The Masters of Wine Marathon: The Application Process

Today, there are 416 Masters of Wine in the world.  Without a doubt, achieving this distinction is an incredibly challenging feat.  Nonetheless, I’ve officially decided to give it a go and apply for the Masters of Wine program later this year!

I plan to document my experiences here on my blog – so depending on how the application process goes, this might be a quick three-part series, or a several years long one.  I’m inspired by what Richard Hemming did when he wrote about his Master of Wine journey for Jancis Robinson’s site, but if you’ve read me for any length of time you know my language will likely be a bit more . . . colorful? 😉

To become a Master of Wine, there are several hurdles to clear – the first one being: get accepted into the program. So I’m focusing my energy on the application process right now (and not what might come after!) and am seriously hoping I don’t end up like this poor gal and miss this hurdle right out of the gate. 

The Institute of Masters of Wine accepts applications annually each May.  Individuals who are accepted into the program are usually notified sometime in September.  So, like waiting for WSET Diploma results, you’re in for a relatively long waiting period where you can either obsess over it daily or forget about it because it’s outside of your control.  I’ll try to do the latter, but – let’s be honest – will probably end up doing the former.

Recently, it’s been estimated that between 50-60% of applicants are admitted. There are numerous requirements to even apply – but after looking at the criteria, I believe I have a decent shot of getting in.  And when doubts start to creep in (as they frequently do), I just ask myself: “why NOT me?”

For those of you who are curious – I’ve detailed the requirements for admission to the MW program as well as a WSET inspired personal “quality assessment” of myself clearing these hurdles below.  Disclaimer: as someone who is merely planning to apply, I obviously should NOT be your main source of information for this process – the IMW website should be your true north.

Alrighty – let’s take a lap around the application process:

The Nine Hurdles of the MW Application Process

Hurdle #1: Wine Qualification –  Candidates must have a wine qualification “at the WSET Diploma level or equivalent.”  Based on the IMW website, a Bachelor’s or Master’s in enology or viticulture, or a higher level sommelier certification (Advanced and above) would qualify as “equivalent.” 

My personal assessment: Outstanding.  I’ve earned WSET Diploma, so this hurdle is easily cleared.  Well . . . not “easily” – but this is one requirement I’m confident I’ve satisfied.

Hurdle #2: Work in the Wine Trade – Candidates must have a minimum of three years professional work experience in the global wine community.  This encompasses everything from wine buyers to winemakers, journalists and educators. 

My personal assessment: Very Good.  I have several years wine retail experience in addition to being a WSET and IWS instructor.  I also developed and taught one of the courses for the Gonzaga University Wine Institute. The only reason I’m not giving myself an “outstanding” here is that this past year presented some challenges in pursuing a full-time career in the wine industry.  I know I’m not alone with this, so am hopeful they’ll factor this into their decision.

It is also specified that candidates who may not meet the minimum three years experience requirement can apply if they feel they fit “within the spirit of the IMW mission”, which is: to promote excellence, interaction, and learning across all sectors of the global wine community.  I strongly believe I satisfy this criteria.  With my Instagram wine quizzes, mentoring and coaching of wine students, and leading corporate and consumer tastings – my passion and career (albeit much of it gratis) is encouraging others to learn more about wine.  I’m confident that my myriad of experiences in wine education will be enough to get me over this hurdle.

Hurdle #3: Reference Letter – Candidates must submit a letter of reference to support their application from a Master of Wine or another senior wine trade professional.

My personal assessment: Outstanding.  I’ve already chatted with an MW and she has agreed to be my reference. Additionally, my Diploma instructor is a Master Sommelier (and would qualify as a “senior wine trade professional”) so I have a plan B if necessary.

Hurdles #4-7: Personal Statements and Supporting Documentation – Candidates also must include the following with their application:

  • A statement regarding how you intend to dedicate sufficient study time to be fully prepared for the MW exam.
  • In no more than 500 words, a statement of motivation on how you see yourself contributing to the IMW’s mission of promoting excellence, interaction and learning in the global wine community.
  • Brief details on your wine tasting experience and how you intend to access wines throughout your studies, in preparation for the MW exam.
  • Supporting documentation for your applicationsuch as copies of your WSET Diploma (or equivalent) certificate.

My personal assessment: Very Good.  In short:

  • I have an incredibly supportive spouse (which is of utmost importance!) and no kids. After years in the corporate world, I’m at a point in my life where I have ample time, energy and passion to dedicate to studying for the MW exam.
  • As mentioned above, I’m currently spending countless hours on my edutaining wine quizzes and coaching wine students for certifications.  And I truly LOVE doing this!!  If this doesn’t fall within the mission of promoting “excellence, interaction and learning in the global wine community” – frankly, I’m not sure what would.
  • For WSET Diploma, I personally purchased 95% of the wines necessary for the course.  And although I’m willing to do this again for MW, I’m hopeful (as is Hubs!) that we can bring that percentage down a bit.  As the world starts to open back up, I’m planning to resume regular tastings at my favorite local wine store, forming a tasting group and participating in blind tasting courses from local wine experts.
  • So . . . I actually don’t have this in hand – and I’m not sure if I will by May.  But there’s got to be a way for WSET global to confirm to IMW that I have indeed passed all required units of the Diploma.  This is just a slight hiccup more than a hurdle.

Hurdle #8: Costs Associated with the Application – The MW program in total is several thousand dollars (we’ll get into those details in a future post – gulp).  The application alone is $325.  There are scholarships available and I know of at least one individual who has established a GoFundMe account for his pursuit of MW.  The costs are an unfortunate barrier to entry for many as opposed to merely a hurdle . . . and this is something that I’d like to help solve in the future.

My personal assessment: We are very fortunate to be in a position to afford the costs of the MW program. This is basically the college education and/or wedding of the children we didn’t have.

Final hurdle: Entrance Exam

Once candidates have met all the requirements above and submitted all the necessary documentation, there’s an online entrance exam consisting of a theory question and a practical tasting component.  I’ll cover this last hurdle in detail in my next blog post.  Just as there are techniques for clearing actual hurdles (who knew??!) – there are techniques I plan to put in play to clearing the entrance exam as well.

Stay tuned! 

Life After WSET Diploma: Now What?

You know that feeling an Olympic athlete has after she’s trained for years for one event, successfully competes on the mat/in the ring/on the field, takes her place on the podium to celebrate her victory, then goes home, looks at herself in the mirror and asks “so, now what do I do?”

Yeah, neither do I.

But I DO know that feeling when after nearly 3 years of studying, completing 5 exams and 1 exhaustive research paper, countless ounces of wine spit, swallowed or spilled, you receive the words “you’ve passed!” on your last WSET Diploma exam. 🙂

Since early 2018, pursuing the WSET Diploma has easily taken up 20 hours of almost every week.  Even if I wasn’t actually sitting and studying – I was listening to podcasts, writing tasting notes, meeting with my study group, attending online workshops on how to actually write the fucking exam or wondering whether the whole thing was worth all this time and effort.

But now that it’s over, I’m looking ahead and wondering “so . . . what the hell do I do now?” 

This is probably not a surprise to those of you who know me – but I love making lists (second only to making outlines, of course!)  So, I’ve brainstormed some options for my next step:

Do I keep up the study momentum and apply for the Masters of Wine (MW) program?

Would it be smarter to set a more attainable goal like pursuing the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) certification?  This is a requirement for entry to the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) program – a course I am very much interested in.

Sidenote: is there any other profession that loves their post-nominals as much as wine?!

Do I revamp my website to make it more wine student friendly with specific information on various certifications, tips for studies and access to online quizzes?

And speaking of quizzes, should I continue with my thrice weekly wine quizzes on Instagram which have connected me with wine students and enthusiasts from all over the world?

Or is the answer “All of the Above?!”

I tend to thrive when I have a clear, set goal to achieve.  And a large part of me wants to see how far I can go.  However, another part of me wants to just enjoy this moment with Diploma and be content at this level. There are just over 10,000 individuals in the world who have earned their WSET Diploma – so this is a huge achievement in and of itself!  But I know myself, and if I don’t at least apply for the MW program – I’ll always wonder . . . “what if?”

Regardless of what I do, I’ve fully embraced the fact that I’m a lifelong learner.  No matter whether it’s pursuing a formal certification, researching topics for wine quizzes, or participating in mind numbing (and sometimes mindless) debates on Wine Twitter- I don’t ever want to have a day where I don’t learn something. So, at least I know that’s the direction I’m heading . . . but there are many paths to choose from.

WSET Diploma: Getting Back in the Saddle . . . Again.

Although I’ve never ridden a horse in my life, I feel like I’ve been bucked off the Beast (WSET Diploma D3) a few times already.  And I have yet to take the actual fucking exam.  After scrambling to find another school in which to take the exam back in May, only to have that exam cancelled worldwide – I’m now aiming to take it at the end of October.  So Buckaroos – it’s time to get back in the saddle!

Now, it’s entirely possible that the October exam will also be cancelled – but that’s out of my control.  What is IN my control is HOW I’m going to study, WHAT I’m going to study and WHEN I’m going to study it.  So I put together a new roadmap to get me from now (“now” actually started a couple months ago) until exam day.  And while this process is intuitive for me, I’m realizing that it’s not for everyone – primarily because I’ve gotten some questions from other wine students on this!

Here’s how I put together my study plan (aka “roadmap”) – some of these suggestions might work for you, and some won’t.  There are several routes to the same destination . . .

Study Schedule
My life for the next 18 weeks!

First things first: Calculate how long you have between now and exam day. This is the easy part – figure out how many days (or weeks) you have from today until the day of your exam. I prefer to schedule my studies weekly as opposed to daily – but you might prefer otherwise.  What’s important is to find what works best for you – be it on a calendar, spreadsheet, etc., but get your blank schedule in front of you.

What does your life look like from now to exam day?  Make sure to account for other things going on in your life when putting together your study plan (please make sure you have other things going on in your life!!)  Mark these clearly on your roadmap so that you don’t over-schedule your studies during these times.

For example, I had to wrap up my research paper on natural wine and take my Spanish Wine Scholar exam before the end of July – so Beast studies were going to take a backseat during this month.  Hubs and I also took a much needed roadtrip, and I wanted to enjoy this time and not be bogged down with books.  So I budgeted study time accordingly – and focused on Beast regions that corresponded with where we were driving!

Airstream photos
“Studying” Paso Robles and Mendocino AVAs!

Ok, now you’ve got your blank schedule with other life goings on blocked out.  Let’s get to filling in the blanks – and for this part, we need to figure out WHAT to study.

What will be covered on the exam?  The Beast focuses on all still wines of the world . . . so, that limits it [insert eyeroll here].  But seriously, for the best guesstimate on what will be covered on your exam – pull out your textbook and look at how it’s broken down.

WSET Diploma D3 Textbooks
The Beast in all it’s glory

For the Beast, France represents over 25% of the total text.  Italy is second with 15%, followed by Spain and Australia with 7% each, and then California 6%.  It therefore lends itself to reason that questions on France will come up more frequently than other regions – so obviously I should spend most of my study time on France, right?  Well – yes, and no.

Let’s say – purely hypothetically – that you have a decent grasp on France, but the entire Southern hemisphere is a bit of a blur to you.  If that’s the case, it might be best to spend a good chunk of your time on what you don’t know instead of cozily reviewing the 10 Cru Beaujolais for the hundredth time.   Let me explain a bit more . . .

Look at what you already know and (this is very important!) analyze your weak spots.  It is SO easy to focus on our strengths and review these instead of tackling the areas we’re weaker in.  Of all wine growing countries, I’m probably most confident about France.  (Yes, even more than my own country – unless a lot of Washington wine questions happen to pop up on the exam).  Given my druthers, I’d focus on all things France and pretty much ignore the entire Southern hemisphere.  So maybe the above example wasn’t purely hypothetical. 😉

You’ve got to balance reviewing what you already know with a more intense focus on what you’re less confident about.  Here are some suggestions on how to go about this:

Break it up a bit.  Let’s say, like me, France is your strongest point.  Rather than plow through the entirety of the country over several weeks in a row – break it into smaller areas and divide these up on your schedule.  This way, you’re spreading out your strength – which will (hopefully!) help keep your confidence level boosted throughout your studies.

Pair up different regions.  I don’t know about you, but I get rather bored studying the same country for weeks on end.  For my Beast roadmap, I decided to group regions together to study in a few different ways:

  • Common threads.  Chenin Blanc does well in the Loire and in South Africa (just ask Vincent and Tania Carême) so I paired those regions up in Week 12.
  • Tannic red with fatty steak.  One of the most traditional food and wine pairings is a big, tannic red with a juicy, fatty steak.  These two balance each other out in part because the steak’s fat and protein break down the tannins in the wine.  So – pick a region that is tannic and hard to swallow on its own for you.  (For me, that’s Germany – it’s a jumble fucking mess in my brain with terms like flurbereinigung and pendelbogen . . . you cannot make these words up!) Now, pair this “tannic” area with a juicy, easy to digest region.  I went with New York because I’ve been there, it’s relatively easy to wrap my brain around and it’s only six pages long! 🙂
  • Review v. Learn.  I paired up Central Italy and Australia in Week 10 – having completed the Italian Wine Scholar program, Central Italy will be more of a review for me.  However, I’ve always struggled with Australia.  So this week’s study session will give me a balance of refresh and review, and learning more from scratch.

Bottom line: fill in your study schedule however makes sense to YOU.  If you’d rather tackle all of Italy at once before moving onto another country – do it.  But know yourself and how your brain works best . . . and this will help you with this next part: figuring out HOW you’re going to study.

Be realistic about time dedication.  This is tough for me because I always think I can get more done in a set time-frame than is actually possible.  Hubs jokes that just because ONE time I drove from our house to San Diego in 50 minutes, that I now think that’s how long it should always take. (Note: except for that one time, it always takes about an hour and ten minutes – and that’s without traffic).

So ask yourself: how much time are you honestly going to be able to study each week, or each day?  I know one Diploma graduate who treated her D3 studies basically like a full time job and studied from 8-5 every day for a few months prior to the exam.  While that’s incredibly impressive – that’s just not realistic for me.  The Beast will be a part-time job for me from now until exam day – probably around 20 hours per week of study time.

How in depth do you want to go?  This is another question that you’ve got to ask yourself and answer honestly: do you want to pass this exam – or do you want to achieve a higher score?  Diploma candidates are made up of wine students who are used to achieving high marks.  Many of us received Merit or Distinction on our WSET Level 3 exams and have come to expect that level of performance from ourselves.  But with the pass rate for the theory portion of the Beast hovering around 40% – you might need to reassess your goals.

Sidebar . . . When I started Diploma, and passed my first exam with Distinction, I set the bar that high.  I was used to doing extremely well on exams – why should Diploma be any different?  (Right now I am laughing at how naïve I was!)  Then my next exam rolled in  with Merit, and the next . . . a straight Pass.  It was about that time I finally accepted that the Diploma is some tough shit and that I might need to lower my expectations of myself – for my own well-being.

So for ME, I’m going to be thrilled to Pass the Beast.  This is my last Diploma hurdle – so if I barely clear it, who cares?  I fucking cleared it and made it to the finish line.  THAT is my goal right now.

This means that for my studies I’m going to focus on the concepts – and not agonize over the details.  For example, regarding Bordeaux, I’ll be able to describe how and why botrytis develops in Sauternes, explain the importance of the 1855 Classification and En Primeur and detail how the various soil types impact wine styles.  But I won’t bog down my brain with minimum aging requirements, permitted yields, or being able to list all the second growths.  Giving myself permission to not attempt to learn everything has been incredibly freeing.  However, if you’re aiming for a Merit or Distinction, you’ll probably need to focus more on those details – and allocate enough study time in order to do this.

Be Accountable.  How are you going to hold yourself to your roadmap?  If you slack off and miss a week, or fall behind because you burrow down too many rabbit holes, do you just say “oh well!” and create a new schedule?   I suppose you could do that . . . I’ve done it.  Several times.  But that kinda defeats the purpose of making a schedule to begin with – doesn’t it?

To help hold myself accountable, besides weekly check-ins with Hubs, I posted my roadmap above and plan to do a few blog updates on my progress between now and the end of October.  So, you all will know if I’ve fallen behind.  And that’s not going to be something I’ll be super excited to admit.

Like I mentioned earlier, everyone’s roadmap will look different because we each have a different starting point.  Some of us might take shortcuts along the way and others might take a much longer route.  Regardless, we’re aiming for the same destination – and hopefully, each one of us will get there intact and still in the saddle. 🙂

 

The Best Podcast for Your Wine Personality Type

Podcasting recently got its drivers license – it’s been around since about 2004.  Today, there are over 1 million podcasts (so . . . about half the number of native grapes in Italy).  There’s a podcast for literally everything – from Star Wars Minutiae to Nanotechnology to, well, something called Counting Worms (it’s not what you think!).

Not surprisingly, when I tune into a podcast it’s almost always wine related.  In fact, almost two years ago I posted about my favorite wine podcasts. (Some of these you’ll also see below, but unfortunately – some are now defunct.)

But like choosing a bottle to have with dinner, the range of wine podcasts can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Are you in the mood for a Washington Syrah?  A classic aged Burgundy?  Or maybe something that smells like a fresh cut garden hose?  Fear not!  I’m here to give you the lowdown on the wine podcasts in my current rotation.  Hopefully one (or more!) will speak to your personality type – so pour yourself a glass and tune in to whichever of these sounds like you:

Best if You Like to Root for the Underdog: Decanted.

Being from Washington state, I feel like we’re constantly overlooked in the wine world. Thankfully, Decanted’s Dave and Sandi are doing their part to change that perception by sharing stories of some of Washington’s top wineries like Kiona Vineyards and Passing Time.  Decanted is a relative newcomer to the podcast scene (their inaugural episode was February, 2018 – literally just as I was moving away!) I met Dave and Sandi at last year’s Auction of Washington Wines and am looking forward to our paths crossing again soon!

Decanted podcast

Best if You’re an Uber Winegeek: GuildSomm.

Out of this entire list, the GuildSomm podcast is probably the only one where I’d recommend having some degree of wine knowledge to fully appreciate. That being said, host Geoff Kruth does manage to make even the most mundane sounding topics (like Faults, Reduction and Oxidation) worth tuning into. However, GuildSomm isn’t a press play and zone out type of podcast.  These episodes require a bit more attention, so I usually have paper or my phone handy since I’m constantly making note of something to research further. These podcasts are released about once a month, but as a self-admitted uber winegeek myself – I wish they were more frequent.

Best if You’re Obsessed with California Wine: The Winemakers.

Want to know the latest in California wine happenings?  Tune into The Winemakers.  These guys have talked to everyone who is anyone in Sonoma Valley and they’ve covered a range of issues related to the State as a whole – such as the invasion of the cannabis industry, the devastating wildfires and rolling blackouts during harvest.

Winemakers Podcast
“Blind Date” with The Winemakers!

Plus, since they actually ARE winemakers – they share a lot of information about what really goes on in the cellars.  Personally, I’m incredibly thankful for this since my biggest wine study weakness is basically all things wine science.  The guys have been around since May, 2017 and are very consistent in their nearly weekly episodes – admirably, even during COVID (they’ve switched formats to Zoom so as to maintain appropriate social distancing requirements).  Oh, and this is also the best podcast if you want to hear yours truly make my podcast debut – check out episode 147 around the 42 minute mark 😉

Best if You’re More Interested in the People Behind the Wine: I’ll Drink to That.

Sometimes, we focus so much on what’s in our glass that we forget about all the amazing people that actually made the wine. Levi Dalton is the OG of the wine podcast world – and it shows.  He’s polished, doesn’t interrupt his guests (ahem – other hosts should take note!), and he manages to pull stories out of people like nobody else.  I listen to IDTT to gain a more personal perspective on the wine world and bring some color to my wine studies.   Levi is getting close to his 500th episode – and I don’t see him stopping anytime soon!

Best if You’re a Sarcastic News Junkie: VinePair.

I’ve been obsessed with these guys since they released their first podcast in July, 2018.  Their banter is smart, snarky, educational and entertaining.  They’re not afraid to say it like it is (prime examples include Pay to Play is Killing Drinks Journalism well as Rules for Not Tipping Like an Asshole – which has been changed to “Jerk” on their website . . . but, obviously, I think the original title is much more suitable).

Since early March, VinePair has featured a series called “Covid-19 Conversations” – discussions on the pandemic’s impact on various facets of the hospitality industry.  Listening to this series is an ideal way to stay informed – yet not fall into a downward spiral of despair like many other news sources tend to do to you (please tell me that’s not just me!!).

Best if You’re a Wine Student: Matthew’s World of Wine and Drink.

Matthew Gaughan is a current Master of Wine student with a fantastic podcast that’s tailor-made for wine students.  Each episode is usually under 30 minutes and provides a thorough, yet to the point, overview of the wine topic de jour.  Matthew’s podcast has been an invaluable resource for my WSET Diploma studies – after I’ve finished studying a region, I’ll sit down with my outline and listen to his episode on the same region to make sure I’ve covered everything I might need to know.  Most of the time, we’re in sync.  Like with our blind Yellowtail Chardonnay call . . . :-/

Best if you Love the Somm Series: The Somm TV Podcast.

A relatively recent addition to the wine podcast scene – launched almost a year ago by the SOMM Films team.  The podcast has already covered a number of hot topics in the wine world – including tariffs and natural wine.  And it’s a great tie-in with their TV subscription.  If you’re a fan of the SOMM documentary series, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate the recurring appearances by familiar faces like Brian McClintic and Fred Dame.  I should say that I’m pleased to see that they’ve recently brought in more female guests since unfortunately, much like the Somm movies, this platform tends to be very male dominated.

Best if You’re Just a Wine-Loving Normal Person: Wine For Normal People.

Sometimes the wine world can be intimidating with all its lingo and exclusivity.  If you’re someone who just wants to learn about wine in a non-snobby way – Wine for Normal People is for you.  This was one of the very first wine podcasts I ever listened to, and I’ve been a loyal fan ever since.  Host Elizabeth Schneider knows a shit ton about wine – but thankfully she doesn’t feel the need to engage in a lot of  “wine speak.”  And the banter between her and her co-host husband “MC Ice” is endearingly entertaining.

Best if You Love a Deep Dive on One Specific Subject: Interpreting Wine.

If you really want to wrap your brain around a wine related subject – Interpreting Wine is definitely for you. Lawrence Francis started his podcast by highlighting Spain’s often overlooked wine regions.  Recently, he’s turned his focus to some very in depth explorations of topics such as the Willamette Valley (episodes 380-399), Sherry (episodes 325-333) and the Austrian wine industry (episodes 355-364).  Interpreting Wine also has some incredibly informative episodes that helped me with my WSET Diploma exam preparation – check out 263 and 264 on Sparkling Wine, and 353 and 354 for Fortified Wines.  Lawrence is insanely consistent with his podcasting – having only started in September, 2017 he’s already on episode #408!  And he has an incredible voice! 😉

So there you have it – nine podcasts to match with your wine personality type.  Hopefully the above list will help you sort through the myriad of “bad bottles” that are on the podcast market – some of which consist of not much more than a couple of boozy hosts chatting about wine with horrible audio and lackluster content.  Please let me know if you find something you enjoy tuning into!

 

 

 

 

Blind Tasting Lesson: Assessing a Wine’s Flaws . . . As Well as Our Own

Blind tasting is an exam component for many different wine certifications.  Typically, candidates are required to describe a wine according to set standards (i.e. “the Grid” or “the SAT”), identify the wine, and then give reasons for our choice.  We’re also often asked about the quality of the wine: is it outstanding, good, or merely acceptable?  One of these quality categories used to be “faulty” – but for whatever reason, WSET recently removed this as an option.  Perhaps they assumed that all exam wines would be faultless.

When practiced rationally, I’m a big proponent of blind tasting.  It lets you play detective by gathering clues about the wine: its color, aromas/flavors, structure, quality, etc. before naming a suspect.  Blind tasting is also a form of meditation because we focus on the present moment and tune out everything else.  Hubs calls this “clearing the mechanism” (his Kevin Costner crush is pretty strong, but it’s an apt analogy nonetheless).  Since we cannot have any preconceived notions based on the label, with blind tasting we focus solely on what’s in the glass to judge the quality of a wine.

Unfortunately, all too frequently, we end up judging ourselves based solely on how close we came to correctly identifying the wine.

Airbrushing at its Finest: Hollywood Makes Blind Tasting Appear Flawless.

MS Candidates blind tasting
Photo credit: Somm documentary

While documentaries like the Somm trilogy and short series Uncorked have helped to bring the pursuit of wine certifications mainstream, I fear that they’re disillusioning people (including individuals pursuing such certifications!) about blind tasting.  It’s not a party trick, and it’s not all about “nailing” the wine. And, contrary to a certain newly released film, one should NOT expect to be able to identify a wine down to the producer and vintage mere weeks after picking up The Wine Bible.

Problem is, many wine students DO expect to be able to do this, and when we can’t – we  conclude that we’re not good at blind tasting.  We think we’re the “faulty” ones, so to speak.

But Everyone is Flawed – Even (Especially?) Those Who Act Like They Aren’t.

Many times, we wine students lack faith in ourselves – so we hesitate with our descriptions.  I will forever remember my Introductory Sommelier Course when a gal was describing a red wine’s aromas to the rest of the 100+ students by stating: “I want to say red plums and cranberries . . .”  One of the Master Sommeliers leading the course interrupted her and said “You WANT to say, or you ARE saying?”  And honestly, I don’t think he was being a jerk here.  His point (I think) was to have confidence in yourself.  That being said, I highly doubt that being called out in a room full of Somm-wannabes boosted her confidence level very much.

I cannot tell you how many wine classes I’ve been in where people hesitate to speak up about what they think is in the glass for fear of being wrong. “You think there’s lime in this Riesling? Are you nuts?! It’s clearly lime ZEST.”

It’s also disheartening to observe an online conversation about identifying Malbec in a blind tasting devolve into a pissing match with this zinger: “You can either nut up and contribute content that’s worth a damn or you can see yourself out.  The choice is yours. But no one is going to kiss your ring for ‘dry, savory and frequently oaked’.  Crush us with your intellect, you fucking hero.”

(Ok, the Riesling example I made up.  But the second one literally just happened on a study board while I was putting this blog post together.  And even worse, it was written by a wine industry “professional.”  Have I mentioned that I should perhaps stay off these boards for my own sanity?)

We Easily Comment on a Wine’s Flaws, So Why Not Our Own?

Speaking up, for fear of being wrong or saying something others perceive as “stupid”, is sometimes challenging. And obviously that’s not just the wine world – it’s human nature. But we all have flaws and we all make mistakes. And in blind tasting, some of these errors are big ol’ doozies.

Full Disclosure: I made one of those big ol’ doozies just last week.  I was mortified, humbled and a bit humiliated that I had been SO off base with my call: White wine, with some yummy aromas of peaches, apricots and floral notes.  Medium+ body with a slight heat.  Off-dry, medium acidity.  The palate was full of ripe stone fruits with a hint of baking spices and vanilla.  This wine screamed Viognier to me.  Not a high quality Condrieu, but possibly from California.  Needless to say: Nope!!

Yellowtail reveal
What I thought was an entry level Viognier was a VERY mass produced Australian Chardonnay

Oddly enough – I wanted to share this experience with others!  But I hesitated before putting my mega-flaw out there . . . would this be seen as my ineptitude as a blind taster?  Would people think I’m a complete dumbass for mistaking a Yellowtail Chardonnay for a California Viognier?  Did I care if they thought this?

I ultimately decided: Fuck It. So I posted it on Instagram for all the world to see . . . or, at least, you know, my (almost!) 2k followers. 😉  My Instagram account is all about helping people improve their wine knowledge.  By sharing my own mistake, my hope was to make others less embarrassed about when they’ve been way off base in blind tasting -and to realize that this happens to everybody. We should help one another learn from our mistakes – because you know what? Blind tasting is not a competition.

In my Instagram post, I asked others to share their worst/most embarassing blind tasting call and was VERY curious to see what the responses were.  Most people commiserated or gave me a virtual “it happens to all of us” pat on the back.  Thankfully, nobody mocked me (at least not to my face!).  And I was pleasantly surprised that several shared their own blind tasting blunders!  Interestingly, most of those who did were fellow Diploma students.

And there was one comment that absolutely floored me.  A Master of Wine student, who happens to be one of my favorite wine podcasters and someone that I greatly admire, said that he had recently blinded the same Yellowtail Chardonnay . . . and had also called it Viognier.  If someone of his level of experience and education can make the same call I did – maybe there’s hope for me after all. 😉

So I’ve been kicking around starting a series of shorter blog posts about blind tastings.  (I can hear one of my followers cheering, and the rest of you frantically searching for the unfollow button.)  Personally, I’ve been doing a lot of blind tastings whilst in quarantine and have learned a lot about what works for me – and what doesn’t.

For my Diploma exam (now scheduled for October but – who knows?), we’ll be asked to identify common themes for three of our blind flights: same variety, same region and same country.  I’ve been collecting notes from various sources to help me with the “evidence gathering” process – which will allow me to better describe and identify what’s in my glass.  I’m also improving on “ruling out suspects” by recognizing what’s NOT in my glass.  (Unless it’s Savenniéres . . . this has been my white whale of blind tasting for some reason.)  I’m thinking of compiling these notes into some study aids (yes, there will be outlines involved!) and sharing with others who are also studying for wine exams or who just want to improve their blind tasting skills.

Please weigh in with a comment if this is something you’d be interested in – or, you know, not!  My thoughts are that if me choking down a glass of Yellowtail helps another wine student out, or encourages them to speak up in class, or gives them the confidence to say “I AM SAYING that there are red plums and cranberries in this wine!” then it’s worth it.

So stay tuned – and stay safe.

 

 

 

 

 

WSET Diploma Fortified Wines: This was a Sticky* One

I know we’ve all got a lot on our minds right now, and most of these things have absolutely nothing to do with wine studies. But I also know that if you’re passionate about learning about wine – either you’re still cracking open your textbooks, or you’re hoping to do so in the near future.

After weeks of being surrounded with negative statistics and bad news, I recently received some much needed GOOD news: I passed my WSET Diploma Fortified wine exam!  Several months ago, I mentioned in a post how receiving a “Pass” on an exam wasn’t exactly something I wanted to celebrate.  Well, times have changed and I will embrace this Pass like a finding the last package of extra strength Charmin toilet paper in my local grocery store.  Funny how a worldwide pandemic puts shit in perspective, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, WSET no longer publishes past Diploma exam questions for students to review.  And while I haven’t replicated the questions verbatim here, a quick read will give you an idea of what was asked on my exam – and perhaps what to expect on future exams.  So, for those of you planning to take the Fortified wine exam in the not-to-distant future – here are some exam tips that worked for me:

Before Even Reading the Exam Questions: Write WHY at the Top of Your Paper.

At the Diploma level, it’s not enough to only give the WHAT as your answer. We should fairly easily be able describe the WHAT when it comes to a question on, say – patamares.  In order to succeed on an exam, we also need to explain the WHY.

Imagine the WSET Examiners are incessant, annoying 3 year olds.  After reading your responses to the exam questions, they should NOT be able to still ask: “but WHY“?

I wrote WHY on my scratch paper to remind myself to go beyond a basic explanation and to give details as well as specific examples to back up my answer.  So, in addition to describing what patamares are – I also explained WHY they are a better (or worse) vineyard layout choice, WHY they can lead to uneven ripening, etc.

Make a Quick List to Trigger Your Memory.

For me, this was the 9 factors impacting style, quality and price of fortified wines.  Did I have these factors memorized?  Yes.  Did I NEED to write them down?  Absolutely not.  But doing so helped me get my brain calmly flowing into an exam mindset instead of frantically jumping into the questions.  And truth be told, this list came in mighty handy for a theory question on comparing two different wine styles.

Ok, so now that you’ve written WHY and your key points – get going on the exam for fuck’s sake! 😉  You can start with either the Tasting or Theory section – but I highly recommend picking one and following it through to completion.  Don’t bounce back and forth.  Think of it like oxidatively aging Sherry . . . once you make that choice, you can’t go back.

Remember that Skittles Commercial “Taste the Rainbow”?  Think of Fortified as an Adult Version of this.

Skittles rainbow

Since color is a major clue with fortified wine styles, what I found helpful during my study prep was to group similarly colored wines together and taste them side by side.  By practicing tasting this way, I was eventually able to identify possible wine choices just based on sight.  For example, if I was lucky enough to get a very pale lemon colored wine for one of the exam wines (spoiler alert: didn’t happen), I knew I could quickly narrow it down to a handful of possibilities: White Port, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, or Muscat.

The day before the exam, I poured almost every single bottle I had open at home and reviewed the rainbow.  This helped solidify in my mind where certain wines fell on the color scale – from pale lemon to medium amber to deep ruby. On my actual exam, all three blinds were deeply colored – ruling out about half the rainbow immediately.

Fortified rainbow
How I spent the night before my Fortified exam . . .

Familiarize Yourself with Both Expensive – and Inexpensive – Fortified Wines.

If you think the Examiners wouldn’t splurge on a Vintage Port on an exam – think again.  One of our blinds was a 2016 Sandeman Vintage Port – and this wasn’t the first time a Vintage Port has appeared in an exam lineup.  We also had an el cheapo Basic Ruby Port for one of the blinds, which unfortunately I hadn’t tasted at home.  This wine screamed Grenache at me during the exam – it was all sweet, juicy red cherries and plums.  Which brings me to my next bit of advice . . .

Don’t Freak Out if You Misidentify a Wine!

WSET releases the blinds a couple of days after the exam is finished.  So,  you can either celebrate that you called a wine correctly, or freak out if you missed one.  I correctly identified 2 of the 3 wines (the Vintage Port and the Rutherglen Muscat) but mistook the basic Ruby Port for a Banyuls.

This wasn’t horribly off base – both styles are similarly colored, sweeter, and are protected from oxygen – showing juicy red fruit aromas and flavors.  So even after the wines were released, I was confident that I would still earn marks for several of my descriptors.

What also helped me not panic was past experience because I had misidentified one of the wines on my Sparkling wine exam last year.  I thought the Roederer Estate from Anderson Valley was a NV Champagne and I still passed that exam – with Merit.  Fortunately, WSET cares more about your analysis as opposed to whether you “nailed” the wine.

Speaking of the Sparkling wine exam – as I mentioned with that exam’s tips: budget your time. Thankfully, I learned my lesson and with the Fortified exam I didn’t spin my wheels on whether an aroma was dried blackberry or dried black plum – I picked one (or just put them both down!) and moved on.

After finishing the tasting portion of the exam, I was thrilled to have left myself more than half the allotted time to complete the theory portion of the exam.  There were 3 essay questions – weighted 30%, 50% and 20% respectively.  Most exams will have something similar where the questions aren’t equally weighted.

So . . . which one do you answer first?  Again, here’s what worked for me:

Answer the Essay Question You’re MOST Confident About First.

Now, other people may suggest tackling the question worth the largest % first. And I completely understand that line of thinking.  However, for me, answering the question I’m most confident about gets me in a rhythm and helps give me a “Hey, I’ve got this!” mentality for the remaining essays.  On the flip side, tackling a question I’m not confident about stresses me out, raises my heart rate and gets my hand shaking (less of an issue than on previous exams, but still there!)

So on this exam, I chose the question focused on comparing Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and a Grenache VDN – even though this was the second highest weighted at 30%.  However, since I was confident in my knowledge about this topic, I mentally budgeted less time to it, cranked it out, and moved on to the second question.

Of the Two Questions Left – Answer the One Worth the Highest Marks.

Unless you know absofuckinglutely nothing about this question, I recommend answering the question worth the highest marks next. Leaving this question until last will likely cause rushing, sloppy handwriting and brain dump as you try and throw in anything remotely related to the topic to get credit.  I’m speaking from experience here.

The question on blending in Sherry I thought was rather vague – but seeing as it was worth 50%,  I answered it second.  I wanted to answer the 20% question because I was more confident about patamares, but knew that leaving 50% to the last would only end up causing me additional stress.

And finally – Study Madeira.

Especially if your exam is coming up soon.  My exam didn’t have one damn question on Madeira! Chances are – the next one will for sure. 😉 Here’s my outline on Madeira to help you out!

Best of luck with your studies!

*Sticky is a style of Australian fortified wine . . . I simply cannot write a post without at least one wine pun!