Teaching couple shares an education in fine wine

Retired educators explore travel and good taste

  • Kathy and Terry Sullivan, in their wine room, which contains several hundred bottles collected from their travels to wineries in the U.S, Canada, Italy, France, New Zealand and Georgia, Russia. The couple, who are both retired teachers, have written two book about wine and are working on their third.
Kathy and Terry Sullivan, in their wine room, which contains… (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun )
November 07, 2013|By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

Terry Sullivan sometimes finds himself absentmindedly swirling a glass of juice or water as if it were a glass of fine wine when dining with friends or family members.

"That's when you know you can't turn it off," he said, referring to his passion for wine.

But that passion — which culminates when a taster swirls the wine to release its aroma and flavor — has served him and his wife, Kathy, well.

The retired Howard County public school educators have visited 1,000 wineries around the world and are in the midst of writing their third book together.

And they've done it all in less than seven years.

The Columbia couple, who have been married for 41 years and have four grown children, established their website, winetrailtraveler.com, in 2007.

Their first two books, "A Wine Journey" and "A Wine Tourist's Guide: Visiting Tasting Rooms," were self-published about a year apart, with the most recent one released Sept. 20. The third, to be titled "Georgia (Sakartvelo): The Birthplace of Wine," is planned for a 2014 release.

So much of their lives is now centered around wine that their youngest son, Kevin, presented them with a framed world map titled "The World Travels of Terry and Kathy Sullivan." Color-coded pushpins show where they've been and where they want to go.

So just how did a pair of teachers turn their retirement into an oenophile's dream?

Their "aha moment" came in 2006, when they realized that most people find becoming knowledgeable about wine a daunting prospect, said Terry, 62.

"We realized we could use our educational background to take the intimidation factor out of the experience," he said. "We both believe education is a lifelong process, so teaching people about wine is our next chapter."

The couple's interest was first piqued by a casual visit to a Williamsburg, Va., winery in the 1990s, which led to other winery trips to Brandywine Valley, Pa., and upstate New York.

"We really enjoyed the atmosphere [of a wine tasting]. It's not a bar scene … it's more sophisticated," said Kathy, 63. "And everyone is very friendly."

Though they weren't previously a couple who even drank wine with dinner, they began taking more of an interest during their travels, which have since taken them across North America and to Europe and beyond.

"I never would have thought that we would end up doing what we're doing," Terry said, reflecting on how quickly they've immersed themselves in wine culture.

And though they've visited a lot of wineries, he points out there are more than 7,000 in the United States alone, and tens of thousands around the world.

The Sullivans decided to learn about wine from the ground up, attending their first two-day seminar in January 2007, where "we learned how much we didn't know," Kathy said.

By winter of that year, Terry was taking a five-week accredited course offered in Northern Virginia by the Washington Wine Academy, which is affiliated with the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

The couple have parlayed their shared interest in learning and teaching about wine into a 40-hour-a-week hobby, he said.

Dave Zuchero, owner of Tin Lizzie Wineworks in Clarksville, said the Sullivans share his goal of "demystifying the whole wine experience."

He met the couple when they made a cabernet at his winemaking facility right after it opened in 2008, he said. He keeps up with their exploits through their website and blog.

While the Sullivans' aim is to reach out to the ordinary person, "they're far from ordinary," Zuchero said.

"Being able to travel around the world like they do is pretty cool," he said. "But they want people to learn to drink wine without pretense."

Terry said their goal is to empower people to decide for themselves what wines they like.

"We shy away from anyone scoring wines," he said. "We just want people to feel better about walking into a wine-tasting room."

To that end, "A Wine Tourist's Guide" covers tasting room expectations and etiquette. Readers will find a wine tasting form, a discussion of common grape varieties and suggestions on how to plan a winery trip.

The couple's third book will focus on wine's 8,000-year history.

"For a long time, I thought winemaking began 4,000 years ago in Italy, France and Greece," Terry said. "But it actually began 4,000 years before that in the country of Georgia."

The Sullivans are making a white wine in Georgia in a qvevri, which is a clay vessel where wine ferments that can have a capacity as large as 2,000 liters. Their 60-liter qvevri was buried underground to maintain a constant temperature for the grapes.

Terry hopes their wine — which they will retrieve when they return to Georgia in March to attend the sixth annual International Wine Tourism Conference — will have floral and dried-fruit flavors.

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