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 . . .

 

 

 

Just Beginning to Learn About Wine? Start HERE: Cristie Norman Online Wine Course

If you’re a wine lover on Instagram, you’re likely familiar with the name Cristie Norman.  And if you’re not – you should be.  She’s a Certified Sommelier (currently working at the famed Spago in Beverly Hills), a WSET Level 3 holder, and creator of the wine series “Adulting with Alcohol” on YouTube.  And last year, she debuted a wine apparel line with fabulous taglines like “Vote for Pedro Ximénez” or “Run DRC.”

Cristie Norman

Recently, Cristie added to her list of accomplishments with the launch of the Online Wine Course.  She asked various members of the wine community to take the course and give her an honest review and feedback.  You can read my review here.  However, I was so impressed by the course, I decided to dedicate a blog post to reviewing it in a bit more detail . . .

The Online Wine Course is designed for wine newbies – Cristie refers to it as “a Driver’s Ed Course in Wine.”  It covers a wide range of wine topics in a fun and easy to understand way.  The course consists of over 60 short videos – the majority of which are under 2 minutes, which is perfect in keeping with today’s Twitter and Instagram attention spans. You can go at your own pace, doing one video or several at a time.  Another plus: these videos flow into each other – so you can binge watch with minimal effort!

There are handouts corresponding to each video that you can download and/or print out to follow along. And if you know me, you know how much I love handouts. 🙂 You’re much more likely to remember something if you write it down! For anyone doing the course, I highly recommend printing these out and completing them alongside the videos.  They’re helpful for completing the quizzes at the end of each section and, if you’re a super wine geek like me, they would be great to keep in a notebook for future reference.

Yes, there are quizzes.  They’re timed (10 minutes) and either multiple choice or True/False.  But don’t stress – you can take them as many times as you’d like if you miss any questions.  And I might have had to do that . . .

While her website provides an overview as to what’s included in the course – here’s a little more detail – and in outline form of course!

I.  Intro to Wine

II.  How to Taste Wine

A.  Structure – Acidity, Tannin & Sugar

B.  Aromas/Flavors

III.  Sparkling Wine

A.  Methods of Production & Styles

B.  Styles (Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Crémant)

C.  How to Open a Bottle of Sparkling Wine.  (Hint: it doesn’t look anything like these). Willamette

IV.  Important White Grapes & Red Grapes.  Thankfully she includes the correct pronunciation of the Willamette Valley here.  Never ceases to amaze me how many people say it incorrectly.

V.  Why is Wine so Expensive?

A.  Use of Oak.  Cristie includes mention of oak chips here – which (impressively) she doesn’t shame.  She just sticks to the facts like “yep, some bulk producers use them” and doesn’t give her personal opinion.  And believe me, we wine folk have TONS of opinions!

B.  Winemaking Decisions

C.  Marketing.  She does briefly mention influencers here – as she should – she is one!

VI.  How to Open and Serve Wine.

A.  This includes a detailed demonstration – which, of course, she makes look so damn easy.  Even after watching this several times AND being shown in person by a Master Sommelier – I still cannot get the knife right!
Gramercy

B.  Like many things these days, there is some product placement during this section. However, unlike Game of Thrones and Starbucks, both products Cristie mentions make sense. And as someone who Hubs often refers to as “Jane Q Public” – I found myself interested in both. (Albeit a bit skeptical that one claims to keep a wine fresh after being opened for weeks or months . . . )

VII.  Terroir

A.  One of the most controversial words in the wine world (this and influencer).  Cristie gives the big picture of how soils, climate, etc. all factor into a wine.  She also does a particularly excellent job of describing the differences between Old World and New World here.

B.  Note: I see this word misspelled constantly.  Usually the vowels are mixed up and it looks like Terrior.  Here’s how I remember it: “how do you spell Terroir?”  “oh, I don’t know” Get it?  O I.  You’re welcome.  (Hubs Note:  Nerd.)

VIII.  France

A. Great introductory explanation of more complicated topics like the 1855 Classification, Napoleonic Code and Burgundy pyramid.  Something even more advanced wine aficionados struggle with!

B. The quiz questions definitely start to get tougher here – I highly recommend using her worksheets!

IX.  Italy

A.  Somewhat ironically, this was the only section where this Italian Wine Scholar got a question incorrect. :-/

B. As someone who has studied this region in depth, I truly admire her ability to cut through the minutiae and get right to the important facts.  Not easy to do for a country with over 350 native grapes! WA necklace

X.  The United States (with a brief discussion of my beloved Washington state!)

XI.  Spain & Portugal (including mentions of Sherry & Port)

XII.  South America

XIII.  Germany (she admirably tackles the complicated topic of sweetness levels in German wines – something I STILL need to reconfirm on occasion!)

XIV.  Other Southern Hemisphere Countries: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

XV.  Food & Wine Pairing. I’ve taken several classes on this topic, yet Cristie manages to explain concepts in a unique way that I’ve never seen before.

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing else out there like the Online Wine Course. Sure, there are plenty of books – Wine Folly and The Wine Bible are two of my top recommendations for people who are newer to wine. There are also classes like the WSET Level 1 or the Introductory Sommelier Course if you’d prefer to go the certification route. However, there’s a certain degree of formality with these types of classes and you’re at the mercy of their schedule. There’s little, if any, flexibility – and unfortunately, attending in your PJs is frowned upon.

On her site, Cristie mentions that “reaching millennials is the key.” And unless you’ve been avoiding all forms of social media, you’re probably well aware of the wine industry’s efforts (or lack thereof) of doing just that. However, I can see someone of an, ahem, “older generation” (present company included!) enjoying this course just as much. The Online Wine Course would be a great gift for someone just starting out in wine – whatever their age.

 

Italian Wine Scholar: Tackling This Boot Was No Small Feat

Nobody likes a braggart or a know-it-all.  If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know I can’t stand this type of personality and have even created a WSET Irritation Scale to evaluate them.  (Yes, I’ve been told that sometimes I take things too far).

Unfortunately, we (mostly women) are often so fearful of looking too egotistical that we don’t celebrate our accomplishments.  We downplay our successes, or qualify them by saying something like “I’m just a good test taker” or “I can memorize facts, but don’t retain them very well.” (I’ve uttered both of these phrases many times over).  Why is it so difficult to say “hey – I’m really proud of myself, I did this: [fill in the blank here with your awesome accomplishment].”  (Hubs Note:  And yet you don’t have any problem telling my friends that you kicked my ass in law school).

I think we need to be better at sharing our wins and encouraging each other to do the same. So, with that, I’m going to give it a shot- here goes: I passed my Italian Wine Scholar exam with Highest Honors!  I studied my ass off for this certification and I am thrilled with my results.

IWS certificate

And, because I’d like to see others succeed, here are some tips that will hopefully help other students rock their Italian Wine Scholar Unit 2 exam (my Unit 1 exam tips can be found here):

1. Study the glossary!

There were several questions relating to these terms and I know I answered at least one of them incorrectly.  Now I will never forget that Baglio is the name for a Sicilian farmhouse.  (However, the degree to which this particular question relates to wine knowledge is debatable IMO . . .)

2. Memorize this equation: The percentage of the text dedicated to a region = the number of exam questions on that region.

This may seem obvious, but it will help you schedule your time more efficiently if you keep this in mind.  You’re better off focusing a majority of your studies on Toscana, Sicilia and Campania than knowing all the little nuances of Molise or Basilicata.  And besides – you can use my outlines as a good starting point for both of those regions! 😉

For me, I found it best to tackle a larger region over the course of a week and then follow this up with a day covering a smaller one.  Being able to knock out a more minor region in such a short period gave me a much needed sense of accomplishment when I felt I was dragging.  Which happened more than I’d hoped!

3.  Read the answers carefully!

I know most people say read the question carefully, and clearly you should do that too, but Calabria and Campania were both options for a few questions.   Maybe it’s just me, but throughout my Italian Wine Scholar studies I would get these two regions mixed up.  Make sure you know which one you’re talking about!

4. If you don’t know the answer, move on and come back to it.

You very well may find a clue to the answer in a later question or something might trigger your memory.  This happened to me with an exam question on Verdicchio – I skipped it and a question later in the exam helped me recall the answer.  And don’t stress out too much if you have to temporarily skip a question – having an open and relaxed mind will make it easier for you to recall the information you need. (If that sounds like Headspace to you – it is!  I always do a short meditation the day of an exam . . . consider that another study tip.)   (Hubs note:  With the dogs.   She meditates with the dogs.  I don’t even know how this is possible).

5.  Don’t underestimate Sardegna.

I left Sardegna until last and, frankly, didn’t spend much study time on this region.  I figured that since it was an island, and not even the most “important” one, that there wouldn’t be many exam questions related to it.  However, I should have heeded my own advice above regarding “size of the chapter = exam importance” because based on this theory – about 8% of the exam questions would be related to Sardegna.  And although I didn’t count, there probably did end up being somewhere between 7-9 questions on it.  Thankfully, I read and reviewed Sardegna the morning of the exam so I was able to at least recall specifics relating to the island’s grape varieties.

And finally, this is not really a “tip” but something to keep in mind throughout your studies: enjoy learning.  After over a year of being in the Italian Wine Scholar program, I am so thankful to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Italy.  You don’t need a certificate or a pin to prove anything.  But if you have one – be proud of it.  I am!

 

Wine Education Classes: In Person vs. Self-Study

Last year, I took the first of two exams to obtain the Italian Wine Scholar (IWS) certification through the Wine Scholar Guild.  I’m scheduled to take the second exam in less than one week.  Before enrolling in the IWS program, Italy was my Achilles heel of the wine world.  But now that I’m nearing the end of the course, I can assuredly say that I have much better understanding of (and perhaps more importantly, appreciation for) Italian wines.

The Wine Scholar Guild gives students a couple of options for pursuing their Italian (or French, and soon to be Spain) Wine Scholar certifications.  The first is through independent study and the other is by attending a series of classes in person.  I did the first half (Northern Italy) through self-study.  For the Central/Southern portion of the certification, I attended a weekend intensive course last month with The Wine and Spirit Archive in Portland, Oregon.

So I’ve experienced the best (and worst) of both options.  And while I should be reviewing for my exam right now, instead I’m thinking about which route I preferred and would recommend to others pursuing one of these certifications – or really, any wine certification for that matter.  Some people (Hubs) might call this procrastinating . . .

Honestly, there’s no one size fits all for wine education.  It all depends on what you want to get out of the course – and how you, personally, study best.

Self- Study: Pros and Cons

The primary reason I opted for self-study for my first exam was, well, there were no classes offered anywhere near where we lived.  So, needless to say, that was a pretty easy decision to make.  Shortly after registering, I received the Northern Italy coursebook and access to the Wine Scholar Guild online materials – which includes webinars, quizzes and flashcards.  After that, I was on my own.

Besides being able to attend class in your jammies, here are some benefits to self-study:

You’re in charge!  With self-study, you get to move at your own pace, set your own schedule, and study sections in the order you choose.  As such, this option might appeal more to those of us who can be (ahem) Type A personalities.  For example, I jumped around instead of following the book chronologically.  I wanted to get an “easy” region out of the way first so I could find my groove, so I started with Liguria.   It’s a smaller region with only a handful of DOCs – plus I’ve actually visited Liguria, so I wasn’t starting with a completely blank slate.  Additionally, self-study allowed me to accommodate my rather wacky schedule last year – which included moving a thousand miles away from my beloved Washington state and starting my WSET Diploma studies.

Fewer distractions outside your control. In class, there are other students asking questions, requesting the instructor repeat something for the umpteenth time, telling personal stories, spilling wine, etc.  With self study, your focus is on you – nobody else.

However, my home situation is probably a lot different than most people’s.  Hubs is at work and I have a couple of old dogs who sleep all day.  That isn’t to say that both pups haven’t been wonderful study buddies. 🙂  But if you have a larger family, young kids, roommates, live in a noisy apartment, or have a husband who incessantly watches ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ at full volume – then an in-class experience might have fewer distractions for you.  (Hubs Note:  It’s one of the most intelligent shows on TV these days).

 

And now the downside of self-study . . .

Accountability and self motivation are necessities.  If you don’t have both of these, you probably won’t succeed with self-study.  I highly recommend creating a study schedule at the beginning of your course and sticking to it.  This should be realistic roadmap of what you need to accomplish before the test date and take into account anything you already have scheduled that might detract (or distract) from studying: travel, work, family commitments, etc.  You should plan to dedicate yourself to tackling a little bit (almost) every day – this exam is not something you can cram for.

Lack of Support System.  With self-study, you’re on an island.  You have your manual and online materials – but what if you have questions?  Or just want to check with someone to make sure you’re on the right track?  Or you want vent about how mind numbing it is that there are so many DOCs and sub-zones in Tuscany that sound the same: Montecarlo, Montecucco, Montalcino, Montalbano, Montespertoli – seriously?!

The Wine Scholar Guild has an online Instructor Q&A Forum – and from what I can tell, there is a pretty quick turnaround for responses.  However, it also appears that this isn’t used very frequently (the last post was almost four months ago).  With the in-class study route, you still have access to this Q&A Forum – plus your instructors from class as well as other students.  And sometimes, just knowing there’s a wider safety net is comforting – even if you don’t need it.

In-Class Experience: Pros and Cons

As I mentioned, I flew to Portland a few weeks ago to attend a weekend long intensive course for the second half of the IWS certification which focuses on Central and Southern Italy.  I was planning to continue with self-study, but after seeing that an in-class option was available and taught by two of my very favorite wine instructors – I knew I wanted to do this second part with them.

Mimi Martin was my WSET Level 3 instructor in 2017.  For Level 3, being able to connect the dots between many different concepts is imperative to passing the exam.  This wasn’t a memorize and regurgitate kind of thing – you needed to thoroughly understand the material and be able to explain your reasoning behind an answer.  In classes, Mimi broke down all the required text into manageable sized sections that made it easier to understand the details – as well as to see the big picture.  After passing Level 3 (with Distinction!) I started looking at wine in a whole new way – thanks in large part to Mimi.

I’d taken a couple classes with Tanya Morningstar Darling at Northwest Wine Academy when I lived in Washington.  She has such a unique way of approaching wine education – seriously, she sometimes makes me feel like I’m combining my wine studies with meditation.  Her teaching style eliminates much of the franticness of memorizing and cramming and leaves me with a true enjoyment of learning.  (Did that sound as Zen as I think it did?)  She recently started her own wine events and education business fittingly named Cellar Muse and if I’m ever back visiting while she has one of her classes in session, you can bet I’ll be there.

So, besides (hopefully!) having awesome instructors like I did, here are some other benefits to attending class in person:

Connecting with other students.  When you’re part of a class, there’s often a sense of “we’re all in this together!” type of thing.  You realize you’re not the only one frustrated or overwhelmed.  My recent IWS class happened to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever been in.  I got to know some wonderful people that I’d only “met” previously through social media and I also reconnected with a gal from my hometown that I’d known back in junior high.  She’s now a winemaker – what a small world.  I have no doubt that I’ll stay in touch with many of these future Italian Wine Scholars.

On the flipside, let’s be honest: you’re not always going to get a “dream class” of awesome students.  There are plenty of irritating or know-it-all wine students and it’s quite likely one or more may be in your class.  The degree to which they bother you depends on your tolerance level (undoubtedly higher than mine) and their specific behavior which, in my experience and to put in WSET terms, can range from:

  • Medium Minus: Mildly annoying – they chime in with every…single…little…aroma that they smell; to
  • Medium Plus: Rather obnoxious – they correct the instructor when she’s off by one kilometer on the distance between two villages in Burgundy; to
  • High: Infuriating, they claim to have passed the WSET Level 3 with Distinction without studying and condescendingly call the whole process “ridiculously easy.”  (Yes, I’ve mentioned him before . . . clearly he grinds my gears.  Thankfully, I’ve only “met” this type of student online).

Wine Tasting!  This is a HUGE plus with the in-class route.  You get to taste, evaluate and discuss a number of wines during class – which not only gives you a better overall sense of the region you’re currently studying, but also helps you continue to improve your tasting skills.  During my weekend intensive class, we tasted almost 50 different wines over 3 days!  Many of which I wouldn’t have been able to find in my area had I opted for self-study.

And now for the cons . . .

Intensity of Focus. These days, most of us aren’t used to sitting and focusing for hours at a time on our particular course of study.  Going the classroom route requires lots of both – particularly if you enroll in a weekend intensive class like I did.  My attention drifted off as the day went on as I started researching which food truck I was going to grab dinner at after class and how late Powell’s City of Books was open (FTR – 11pm).

My tasting notes also dropped in detail over the course of the day – from elaborate, several paragraph long descriptors of structure and aromas  to “deep ruby, cherry and balsamic” near the end of the day.  Plus my back hurt like hell.  If you’re under 35 – you won’t understand.  But someday you will.  Just trust me – it sucks.

Tangents and Rabbit Holes.  While in-class discussion can be interesting, it can sometimes be time consuming. For example, after reviewing the various biotypes of Sangiovese, my class got on the subject of clones.  Which, although educational, wasn’t particularly relevant to the class at hand.  And, after this discussion went down the proverbial rabbit hole, we ended up running out of time to thoroughly cover a few regions.

This invariably happens in every class, but is nonetheless frustrating if you’re not participating in the tangential discussion.  So, if you’re the one continuing to burrow down the rabbit hole – take into account your fellow students and whether they’d truly like to be joining you there, or whether it would be best if you followed up with the instructor on your own time.  Otherwise, you might end up on my WSET Irritation Scale above. 😉

And whether you’re opting for self-study or in-class, I’m hoping you’ll find these outlines on Marche and Basilicata helpful to your studies!  Best of Luck!!