Focusing on What’s Important (MW Marathon Lap 3)

This was a tough lap.  But I learned a lesson that I’ll undoubtedly keep coming back to during my MW Marathon.

Since the turn of the last calendar page, I’ve been gearing up for the Stage 1 seminar.  As newbies, this will be our first official foray into the MW program with several days filled with mock exams, tastings and panel discussions.  Other S1 seminars around the world have been postponed due to Covid, but the North America seminar (in my beloved Washington state!) is going forward. It also sounds like our S1 assessment exam (originally scheduled for early June) will be delayed as well.

We’ve also been given our first assignments! (yes, that’s an exclamation point because I am genuinely excited about them!) These aren’t mandatory per se, but based on what I hear through the grapevine these assignments can be taken into account in determining whether a S1 student is ready to move onto Stage 2.  The assignments are excellent exam practice and we’ll receive feedback from MWs . . . better to find out early on where you’re going wrong, right?  Plus, the assignments are part of the S1 program fees – so we’ve already paid for them.  Barring an emergency, why the hell wouldn’t I take the time to do them?!

I was mid-way through completing an assignment when I received a text that my Dad was going into hospice care. (I tried to come up with a smoother segue for this, but there really isn’t any). He’d had a recent bout with pneumonia and had been in the hospital for a few days.  At 90, we all knew that bouncing back would be a struggle, but many in my family were optimistic.  Including me.

Reality set in with that text.

After going on a walk with Hubs to calm down so I could make some clear headed decisions, I came back home and booked my flight to Washington state leaving the next day. I needed to pack for several days of cold weather, notify family and friends of my flight arrangements, and cancel appointments for the week. But instead of frantically tackling these things, I sat down at my desk and finished that assignment.  Obviously, my brain was not in the best space, but I wanted to complete it.  And I knew my Dad would encourage me to finish it . . . he’s been like that ever since I can remember.

Growing up, he constantly told me I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to.  And I know it frustrated the crap out of him when I didn’t give something my best effort (like the D+ in 7th grade science.)  I’ve never been a Sheldon Cooper, but I’m intelligent enough and fiercely determined. Which, much to my metallurgical engineer Dad’s dismay, was never in the science realm.  So even with everything else going on that day – I finished my MW assignment because I wanted to give it my best effort.

Last September, I visited my Dad shortly after being accepted in the MW program.  I explained to him what the next several years would entail for me, but he wasn’t fully able to process the magnitude of this program.  However, as a lifelong amateur astronomer, he DID understand that more people have gone into space than have become MWs!

This time, I brought along my MW study materials and trusty laptop because I knew I’d have a lot of downtime.  But I never touched them. Although I did have a lot of downtime, what I didn’t have was focus.  I wasn’t able to concentrate on anything other than what was going on with my Dad.  So, I sat with him.  Talked to him.  Held his hand. Gathered around him with family telling stories and sharing memories.

After being up in my hometown for nearly a week, I mentioned my “lack of focus” in an email to my business partner and amazing friend, Amber.  Her response to me was:

Noelle, you are focusing. You are focusing where your head and heart are and that is with your dad and family. Don’t beat yourself up over a distraction. We live in a world of distraction, every day of our lives. It’s okay to set that aside now. You are exactly where you should be and all your brainpower is exactly where you need it to be.

After reading her reply, I knew she was right (as usual!).  So instead of plowing through the rest of my emails that morning, I opted to head upstairs to see my Dad.

His room was quiet and peaceful and the morning sunlight had just started to peek in through the windows.  My wonderful stepmom was with the night nurse standing by his bedside.  I joined them and with our hands all resting on him, we chatted about how he was doing.  We noticed his breathing getting quite slow and then – it just stopped. 

Had I taken the time to read through my emails, I probably wouldn’t have been there for his last moments.

While my Dad wasn’t able to communicate very well during his final days, he knew I was there with him.  I have no regrets that I spent hours sitting with this wonderful man as opposed to cracking open my studies.  There will always be time to study, but I will never get time back with my Dad.  I’m so thankful that I focused on what was important for those days.

The MW program is a priority for me and will be for the next several years.  But it won’t always be my main focus.  Maybe this attitude will be my downfall, but maybe it will help me succeed.  In any case, I will give the program my best effort.  For my Dad – and for myself. 

Me & Dad ❤

The First 100 Days (MW Marathon Lap 2)

I’m just getting started on my MW studies and have found that (so far!) the most complicated part of being an MW student is explaining to others how the program works!  There aren’t required classes to attend or mandatory assignments to complete.  No assigned textbooks, set schedule, or instructors.  It is truly a self-study feat that will take around 3 to 7 (or more!) years and cost thousands.  So, I completely understand why I get some weird looks and lots of questions from friends and relatives outside the wine world – and from a handful of those inside the wine world as well. 😉

Thankfully, the IMW provides several opportunities throughout the year for more structured learning.  There is a weeklong seminar for first year MW students (we’re referred to as “S1” for “stage 1” – which reminds me of being labeled a “1L” in law school).  S1 students can chose from one of three seminars throughout the world: Austria, Australia – and my beloved Washington state!  What are the chances?!  The seminar takes place in February, so I’ll go into details about that week in an upcoming post. 

S1 students also have optional coursework assignments to submit for feedback (which I’ll obviously do, and which obviously doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this).  And there are “course days” to help students work on their theory and tasting techniques and, again, are optional to attend.  Course days take place all over the world – for me in the US, it looks like Napa and New York would be the closest locations. However, none have been scheduled . . . yet.

After finding out I was accepted into the program in September, I celebrated by spending a few heavenly, study-free days at a spa in Arizona.  And on the day after I returned home (which was exactly 100 days before the end of the year) – I hit the books.  So, I put together a “First 100 Days” schedule.

The phrase “First 100 Days” usually applies to a politician’s first 100 days in office.  It started in 1933 after Franklin D. Roosevelt made sweeping changes during his first few months as President of the United States – including getting the ball rolling on abolishing Prohibition.  Since then, U.S. presidents are often measured by how ambitious and successful they are in their first 100 days in office.

Obviously, I’m not a U.S. President. Nonetheless, I thought having a “First 100 Days” plan for my MW pursuit would be a great way to start off the program.  So, I created what I intended to be an ambitious, but realistic plan, to accomplish the following:

            Review of Viticulture and Winemaking.  It’s been a while since my Viti/Vini unit of the WSET Diploma so I need a thorough review of these areas.  And these are two of the four possible subjects that might show up on my S1 exam in June. I picked up ‘Vines and Vinification’ by Sally Easton, MW with the aim of reading it and putting it all into an (you guessed it!) outline that I’ll use as a base for future studies.  (BTW – I cannot recommend this book highly enough!  It’s super organized, detailed, and easy to follow).

Hands down the best book on viti & vini that I’ve found!

            Revisit Classic Wines (Blind and Open Label).  I drafted a list of around 50 wines with the goal of sitting down with 3 or so a week and sketching out tasting notes and answers to mock MW questions.  I also intended to research the wines’ tech sheets and use these to make links from viti and vini to what’s in the glass.

            Weekly Essay Practice. Part of the S1 exam (called “S1A” for “stage 1 assessment”) is based on past MW questions.  These are all published on the IMW website.  I tackled several in preparation for the entrance exam and wanted to keep up the momentum by researching and writing one per week.

So that WAS my “First 100 Days” plan . . . and you know what they say about the best laid plans. 😉  Needless to say, I’ve pivoted from this for a couple of good reasons:

Reason #1 is the launch of Élevage Wine Coaching with my good friend Amber LeBeau! Amber and I were in the same study group – meeting virtually every week with about 10 other WSET Diploma students from around the world.  We started in Summer 2020 and, in addition to studying D3, we became an incredible support network for one another. 

After completing the Diploma, Amber & I realized how fortunate we were to have had each other and our study group for support and encouragement.  So, we created Élevage Wine Coaching with the aim of providing students study support and helping them maintain their enjoyment of wine throughout their studies.  We’re just getting our venture off the ground – and I cannot wait to see where it goes!

My new business to help wine students succeed: Elevage Wine Coaching!

Reason #2 is that I realized I needed to ease into the MW program more . . . easily.  By trying to do all of these things right out of the gate in my “First 100 Days” – I wasn’t doing any of them particularly well.  I’m on my first steps of a very long program, pacing myself is key.

My “New and Improved First 100 Days” plan is a thorough focus on Viti and Vini review.  After I’ve completed the book, I’ll get on with blind tasting practice and essay writing in January.  I’m thankful for all that “extra” prep work I did for the entrance exam earlier this year – turns out my 40 or so outlines for past MW questions were definitely not a waste of time!

I fully acknowledge that in a few months I’m going to have to juggle many areas of study for the S1A. But that’s not right now.  The MW program is going to test my ability to focus on the “right now” instead of “what’s ahead.”  I worked a lot on practicing mindfulness at the spa in Arizona.  And it was pretty fucking easy at that time because . . . I was at a SPA IN ARIZONA!!  Keeping mindful in the real world is a bit more of a challenge.

But I’m up for challenges.

Relaxing Pre-MW Study Days, Being Mindful & Doing Nothing

“Welcome to the Program!” (MW Marathon Lap 1)

I got the news last week that I was admitted into the MW program! So (whew!) all that effort I put into my application and the entrance exam was worth it. 🙂

Since receiving this email, my feelings have been a blend of excited with a sense of accomplishment and a dash of nervousness. There’s a well-known saying amongst first year law students: “Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year.”  And while this wasn’t an accurate statement about my law school experience, I suspect it might be about my MW experience.  More people have gone into space than have successfully passed the MW exam.  Although that exam is a couple years away, that’s still a rather daunting statistic for us Stage 1 MW students. 

When I started law school, I knew the bar exam was looming after graduation and that I would need to pass it in order to become an actual lawyer. Likewise, I know that there’s a Stage 1 Assessment exam (probably in June 2022), then the Stage 2 MW exam, and finally a 10,000-word research paper to complete in order for me to become an actual Master of Wine.

However, I’m not going to worry about all that right now.  I’m going to approach the MW program like I’m training for a race: I’ll keep the end goal in sight – but I’m going to focus my attention on the next step in front of me. 

Truth be told, I have never particularly enjoyed running.  However, there were a few years in my life when I was a runner.  It was good for blowing off steam and stress and many a flashcard was reviewed while putting one foot painfully in front of the other.  But I didn’t start off running a marathon – I started with a program called Couch to 5k.

The Couch to 5K program (or C25K) basically takes a non-runner from sitting on their ass to running a 5k (3.1 miles) in 9ish weeks.  The program starts off VERY slowly – something like 20 minutes total with alternating running one minute and walking for 90 seconds.  But by easing into it – you’re better able to avoid shin splints, burnout and aching knees.  And by breaking down the larger goal of 5K into smaller, manageable sized steps it made the whole process a lot less painful – mentally and physically.

So I’ll take the MW program one step at a time.  Sometimes I’ll be running fast, pain free and (hopefully) with that elusive runner’s high. But other times I’ll be walking . . . or even limping along.  And there will be times when I stop moving altogether so I can catch my breath.

But for right now, I’m going to treat these next couple of weeks as doing some really enjoyable stretching before my first laps.  I want to enjoy this moment – because I know I’ve got a long run ahead of me.

Me after finishing my first 5K – The Polar Bear Plunge in Seattle, WA

The Masters of Wine Marathon: The Entrance Exam

In my last blog post, I detailed the Master of Wine application process up to the actual entrance exam.  The Master of Wine entrance exam is the final hurdle to apply for the program – consisting of a 90 minute theory section and a 90 minute practical (tasting) section.  Applicants can attempt either section first and the sections can be taken on different days or both hammered out on the same day.

Here’s a little more detail on what the theory exam looks like: (Richard Hemming also covers this on the IMW website – and clearly he’s more knowledgeable about this than I am!)

Theory Section:

Applicants have 90 minutes to answer one question.  The question needs to be answered in an essay format and should be presented in a logical and factual manner. Each point made should be supported by evidence and examples from the world of wine. Logic, facts and evidence . . . as a former lawyer, this is music to my ears! In other words, this is not a brain dump of everything you know about a subject matter. There’s no set word count – but Richard Hemming gives an example of somewhere between 700 to 1,200 words (for point of reference – this blog post is about 1,400 words)

The entrance exam questions are past MW exam questions – or at least very, very similar.  The MW exam covers five topics:

  • Viticulture
  • Vinification & Pre-Bottling Procedures
  • Handling of Wine
  • Business of Wine
  • Contemporary Issues

However, the entrance exam will only cover four of these.  I’ve heard that the “Contemporary Issues” isn’t included on the entrance exam because the IMW wants to test applicants on their technical knowledge for admittance.  Not sure if this is true or not, but it does make sense.

MW exam questions from the past 20 years (!!) can be found on the IMW website. For the entrance exam, applicants will choose one question from three options.  The past two years’ entrance exams are also published on the IMW website (seriously – how fantastic is this transparency?!) Actual entrance exam questions change every day during the application process – smart move on the IMW’s part to prevent collusion amongst applicants. Which I’d like to think doesn’t happen at this level, but then I remember what happened with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Of the two exams, theory was the one I was most nervous about, so I spent most of my time preparing for this section.  My “strategy” for this hurdle was three-fold:

1.  Review Past MW Exam Questions From 2015 Onward. The idea of reviewing 20 years worth of questions was just too daunting and seemed like overkill for the entrance exam . . . and that’s coming from me – the QUEEN of overkill.  So, I decided to focus on the past 6 years worth of questions. Interestingly, there does seem to be a number of topics that come up on the regular – yes, I’m looking at you sulfite levels.

2.  Focus Most of My Preparation on Q1 and Q4.  Based on my research, Viticulture (Q1) and The Business of Wine (Q4) come up as an option on every entrance exam – with Vinification (Q2) & Wine Handling (Q3) rotating as the topic of the third option.  As a result, most of my research and prep work was done on past Viti and Wine Business questions.  And while I didn’t completely ignore Q2 & Q3, since these are already my weaker spots, I didn’t spend precious hours spinning my wheels on these subjects for the entrance exam.  If admitted to the program, I figure I’ll have several years to figure out all things Vini and Wine Handling.  Well, probably not ALL things . . .

3.  Outline (!!) the Main Points for Each Topic.  Outlines have worked for me for over 25 years now, and they’re the basis for this blog – so I can’t stop now!  For the entrance exam, I outlined 40+ questions and did a cursory review of about a dozen others. The whole process made think about wine in different ways, like: what should vineyard managers do to prepare for a labor shortage? Are supermarkets a positive force for mainstream wine consumers? Does pale colored rosé mean that the wine is better quality? 

For those of you doing the math at home, yes – I had to answer only ONE question and I prepared for about 50.  However, this process was by no means a waste of time because if I DO get in – the Stage 1 Assessment exam for MW students is also based on past MW questions.  So, having already reviewed and outlined several of these questions – I’ll at least have a start for my studies.  And if I don’t get in . . . well, I learned a lot of interesting things about wine.

Alrighty, that takes care of the Theory portion of the entrance exam.  Now let’s look at the Tasting section, which Richard Hemming also briefly covers on the IMW website.

Tasting Section:

Applicants have 90 minutes to answer a series of questions about four wines.  The entrance exam wines are released on the IMW website prior to the exam – so, obviously, the goal is not to simply identify the wines.  Applicants can either purchase and taste these wines or do a “dry note” based off of tech sheets, etc. 

Also, this is NOT writing a WSET style tasting note (Halle-fucking-lujah!)  This type of note might help you draw your conclusions – but the note itself is not what the IMW is looking for.  Historically, questions that have been asked include: identify variety and origin, discuss quality with reference to winemaking techniques, comment on the method of production and who would buy this wine.  Truth be told, I much prefer this approach for tasting notes as opposed to the regurgitation of five aroma descriptors and rote applicable of BLIC. 

My strategy for how to prepare for the tasting (aka practical) section of the entrance exam was also three-fold:

1.  Attend the Online MW Intro Course.  The IMW ran several introductory online live webinars in the months leading up to the entrance exams and I HIGHLY recommend anyone considering the program sign up for one as soon as the dates are released.  The moderators walk attendees through the entire program, the application process and go through a practice tasting “MW style.”  After the course, I had a better understanding of what the IMW is looking for on the entrance exam and what evidence would help “prove” my conclusions of variety, origin, quality, etc.

2.  Practice a Ton of Open Label Tasting.  Since the entrance exam isn’t blind, doing lots of blind tasting as prep work wasn’t going to be overly beneficial to me.  Instead, I practiced writing “MW style” tasting notes a couple times a week and answered hypothetical questions about what’s in the glass – origin, production methods, consumer appeal, etc.  This helped me get into a groove with the IMW way of analyzing a wine.

3.  Learn the Shit out of the Wines.  The 2021 entrance exam wines were:

  • Wine 1: 2019 Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany (approx. £15/$20)
  • Wine 2: 2019 Riesling (dry), Alsace, France (approx. £17/$23)
  • Wine 3: Pale Cream Sherry, Jerez, Spain (approx. £13/$18)
  • Wine 4: Dry Amontillado Sherry, Jerez, Spain (approx. £22/$30)
Entrance Exam Wines (minus the Pale Cream Sherry)

For the life of me, I couldn’t find a Pale Cream Sherry anywhere (perhaps because over 90% of these wines are exported to the UK!)  So I did a dry note for this one, but purchased the other three wines. In addition to tasting the wines (over & over), I also tracked down tech sheets, researched what these styles typically tasted like and how they were produced, and also read up on popularity (or lack thereof in this case) amongst mainstream consumers for these wine styles.

The Actual Entrance Exam!

I opted to get the tasting exam out of the way first and then take theory the following week.  The IMW also had a mock exam, not necessarily to test your knowledge, but to get familiar with their online system.  This was quite helpful – anything to remove exam day stress is key! 

Without going into too much detail – for both exams, I’m happy with how much (and how) I prepared.  The IMW will release the entrance exam questions in a few months, so I’m not going to jump the gun and disclose them here.  In looking back, I put in a LOT of effort just to gain acceptance to the program.  But I wasn’t going to start off half-assed.  I wanted to give it my best shot – and I did.

And now I just wait . . . I’ll find out in early September if I’ve been admitted to the program.  Either way – I’ll let you know!

The Masters of Wine Marathon: The Application Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nine Hurdles of the MW Application Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My personal assessment: Very Good.  In short:

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

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

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

Final hurdle: Entrance Exam

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

Stay tuned!