In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, not one but two authors – wedding planner Janice Carnevale and international event planner Elizabeth Duncan – write about sommelier and wine educator Bill Jensen. See our WWC23 guide for more.
Janice Carnevale is a wedding planner based in Washington D.C. The wine fridge she bought in August is already full.
Elizabeth Duncan is an international event planner. Her passion for wine pairs well with her love of travel.
Bill Jensen: How He Gave Us the Universe in a Glass
It started with an email. The Wednesday, March 25, 2020, biweekly newsletter from Washingtonian, to be exact. The world had shut down, and we were desperate to find something that didn’t involve cancellations or reschedulings. At that moment, the universe intervened with a glimmer of hope:
“You can still interact with many of your favorite bartenders and chefs through online classes and tutorials. Reveler’s Hour and Tail Up Goat star somm Bill Jensen is launching a stay-home wine school on Zoom this weekend.”
These two sentences would forever change how a group of strangers thought about and consumed wine. Bill Jensen didn’t know it then, but he was about to create a vibrant, enduring community at a time when we were more isolated than ever before.
Condolences to those who don’t know Bill Jensen. Bill is a co-owner and beverage director at Washington D.C.’s Tail Up Goat, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and Reveler's Hour, TUG’s sister restaurant and wine shop. Bill’s belief is “drinking should be an act of replenishment, renewal, and discovery. . . . Wine functions best when it is not only about what’s in the glass but becomes the sum of the place and the people who produce it.”
The first class was Sunday, March 29. From the start, it was clear that Bill was not only incredibly knowledgeable but also wonderfully approachable. The premise for this and every class that followed: a comparison of wines simply for the sake of exploration. The people in the Zoom chat room were interesting and witty. Who wouldn’t enjoy a heady combination of poetry, wine, history, and the faces of hundreds of smiling people from all over the world? There was a palpable buzz. We were stuck at home, but we were on an adventure! Our questions at the end: Where would the next class transport us? Could we possibly learn enough from Bill to never again be intimidated by a restaurant wine list?
The early classes were BYOB due to restaurant-related restrictions in D.C.’s liquor license laws. To source our bottles, Bill emailed with vintage suggestions that could be found in D.C.-based stores as well as shops in New York and even as far as the West Coast. For that first class, officially titled Tasting Again for the First Time, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chardonnay, Bill recommended we acquire an unoaked, Old World bottle to compare to a bombastic California offering. Within three months, however, D.C. would change its liquor laws, allowing us to buy straight from Bill. This was game-changing! It allowed D.C.-area residents to directly support the Tail Up Goat and Reveler’s Hour teams while getting to know them through brief but charming face-to-face pick-ups in Adams Morgan.
Week four was when we witnessed Bill’s first rant on elitism and accessibility within the wine industry. The class was titled The Past, Present, and Future King: Cabernet Sauvignon From Bordeaux to the Broader World. Bill shared some eye-popping and unexpected thoughts on Bordeaux wines: “The whole thing’s a racket. It’s a wine lake. They make a ton of wine. And a lot of it sucks. And then you have that small fraction of 1 percent, the first growths. Those are not wines anymore; those are commodities. They take wine into a stratosphere that makes it accessible only to plutocrats. Wine should be the enjoyment of an agricultural product around a table that is essentially democratic.” He continued, “Bordeaux has become a victim of its own success. The 1855 classifications were fucking genius. They created these luxury brands. There are probably as many counterfeit first-growth Bordeaux as there are actual first-growth Bordeaux in the world. The wine isn’t drinkable anymore. It’s a luxury good. It might as well be a fucking handbag. I think it’s important to make Bordeaux a wine again.” Mic drop! There it was. Bill’s honest and harsh truths about the wine industry, the people who manipulate it, and how it suffered from being marketed as a product only for the elite. It was this rant that transformed our appreciation of Bill into admiration.
We realized how deeply Bill believed in the importance of wine’s connection to community. Wine wasn’t for just the wealthy and well-heeled. Bill knew unequivocally that wine was a universal language. Regardless of how much someone knew or understood about wine, its enjoyment belongs to all. This was an inflection point for many. Bill was pushing us to shake off expectations and preconceived notions about wine and the wine industry and become inquisitive, enthusiastic, and intentional consumers.
At the height of the pandemic, classes drew more than 300 participants. Though we ranged from the curious to the connoisseur, we found common ground in our newfound admiration of Bill and his clever curriculum. As the months passed, Bill introduced winemakers like Bree and Chad Stock from Ltd.+, who not only make amazing, low-intervention wines but also work to lift up the workforce and be responsible stewards of the land; John House of Ovum, who finds immense joy in Oregon geology and cartography; Melanie Pfister and Mary Taylor in France, who each have a terroir-driven passion for small growths; and remarkable, history-making winemakers like Ntsiki Biyela from Aslina in South Africa and Brown Estate in Napa. Bill led us through an unforgettable exploration of Georgia (the country, not the state). We heard from Noel Brockett, the best ambassador a country’s wine could have; learned all about qvevri; and came together as classmates to gift American brownie mix to Gvantsa Abuladze at Baia’s Wine. There were wines we knew absolutely nothing about: orange wines; wines made on the lunar-like surface of the Canary Islands, and so many lesser-known varietals from all over the world. Who knew that there were incredible wines from Lebanon? Bill knew.
By Spring 2021, vaccines had made their way into our arms, and we were now able to dine at both Tail Up Goat and Reveler’s Hour. It was a treat to break bread in person with the people we’d known only through a screen for over a year, but the true excitement was seeing Bill and his genuinely kind, enthusiastic, and community-focused team.
Bill, ever generous with his time and his bottles, hosted free wine tastings at Reveler’s Hour called The Somm is In before the Thanksgiving and winter holidays to help Washingtonians pick an awesome vintage to pair with their festive dinners. And who could forget the Galentine’s dessert wine pairing event with four wines and four desserts? Bill advised that if you want to make friends with the somm or the bartender, order dessert wine.
Over two years and 61 classes of free wine education, we were no longer a group of strangers; we had become a community that continued to grow and evolve. We met winemakers and tasted wines from the backyard of D.C. to across the globe. Each class brought new people to meet, new wines to drink, and new regions to explore. Bill hosted the final class in March 2022, and though wine school may have ended, its spirit lives on. (The classes can be found on YouTube so that you can enjoy them, too!) We created a Slack channel for class regulars to make dinner plans, plot future wine-drinking trips, and share wine finds. Almost a year after “meeting” Bree and Chad Stock through Bill’s class, we cooked dinner with them over an open fire in the meadow at their home in Oregon and talked about wine, food, and small businesses. We had dinner at Reveler’s Hour with 14 of Mary Taylor’s winemakers, stumbling through language barriers to explore the difference between good wine and great wine.
Gone are the days of collecting over-hyped or mass-produced bottles of wine. Thanks to Bill and his passion for people and community, we collect stories captured in wine. We now ask questions at restaurants and wine stores about terroir, dry farming, the philosophy of the winemaker, the aging vessel, and so much more. With each wine we enjoy, we appreciate the unique constellation of history, passion, poetry, and people captured in time. Bill, the lessons he taught, and the adventures on which he took us were a lifeline during a painfully challenging two years.
Bill continues to show up time and time again to share his vast knowledge and enthusiasm for wine in his uniquely affable, sometimes irreverent, but always endearing way. He hosts special events at Reveler’s Hour that are highly attended by the wine school community and typically sell out within minutes. There are Flying Blind dinners during which Bill (and the rest of us) try to guess what the staff selected to pour alongside a fantastic tasting menu. Bill invites guest somms to co-host Pairing Duels, encouraging diners to vote on their preferred pairings. And Bill engages with other wine personalities, like Maryse Chevriere, and curates the Reveler’s Hour seasonal wine lists with his favorite winemakers.
As of August 2022, Bill has his own podcast, The Universe in a Glass, in which he shares bottles with guests as they “riff about life and wine.” A recent episode features Simon Godwin, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company, and a discussion on the wine, history, and symbolism in the Bard’s work. Bill and guest Andrew Stover devote another episode to undersung American wines, expanding our view yet again. Who knew Michigan and Texas were kicking out drinkable wines? Bill knew.
To say that Bill impacted this community is an understatement. He changed the way we move through the world—actually, the universe—of wine. Bill Jensen sparked a passion for wine that won’t be easily quenched. Thank you, Bill. #alonetogether
The illustration is the authors' own work.