I recently had the opportunity to write another piece for The Vintner Project – a collaborative effort of wine writers from around the world who focus on the stories of wineries, and the people behind them.
As mentioned in my previous post about Chenin Blanc, winemakers Vincent and Tania Carême are incredibly passionate about this grape – splitting time between their estates in the Loire Valley and South Africa . . . which basically means working year-round!
Please click through the link above to read the article at The Vintner Project and learn more about the Carêmes as well as the many differences between their two chosen growing regions. Hopefully, some of their enthusiasm for Chenin Blanc will rub off on you . . . I know it did for me!
In college I worked in a sorority house as a dishwasher. In the rare instance that I relay this tidbit of information about my past to someone, without fail they cast a knowing smile, arch an eyebrow, and say something to the effect of “well, that must have been a tough job.” You know what – it was. There was absolutely zero Red Shoes Diaries component to my three hour daily shift of cleaning dishes for 100 girls while standing in what was lovingly referred to as “The Pit.”
Over the past few years I’ve once again become the recipient of that same sly reaction – only this time it happens when I tell people that my wife is a wine student. While I admit it’s better than operating The Pit, there are some legitimate gripes to spending your life with someone who has chosen this particular academic pursuit.
#1 – The Bottles. Sweet Jesus…they…are…everywhere. We are now on our fourth wine refrigerator and the bottles just keep stacking up. It’s like trying to stop springtime. I’ve found them stashed in closets, file drawers, desks, packing boxes, garage cabinets, etc. I think she has a problem. Like a wine hoarder or some other rare affliction we’re going to have to address with an intervention at some point.
This may sound trite – bottles are relatively small and stack easily. Right? Well, here’s a snapshot from move-in day to our new house. To be clear, this is a small house, so you’re looking at approximately 25% of the total square footage. You know it’s become a problem when the UPS guy is passing judgment!
#2 – Knowledge by Association. I know very little about wine (true story). Perhaps slightly more than the average person as a result of being married to a vinophile, but honestly – not much more. Nonetheless, whenever I’m out with friends or co-workers and the wine list is presented they always give it to me because of Noelle. Now, there’s really only two ways I can go here: bullshit my way through it, or try to convince my dining mates that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m a guy, so I obviously choose bullshit every time.
However, once you choose bullshit you have to be totally committed to the bullshit process. Last month I ordered a Picpoul at Gramercy Tavern in New York. Do I know anything about Picpoul? Absolutely not. Do I know it exists only because of Noelle? You betcha. It’s kind of like saying Yellow Ledbetter is your favorite Pearl Jam song – everyone is going to pick Jeremy, so you have to pick a deep track in order to try and impress.
Now, when you try to the bullshit the Somm you’re going to get your test results back immediately. She or he is going to think (but not say) either: “Wow, Picpoul? Well I read this dude all wrong, that’s a great choice – clearly he knows his wine.” or “This guy has absolutely no fucking clue what he is talking about. None. I could serve him apple cider vinegar in a thimble and he wouldn’t say a word.” My results? Winner!! The Somm was incredibly impressed by my choice and we excitedly discussed what paired best with Picpoul with my admiring table guests looking on! (Of course, I bullshitted my way through that conversation as well.) Look, it’s a 50/50 proposition at best when they hand you the wine list, but you have to go for it when Noelle isn’t in attendance.
#3 – The Interrogation. While watching a movie with some friends recently, I asked Noelle to open – and I’m quoting here – “a bottle of white wine.” What followed was a thirty minute interrogation that made the bar exam look like a true/false question on the back of a cereal box: What alcohol level? Old world or new world? Zippy? Passion fruit? What are you guys going to eat with it? Is a little residual sugar ok? My answer was: I don’t care!! Any bottle of white will do. Literally – any bottle.
And so it goes. Every single time I open a bottle in our house I’m forced to render a dissertation on Spain’s climate in 2012, why French oak is vastly superior (or is it vastly inferior?), AVA controversies of the late 1990’s, etc. Want to know why I chose this particular bottle? It was the first one I saw when I opened the door to the wine refrigerator. You want real blasphemy? I didn’t even look at the goddamn label! Chardonnay? Pinot Gris? No idea – don’t care. It’s wet and white, so both boxes are checked in order to pair it with this horrific Velveeta grilled cheese on stale bread I’m currently choking down.
At this point I should be clear that the upside to living with a perpetual wine student far outweighs these pedantic observations. And for the sake of my marriage, I should further say that living with Noelle specifically does the same. However, the next time someone asks me what my wife does for a living, I may consider telling them her prior career “tax lawyer” in order to avoid what inevitably follows. Of course, if I do that I just know I’ll get a tax question about the deductibility of insurance premiums or some other scintillating inquiry. Screw it – I choose wine student.
Earlier this month I took my second exam in my WSET Diploma pursuit – Sparkling Wines of the World. Now that I’m well past the 48 hour restriction on discussing the exam “using social media or otherwise”, and WSET has actually published the questions asked and revealed the wines poured blind, I think I’m safe to write about my thoughts on Unit 5.
A brief aside before I get started: On exam day several people (4 or 5) just didn’t show up. Our instructor waited a few minutes past the 12:30 start time, but no word. Did they get the time wrong? Change their mind at the last minute? Whatever the reason – it’s odd to go that far, pay the course & exam fee, and then not show. Reminds me of when Hubs took the bar exam 20 years ago and a guy sat down next to him with all his testing materials and asked “how long do we have to take this test?” He then left his stuff at the table next to Hubs, said he was going to the restroom before the start of the exam – and never came back. We still wonder what the hell happened to that dude. He’s probably in Congress.
Anyhoo, back to the WSET exam – we were given an hour and five minutes to do both sections: tasting and theory. We could tackle them in either order, so I opted to do the tasting first – thinking that this would take me less time to get through, therefore leaving me longer for the theory section. Well, to quote the sage wisdom of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
UNIT 5 – TASTING.
The three wines were bagged up and each student was responsible for pouring into his or her own glasses. (I’m curious as to the reasoning for this . . . maybe so we can’t claim the instructor mixed up the wines? So we can pour as much or as little as we want? Any thoughts on this?) In any case, when wine #2 was poured, and it was red – I think that threw off a lot of students. I know it threw ME off. You just don’t expect to get a sparkling red on the exam.
We weren’t required to specifically identify the wines, but rather discuss possible grape varieties and an assessment of quality. Surprisingly, we also weren’t asked to write about possible production methods. These were the three wines on my the exam (posted recently on the WSET website):
Wine 1: Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry NV Wine 2: Barossa Valley 2012 Sparkling Shiraz Wine 3: Roederer Quartet NV (Note to self: find this wine – it was delicious!)
After seeing the official reveal of the wines, I feel pretty confident about the tasting portion of the exam. My notes match up fairly well with the wines above, so I don’t believe I missed anything obvious. However, I got so wrapped up in writing slowly and legibly and nailing my aromas (was this ripe pear? Or more of a baked pear?) that I took longer on the tasting then I planned – and then panic started to set in . . .
UNIT 5 – THEORY.
Before starting the tasting portion of the exam, I took a quick peek at the questions for theory – just to make sure there wasn’t anything completely wackadoodle. When I saw the three topics: Transfer Method, Climate and Weather in Champagne, and Limoux, I relaxed a bit. I could at least answer each of those with some semblance of intellect.
But after spending too much time on tasting, I felt rushed when I started in on theory. I got nervous about time constraints and then my hand started shaking (I’m not kidding). This made my handwriting worse than normal – which on a good day is barely legible (see example at left). At one point, my pencil lead broke four times and I just about lost my shit.
Post-exam, other students lamented about their handwriting too, so at least I’m not alone in hoping that the examiners are able to decipher my essays. Seriously though – who the hell handwrites these days?!
There’s no point in stewing about this over the next three months. The exam is done and over with and there’s nothing I can do about it now – except think about how I’ll take what I learned from this Unit and apply it to my next one.
DO use a variety of study materials. For Unit 5 I continued to use my trusty Outlines (of course) as well as flashcards – which were particularly handy when I was on the road or running. Going over the finer points of Champagne trade structures definitely helped take my mind off my aching legs.
I also incorporated practice exams for this round of studying – I highly recommend doing this! A few weeks prior to the exam I made a list of all the topics that I thought could be asked – everything from various pressing methods to Pol Roger to Chilean sparklers. I put them in our oversized Gonzaga cup (Go Zags!!), had Hubs draw out three, and then I’d write a brief essay on each for 30 minutes. This helped me get used to writing for a longer period of time as well as get over that immediate mind blank when you see the subject matter you’re supposed to write on: “Cava?! WTF is Cava?” (Or am I the only one that this happens to?)
DO budget your time. Aim to spend no more than 10 minutes per wine or question on the exam. Each theory question is weighted equally, so it doesn’t make sense to write a lengthy diatribe on one and only a few sentences on another. Bring a watch in case the room you’re in doesn’t have a clock. And you won’t be able to use the clock on your phone.
DO make yourself a roadmap. Before writing out my answers to the theory questions, I sketched out my thoughts on a scratch piece of paper. So instead of jumping right into writing about the Transfer Method – I essentially recreated a very general outline on it: what it was, how it’s different from Traditional Method, where it’s used, what are the pros and cons of it, etc. This gave me a roadmap to follow when writing out my answer and helped me stay on track. In reviewing past WSET Diploma exams, one big issue I’ve noticed is that candidates fail to actually answer the question asked. Making a roadmap helps prevent detours that will only take up precious time and won’t get you any credit.
and finally . . . DON’T PANIC. Take some deep breaths. Sip some water (another DO: bring your own water!) If you’re not getting any aromas from a wine, don’t keep sniffing and swirling – just move on and come back to it later. If you don’t know where to start with a theory question, try to at least answer the basics: what is it, where is it, how is it made, etc.
After finishing Unit 5 I asked myself – would I study any differently? And I honestly don’t think I would. Even though a LOT of what I studied wasn’t even on the exam: no producers, hardly anything on Italy (other than wine #1 being Prosecco), no Spain or Germany, and besides wines 2 & 3 – nada from the New World. However, you never know what you’re going to get asked on these exams – so I’m glad I was prepared for anything. Bottom line: learning shouldn’t be just about passing the exam (says the girl who broke four pencils taking said exam).
And just in case you get Limoux as one of your theory questions too 😉 . . . here’s the outline.
Anyone who has read Bianca Bosker’s “Cork Dork” is undoubtedly familiar with La Paulée. Or at least, the New York City version of it. Bosker dedicates almost an entire chapter in her book to “The Orgy” – the nickname she gives to Paulée. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a member of the La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (aka, the “Chevaliers”), and thus far have attended a grand total of two Paulée. However, neither have reached anywhere near the level of debauchery that she describes – whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, my jury is still out.
After moving earlier this year, I looked into transferring from the Seattle Chevaliers to a local Southern California chapter. And luckily, I found a wonderful group not too far from where we lived.
The first SoCal Chevaliers event I attended was Paulée, which I attended solo as Hubs was out of town. Paulée was traditionally a celebration in Burgundy where Cistercian monks invited their vineyard laborers to a banquet event to culminate the end of harvest. The modern day Chevaliers’ version is a grand dinner party where guests bring a bottle (or two) from their cellars to share with other members. Both Paulée I have attended have been hosted in beautiful stately homes, served with delicious Burgundian-inspired cuisine and fabulous once-in-a-lifetime bottles of wine.
As Bosker says in her book: “The golden rule of La Paulée was bring the best you can bring. Whether you’re a hedge fund CEO or an unemployed journalist, it should hurt just a little.” I’m not going to disclose the amount spent on my bottle for Paulée, mainly because it would be in poor taste. But also because Hubs edits my posts. 😉 Suffice it to say, it did hurt a little.
My wine was a 1998 Domaine Méo Camuzet Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru ‘Aux Brulées’. Purchasing a grand cru probably would’ve meant Hubs leaving me, so I opted for premier cru instead – but made sure it was from a top producer. Plus, founder Étienne Camuzet previously owned the Château du Clos de Vougeot – and was responsible for getting it into the hands of the Confrérie – so that was a fun bit of trivia to share along with the wine. While my bottle was far from being the most prestigious at Paulée, I am pleased to report that I at least held my own.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the extraordinary bottles at Paulée. Not because I didn’t want to (believe me!) – but because nobody else did. And I certainly wasn’t going to be “that person” – especially at my first event at the new chapter. I do wonder about this though . . . are the other members not as impressed with these wines as I am? Is drinking Corton-Charlemagne a regular occurrence for them? Or, since most of the attendees were of a different generation than me, do they just not have the incessant need to document every single wine that they drink on social media? I’m guessing its the latter. And there’s something to be said for that.
A lack of accompanying photographs notwithstanding, here are some of the highlight bottles from the event…
1990 Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru ‘Les Amoureuses’. This was served in a magnum and was simply gorgeous in all its gossamer goodness.
1966 Nuits-Saint-Georges – from a producer I was unfamiliar with and now cannot remember. This reminds me of a quote from Bosker’s book when she refers to her evening at Paulée: “I tasted my favorite wine of the night and I had no idea what it was.” Lesson learned for me though, next time I’ll rush to the loo and write the name down.
1972 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti. This wine would cross off two Biggies on my wine bucket list: a DRC itself, and my first birthyear wine. I say “would” cross off because even though I had a small glass of this wine at Paulée- I’m conflicted because the bottle was missing its label.
Now, I’m absolutely certain that the member who purchased it did so at a reputable auction. Because after master counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan – due diligence has to increase exponentially when it comes to these wines. Since I’ve never had DRC, I have nothing to compare this wine to, but it truly was beautiful. Layered, complex, earthy and still lively (us ’72s are still kicking!)
However . . . I’m a bit cynical. And a wine professing to be DRC, but without a label, gives me pause. So, I’m leaving these boxes on my wine bucket list unchecked. I’ll get to them someday – even though I know when I do, it will hurt A LOT. 😉
(For those interested – I just put up my outline on Vosne-Romanée. Mind you, this is broad overview of the area. Entire books have been dedicated to this village if you’d like something more in depth).
My Unit 5 exam is Wednesday (tomorrow!) and I feel like a bottle of bubbly that’s been aggressively shaken. The pressure is building and I just want to let all this information about sparkling wine fly out of my brain like CO2 frantically escaping its glass bottle. I’ve been studying for this exam for three months now – I am ready to be DONE.
I’ll admit it – I’ve hit a wall. But I’m not overly worried about it because the exact same thing happened back in June near the end of my Unit 2 studies (which I ended up passing with Distinction – woot!). I’m not hitting a wall because I’m disinterested in studying wine (God forbid) – it’s just that my brain is full and I cannot cram in any more information. However, what DOES worry me a bit, is that my upcoming Unit 5 exam is maybe 1/10th the size of the ginormous Unit 3 (which covers all wines of the world – except for sparkling and fortified) which I’ll tackle in early 2020. So, before that time, either my brain has to get bigger or I’ve got to study smarter. I’m hoping for the brain enlargement, but I’ll table officially panicking on that until a later date . . .
I realized that even Hubs is done with my Unit 5 studies when he begged me this past weekend “can we please have something to drink besides bubbles?” This coming from a guy who used to frequently complain that we didn’t have enough sparkling wine in the house. And I know he’s tired of me saying “studying” when he asks “what’s the plan for tonight”? Plus, he’s probably as sick as I am of my outlines laying all over the house – Argentina in the kitchen, Vouvray in the office, Asti in the bathroom (I swear this isn’t an implication of its quality!)
Last Sunday, Hubs & I took a break and went over to a friend’s house to watch our beloved Seahawks. I brought some “leftover” sparkling wines with me (read: ones that I’d opened the night before to study/taste). When the host commented that he didn’t usually like Champagne, but he liked the Champagne that I brought, I promptly informed him that what we were drinking was in fact NOT Champagne, it was sparkling wine from New Zealand – a completely different beast due to climate, varieties used and production method. I’m sure we’ll be getting an invite back to his house soon. Perhaps I should revisit the lesson I JUST learned at my MW tasting regarding humility and how nobody likes a know-it-all.
So – what am I going to do after my exam on Wednesday? Well, for starters, I’m looking forward to catching up on some non-wine reading. You know I’m buried when I let something as pertinent as my subscription to People magazine lapse! I’d also like to finish “nesting” (Hubs’ endearing term for my habit) in our new home . . . which we moved into seven months ago. And I can’t wait to get that fucking “Martini & Rossi – Asti Spumante” jingle out of my head. I’m just excited to look up from my laptop, put away my outlines, and get outside of the house and into this beautiful Southern California weather.
But before I get to all that, I need to go see what the UPS driver just left on my doorstep. It might be my Unit 2 materials for the Italian Wine Scholar exam I’ll be taking in a few months . . .
I recently attended my first in a series of blind tasting classes with Lindsay Pomeroy – newly minted Master of Wine (MW). With the recent cheating scandal surrounding the blind tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam (a completely separate organization from the Institute of Masters of Wine), some people outside – and even inside – the wine industry might wonder why this is even a part of certain higher level certifications. I get it. Blind tasting seems like a rather amusing party trick: here’s a random wine – now guess its varietal, region and vintage! But there’s more to blind tasting . . . at least, there should be.
From my (albeit limited) understanding – the tasting portion of the MW exam focuses a lot on the WHY as opposed to the WHAT. For example – if you believe the wine in your glass is a Barolo – why do you think this? What is it about the color, aromas, structure, complexity, etc. that leads to you Barolo?
With wine certification exams, getting the wine “right” certainly helps – but you also need to be able to explain your answer (remember this with math tests? Show your work!) So when I saw that Lindsay was offering these classes through her business, Wine Smarties, I signed up immediately because I wanted to get an MW’s perspective on blind tasting.
The classes are held in The WineSellar and Brasserie in San Diego – the epitome of a “hidden gem” as it’s tucked away in the back of a very non-descript industrial/business park. Lindsay herself was warm, welcoming and wearing her trademark pink fanny pack (which she claims is coming back in fashion). I liked her right away. 🙂
Our first class focused on identifying the “Classics” – wines such as Burgundy, Brunello, Bordeaux (and no, they don’t all need to start with the letter B – although Hubs did offer up Budweiser and Bud Light to help out further). Although this was only a two hour long class, I can already tell that I am going to learn a ton of invaluable information from this lady. Here’s what I came away with just after the first session:
Make sure ALL your evidence backs up your conclusion. As mentioned earlier – show your work. If the wine in front of me is red with lots of cherry and red berry aromas, some white pepper notes and heat on the finish – does this support a conclusion of Pinot Noir? The berry flavors might, but that white pepper and heat doesn’t. The totality of evidence (good grief, I feel like I’m back in law school!) is more indicative of Grenache.
Put your blinders on and don’t second guess yourself. I have a horrible habit of doing this! In class, we were poured two white wines blind and when the gentleman next to me started to read his notes on the first wine – “lighter bodied, higher acidity, herbal notes, white pepper – I’m guessing it’s a Grüner” . . . I panicked. Because this is what I had written for the SECOND wine.
I immediately assumed that I was in error, or that I must have mixed up my wines. So when I was asked my thoughts on wine #1, I read my description for wine #2 (including “it reminds me of a green salad”) which garnered some odd looks. Because as it turns out, I HADN’T mixed up my wines, my neighbor was just off base. And I didn’t trust myself enough to stick to my own notes – where I had called the second wine a Grüner (which it was). The first was a village level Chablis – which should not remind anyone of a green salad.
Don’t jump to conclusions based on one (or even two) facts. I took a deep inhale of the last red wine and got aromas of tar and asphalt. Right away this led me to Pinotage. I hung onto that assumption and didn’t let go. Despite other evidence to the contrary – like extreme depth and complexity and higher than normal tannins. I also ignored the fact that to put Pinotage in a blind tasting flight of Classic wines that Lindsay would have to be a complete psychopath.
The wine ended up being a 2013 Brunello – which made a lot more sense.
Humility. I’m getting to the point in my wine education where more and more obnoxious know-it-alls are rearing their ugly heads. And this is coming from someone who went to law school – so I’m incredibly well versed in this particular species of jackass. I’m looking right at you, guy on Facebook who called the WSET Level 3 “ridiculously easy” and claimed to have passed with distinction after not studying for it at all! (Perhaps I need to put my blinders from above on when it comes to these sorts of people as well).
Lindsay is one of 380 people in the world to have achieved the MW certification(!!!). Her depth and breadth of wine knowledge could run circles around us students. Yet during our class, she never spoke above us and she barely mentioned her MW achievement. She has a quiet air of confidence about her, but there was no ego or bragging. I think the wine world could use a few more Lindsays.
More lessons to follow . . . my next class is later this month!