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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!

WSET Diploma: Changing Up My Roadmap

We’re almost three months into 2020 and I haven’t managed to write a publishable blog post this year yet.  After taking my Fortified Wine exam in January, I’ve been completely focused with my Unit 3 studies (aka “D3”, “The Beast” or “Basically all wines not covered in Sparkling or Fortified.”)

Each time I sat down and tried to write a post, I felt guilty for not studying for D3.  So a few weeks ago, I thought “why don’t I start writing about my D3 studies?”  My hope was that by documenting my experiences, this would help someone else pursuing the Diploma.  I also believed that writing them down might very well help me too.

Since last Fall, I’ve methodically been preparing to take my D3 exam this May.  I’d carefully put together my “roadmap” and was planning to follow it meticulously until exam day.  What’s a roadmap, you might ask?

A Roadmap (Usually) Helps Prevent Shit from Going Sideways.

To help me stay on track, before beginning my studies for any wine course, I put together a roadmap: a detailed, realistic study plan from my starting point until exam day.  I’ve done this for every single one of my Diploma exams so far and it’s helped immensely.  My roadmap keeps me focused and, since I have a plan, I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to study each day or running out of time to cover everything.  It’s all laid out in front of me – I just need to follow it.

It’s rather intimidating to put together a study plan for an exam that covers almost all wine regions in the world.  But if I may draw on yet another law school analogy . . . D3 is quite similar to taking the bar exam.  They’re both a culmination of years of learning – not just the weeks before the actual exam.

In law school, I took classes like Torts and Property in my first year and didn’t really revisit these areas until I was preparing for the bar exam two years later.  But the material from these classes was still in my brain (and in my outlines!) so I just had to recall and review.  Which, let’s be honest, is WAY easier than learning something for the first time.

When making your D3 roadmap – take into account that you already know a lot of the material: the Burgundy pyramid, German labeling laws, the AVAs of my beloved Washington State (ok, maybe you don’t know this last one – but I do!) 😉  Of course, you’ll need to refresh your memory on some of these concepts and dig deeper at this level – but the point is you aren’t starting from scratch.

So, I had prepared my roadmap which took me until mid-May when I was scheduled to take my exam.  I was focused on my studies and on my way!

Even With a Detailed Roadmap, There Can Be Unexpected Detours.

Unfortunately, I had to deal with a not-so-slight detour.  Two weeks ago, the school I’ve been taking Diploma with informed us that there weren’t enough students interested in taking the D3 exam in May so it wasn’t going to be offered until October. stop roadsign with detour sign

Needless to say – that sent me scrambling a bit (ok, waaaay more than “a bit”).  I started asking myself a lot of questions.  Should I just wait and take the exam in October?  This would give me several extra months to prepare . . . but it would also push off graduation until January 2022.  Do I really need these extra months to study?  Or, do I think I’ll be ready for the exam in May?  And if so, where can I take it now that my current school isn’t offering the exam?

After spending a chunk of our vacation in Mexico on those questions (a regrettable waste of time), I decided to keep forging ahead for May.  I enrolled with the Napa Valley Wine Academy and planned to head up there for my exams.  My roadmap had taken a detour, but I’d handled it, and was back to moving forward.

And then, as I’m sure you also experienced, all hell broke loose.

And Sometimes, There are Roadblocks That You Simply Cannot Get Around.

Upon returning home from vacation, the world looked a bit different.  And then it quickly started looking VERY different.  Suddenly, things that mattered so very much to me a couple weeks ago – like my D3 exam – were no longer my priority.

It turns out that I won’t be taking the exam in May.  Nobody will.

Almost the entire world is on hold because of COVID-19.  We’ve had to readjust our daily lives to a (hopefully temporary) new normal.  In one way or another, this virus is impacting every single one of us.  The hospitality industry has been decimated as over 3 million people found themselves unemployed almost overnight (with, undoubtedly, more to come).  There are long lines at grocery stores with shelves that are eerily bare.  People are self-quarantining or their government is requiring them to do so.  Most stores and services are completely shuttered.  My 88 year old Dad is up in Washington State – the original epicenter of the virus in the United States – and while I can talk to him on the phone, I can’t hug him for months.  And I’m trying not to think about the possibility of him getting sick . . .

I now have several “free” hours in my day that I didn’t have before.  Although it seems like this would be a great opportunity for me to study – I can’t focus for shit.  Thankfully, my school postponed the exam until October.

Knowing myself, I’ll get back to studying soon enough.  I’ll probably tackle my Diploma research paper or pursue the Spanish Wine Scholar program.  Or maybe both. 🙂  I need to keep my brain busy with something besides worrying.  In any case, the detailed, well thought out, roadmap I’d relied on just a couple weeks ago is no longer relevant.  The timeframe to my destination has changed – but I’ll get there eventually.

During this time we all need to readjust our roadmap – or make a new one.  Either way, let’s help one another keep moving forward.  I hope you and your family are safe and doing well – all things considered.   I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and interacting with me on social media – it helps keep some semblance of normalcy.  And I know that together – we’ll get through this roadblock.

With much love…

Noelle

 

 

My Top 10 Wine Moments of 2019

It’s that time again – when we reflect back on a year that’s almost over. What was so special about the 2019 vintage?  For me, there were several things that made 2019 memorable . . .

Retweet by Eric Asimov

I peaked early this year – January 22nd to be exact – when I was retweeted by New York Times wine writer, Eric Asimov.  His first monthly “wine school” column of 2019 focused on three big brand, readily available, supermarket wines.  These wine selections of his caused quite the uproar on Twitter.  While some wine enthusiasts applauded his efforts to understand what appeals to the masses – others accused him of promoting these wines.

Eric Asimov retweet

This was Eric’s first “wine school” that I’d actively participated in and I wrote a post about the “assignment.”.  The results weren’t all that surprising to me, but his retweet of my post WAS.  This was my first real lesson in the power of social media – his single retweet led to a huge uptick in visits to my site (thank you Eric!)  Unfortunately, this didn’t translate to an increase in subscribers . . . I guess his wine school crowd isn’t particularly interested in outlines on the 1855 Classification or WSET Diploma study tips.

And interestingly, at least to me anyway, this was not my most viewed blog post of 2019 . ..

Stepping Into the Instagram Influencer Fray

For the first few months of 2019, I sat on the sidelines watching a longtime Instagrammer (aka Amarone) vent with regularity about the rise of “wine influencers.”  I understood his frustration, but disagreed with his methods – which consisted primarily of snarky memes and posts mocking these “influencers” (mostly attractive, younger women).  However, when Amarone decided to take a shot at me (together with my dead yellow Lab), well . . . the result led to my most viewed blog post of 2019.

Instagram

In fact, an entire hashtag movement was actually spawned because of Amarone and a few others (to be clear, not because of my post). #youcansipwithus is still going strong, but thankfully, the antagonists appear to have backed off a bit. I might revisit this issue sometime next year – to see what progress has been made (or not made).

Personally though, I made some progress in 2019 . . .

Finding My Groove on Instagram

In 2019, I found my Instagram niche.  I finally determined who my target audience was: people wanting to learn more about wine – including both serious wine students and curious consumers.  And also who my target audience was not: Jimmy Bigcellars with trophy bottles as well as the ChardonnYAY crowd.

Based on this, I decided to focus my content on wine studies and education – but I wanted to do this in a fun and engaging way.  So I started creating Instagram wine quizzes.  I’m a wine geek at heart (I mean, I prepare outlines on wine for shit’s sake!) and I genuinely enjoy producing this type of content.  Not only do the quizzes help me retain information better, but I’ve also connected with wine students from all over the world (Mumbai, Cape Town, London) – and have met several in person!  I really do get a tremendous amount of satisfaction hearing from other wine people that my quizzes or outlines have helped in some small part with their studies.

In addition to finding my own groove this year, I was also able to assist others with theirs as well . . .

Supporting Other Endeavors

I have a pact with myself to never agree to write about a product, class, person, wine, whatever that I don’t believe in.  For me, this means turning down certain collaborations – even if they’re offering payment.  However, there were a few opportunities that I jumped at the chance to participate in this year. Not surprisingly, they each had an element of wine education to them:

Cristie Norman launched a unique online wine course for beginners that is both highly educational and entertaining.  Wine Masters released two seasons of their documentary series focusing on winemaking families of France and Italy.  Snooth Media hosted a virtual wine tasting of Sweet Bordeaux wines. And I was thrilled to support each of these ventures – they were all genuinely educational and incredibly well-done.

Completing Half of the WSET Diploma

This past year I completed my third exam for the WSET Diploma – so I’m officially halfway done!  I have the Fortified Exam in less than one month (eek!) and then it’s complete focus on the dreaded Unit 3 Exam for the next five months.  And finally, the research paper which is due at the end of July.  So if all goes well, I should have the Diploma completed by August.

I had hoped to have 4 of the 6 units completed by now, but due to a change in scheduling at my school this didn’t happen.  The Tracy Flick in me was initially annoyed AF, but this WSET Diploma break actually turned out to be a good thing because it allowed me to pursue other things like:

Becoming an Italian Wine Scholar IWS certificate

I completed the Italian Wine Scholar course and passed with Highest Honors!  As I mentioned in a prior blog post, this venture took me quite a bit longer than anticipated, but was well worth the time and effort.  Not only do I have a much better grasp on Italy and its 20 different wine regions and umpteenthousand different grape varieties, but since I passed with such a high mark I also qualified to teach the course!  Which I started to do in 2019 . . .

Teaching Wine Courses

I have two of wonderful mentors up in the Pacific Northwest who gave me some incredible teaching opportunities this past year: Mimi Martin and Tanya Morningstar Darling.  I got my feet wet by leading sections of the Italian Wine Scholar course and WSET Level 2 – and have plans to wade in a bit further in 2020.  I still believe wine education is the direction I’m heading with my future wine career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be certification courses only – because consumer focused classes are just as enjoyable . . .

Presenting Wine and World Views Seminar

Last year, Hubs was in a major bind when he was hosting a wine event at a fancy schmancy SoCal restaurant for some clients when the sommelier at the restaurant resigned just a few days prior to the event.  He asked me to fill-in at the last minute to speak about the wines being served and to lead the discussion with about 50 well traveled wine enthusiasts.

True confession: I’m not overly confident about my public speaking abilities – I get jittery and tend to talk too fast.  (Ok – truer confession: I sweat when I’m nervous!!).  Yes, I know this is ironic since I’m leaning towards wine education which requires speaking in front of others to some degree.  However, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure of (maybe my daily meditation practice, or gaining more confidence in my knowledge) – I really did nail this presentation.  And you know what else – I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it!  Maybe that’s the key: have fun and don’t worry so much about getting every little fact correct.  Give Tracy Flick the night off. 😉

I still have a ways to go before I get truly comfortable speaking in public – but thankfully, I’ve got a couple of very good examples to learn from . . .

Attending Master Classes with Masters

I’m fortunate to be taking my WSET Diploma classes from a Master Sommelier and auditing the French Wine Scholar course from a Master of Wine.  While they’re both incredibly knowledgeable individuals, they also have very different ways of approaching wine studies.  By learning from both of them, I feel like I’m getting the best blend of education and gaining a more thorough understanding of the wine world.

Master WinesThey each teach certification courses, but also focused tasting classes.  And since I have yet to find a tasting group in SoCal (a goal for 2020 – send me a note if you’ve got a lead for me!!), I attended as many of these Master Classes as I possibly could last year – including Brunello, Bollinger, aged Rieslings, Northern Rhône and Vintage Port.  I’m soaking up as much information as I can from these Masters – and some pretty damn good wine too.  Speaking of damn good wine . . .

Traveling to Walla Walla

This last “top wine moment of 2019” hasn’t actually happened yet, and I normally avoid setting my expectations too high but I think in this instance I’m safe.  Hubs and I are on our way to one of my favorite wine regions in the world – Walla Walla.  We’ll be spending my birthday and New Years Eve and Day there, partaking in some wine tasting, and … looking at some property while we are there.

While I’m not sure exactly what Walla Walla has in store for us this visit, I know that at least some part of this adventure will be a highlight of the year.  And, well, perhaps for many years to come!

Happy New Year to All!