NEW YORK – For many, buying a bottle of wine is a daunting task that can leave them either red with embarrassment or white with fear.
And with so many different grape varieties, countries, regions, brands, and prices to choose from, it's easy to see why.
Enter Winespectatorschool.com, an online wine "university" run by the publishers of Wine Spectator magazine. The Web school offers courses ranging from the very basics of wine, (ABC's of Wine -- $39), to the intricacies of serving wine for industry professionals (Understanding Wine -- $195).
"It's a way to distill the kind of information that you can pick up from reading the magazine and put it in an organized, concentrated place," says Wine Spectator executive editor Tom Matthews.
So what are the basics of wine?
"We call it the four S's," said Gloria Maroti, director of education for Wine Spectator. "See, Sniff, Sip, and Summarize. Consumers learn how to taste, buy and understand wine with worksheets and video clips from world famous chefs and sommeliers."
In one video, Danny Meyer of New York City's Union Square Cafe, has a tip for ordering wine: If you want to stay within a certain price range, point to the cost of a bottle on the menu when asking your waiter about the wine. This way, the waiter will know what you're willing to spend without broadcasting it to other dinner guests.
Other quotes come from celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse who emphasizes tasting lots of wine.
So how do students taste wine online? The site posts a wine list and recommends taking it to either a local wine store or even a restaurant to sample the suggested spirits. "Print out the materials and taste at a later date with friends," the site reads.
But it's not all fun and games. Most courses include multiple-choice quizzes and a final exam. While there are no failing grades in wine school, students who do well can receive a Wine Spectator Connoisseur certification.
Taking a class about such a tactile subject may seem counterintuitive, but experts say online wine school makes perfect sense.
Peter Morrell, owner of the 55-year-old wine store Morrell & Company in the heart of New York City's Rockefeller Center, and author of I'm in the Wine Store, Now What?, said the Internet is a natural place for people to learn about wine.
"It's very conducive to wine education because wine is very informational," said Morrell. "Wine remains one of the most undiscovered pleasurable aspects of life in America. The more people who spend time learning about wine, the happier our country would be."
For its part, Morrell & Company will be launching its own interactive online education program with Barnesandnobleuniversity.com in October.
And while charging for content online is a tricky proposition for many companies, it works better for special interest sites that target a specific audience.
For anybody all bottled up over making a decision on wine school, Maroti has this to say, "Homework has never been this much fun."