Last year, I took the first of two exams to obtain the Italian Wine Scholar (IWS) certification through the Wine Scholar Guild. I’m scheduled to take the second exam in less than one week. Before enrolling in the IWS program, Italy was my Achilles heel of the wine world. But now that I’m nearing the end of the course, I can assuredly say that I have much better understanding of (and perhaps more importantly, appreciation for) Italian wines.
The Wine Scholar Guild gives students a couple of options for pursuing their Italian (or French, and soon to be Spain) Wine Scholar certifications. The first is through independent study and the other is by attending a series of classes in person. I did the first half (Northern Italy) through self-study. For the Central/Southern portion of the certification, I attended a weekend intensive course last month with The Wine and Spirit Archive in Portland, Oregon.
So I’ve experienced the best (and worst) of both options. And while I should be reviewing for my exam right now, instead I’m thinking about which route I preferred and would recommend to others pursuing one of these certifications – or really, any wine certification for that matter. Some people (Hubs) might call this procrastinating . . .
Honestly, there’s no one size fits all for wine education. It all depends on what you want to get out of the course – and how you, personally, study best.
Self- Study: Pros and Cons
The primary reason I opted for self-study for my first exam was, well, there were no classes offered anywhere near where we lived. So, needless to say, that was a pretty easy decision to make. Shortly after registering, I received the Northern Italy coursebook and access to the Wine Scholar Guild online materials – which includes webinars, quizzes and flashcards. After that, I was on my own.
Besides being able to attend class in your jammies, here are some benefits to self-study:
You’re in charge! With self-study, you get to move at your own pace, set your own schedule, and study sections in the order you choose. As such, this option might appeal more to those of us who can be (ahem) Type A personalities. For example, I jumped around instead of following the book chronologically. I wanted to get an “easy” region out of the way first so I could find my groove, so I started with Liguria. It’s a smaller region with only a handful of DOCs – plus I’ve actually visited Liguria, so I wasn’t starting with a completely blank slate. Additionally, self-study allowed me to accommodate my rather wacky schedule last year – which included moving a thousand miles away from my beloved Washington state and starting my WSET Diploma studies.
Fewer distractions outside your control. In class, there are other students asking questions, requesting the instructor repeat something for the umpteenth time, telling personal stories, spilling wine, etc. With self study, your focus is on you – nobody else.
However, my home situation is probably a lot different than most people’s. Hubs is at work and I have a couple of old dogs who sleep all day. That isn’t to say that both pups haven’t been wonderful study buddies. 🙂 But if you have a larger family, young kids, roommates, live in a noisy apartment, or have a husband who incessantly watches ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ at full volume – then an in-class experience might have fewer distractions for you. (Hubs Note: It’s one of the most intelligent shows on TV these days).
And now the downside of self-study . . .
Accountability and self motivation are necessities. If you don’t have both of these, you probably won’t succeed with self-study. I highly recommend creating a study schedule at the beginning of your course and sticking to it. This should be realistic roadmap of what you need to accomplish before the test date and take into account anything you already have scheduled that might detract (or distract) from studying: travel, work, family commitments, etc. You should plan to dedicate yourself to tackling a little bit (almost) every day – this exam is not something you can cram for.
Lack of Support System. With self-study, you’re on an island. You have your manual and online materials – but what if you have questions? Or just want to check with someone to make sure you’re on the right track? Or you want vent about how mind numbing it is that there are so many DOCs and sub-zones in Tuscany that sound the same: Montecarlo, Montecucco, Montalcino, Montalbano, Montespertoli – seriously?!
The Wine Scholar Guild has an online Instructor Q&A Forum – and from what I can tell, there is a pretty quick turnaround for responses. However, it also appears that this isn’t used very frequently (the last post was almost four months ago). With the in-class study route, you still have access to this Q&A Forum – plus your instructors from class as well as other students. And sometimes, just knowing there’s a wider safety net is comforting – even if you don’t need it.
In-Class Experience: Pros and Cons
As I mentioned, I flew to Portland a few weeks ago to attend a weekend long intensive course for the second half of the IWS certification which focuses on Central and Southern Italy. I was planning to continue with self-study, but after seeing that an in-class option was available and taught by two of my very favorite wine instructors – I knew I wanted to do this second part with them.
Mimi Martin was my WSET Level 3 instructor in 2017. For Level 3, being able to connect the dots between many different concepts is imperative to passing the exam. This wasn’t a memorize and regurgitate kind of thing – you needed to thoroughly understand the material and be able to explain your reasoning behind an answer. In classes, Mimi broke down all the required text into manageable sized sections that made it easier to understand the details – as well as to see the big picture. After passing Level 3 (with Distinction!) I started looking at wine in a whole new way – thanks in large part to Mimi.
I’d taken a couple classes with Tanya Morningstar Darling at Northwest Wine Academy when I lived in Washington. She has such a unique way of approaching wine education – seriously, she sometimes makes me feel like I’m combining my wine studies with meditation. Her teaching style eliminates much of the franticness of memorizing and cramming and leaves me with a true enjoyment of learning. (Did that sound as Zen as I think it did?) She recently started her own wine events and education business fittingly named Cellar Muse and if I’m ever back visiting while she has one of her classes in session, you can bet I’ll be there.
So, besides (hopefully!) having awesome instructors like I did, here are some other benefits to attending class in person:
Connecting with other students. When you’re part of a class, there’s often a sense of “we’re all in this together!” type of thing. You realize you’re not the only one frustrated or overwhelmed. My recent IWS class happened to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever been in. I got to know some wonderful people that I’d only “met” previously through social media and I also reconnected with a gal from my hometown that I’d known back in junior high. She’s now a winemaker – what a small world. I have no doubt that I’ll stay in touch with many of these future Italian Wine Scholars.
On the flipside, let’s be honest: you’re not always going to get a “dream class” of awesome students. There are plenty of irritating or know-it-all wine students and it’s quite likely one or more may be in your class. The degree to which they bother you depends on your tolerance level (undoubtedly higher than mine) and their specific behavior which, in my experience and to put in WSET terms, can range from:
- Medium Minus: Mildly annoying – they chime in with every…single…little…aroma that they smell; to
- Medium Plus: Rather obnoxious – they correct the instructor when she’s off by one kilometer on the distance between two villages in Burgundy; to
- High: Infuriating, they claim to have passed the WSET Level 3 with Distinction without studying and condescendingly call the whole process “ridiculously easy.” (Yes, I’ve mentioned him before . . . clearly he grinds my gears. Thankfully, I’ve only “met” this type of student online).
Wine Tasting! This is a HUGE plus with the in-class route. You get to taste, evaluate and discuss a number of wines during class – which not only gives you a better overall sense of the region you’re currently studying, but also helps you continue to improve your tasting skills. During my weekend intensive class, we tasted almost 50 different wines over 3 days! Many of which I wouldn’t have been able to find in my area had I opted for self-study.
And now for the cons . . .
Intensity of Focus. These days, most of us aren’t used to sitting and focusing for hours at a time on our particular course of study. Going the classroom route requires lots of both – particularly if you enroll in a weekend intensive class like I did. My attention drifted off as the day went on as I started researching which food truck I was going to grab dinner at after class and how late Powell’s City of Books was open (FTR – 11pm).
My tasting notes also dropped in detail over the course of the day – from elaborate, several paragraph long descriptors of structure and aromas to “deep ruby, cherry and balsamic” near the end of the day. Plus my back hurt like hell. If you’re under 35 – you won’t understand. But someday you will. Just trust me – it sucks.
Tangents and Rabbit Holes. While in-class discussion can be interesting, it can sometimes be time consuming. For example, after reviewing the various biotypes of Sangiovese, my class got on the subject of clones. Which, although educational, wasn’t particularly relevant to the class at hand. And, after this discussion went down the proverbial rabbit hole, we ended up running out of time to thoroughly cover a few regions.
This invariably happens in every class, but is nonetheless frustrating if you’re not participating in the tangential discussion. So, if you’re the one continuing to burrow down the rabbit hole – take into account your fellow students and whether they’d truly like to be joining you there, or whether it would be best if you followed up with the instructor on your own time. Otherwise, you might end up on my WSET Irritation Scale above. 😉