I Tripped Abroad and Became a Wino…

First published on our collaborator’s site, Brut Detroit

My name is Sean, and I’m a territory manager for a wine company.

This might be an unremarkable statement, but there’s a catch. It really doesn’t make much sense when one considers that in past lives, my specialty was Spanish. I’ve been a Spanish teacher, a translator and an interpreter, and a content developer for cultural competency programs. My college degree was in Spanish, and upon graduating, I was looking for jobs in the international education field.

So where does wine come in?

For the majority of my adult life, wine was only ever just another means with which to inebriate myself. It meant a jug of Carlo Rossi, a liter of Barefoot, a box of Franzia. (I’d explain the rules of Slap the Bag, but that’s a different story for a different time). Wine, good wine, was unaffordable, inaccessible, and uninteresting.  It gave me a headache, and its effects took far longer to kick in than those two dollar drinks at the local college watering hole. Even at my first restaurant job, the lectures my manager would give about our featured wines went in one ear and out the other. Wine wasn’t relevant. At that point in my life, only Spanish was.

But little did I know how closely related the two are.

During my sophomore year at Central Michigan University, I had the good fortune to study abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a wide-eyed early twenty something living in a historical colonial South American city, I was overwhelmed by how little Spanish I had learned, even after having studied for five years prior in the classroom. What surprised me the most however was that I couldn’t learn it from a book. I had to live it.

Learning a language is so much more than doing verb conjugations and singing songs about the parts of the body. The only way to truly learn a language is complete cultural immersion. And no, I’m not talking about dollar margaritas at your local ‘Mexican’ restaurant (although I am not discounting that experience in the slightest). Learning a language is listening to the stories of your host parents about growing up during a dictatorship. Traveling to the Andes for a weekend with local friends you met the week before. And most importantly, in my humble opinion, eating and drinking the native cuisine. That meant drinking a lot of wine, and of course, I was happy to oblige.

Argentina was where I was introduced to Malbec, the wine that put South America on the map of global wine production. In many places across the country, Malbec was offered in porcelain, penguin-shaped carafes (pinguinos) for five to ten pesos. Naturally, several were consumed throughout the course of any meal, and quickly I began to realize the importance of food and drink in language acquisition. Conversation flew more freely even after the first glass. I relaxed, I stopped self-editing, and quit worrying if I didn’t speak the perfect sentence every time. I was drinking Argentinean wine, made by Argentineans, and speaking Spanish with natives. In essence, wine was the cultural key to unlocking and understanding the language I was so desperately trying to learn.

The lesson here? Have a couple glasses of wine before trying to learn a language. (Or any new endeavor for that matter).

After my undergrad I accepted a graduate assistant for the Spanish Master’s program at Central. I was teaching two sections of Spanish 101 while earning another degree in the language. What’s more, part of the program was a summer spent in Valencia, Spain, learning to teach the language to English speakers. And now I have to admit something: it was in Spain that I truly become a bonafide wine-drinker. When you can buy a delicious bottle of quality wine made in the premiere Spanish wine regions for less than five dollars, it is impossibly difficult to limit your intake to less than a bottle per day. I spent hours beyond count at tables in cafes with friends, drinking wine and learning not just the language, but about the Spanish culture: eating traditional tapas, or small plates; the concept of sobremesa, or spending sometimes hours after eating at the table, just talking; and of course, famous winemaking places like Rioja and Ribera and Rίas Baixas.

You could in fact say that I was drinking my linguistics courses.

Once I was back in the States, some friends of mine were heading to Costa Rica, and wanted to learn a little introductory Spanish so they weren’t clueless when they arrived. Plans were made, and dinner was suggested to go along with the lesson. Of course, wine was strongly encouraged, and being committed to the idea, we decided on a Latin theme. Before I knew it, I was back at a table, eating tapas and drinking South American wines, speaking Spanish with friends, and they were paying me to do it. I was using my degree, and not only trying and enjoying new wines, but using them as tools to teach Spanish.  

You read that correctly. I had stumbled upon a business model in which I get paid to drink wine with interesting people and teach them Spanish.

Thus I formed the Take-Home Tutor Detroit in 2014. My company travels to the homes of our clients, prepares a Latin-inspired meal, brings Spanish and South American wines, and teaches introductory Spanish to the attendees. I have had the good fortune to combine two of my passions — wine and Spanish — and use them as complementary tools to teach people about both. This coming Friday, I will be collaborating Nicole Mangis of Brut Detroit at Mariscos El Salpicόn in Southwest Detroit for a Spanish-language wine tasting. Brut Detroit is an incredible pop-up event company with a concept similar to mine: experiencing culture through food and wine. You hear and see wine tastings happening all over the city every week, but we believe this will be the first of its kind — a truly immersive cultural experience, where guests will learn and try not only about wines from Spain, but learn some of the Spanish language as well.  

Join us, and be a part of our passion for great wine, fantastic food, and being opened up to a new culture. After a couple glasses, you’ll be speaking like a native, or at least, you’re English will be a little altered at that point. ¡Salud!