of this can come from just a $15 bottle.
For example, at a private class a few weeks ago, Booth presented an Israeli certified kosher chardonnay to her students. During the process of making it, the wine could not be handled by anyone other than an Orthodox Jewish man, and a rabbi had to be present for the entire process.
Booth said she encourages people to learn about backstories like this behind wine culture.
In all of Booth’s classes, she tells her students to use all their senses to understand the wine — look, smell, swirl, taste and savor.
“We don’t just drink wine,” Booth said as she sipped her candide. “We experience it. There are no wrong answers. You bring to the table your own sensory experiences, and you like what you like because of that. … But don’t just pop it open and drink it. Enjoy it. Think about what you’re drinking.”
While Booth spends much of her time teaching, she does not see those who take her classes as students but rather as friends. She said the best part of her job is not getting to host classes or consume fine wine but creating relationships with everyone she comes into contact with.
“It’s the people that you meet — that’s my favorite part,” Booth said. “It’s interesting because people approach wine education for different reasons. … I enjoy learning. I enjoy teaching, but mainly I enjoy the people.”