When she first started teaching wine classes Debra Meiburg MW would often take grapes along to show her students, because very few of them realised that wine is made from grapes.
“We were starting at ground zero,” says American-born Meiburg, who began giving wine classes in Hong Kong in 1995. “Wine didn’t exist here.” To compound the difficulty, her students were a mix of people who knew nothing about wine and “passionate Bordeaux lovers who were very sophisticated.”
But she learned to bridge the gap between those people – which could offer useful insights for educators and retailers elsewhere.
Meiburg says that over a quarter of a century of teaching, she’s learned that wine students can typically be divided into four types of people: the learners, the socialites, the directors and the thoughtful people.
“The learners are naturally very curious and interested,” she says, adding that she engages with them using a lot of “kindergarten tactics” to demonstrate different ideas. “When I speak of Italy I try and wear boots and show off my boot, to give them a visual and tactile experience,” she says. “For Bordeaux, I make a human chain, to demonstrate the rivers.”
Meiburg also give facts in clusters. “I say you only need to know this one thing, but once they’ve grasped that, I say here are three more facts that relate to that,” she says.
The socialites are a completely different group of learners. These are party people who want to know about wine for entertaining, or just for fun. Meiburg says she engages them by using tactics from the travel industry, who “sweep you into a different place”. Meiburg creates fun challenges for them. “Can they name Italy’s provinces on their boots? They like to feel they are in that place.”
The third group are the directors, who tend to be executives. “They like to be in control and know facts,” she says. They like information and numbers at their fingertips, so they always look in charge of the situation. “I give them trivia or factual numbers they can share with others, to make them feel confident.” Meiburg tries to make the numbers meaningful and memorable, by comparing them to numbers her students will already know. “When I teach that Burgundy has 33 Grand Crus, I point out that China has 33 provinces.” (There are 31 direct jurisdictions and two special administrative regions, plus the disputed territory of Taiwan.)
Finally, there are the students that Meiburg calls “thoughtful people”, who are more introspective. With this group, she tries to build on physical memories and associations. Many will already have tasted Australian Shiraz, for example, so she will start with that when she begins teaching about wines from the Rhone.
“You often have all four types of people in a group, so you have to try and hit all the buttons at once,” says Meiburg. “The people who like to learn have fun, the socialites feel like they’ve been somewhere, the executives come away feeling more in control, and the thoughtful, introspective people have a new physical memory.”
Meiburg says that, years later, people have come up to her and said “I remember the guy you stabbed with the chopsticks!” because it’s a technique she uses to show how botrytis penetrates a grape.
Basically, Meiburg says to keep it simple and fun.
It’s a teaching style that has clearly worked for her, as she is acknowledged as one of southeast Asia’s foremost wine personalities, acknowledged for her skill in speaking, television presenting, writing and educating. She also owns the MWM Wine School in Hong Kong and is a popular educator – even public servants who’ve dealt with her about normal administrative matters have been known to have signed up for her courses soon after.