Law School v. WSET Diploma: Advice From My Younger Self

Recently, I received an annual periodical from my alma mater – Gonzaga University School of Law (Go Zags!!). It’s always fun for me to flip through this and see what’s changed (the new Dean now looks my age!), and what hasn’t (20+ years later and some of my favorite professors are still there).

But what really caught my eye in this issue was this: Law and Wine

Gonzaga Law School is developing a certificate program for future attorneys where they can specialize in the business, management and legal aspects of the wine industry. My first thought was: where the hell was this program when I chose tax law?! And my second: how can I get involved in this program?

There will most certainly be a future blog post after I learn more about the Gonzaga Wine Institute. How fortuitous would it be to somehow combine my history with this particular law school together with my (hopefully future) career in wine?

It’s probably not surprising that the article got me reminiscing about my law school days. I don’t think I’ve ever studied that hard in my life! That is, until I began my wine studies. When I compare these two experiences – I see several similarities, but some pretty remarkable differences as well. And I think my 25 year old self would have some things to say about how I’m approaching my wine studies.

Study Materials: Books v. Internet

Prior to law school, I don’t think I truly understood how to study. The hours upon hours of reading, note taking, outline making, bluebook exams, etc. I attended law school from 1995-1998, before smartphones and just at the cusp of the internet for the masses. As a result, the vast majority of my research was done the old fashioned way – in the law library physically pulling books off shelves. Research took time and effort. And when I finally found the answer, it usually stuck with me because there had been a bit of a journey to get there.

Law books and Internet
My study materials: 1995 v. 2019

Today, information is so (or should I say too?) readily available. If I forget which Beaujolais producers make up “the Gang of Four” – I just need to quickly google it to find the answer. And then usually, just as quickly, I’ll forget at least one of the four.

Now – this might be in part because my brain is 25 years older than it was in law school. But I suspect that it’s also because information is so readily available that we don’t have to put forth much effort.  One of my wine instructors encourages us students to “develop a yearning for the answer.” When you have a question, don’t look it up right away!  Instead, go deep in your brain and try to figure it out first. This is such a wonderful way of practicing memory recall, but very challenging to do when answers are at the tips of our fingers 24/7.

Study Methods: Outlines v. Outlines + Flashcards + Podcasts + Online Study Groups + et. al

Just as I did in law school, I’m studying my ass off for the WSET Diploma. It was in law school that I started putting together outlines as my primary study tool – a very standard practice for the incoming first year law student. Outlining was a way for me to put all the legal gobbledygook into a language and format that I could understand. Now, I’m doing the same for wine.

But in addition my outlines, for wine study I’m also creating flashcards on my iPhone to carry everywhere with me, and listening to podcasts about wine in my spare time, and participating in online wine study groups, and running thrice weekly wine quizzes on Instagram. I’m beginning to wonder if all these study outlets are necessary – or helpful.

Outlines v. Chaos
Study Methods: Clean & Focused v. CHAOS!!

My focus is being pulled in a dozen different directions with wine studies. During law school, I didn’t have all these options. As a result, I think it was easier to concentrate: I read my textbooks, made my outlines, and then memorized the hell out of them. And I ended up graduating near the top of my class.

Sidebar on study groups. A popular study aid for many people are study groups – which were prolific during law school. The handful of times I “participated” in one, there was always someone who dominated the group. So, I found them to be more adversarial than educational.  But maybe that’s law school – we were in training to be on opposing sides.

Thus far for wine studies, I’ve been a single variety. I’d love to find a tasting group that’s supportive, yet challenging. But unfortunately, like in law school, there are quite high yields of “know-it-alls” and egos in the wine study world.

Exams: IRAC Method v. SAT Method

 

IRAC v. SAT

Similar to how the Systematic Approach to Tasting method becomes second nature after time for WSET students – in law school, we had ingrained in our brains the IRAC method. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion – and this is how we law students were to address almost every single exam question. For example, you’re given the following fact pattern:

Sommelier Sam hates Jimmy Bigcellar.  One night, Jimmy comes into Sam’s restaurant with a bottle of DRC from his cellar. Sam takes the wine in the back of the restaurant, decants it, and then brings it out to pour for Jimmy and his guests. Jimmy gushes enthusiastically about the wine and rambles on about how there’s no comparison to the iconic DRC.

After the dinner (and after seeing that Jimmy has left a barely 10% tip) Sam bring the FULL DRC bottle back out to Jimmy. He waves an empty bottle of Apothic Red in Jimmy’s face – because THIS is what he actually poured for Jimmy! Sam merciless mocks Jimmy about how stupid he is for not realizing he was drinking such inferior wine. Jimmy is mortified and embarrassed in front of his friends.

What is Jimmy’s cause of action against Sam?

Law students would then go through the IRAC method to answer this question – looking something like this:

Issue: Did Sam commit the tortious act of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED)?

Rule: IIED requires extreme or outrageous conduct that intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress.

Analysis and Conclusion: Here is where you’d apply the rule to the facts (i.e. was Sam’s conduct extreme?) add in any mitigating circumstances (i.e. Jimmy is an egomanic, a poor tipper and deserved it), and then conclude whether or not Sam is liable for IIED.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I’m no longer a practicing attorney and I have no idea whether this would be a cause of action or not. That part of my brain has long since departed. However, I guarantee you that I would know the difference between a DRC and an Apothic Red.

Final Hurdle: Bar Exam v. Unit 3 Exam

The end goal of a law student is passing the bar exam. The end goal for a Diploma student is passing the six Diploma Units – with Unit 3 being the biggest hurdle.

I took the Washington state bar exam in the summer of 1998. We’d just moved to the Seattle area and spent most of that summer in a bar review class and studying. Oh, and planning our wedding in a city I was new to with no family nearby. And starting my career at a downtown megafirm.

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

This is where my younger self is getting annoyed with me and finally stepping in with her well worn Doc Martens.

Student: 25 year old v. 46 year old

Law school me and IWS me
My law student self v. my Italian Wine Scholar self

We’ve all heard the question: “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?”  But I’ve never heard the flipside: “What advice would your younger self give you today?”

Well, my 25 year old self is telling me to calm the (expletive) down, pour myself a glass of Sutter Home Chardonnay, turn on Friends and just enjoy the evening.  (One thing that my 46 year old self has in common with my 25 year old self is that we both have a mouth like a trucker.)

I think I’ll take her advice (except for the wine). And this is the Friends episode that I’ll start with:

Friends pivot

I need a Pivot Strategy.

I’m going to change how I approach my wine studies. I’m scattered and spreading myself too thin amongst several study methods and aids. I rely too heavily on looking up an answer quickly instead of relying on myself and what I’ve already learned. My outlines are becoming regurgitations of the entire materials as opposed to concise summaries. And I’m studying WAY too much . . . because I do a little here, and a little there, and am constantly distracted by the phone and social media.

My next Diploma unit is Fortified Wines of the World. Class is in a couple of weeks, and our exam is in mid-January. I’m implementing my Pivot Strategy for this unit. Less study time – but more focused. Going back to concise outlines as my primary study tool. Tuning out distractions.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

But right now, I’m listening to my 25 year old self’s advice and going to just enjoy the evening. So – I’m heading out for beers with my law school boyfriend, aka Hubs.

 

How I Spent my Summer Vacation (aka My Diploma Study “Break”)

The sun is setting earlier, there’s a slight chill in the evening air, and the first week of football is underway.  It’s time to go back to school . . . and I am more than ready.

I’ve been on a study break from the WSET Diploma for the past several months.  My last exam was in March for the Unit 1 case study and my next Unit, Fortified Wines of the World, doesn’t start until November 23rd!  By that time, I will have had a gap of EIGHT MONTHS.

Even though I haven’t been working on the Diploma this summer, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been studying or learning more about wine.  So, if any of you other wine students find yourself with an unplanned “study break” – here are some suggestions on how best to spend it, and still enjoy your time off:

Teaching.

There’s an old adage that says the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.  (There’s also a saying that “those who can’t do, teach” – but I think that’s arrogant BS, so I’m going to ignore that one.)

In June, I started teaching WSET Level 2 courses as well as the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  Quite honestly, I spent more time preparing for teaching these classes than I did when I was actually a student in these courses myself!  There’s an additional layer of stress because it’s not just you counting on you, there’s a classroom full of students counting on you.  Thankfully, all that preparation benefitted not only the students – but me too!  I have a better grasp on Franciacorta, Bardolino, and German wine laws now having explained them to others. (Well, German wine laws are still confusing AF . . . )

If you don’t have the opportunity to teach a certification course, do a consumer level class at a local wine store, or host a wine tasting with friends, or see if you can lead a course at a community college.  Hell – I poured some oaked Cali Chardonnay to compare with a Chablis and had a mini-class in my house with my Hubs and our friend.  Doesn’t matter where or how you do it – the lightbulbs will still go off for your students and you’ll still gain a better understanding of the subject matter you’re talking about.

class-at-home.jpg
Two of my favorite students!!

Tasting.

Many people who aren’t in the wine industry think that studying wine means “you get to drink wine all day.”  Nope.  Tasting wine is not the same thing as drinking wine.

Tasting wine requires getting as close to examination conditions as you possibly can.  Sit down with your notebook, compare a couple/few wines against each other (blind is best), and write out your notes exactly how you would for the WSET, CMS, etc. in whatever timeframe you’d be permitted under the exam.  And – SPIT for shit’s sake!

Chardonnay comparisonOnce you’ve reached your conclusions – reveal the wines.  And don’t focus so much on whether you got them right or not!!  Pay more attention to the WHY.  Why did you think the Cabernet Sauvignon was from Napa instead of Bordeaux?  Why did you call Chablis instead of Sancerre?  Learn from your mistakes.  And then taste again the next day.  And the next.

Take advantage of your study break to not have to focus on a specific region or variety. Try wines from various regions, styles, and price ranges.  Although – be wary of the $3 Chardonnay.  Just . . . trust me (or visit my archived stories on Instagram).

Traveling.

Visiting and exploring a region yourself is one of the best ways to learn about wine.  By experiencing something firsthand, as opposed to simply reading about it in a textbook, you’re much more likely to retain – and comprehend – this information.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a limited amount of wine travel these past few months – limited to just the North Fork of Long Island and my beloved Washington state.  (So, I’ll be sure to nail the .0007% of the Diploma exam that covers those regions.)  This old guy is a big reason why I haven’t gotten out of the house more. Linus

Life gets in the way of studying sometimes . . . but life is more important.  Soon enough, Hubs and I will be back on the road and in the skies to explore more wine regions.  Bottom line: If you have the means to travel to further your studies, and you don’t have an old dog with separation anxiety who gets up half a dozen times a night – DO IT.

Social Media. 

Yes – I’m honestly suggesting spending time on social media to further your wine knowledge.  But there are caveats: like drinking, keep it in balance and try different outlets.  And if you’re truly wishing to expand your studies, just like constantly consuming crap wine affects your palate, following crap accounts affects your mind (and sometimes makes you concerned for the future of humanity – but that’s another blog post).  Here are a few suggestions for consuming “higher quality” social media:

Facebook.  Search for “wine study” and you’ll find several groups that you can join.  Most require you to answer a couple of questions before they’ll approve you (what certification you’re studying, where you’re studying, etc.)  I’m a member of a few wine study groups and while there are definitely some obnoxious know-it-alls, most of the group members are supportive and encouraging.

Twitter.  Hubs can attest to the fact that I fought joining Twitter for the longest time, but once I caved, I realized he was right (don’t tell him I said this!).  Twitter is a seriously awesome platform for wine!

There are several Twitter chats that revolve around wine.  UK Wine Hour is my favorite for covering global wine matters and Wining Hour Chat is fun for just getting to know others in the wine community.  With these, jump right in and introduce yourself!

Additionally, I’ve found a number of wine accounts on Twitter who discuss and debate a wide range of issues in the wine world – Jamie Goode, Paul Mabray and Felicity Carter to name just a few.  With these, it’s not as easy (for me at least) to jump right in, so I tend to watch from the sidelines.  Nonetheless, these discussions give me new perspectives and make me think about wine in a different way.

Instagram.  Let’s be honest: this can be a challenging platform for informative wine accounts.  It’s also time consuming to sift through all the wine lifestyle accounts to find people that focus on wine education as opposed to selfies with bottles.

I post quizzes 2-3 times a week in my stories on my Outwines account.  And there are several other accounts that post wine quizzes on a regular basis – my favorites include Spitbucket, Grapegrind, and bin412pgh.  There are also accounts like Wineterroir and Wine.by.Alex who post tasting notes in more of a WSET format that are helpful for wine studies.

Listen to Podcasts. 

In addition to those mentioned in my post from last year, I’ve also discovered several new (to me!) podcasts that have been helpful with my studies.  VinePair discusses current – and often controversial – issues in the drinks business.  Matthew’s World of Wine and Drink provides educational overviews of various wine regions, grape varieties and viticulture and winemaking terms.  And the UK Wine Show covers more global issues with informative interviews with members of the worldwide beverage industry.

Pursue Other Courses or Certifications.

Just because you’re on a study break from one school, doesn’t mean that another isn’t in session.  As I mentioned in a prior post, I strongly suggest not overlapping your certification studies – it just gets too damn confusing and complicated.  However, if you have a study gap, this can be a perfect time to pursue a different certification.

During this past summer, I took the Bordeaux Master Level course through the Wine Scholar Guild. Bordeaux studyThere are several of these specialized, higher level programs available for various French wine regions (and rumor has it the WSG is planning to have similar, focused courses for Italian regions as well).  The Master Level courses are entirely self-study with a detailed text and access to the Wine Scholar Guild’s online webinars and other materials.

These programs are incredibly deep dives into the regions – way more information and detail than you’re likely to need for any WSET course – including the Diploma.  So my hope is that when it comes to studying the Bordeaux and Rhône sections of the dreaded Diploma Unit 3 that I’ll only need to do a cursory review since I’ve taken both of these Master Level courses through the WSG.  I’ll keep you posted on how that theory works out. 😉

So as the summer is winding down (or HAS wound down, depending on where you live), I’m gearing back up to study for the second half of the Diploma.  The Fortified Wines Unit is next – class is in November, exam in January.  Then Unit 3 classes take up most of January and February, exam in May.  Finally, I’ve got the research paper which is due at the end of July.  I’m wondering if I’ll be kicking myself for leaving that one to the end . . . stay tuned.

 

What Makes a Wine Instructor “Outstanding”? (The Systematic Approach to Teaching)

People often ask me what I plan to do with my WSET Diploma certification when I complete the program (Hubs is probably THE most frequent inquirer of this information). My usual answer – after informing them that no, I’m not going to become a “Somm” – is that I’d like to teach and/or write about wine. And while I have this blog to keep my writing dream alive (barely), I’m leaning towards teaching wine courses as the more viable alternative to actually earning a living.

To that end, I recently got my feet wet by co-teaching a couple of courses over back-to-back weekends in the Pacific Northwest.  First was a trip up to my beloved Washington state and my favorite wine region – Walla Walla – for WSET Level 2.  The following weekend I headed back north to Portland to teach a few sections of Northern Italy for the Italian Wine Scholar course.  Luckily for students enrolled in those classes, I taught alongside two of my favorite instructors and mentors: Mimi Martin and Tanya Morningstar Darling.

While I was excited about these opportunities, I was also nervous! I’ve taught several consumer level wine classes, but these have been “just for fun” – both for me and the attendees.  With certification courses like WSET and IWS – there is an exam to pass at the end of the curriculum.  As a result, there’s an additional level of stress (and not just for the students!) because I want to give the class the information they need to pass the exam, but still want them to “have fun.”

Now that my first teaching hurdle is over, I’ve had some time to think about what qualities make an outstanding wine instructor. I’ve been fortunate to have had several fantastic teachers in my wine education thus far, and I’m trying to figure out what it is/was about them that made them so.

In the WSET world, we students follow a “Systematic Approach to Tasting”  which allows us to evaluate a wine on a common scale.  So, in the spirit of WSET (and to the annoyance of my Hubs), I’ve outlined below my “Systematic Approach to Teaching.”  These are the factors that I believe make up an “outstanding” instructor (as opposed to just a “good” or “acceptable” one) as well as the ideal level of these factors.

WSET Grid 1
How to Assess the Quality Level of a Wine Instructor

Enthusiasm – High.

As I’ve mentioned before, it wasn’t a bottle that turned me on to wine – but a person.  My first ever wine class was taught by the incredibly dynamic Reggie Daigneault and I credit her with being my wine “a-ha” moment.  I had no idea that there was so much to learn and appreciate about wine – beyond what was in my glass.  Reggie’s high level of enthusiasm was infectious and made every class enjoyable – even when we covered topics like “must adjustments”.

Unfortunately, a lack of enthusiasm can also be contagious.  A few years ago, I had a very knowledgeable instructor who, on the first day of class, walked in and announced to us students “I don’t know why they picked ME to teach this class.”  What a dreary way to start off the semester!

Election movie chalkboard
Don’t phone it in like Mr. McAllister!

In any case, there was minimal further dialogue that day as we ended up watching a film for the rest of class. This took me back to my high school days when the football coach taught government – and most classes consisted of him pressing “play” on the VCR (I recognize that millennials and younger generations may need to look up that particular acronym – I assure you that is was part of our daily 1980s life). Thankfully, this wine instructor’s enthusiasm level increased a bit over the course, but it still clocked in at about a medium minus overall. And not surprisingly, mine did too.

Responsiveness – Medium Plus.

Perhaps I overvalue this factor more than other people due to my past experience in the corporate world where responding to an email within 24 hours (or sooner!!) was simply standard operating procedure. Now that I’m in the wine world, I’ve noticed that responses often take several days.  Which, when you’re a stressed out student, feels like waiting for a Brunello di Montalcino to open up (Hubs: these lame inside wine jokes will end shortly – I promise).  I think aiming to be like a Rosé – short time on the skins, 48 hours or less – is reasonable (Hubs:  Another one). And even a short “let me get back to you on this!” is better than no response at all.

Personal Stories – Medium Minus.

Most wine instructors have traveled to a number of wine regions and met countless names in the wine industry. Sharing these personal experiences with students can definitely help certain wine concepts come to life.

For example, one of my instructors has family in Umbria, and she told us about how the locals were always very clear that the Trebbiano grown in their region was not Trebbiano Toscano (the grape used frequently for bulk production) but rather Trebbiano Spoletino.  I can still envision an old Italian lady shaking her finger in correction.

Spoletino!
Sei un idiota – é Trebbiano Spoletino!

Differentiating between these two Trebbianos ended up being a question on my Italian Wine Scholar exam!  And, thanks to my instructor’s story, I recalled this information immediately and easily answered the question.

But while some of these stories are entertaining, they can also be detracting from the class, waste valuable time, or be simply irrelevant. For example, sharing your experience of strolling through Grand Cru vineyards and consuming trophy/unicorn bottles with famous winemakers probably isn’t doing your students any good.

Bottom line: It isn’t about you (see ego category below). If a personal story will help students learn/remember something – share it.  But if it’s name dropping – leave it out.  Or put it on Instagram.

Staying on Course (aka Teaching to the Test) – Medium.

Instructors are often told to not “teach to the test.” But I struggle with this because these certification classes that I’m teaching culminate with an exam.  Yes, hopefully, students will also gain knowledge beyond what’s needed for the test – but their end-goal is to pass the exam and obtain the pin/certificateJessie with lasso.

To ensure a student’s success with this goal, it’s important to stay focused on the material and to stay out of time-sucking rabbit holes as much as possible. One of my instructors has an amazing ability to corral students and keep us on the right route during class. I swear she must’ve worked on a ranch in her past life.

I put this factor at a medium though, because I think some degree of diverging from the path is beneficial.  It encourages class participation and keeps the students engaged.  And prevents the class from becoming a lecture.

Ego – Medium Minus.

The further I go in my wine studies, the higher the ego levels seem to go as well. Thankfully, I’ve heard that it drops back down a bit when striving for the highest level qualifications like MW or MS.

I’m optimistic about this being true – my newest instructor recently achieved MW and she is incredibly humble and easygoing.  For example, the class had to drag information out of her about becoming an MW and it was only after incessant questioning that we learned she had received the highest score on the tasting portion of the exam.  I admired her even more because of her humility about this amazing accomplishment.

Patience – High.

We’ve all been in classes where one student just does not understand a concept and cannot move on from it – often to the detriment of the rest of the class. Or there’s an obnoxious student who “corrects” the teacher about the distance in kilometers between two Burgundian villages (yep, this happened to me and we’re revisiting it again!). In either case – an instructor needs to come to class loaded up with a high level of patience for situations like these.  And maybe some Sancerre in your S’well bottle.

Even though wine classes are attended by adults, they bring their own set of challenges that require calm, level-headed responses.  Not unlike a class full of kindergarteners.

Kindergarten-Cop
No Mr. Kimble, the distance between Meursault and Pommard is 5km, not 6km!

Knowledge – Medium Plus.

Now, you might be thinking: shouldn’t knowledge of the subject matter that you’re teaching about be HIGH? Isn’t this the most important factor in being an outstanding wine instructor? Honestly, I don’t think it is.

Many wine folk possess a massive amount of knowledge about wine and have lots of letters after their names to prove it.  However, teachers need to be able to convey this knowledge to students in a manner in which they can understand.  And ideally make it interesting and memorable as well.

You can know a whole lot about a lot, but if you can’t explain it to someone else so that they can understand it too – you’re not going to be an outstanding instructor.

Ability to Have Fun – High.

I recently attended a masterclass focused on the Champagne house Bollinger. At the start of class, the instructor whipped out a saber and asked “who here wants to saber one of these?!”  What a freakin’ awesome way break the ice (almost literally)!  A few students who had never sabered before volunteered and they nailed it!  This set the tone for the rest of the class which was engaging, energetic – and so much fun.

As a newbie wine instructor, I certainly don’t expect to hit all of the factors listed above right off the bat.  But someday, I hope to have the same effect on a student that my outstanding wine instructors have had (and continue to have) on me. At the end of the day, wine is meant to be enjoyed . . . and learning about wine should be as well.

 

 

WSET Diploma Unit 1 Case Study: a Case for Studying Smarter . . .

I recently received the results of my WSET Diploma Unit 1 Case Study – and I have good news and bad news:

The good news is . . . I Passed!

The bad news is . . . I Passed.

Now some (many?) of you might be thinking: WTF?! And you’d be right. Nonetheless, I am honestly a bit disappointed with a Pass. (Hey, they don’t call me Tracy Flick for nothing.)  As I mentioned in an earlier post, a Pass means you scored anywhere from 55% to 64.9%. I have no idea where I fell within this range.  I’m disappointed because I walked out of my exam incredibly confident that I’d given thorough answers and a detailed analysis.  Except for writing more neatly, I honestly don’t know what else I could have done.

And unfortunately, it appears that I’ll have to remain in the dark on this because you can only receive feedback on your WSET Diploma exams if you fail.  If you pass, but are unhappy with your mark, you can make an enquiry (essentially, challenge your grade) and have a different examiner re-mark your exam. But that’s not really what I’m after – I’d like to know what I could have done differently to earn a Merit or Distinction.

So – I’m a bit nervous because I gave it my best effort, felt confident, and . . . Passed.  Does that mean I have to study harder for my next exam? Let’s fucking hope not, because I honestly don’t think I could have studied any more than I did. I could have, however, studied smarter.

But before I get to what I mean by that – let’s revisit what this part of Unit 1 is all about:

Unit 1 – Case Study Exam.

The case study is a unique beast in the WSET Diploma pursuit – it’s basically a crapshoot research project followed by an in-class exam.  You sign up in advance and then, 30 days before the exam, the topic is released.  Signing up means you’re all in – you cannot change your mind if you don’t like the topic.

So, after researching your topic for 30 days, you then take a 75 minute closed book handwritten exam. The exam usually consists of 3-4 questions related to your subject.

The pass rate for the case study has hovered around 80% the past few years. To put this in perspective, the dreaded Unit 3 has a pass rate usually around 40%. However, there must’ve been a shitty Unit 1 case study topic in November 2014 because it dipped below 60% for that exam. I’m guessing it was “Why Wine Scores are the Best Indicator of Wine Quality” or something equally as painful.

The case study always has a business focus – past subjects have included: Selling Wine Online, Restaurant Wine Lists, Sustainable Wine Tourism and The South African Wine Industry.  My case study was “The Ups and Downs of the Sherry Market” and here’s the brief that I received:

Unit 1 Case Study

And these were my exam questions:

Unit 1 Case Study questions
I wasn’t surprised by any of these, and I felt well prepared for each question. Whew!  So, I obviously focused some of my studies on the right things.  But, I also missed what would’ve put me at the Premier or Grand Cru level of the Unit 1 pyramid (Hubs Note:  I’m really trying to ween her off these terrible “replace-everyday-words-with-wine-words-of-the-same-meaning” schtick of hers.  Please be patient.)

After hosting a minor pity party for myself (Hubs did not attend because he thought I was being ridiculous), I’ve decided that I’ll take my Village level grade and move on (Hubs Note:  Insert Eye-Roll Emoji for doing it again.  We get it – they’re wine words.  Move on.).  But, for future students tackling Unit 1 (or D2 as it’s now going to be called), here are some study tips that will help you Pass – and hopefully with Merit or Distinction:

Review Past Examiners’ Reports.

My recommendation: go over these before you even begin your research. Examiners’ reports are published annually on the WSET Global Campus website and include past exam topics and questions, an example of higher marked answer (so you can also see that your handwriting really isn’t as crappy as you think it is!), as well as “suggestions” for what would give a candidate a Merit or Distinction as opposed to a Pass.

Unfortunately, many of these suggestions are very vague. “Lack of analysis” is often cited as a reason, as is “lack of original thought.” “Failure to bring the topic to life” is another one – which is frequently used in tandem with “predictable and unimaginative.”

In hindsight, I probably could have added more original thought and given my opinion on the future of the Sherry market which might have helped “bring the topic to life.” However, as you can see above, “What’s your opinion on the future of the Sherry Market?” wasn’t one of the exam questions.  So, I’m not sure how much I would have gained by giving my thoughts on something that wasn’t specifically asked. (Did I mention that “failure to address the question asked” is also a reason cited for not receiving a high score?) :-/

Stay Out of Those Pesky Rabbit Holes.

Rabbit hole
Hey – whatcha doing down there?

My brief mentioned “in the last three decades” and “over the last thirty years” – clues that I would need to know what happened in the Sherry market since the 1990s. So where did I begin my research?  Well, I promptly went back to when Sherry was likely established by the Phoenicians – 1110 BC.

Don’t Do This!  Sure, I learned some interesting factoids – like that the Moors introduced distilling back in the 700s and that Shakespeare paid tribute to Sherry in his play Henry IV.  I also revisited Sherry’s unique production method and spent a few days and several outline pages on this.  But these were rabbit holes that could have, and should have, been avoided if I’d stayed on course with my research.

Thankfully, I have Unit 6 Fortified Wines coming up later this year, so my massive amount of Sherry research won’t be a complete waste of time. But, all this information did clutter up my limited amount of brain space and suck up precious time for Unit 1. Remember: the case study is focused on the business side of wine. So . . .

Have Some Stats in Your Back Pocket. Stats in head

Statistics will help you avoid “lack of analysis” as mentioned above. Know several facts and figures related to your topic – dates, percentages, rankings, etc.

For example, my brief stated that there had been a “marked reduction in Sherry production and global sales.”  So walking into the exam, I had at the ready:

  • How much vineyard acreage had decreased since the 1970s
  • Amount of peak Sherry production v. production today
  • Total market broken into domestic sales v. exports
  • The categories of Sherry that made up the highest %s of both domestic and export markets
  • You see where I’m going with this . . .

Once you have your statistics memorized, don’t just regurgitate them.  Be prepared to explain what they mean and cite your sources.  And speaking of this . . .

Consult a Variety of Resources.

My topic was pretty easy in this aspect because there is a ton of information about Sherry.  Almost TOO much.  I had the incredibly thorough book by Julian Jeffs, the Consejo Regulador website, periodicals, podcasts, blogs, online articles, social media, etc. Do not discount the power of social media! I found Sherry guru, Ruben, through Twitter – he and his blog were immensely helpful.

However, there was so much information out there on Sherry that I (irrationally) thought might be relevant that I failed to stay the course.  I read the entire Sherry book. I had umpteen articles on the “Sherry renaissance/resurgence/revival.”  Instead of reading every single one of these – I should’ve saved time and brain power and stuck only to those written by knowledgeable people in more reputable journals (sorry Cosmo!)

Have an Opinion.

We wine people have an opinion on fucking everything – the best type of closure (screwcap – sorry, but it’s true), whether Crémant is a substitute for Champagne (nope) and which wine region is the most underappreciated (my beloved Washington state, obviously). When researching your case study exam, make sure to formulate some opinions – and be prepared to back them up.

I’m going out on a limb here . . . but even if you’re not specifically asked for your viewpoint, give it anyway.  Personal commentary will “bring the topic to life” and provide “original thought” – both of which can gain you higher marks (according to past examiners’ reports).  However, make it brief so that you don’t spend so much time opining and forget to answer the question asked!

Other Pre-exam Prep Suggestions.

Practice under exam conditions.  I mentioned this in a previous post, but I highly recommend making a list of possible questions or topics, throwing them all in a hat, and then drawing a few out and answering them within a certain timeframe.  This will help you better manage your time during the actual exam and will get you used to writing under pressure.  Hey – it might even improve your handwriting too.

Listen to podcasts for information on the current market and opinions.  You know I love my wine podcasts and I was very thankful for a couple in particular for my Sherry research.  Vinepair gave some great insight into why consumers aren’t embracing Sherry as much as sommeliers are.  And I’ll Drink to That had several in depth interviews with bodega owners, Sherry champions and writers.

While researching your topic – keep these questions in mind and be able to write about them:

  • The pros and cons of your topic
  • Any challenges faced
  • Your future predictions or suggestions for improvement.

On exam day: make an outline before answering the question.  I know it’s shocking that I’m advocating outlines. 😉  But seriously – if you dive headfirst into answering the question, you’re likely to forget something, spew a bunch of facts with no cohesiveness or just flat-out panic.  Briefly sketching an outline will help keep you on track with your answer and ensure you hit the major points.

Best of Luck to future Diploma students on your Unit 1 Case Study!  And stay tuned as I revisit Sherry in a couple of months when I start my Fortified Wines of the World – Unit 6 studies . . .

 

 

 

Just Beginning to Learn About Wine? Start HERE: Cristie Norman Online Wine Course

If you’re a wine lover on Instagram, you’re likely familiar with the name Cristie Norman.  And if you’re not – you should be.  She’s a Certified Sommelier (currently working at the famed Spago in Beverly Hills), a WSET Level 3 holder, and creator of the wine series “Adulting with Alcohol” on YouTube.  And last year, she debuted a wine apparel line with fabulous taglines like “Vote for Pedro Ximénez” or “Run DRC.”

Cristie Norman

Recently, Cristie added to her list of accomplishments with the launch of the Online Wine Course.  She asked various members of the wine community to take the course and give her an honest review and feedback.  You can read my review here.  However, I was so impressed by the course, I decided to dedicate a blog post to reviewing it in a bit more detail . . .

The Online Wine Course is designed for wine newbies – Cristie refers to it as “a Driver’s Ed Course in Wine.”  It covers a wide range of wine topics in a fun and easy to understand way.  The course consists of over 60 short videos – the majority of which are under 2 minutes, which is perfect in keeping with today’s Twitter and Instagram attention spans. You can go at your own pace, doing one video or several at a time.  Another plus: these videos flow into each other – so you can binge watch with minimal effort!

There are handouts corresponding to each video that you can download and/or print out to follow along. And if you know me, you know how much I love handouts. 🙂 You’re much more likely to remember something if you write it down! For anyone doing the course, I highly recommend printing these out and completing them alongside the videos.  They’re helpful for completing the quizzes at the end of each section and, if you’re a super wine geek like me, they would be great to keep in a notebook for future reference.

Yes, there are quizzes.  They’re timed (10 minutes) and either multiple choice or True/False.  But don’t stress – you can take them as many times as you’d like if you miss any questions.  And I might have had to do that . . .

While her website provides an overview as to what’s included in the course – here’s a little more detail – and in outline form of course!

I.  Intro to Wine

II.  How to Taste Wine

A.  Structure – Acidity, Tannin & Sugar

B.  Aromas/Flavors

III.  Sparkling Wine

A.  Methods of Production & Styles

B.  Styles (Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Crémant)

C.  How to Open a Bottle of Sparkling Wine.  (Hint: it doesn’t look anything like these). Willamette

IV.  Important White Grapes & Red Grapes.  Thankfully she includes the correct pronunciation of the Willamette Valley here.  Never ceases to amaze me how many people say it incorrectly.

V.  Why is Wine so Expensive?

A.  Use of Oak.  Cristie includes mention of oak chips here – which (impressively) she doesn’t shame.  She just sticks to the facts like “yep, some bulk producers use them” and doesn’t give her personal opinion.  And believe me, we wine folk have TONS of opinions!

B.  Winemaking Decisions

C.  Marketing.  She does briefly mention influencers here – as she should – she is one!

VI.  How to Open and Serve Wine.

A.  This includes a detailed demonstration – which, of course, she makes look so damn easy.  Even after watching this several times AND being shown in person by a Master Sommelier – I still cannot get the knife right!
Gramercy

B.  Like many things these days, there is some product placement during this section. However, unlike Game of Thrones and Starbucks, both products Cristie mentions make sense. And as someone who Hubs often refers to as “Jane Q Public” – I found myself interested in both. (Albeit a bit skeptical that one claims to keep a wine fresh after being opened for weeks or months . . . )

VII.  Terroir

A.  One of the most controversial words in the wine world (this and influencer).  Cristie gives the big picture of how soils, climate, etc. all factor into a wine.  She also does a particularly excellent job of describing the differences between Old World and New World here.

B.  Note: I see this word misspelled constantly.  Usually the vowels are mixed up and it looks like Terrior.  Here’s how I remember it: “how do you spell Terroir?”  “oh, I don’t know” Get it?  O I.  You’re welcome.  (Hubs Note:  Nerd.)

VIII.  France

A. Great introductory explanation of more complicated topics like the 1855 Classification, Napoleonic Code and Burgundy pyramid.  Something even more advanced wine aficionados struggle with!

B. The quiz questions definitely start to get tougher here – I highly recommend using her worksheets!

IX.  Italy

A.  Somewhat ironically, this was the only section where this Italian Wine Scholar got a question incorrect. :-/

B. As someone who has studied this region in depth, I truly admire her ability to cut through the minutiae and get right to the important facts.  Not easy to do for a country with over 350 native grapes! WA necklace

X.  The United States (with a brief discussion of my beloved Washington state!)

XI.  Spain & Portugal (including mentions of Sherry & Port)

XII.  South America

XIII.  Germany (she admirably tackles the complicated topic of sweetness levels in German wines – something I STILL need to reconfirm on occasion!)

XIV.  Other Southern Hemisphere Countries: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

XV.  Food & Wine Pairing. I’ve taken several classes on this topic, yet Cristie manages to explain concepts in a unique way that I’ve never seen before.

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing else out there like the Online Wine Course. Sure, there are plenty of books – Wine Folly and The Wine Bible are two of my top recommendations for people who are newer to wine. There are also classes like the WSET Level 1 or the Introductory Sommelier Course if you’d prefer to go the certification route. However, there’s a certain degree of formality with these types of classes and you’re at the mercy of their schedule. There’s little, if any, flexibility – and unfortunately, attending in your PJs is frowned upon.

On her site, Cristie mentions that “reaching millennials is the key.” And unless you’ve been avoiding all forms of social media, you’re probably well aware of the wine industry’s efforts (or lack thereof) of doing just that. However, I can see someone of an, ahem, “older generation” (present company included!) enjoying this course just as much. The Online Wine Course would be a great gift for someone just starting out in wine – whatever their age.

 

Stalking and Shaming of Wine Influencers on Instagram: Has This Become Normal Behavior?

Recently, something disturbing came to light in the wine social media world. Dynamo wine writer Marissa Ross disclosed that someone had been harassing and stalking her for over two years on social media.  And she put his posts out there for all to see.

If you’re not familiar with Marissa, she’s an outspoken voice in wine media, a fierce proponent of natural wine, inventor of the “Ross Test” and author of “Wine. All the Time.”  She has a loyal following of supporters, as well as a number of individuals who disagree with her – which she openly discusses on her Instagram stories and Twitter.  However, her stalker went way beyond disagreeing with her natural wine fervor and Ross Testing. His comments were cruel, threatening and scary.

Thankfully, the wine community came together en masse to support her – including those who normally tend to dismiss her antics (she often refers to them as the “old guard”). It was encouraging to see everyone put aside their differences and agree that this type of behavior was not to be tolerated – on social media or anywhere.  As of now, Instagram has banned the individual (the least they could do IMO).

As I was reading through the hundreds of supportive comments on Marissa’s page, one of them jumped out at me. It was from a wine related (perhaps some would call it an “influencer”) account and she said she’d had “similar things happen to me.”  She wrote that a “certain individual” and small group of men in the industry had been shaming her, her photos and women in wine in general.  I’ll refer to her as Dolcetto.  I knew which “certain individual” Dolcetto was referring to because I follow that account – which I’ll refer to as Amarone.

But before I go any further, let me take a step back and see if I can kinda sorta explain where Amarone was coming from.  At least initially . . .

The Rise of the Wine “Influencer.”

In the wine world, there have been several articles recently regarding the increasing number of wine “influencers.” For that matter, influencers have risen in recognition across all of social media endorsing products and – the theory goes – holding sway over their thousands, and sometimes millions, of followers.  This article is particularly well written and helps explain why the word is sometimes used in quotations (hint: it’s because some of these individuals aren’t truly influencing anyone.)

Unfortunately, wine seems to be one of a growing number of subjects that an individual can “influence” and have minimum actual knowledge about it.  Snap a ton of pictures with wine bottles and smile, make sure to comment constantly and generically on others posts (something like “That looks like some good wine!” or “I’ll have to try that!”), join multiple pods, and boom – you’re on your way to being an influencer.  For those in the wine industry, some of these influencer accounts can be exasperating since they tend to focus way more on engagement as opposed to actual wine education or experience.  In order to be a true “wine influencer” – shouldn’t an individual ideally have some combination of all three?

(Please note: this is not saying that all wine influencers are frauds, or that none of them have any wine knowledge or experience.  There are plenty of legitimate, intelligent and genuinely engaging wine influencers out there.  This would actually be a great subject for a future blog post!)

The Shaming of Wine “Influencers.”

Originally, Amarone’s account poked fun at the wine “influencer” group as a whole.  There was a generic jab at those who constantly post about “National Anything Day” (every day is a National “Something” Day – and it is admittedly annoying as fuck…even though I’m guilty of participating in some).  He’d call out wine reviews that were a complete cut and paste of the winery’s tech sheets with no individual thought whatsoever on the part of the “influencer”.  Or lament the rise of the IG pod, which often results in skewed engagement metrics because it’s basically the same people commenting on each others posts – over and over again. Months ago, someone on Twitter called pods the “IG circle jerk” – which is a colorful, and not altogether inaccurate, description.

Sometime around the beginning of this year, the tone of many of Amarone’s posts changed. They became more mean spirited and targeted at specific individuals. Often, the focus was attractive women in their 20s and 30s who post about wine – a group he started referring to as the “girl gang.”

These gals have carefully curated IG feeds with beautifully composed, even professionally taken, photos.  Many of their posts aren’t about wine per se, but rather enjoying life, drinking wine and being with your friends and family. And seeing as how most of their accounts have over 10,000 followers, clearly there are many people interested in this type of content.  (True confessions: I follow several of them and the vast majority of their posts are refreshingly light and upbeat – like if Beaujolais Nouveau had an IG account).

So, instead of the usual generically humorous memes, Amarone’s account started copying photos directly from some of these ladies IG accounts. Everything from what they wore, to how they held a wine bottle, to their WSET credentials, was mocked.  I’m guessing this is what Dolcetto is referring to when she mentions “shaming” behavior.  And I get what she’s saying, because I noticed this the other week . . .

IG Dead Pet Meme

This photo on Amarone’s account was followed by the comment “You couldn’t manufacture these kinds of metrics if you TRIED.” After seeing this post on IG, I immediately thought something had happened to Marissa’s sweet old dog, Zissou.  After scrolling through her feed and finding nothing, I started wracking my brain as to who else has pets that they post about on IG.  And then I thought HOLY FUCK . . . this is about ME.

I initially took this pic of me “kissing” Luke and sent it to Hubs and then realized – “hey, I don’t look godawful in this photo!”  So, I decided to post this shot of me on IG, and one of Luke, because I’d had a WSET Diploma exam that day and wore my lucky necklace – which is made from Luke’s ashes.  Honestly though, I rarely post personal photos on IG because: (a) my account is focused on learning about wine, and (b) I take incredibly crappy pictures.

Did I post about my “dead pet” specifically to get likes or “manufacture” metrics?  No.  Did it happen to get more engagement than my usual posts – which are typically bottle shots or wine tasting notes?  Yes.  So, maybe there is something to be said about including a bit of your personal self on your feed – you’ll get more engagement, but also leave yourself open for someone to make snarky comments.

(Sidenote: I’m guessing that many members of the “girl gang” have blocked Amarone on IG because he’s really scraping the bottom of the “influencer” barrel if he’s taking a shot at me with my barely 1,000 followers. FTR – his main account, the non-parody one, has over 32,000 followers.)

Shaming Isn’t Stalking – but it’s still Shitty Behavior.

Most people can agree that trolls and haters are an unfortunate part of social media.  And, while incredibly annoying, their behavior usually doesn’t rise to the level of stalking or threatening.  It’s misleading to equate the two and I’m not doing so here.

However, shaming someone is still shitty – and what’s the point?  Particularly when you’re over the age of 13 and should have better things to do with your time and energy?  Yet even as I write this post I’m bracing myself for the snarky comments which I’m sure will be forthcoming.  Funny, I didn’t feel this way when I wrote about Chenin Blanc or the Italian Wine Scholar exam.

This recent increase in shaming behavior has made me take a second look as to how I feel about wine “influencers.”  I understand the wine community’s concern if these individuals are purchasing followers, or not disclosing that they’re being paid to endorse whatever wine or product they’re posting about.  That’s dishonest and the latter is actually against FTC regulations.  And I totally feel the frustration of wine academics who cringe when an “influencer” posts something massively incorrect or misleading about wine – like when Drew Barrymore said that Rosé is made from peeled grapes.

But otherwise – what harm are they doing?  Is their presence taking away from your number of followers or engagement?  Highly doubtful.  Are you even interested in the same type of followers?  Probably not.  My point is: there’s room for everyone in the IG sandbox – and it would be awesome if we could all play in it a bit more nicely.

Don’t get me wrong, after all this ranting about IG – I actually really do enjoy it. I’ve gotten to know a number of amazing people in the wine community through IG and am hoping to meet many more of them in person – including Amarone and Dolcetto.  He’s incredibly knowledgeable about wine and it would be awesome to pick his brain on which out of the way California wineries to visit.  And I’d love to get her recommendations for spots in Napa – and, well, perhaps a few pointers on how to take better pictures.

Great pic of me