In a growing wine scene like Michigan’s, education is key to developing a workforce of professionals who can push the industry forward. The Traverse Wine Institute, a brand-new organization in northwestern Michigan that launched this May, is helping to fill that piece of the puzzle.
Founders McKenzie Gallagher, co-owner of Rove Estate in Traverse City, and Heather Durham-Birley, the wine institute’s director of education, noticed over the years that there was a dearth of educational options in the region for those working in the wine industry.
Durham-Birley had grown up in Traverse City and moved to London for university. While across the pond, she was introduced to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a U.K.-based nonprofit that awards internationally recognized certifications in wine and spirits.
She completed the first three levels of WSET courses during college, and when she moved back to Michigan after graduation and began working at Rove Estate, she discovered that if she wanted to continue her wine education with WSET, she’d have to travel to Chicago or Detroit — there was no WSET branch in the Traverse area.
“This educational focus piece was missing in kind of a central spot,” Durham-Birley says. “So when I moved back, I was seeking that out, but it wasn’t there, and then I told McKenzie all about it, too, … and we were like, ‘Well, why can’t we offer this up here to our community?’”
Thus, the idea for the Traverse Wine Institute was born.
Three years later, the institute has launched this month with WSET level 1 and 2 courses and semimonthly blind tastings. The WSET level 1 course is offered as a one-day intensive, while the level 2 course can be taken as a three-day intensive or an eight-week class. The blind tastings started May 3 and will take place every first and third Wednesday of the month; drop-ins are welcome.
All classes are currently in person at 20Fathoms, a startup incubator and co-working space where the institute is located, with plans to add virtual or hybrid options in the future. Gallagher and Durham-Birley also intend to offer master classes focused on specific regions or varietals, along with other events.
Inclusive, Approachable, and Valuable
The founders say their organization’s classes are excellent for both industry professionals and people who are simply interested in wine.
“It’s just so valuable across the board,” Gallagher says. “Whether you’re just someone that enjoys wine and you want to know what wine works with what you’re making for dinner or you’re going to a party or just ordering wine on a menu, it’s such a confidence booster, and it’s really fun.
“But then if you are in the wine industry, or you want to enter the wine industry, it’s just going to help you feel more confident and it’s going to further your career, no doubt. And what’s unique about the Traverse Wine Institute is [that] WSET is globally recognized. So that holds a lot of weight.”
Durham-Birley, who took the final exam for her WSET level 4 diploma — the highest certification — on May 9, teaches the courses.
“She is just truly a wine expert,” Gallagher says.
In order for the Traverse Wine Institute to be designated an approved program provider for the WSET, Durham-Birley also had to visit Miami for an educator training course, and the two had to complete an intensive application process.
“It was pretty lengthy, actually,” Gallagher says. “One of the challenges — but also why WSET is so highly respected — is the consistency and their standard levels across the board. If you take our class, if you take it at the American Wine School or a different wine institute, it’s going to be the same.”
She and Durham-Birley also emphasize the Traverse Wine Institute’s welcoming environment.
“We are just offering a really inclusive and really approachable wine program, and the WSET is very good at starting with foundational steps and then building up, and we’re following their curriculum,” Durham-Birley says. “Wine can be very intimidating, … so we’re taking that out of it and just starting with the basics, having fun, learning about wine, learning about different regions [and] different cultures, learning about agriculture, and then of course learning what it is that you like best. …
“It’s just a place where everyone can come to learn without feeling out of place or having imposter syndrome or actually being nervous about it. That’s not what we want at all.”
The institute will also benefit wine tourists and visitors to the region. For one, Gallagher points out, the introductory WSET level 1 course takes place over just one day and can be a “great opportunity” for consumers to expand their knowledge of wine.
Durham-Birley adds, “The more you know about wine, the more you actually enjoy it. So that’s a huge benefit, too, for people who want to learn even a little bit about wine.”
Additionally, as winery staff members and other professionals further their education, the entire industry profits — and the guest experience is enhanced.
“When people come and visit from a consumer standpoint, they’ll have really knowledgeable staff that will hopefully make wine really fun and exciting and just elevate the whole region,” Durham-Birley says.
Looking to the future, the founders say the direction the Traverse Wine Institute takes will depend on feedback from their customers. For the moment, they’re focusing on the launch.
“The response has been so positive, and we were really excited because we have such a growing community of wine professionals and people that enjoy wine in Michigan and in Traverse City,” Gallagher says. “So Heather and I are both excited to see what people want and what they’re looking for.”
To learn more about the Traverse Wine Institute and its offerings, visit traversewineinstitute.org and subscribe to its newsletter.