“Sniff, swirl. Sniff, swirl. Sniff, swirl,” she chants, as a reminder to participants as they move on to their next tasting.
Today’s selection consists of five different wines, each paired with a specific bite. The group is eclectic. There are friends and co-workers. Local entrepreneurs and a group who all met through google meet-ups. For a few, this is their first event. Others are veterans and have been attending these tastings for years. Some walked in as strangers, but will leave with a different appreciation of each other having shared an experience.
Michaela Hightower is a Colorado Springs native. She graduated high school at Cheyenne Mountain and went on to college in Boulder. She migrated back to the Springs and started an event venue called Soiree. During those events, she saw food and wine as a link to making special connections and she wanted to be part of the breaking-bread experience.
“I am a memory maker,” she says, “that is my superpower.”
So, she tuned her ears and started listening closely to how the wine was being described. She heard terms like “oakey” and “buttery” as descriptors and she started to draw the connection between wine and food. It was in 2006 that she officially started studying to be a sommelier.
The Education of Wine
She ended up studying with three different programs over the years. She achieved her level one status in one year and failed her level two twice before passing. She persisted. She ended up testing for her level three and her Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) from The Wine and Spirits Education Trust and the Society of Wine Educators.
She notes her journey has been more about the education of wine and debunking myths rather than focusing on one type of wine or a specific vendor. “As a somm, it is never about my preferences. It is always about the possibilities,” she states. Somewhere along the way, she developed a passion for teaching others about wine.
No Snobbiness Here
There is a stigma about wine, but Michaela doesn’t believe that it has to be snobby. “It’s just grape juice, let’s not get too wild about it,” she laughs. She started The Curious Palate course in her event venue and has since added The Serious Palate to the lineup, as well. When asked about the names of the courses, she indicated they are general because she doesn’t want wine education to be intimidating.
“We get very functional about life and forget to stay in the moment about stuff.”
Her class focuses on balance. Balance between food and wine and makes each participant consider their own palate in their tasting. Michaela reminds her students that smell is the longest memory keeper. Participants are uninhibited in telling Michaela what they are tasting as she is able to help them draw flavors from their memories. If a particular wine smells like “grandma’s basement,” Michaela starts drawing connections between florals and musk without skipping a beat.
Although she closed her venue in 2016, Michaela didn’t stop educating. She has partnered with local art galleries and now hosts her courses there. She says there is a marriage between art and wine that just makes sense.