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The Party Bus: Something to Beware . . . or Behold?

Anyone who has ever worked in a winery tasting room knows the drill.  A big ol’ party bus pulls up outside, a pile of people (let’s be honest – usually women) who have been imbibing all day stumble off, laughing raucously, snapping selfies or asking the driver to take yet another “quick picture” by the winery sign.  As the group approaches – the tasting room staff concocts excuses like “I gotta go run inventory” or “I think the Riesling needs another racking today.”  Anything that will get them out of the tasting room ASAP.

Beware the party bus.

I get it.  I empathize with tasting room staff when it comes to party busses.  Often these groups are loud, take up a lot of room, don’t listen when you’re describing the oak aging regime of your reserve Chardonnay, and if you haven’t been drinking with them all day – they’re pretty fucking annoying.  (Come to think of it – even if you HAVE been drinking with them all day you might feel this way).

Party Bus 1
I spy a party bus!

Instagram is full of snarky memes mocking these groups – how they all dress alike, traipse through vineyards or sit on barrels for “content”, and know next to nothing about wine. But before you write them all off as obnoxious wine newbies who just want free tastings – allow me to give you a little insight inside the bus.

Splits on the party bus
I might have regretted this later

Once a year for the past fifteen years, I’ve been a member of one such party bus.  I have engaged in typical party bus behavior like doing splits in my jeans while listening to Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’ and making smoochy faces to countless winery dogs (this IS typical – isn’t it?).  I have also partaken in some not-so-typical party bus behavior like talking with tasting room staff about concrete fermentation, the recent spread of phylloxera in my Beloved Washington state and pending AVA applications.

Me with Bud Cooper
Bud is thrilled to see me!

Now, I realize that there are some party bus groups that try to get out of paying tasting fees, or steal glassware, or puke in the dump bucket.  However, I think of these groups like corked wine.  They don’t occur regularly (maybe between 2-5% of the time) and you wouldn’t write off all wine just because you had one that was flawed – would you?

If we’re going to stick with wine analogies (Hubs hates these!) – my party bus is a mixed case.  While the other gals are not nearly as nerdy about wine as I am, many are better traveled (Mendoza, Sicily – two wine regions on my bucket list!).  One can pronounce French labelling terms like nobody’s business.  And some own easily twice as many bottles as I do – and belong to a lot more wine clubs as well.

My most recent Gals Wine Weekend trip took us to one of my favorite wine regions – Walla Walla.  This year, I kept a close eye on how we were treated by tasting room staff. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised – there were a number of wineries who behold the party bus!  Two in particular are worth a quick mention . . .

Neil Patrick Harris Sleight of Hand Cellars
NPH – wine label model and wine club member!

It’s almost not fair to compare other wineries to Sleight of Hand Cellars.  They are a Grand Cru of fun tasting rooms – I mean, they have a magician for fuck’s sake!  They were our first stop of the day and Traci and her tasting room staff set the bar pretty high – they were welcoming and FUN.  Where else can you select an old-school, vinyl album to be played during your tasting, get your picture taken in a photo booth, all under the watchful eye of Neil Patrick Harris (his face graces the label of their Bordeaux style blend).  Just like their eclectic album selection, Sleight of Hand’s wines are a wide range – from a zippy Riesling to a funky Syrah.

Our last stop of the day was The Walls who were welcoming and waiting for us. (I usually feel for the staff at our last stop because we are past our peak by this point.)  We sipped through several of their wines – favorites were ‘Lip Stinger’ white Rhone blend and Gaspard Syrah.  Our host gave us the entertaining backstory on the name of the winery (a play on the Washington State Penitentiary located a few miles away) as well as their ever-prevalent cartoon illustration – Stanley Groovy.  One of the students in the first WSET class I taught is currently the hospitality manager and we all got in on this lovely photo together before walking out with several cases. Party Bus 2

It Pays to Behold the Party Bus – Literally.

According to a recent wine industry report, Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales account for over 60% of an average family winery’s revenue.  The biggest DTC channels are wine clubs and tasting rooms.  And unfortunately, consumers are visiting fewer tasting rooms when they travel to wine country – often seeking out just a couple of their favorite spots, or wineries providing the best experiences.

Tip for tasting room staff: honestly, with party bus groups, often it’s not about how good your wine is – it’s how you treat us.  Over the years we’ve had a number of awesome experiences at wineries who produce good, but not mind-blowing, wines.  However – because of how fantastic the staff were to us and their welcoming attitude – we’ve bought bottles, signed up for club memberships, recommended them to others, put them on our social media, and been repeat visitors.

On the other hand, if we’re treated condescendingly or there’s an unwelcome attitude – we don’t buy.  Even if the wine is good.  This happened only once on our most recent trip, and interestingly it was a winery whose wines I really enjoy.  Unfortunately, the staff didn’t crack a smile our entire visit, gave an incredibly curt answer to the common question “how did [insert winery] get its name?” and made us feel like we were an imposition in his fairly empty tasting room. Not surprisingly – we walked out empty handed.

I’ve worked at a wine store, and I know that sometimes you just don’t feel like dealing with a large, boisterous group of wine tasters.  But as a member of a party bus, I also know that we’re not usually asking for much.  Your wine doesn’t have to have a big score, or win a bunch of local awards, or be certified and blessed by any organic or biodynamic organization.  We will not remember these things!  But we WILL remember Susie at Two Mountain Winery and Neil (and Bud!) at Cooper Wine Company because they were excited to have us in their tasting room and went above and beyond to make us feel welcome.

And on a personal note, since I moved away from my Beloved Washington state last year – I’ve come to realize how important this party bus group is to me.  It’s hard to find women who support each other, who cheer each other on instead of compete with one another, and with whom you can just be your silly-ass self.  Like I said – this group is 15 years strong.  I hope we keep going . . . because I plan on attempting my splits well into my 60s.  Won’t THAT be something to be behold? 😉

Party Bus 6
Party Bus – Vintage 2019

 

Sweet Bordeaux: A Delicious Way to Slow Down and Savor the Holidays

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in my first virtual wine tasting with Snooth media.  When they reached out to me about the theme of the tasting – the sweet wines of Bordeaux – I was thrilled.  I have a soft spot (or should I say “sweet spot”?) for these wines.  They are some of the most labor intensive wines produced in the world – and, unfortunately, some of the most misunderstood.

Sweet wines aren’t very popular with the modern day wine consumer.  Perhaps its because we had a bad experience with a “sweet wine” early in our drinking days (I’m looking at you Boone’s Farm).  Or perhaps its because we erroneously associate “sweet” with a drink that’s overly sugary and cloying.

Sweet Bordeaux wines are naturally sweet and balanced with a refreshing acidity.  To develop these natural sugars, grapes require a very specific type of environment that only a few areas of the world can provide.  Taking into account all the time and effort that goes into production, sweet Bordeaux wines are also an incredible value – not one of the bottles we received was over $40.

These wines are incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed with, or without, food. Instead of the usual sparkling wine, sweet Bordeaux wines would be a unique and memorable way to welcome your holiday guests. These wines are delicious with a wide range of foods – try them with spicy dishes as the sweetness tends to balance some of the heat.  And they’re perfect for “Thanksgiving halftime” – after dinner is done, but before dessert is served.

The virtual tasting was hosted by Snooth Media and Master of Wine Jean K. Reilly. The text feed and video of the tasting can be found here.  But before I go over my tasting notes, let’s take a brief look at Bordeaux – its history, varieties grown and why they’re able to produce such delicious sweet wines.

Bordeaux: A Bit of Background.

In 1453, at the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War (fun fact: actually 116 years), the French reclaimed the Bordeaux region from the British.  Shortly thereafter they began exporting wine to the Netherlands.  The Dutch quickly became Bordeaux’s dominant trading partner – but they wanted white wine and sweet whites, as opposed to the red “claret” that had been so popular with the British for centuries.

From 1670 to the 1970s, Bordeaux produced more white wine than red.  Today, however, red wine accounts for about 90% of Bordeaux production.  Sweet wine production is decreasing due to falling consumer demand for this style.

Bordeaux sweet wines are produced from three grape varieties:

  • Sémillon – usually dominates the blend, but its acreage is shrinking due to the decreasing popularity of sweet wines. Sémillon adds notes of tropical fruit, honey, apricot and nectarine as well as a lanolin-like texture.
  • Sauvignon Blanc – provides zesty notes of citrus and grapefruit and refreshing acidity.
  • Muscadelle – a small percentage of this variety (5% or less) is added to sweet wines to boost aromatics.

The overall climate of Bordeaux is maritime – it is strongly influenced by several bodies of water including the Atlantic Ocean, the Gironde Estuary, and the Dordogne and Garonne rivers.  The region receives an abundance of rainfall (about 35 inches annually).  Bordeaux’s sweet wine AOCs are clustered in one specific area within the region.  And there’s a noble reason for this.

The most desired sweet wines are produced from grapes that have been affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea – aka, “noble rot”.  Noble rot requires specific conditions to develop: (1) fully ripe grapes, and (2) humid, misty mornings followed by sunny, dry afternoons.

In Bordeaux, at the confluence of the Ciron and Garonne rivers, cold water mingles with warm to create morning mists.  The warmth of the region’s afternoon sun burns off this mist and keeps noble rot from developing into grey rot (which is the evil stepsibling of noble rot – it can destroy crops).  The noble rot fungus grows on the grapes and penetrates the skins – feeding off of water, sugar and acids inside the berry.  During this process, water content is reduced by half while acids, sugars and flavors are concentrated.

Hand harvesting these nobly rotted grapes can extend over a period of 4-8 weeks and requires multiple passes through the vineyards.  As a general rule, one vine’s worth of botrytized grapes results in 1-3 glasses of wine.  Botrytized grapes have ten times (!!) the normal number of aromatic compounds – resulting in wines with intense aromas of pineapple, honey, apricot and dried fruit.

Bordeaux: The Tasting.

We tasted through 11 (!) bottles of sweet Bordeaux during the virtual tasting.  Many are available in the United States and would be lovely wines to serve, share or gift during the holidays. Seven of these bottles come in a handy 375mL size – and I think this is key to winning over new consumers. It’s challenging to commit to purchasing a standard sized bottle of something you’re not familiar with or unsure of whether or not you’ll like.  Below are my tasting notes as well as prices and bottle sizes.

Disclaimer: All wines below were provided as media samples for the Snooth Virtual Tasting. Tasting notes and opinions are my own. Virtual tasting

1. Château de Marsan 2017 Bordeaux Moelleux, 11% abv (not currently imported)
80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Surprised me that this is only 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Tastes like pink grapefruit with dash of sugar sprinkled on top. Has herbal qualities that the other wines don’t seem to have. Acidity is a bit lower too – and just a touch of sweetness. Pleasant and easy-drinking.

2. Château Majoureau 2018 Côtes de Bordeaux Saint-Macaire Doux, 12% abv (not currently imported)
90% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Aromas are fairly faint, and a bit more floral and spicy than honeyed fruit. On the palate – apples and spice, reminds me of a thick, rich apple cider. Compared to the other wines in the lineup, this wine is rather simple. Makes me wonder if it’s a bit too young at this point?

3.  Château de Marsan 2015 Premiéres Côtes de Bordeaux Moelleux, 12% abv ($40) 80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle
Notes: Ripe tropical fruits – mango and pineapple. Crisp acidity balances out the sweetness (the acidity actually seemed to fade after the glass had been sitting out and warming up – so my advice is to drink fast or pour less in your glass!). Lengthy, spicy finish.

4. Château des Arroucats 2017 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, 13.5% abv ($14)
92% Semillon, 8% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Honeysuckle, beeswax and spiced pear.  I want to say this is almost gravelly . . . so I’m going to: this is gravelly!  Rich and luscious but with great acidity.  Spicy finish.  I had to go back and double check the price on this one – what an insane value!! This is in my top 3 of the lineup.

Top 3 Golden Bordeaux
My 3 Favorites! 🙂

 

5. Château Loupiac Gaudiet 2016 Loupiac, 13% abv ($17/375mL)
Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Gorgeous golden color, aromas of honey, candied ginger, orange marmalade. Fuller bodied with an oily texture. Slightly nutty on the palate with flavors of hazelnuts and apricots. Bright acidity balances out the sweetness. This is also one of my favorites of the lineup – balanced, complex, lengthy finish – and delicious!

6. Château Ségur du Cros 2018 Loupiac, 13.5% abv (not currently imported)
85% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle
Notes: Milder aromas – but wow on the palate! Intensely flavorful and loaded with tropical fruits like mango and pineapple. Super fruity, balanced by refreshing acidity, with some candied ginger emerging as it warmed up in the glass.

7.  Château La Rame 2016 Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont, 13% abv ($30/375mL)
75% Sémillon, 25% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Delicious aromas of peach nectar, honeysuckle, nuts, and orange marmalade. On the palate – quite viscous and a warming sensation (makes me feel like this is more than 13% abv, but still in balance). Long finish with a dash of spice at the end. One of my favorites!

8. Château du Cros 2016 Loupiac, 13.5% abv ($21/375mL)
90% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: this wine smelled off/funky ☹  So, since the bottle was faulty, I won’t opine on the wine.

9. Château Costeau 2016 Cadillac, 13.5% abv ($18)
Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc
Notes
: Medium gold color.  On the nose there’s spice, ginger, toasted nuts and orange peel.  And even though this descriptor is frowned upon – I’d call this sweet wine more masculine, almost smoky.

10. Château Dauphiné-Rondillon 2009 Loupiac, 13.5% abv ($23/375mL)
80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Medium gold color.  Loads of tertiary aromas like caramel and hazelnuts. Holy moly this is luscious!! Rich, full bodied.  I’m getting some oak on this too – like burnt toast. Acidity is slightly diminished (understandable – this is 10 years old). Like most old wines, I can appreciate this – but it’s not my favorite. I prefer the younger, fresher styles (Hubs IS a whopping 7 months younger than me after all!) 😉

Aged BDX cork11. Château du Pavillon 2002 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, 13% abv (not currently imported) 80% Semillon, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Muscadelle
Check out the aged cork on this one!  Tertiary aromas of caramel, nuts and graham cracker.  (And am I imagining marshmallow crème aromas because of the graham cracker?!)  The nose on this is just delicious. Similar flavors on the palate – with some expected diminished acidity from ageing.

As mentioned earlier, one vine of botrytized grapes produces only 1-3 glasses of wine.  There is so much time, energy and effort that go into producing just ONE bottle of sweet Bordeaux.  Likewise, there is a lot of time, energy and effort expended by most people during the holidays.  We stress out to find the perfect gift, to cook a delicious meal, to be the consummate hostess or to attend the umpteenth obligatory holiday party.

What if instead of madly running around and fighting traffic (or fighting family members), we took some time to just leisurely enjoy a wine that simply can’t be rushed. These wines are produced slowly – the development of noble rot and weeks of hand harvesting cannot be hurried along.  They take their sweet time. 😉 Bordeaux sweet wines are a perfect way to slow down, and savor, your holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study Materials: Books v. Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exams: IRAC Method v. SAT Method

 

IRAC v. SAT

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

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

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

What is Jimmy’s cause of action against Sam?

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

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

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

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

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

Final Hurdle: Bar Exam v. Unit 3 Exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student: 25 year old v. 46 year old

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

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

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

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

Friends pivot

I need a Pivot Strategy.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Teaching.

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

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

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

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

Tasting.

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

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

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

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

Traveling.

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

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

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

Social Media. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Podcasts. 

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

Pursue Other Courses or Certifications.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enthusiasm – High.

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

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

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

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

Responsiveness – Medium Plus.

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

Personal Stories – Medium Minus.

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

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

Spoletino!
Sei un idiota – é Trebbiano Spoletino!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ego – Medium Minus.

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

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

Patience – High.

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

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

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

Knowledge – Medium Plus.

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

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

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

Ability to Have Fun – High.

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

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

 

 

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

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

The good news is . . . I Passed!

The bad news is . . . I Passed.

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

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

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

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

Unit 1 – Case Study Exam.

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

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

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

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

Unit 1 Case Study

And these were my exam questions:

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

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

Review Past Examiners’ Reports.

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

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

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

Stay Out of Those Pesky Rabbit Holes.

Rabbit hole
Hey – whatcha doing down there?

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

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

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

Have Some Stats in Your Back Pocket. Stats in head

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

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

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

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

Consult a Variety of Resources.

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

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

Have an Opinion.

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

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

Other Pre-exam Prep Suggestions.

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

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

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

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

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

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