A few weeks ago, I received the news from the IMW that I passed my S1A and was progressing to Stage 2! But to be completely honest, I had to read the email twice because I was expecting the delivery to be more in MY language with a lot of emojis and exclamation points about what fantastic news this was!!! The Brits are (obviously) a bit more subdued than I am.
While we students don’t get a ton of information as to how well we did (or did not do) on the S1A, thankfully we do each receive some feedback on our exam performance. What I did fairly well: essay structure, tasting ability and logical arguments. What I need to work on: sweet wines (identification and production methods), vintages and global examples. This was helpful feedback and wasn’t overly surprising – I’m well aware of my weak spots and also know that I can write a decent, logical essay (thank you law school!)
One key bit of advice I have for new MW students is to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. We each have our own individual strengths, so embrace yours and use them to your advantage wherever you can. Case in point: my attention to detail seems to serve me well on exams since one of the Examiners’ most frequent comments about students is that they “don’t read the question!” And while you may not want to EMBRACE your weaknesses, at least be aware of what they are. Don’t bullshit yourself and pretend they don’t exist. Because they DO exist . . . and they’ll probably show up on your exam.
This “Season 2 news” also made me think about the future of this blog. What started out as a goal to document my “MW Marathon” – honestly and transparently – unfortunately fell by the wayside fairly quickly this year. And by the time I felt up to writing again, I needed to turn my focus towards preparing for the S1A instead of journalling my experience with the program.
But I do want to share my thoughts with future MW students and, selfishly, I’d love to have a log of my journey so when I’m a much older vintage I can look back, read these entries and think “what an adventure that was!” So – I’m going to continue, but with a couple of adjustments. First, I’m a perfectionist (shocker) and am trying to let some of those tendencies go. Especially when they aren’t necessary – like in a blog post. Future posts might not have all their t’s dotted and i’s crossed, but they will all be authentically ME. And second – I have somehow felt the need to write lengthy posts covering LOTS of details. But let’s be honest: I don’t have time to do that on a regular basis and you all probably don’t have the inclination to read long and rambling musings. MW students are encouraged to keep our exam essays under 1,000 words – and there’s no reason why my posts can’t be too. 😉
So . . . now what?! Well, my plan for the next couple of weeks is to actually help OTHER students over their hurdles (lots of Diploma students with exams coming up). But I’m easing myself back into MW studies, my study group has started up again and reconnecting with my fellow students & friends has re-energized me. 🙂 And knowing me, I’ll need to get a plan in place next month (November) so that I have some direction these next few months before the S2 seminar in February. Not exactly sure what that’ll look like – but I’ll share it with you when I figure it out!
You know that feeling an Olympic athlete has after she’s trained for years for one event, successfully competes on the mat/in the ring/on the field, takes her place on the podium to celebrate her victory, then goes home, looks at herself in the mirror and asks “so, now what do I do?”
Yeah, neither do I.
But I DO know that feeling when after nearly 3 years of studying, completing 5 exams and 1 exhaustive research paper, countless ounces of wine spit, swallowed or spilled, you receive the words “you’ve passed!” on your last WSET Diploma exam. 🙂
Since early 2018, pursuing the WSET Diploma has easily taken up 20 hours of almost every week. Even if I wasn’t actually sitting and studying – I was listening to podcasts, writing tasting notes, meeting with my study group, attending online workshops on how to actually write the fucking exam or wondering whether the whole thing was worth all this time and effort.
But now that it’s over, I’m looking ahead and wondering “so . . . what the hell do I do now?”
This is probably not a surprise to those of you who know me – but I love making lists (second only to making outlines, of course!) So, I’ve brainstormed some options for my next step:
I tend to thrive when I have a clear, set goal to achieve. And a large part of me wants to see how far I can go. However, another part of me wants to just enjoy this moment with Diploma and be content at this level. There are just over 10,000 individuals in the world who have earned their WSET Diploma – so this is a huge achievement in and of itself! But I know myself, and if I don’t at least apply for the MW program – I’ll always wonder . . . “what if?”
Regardless of what I do, I’ve fully embraced the fact that I’m a lifelong learner. No matter whether it’s pursuing a formal certification, researching topics for wine quizzes, or participating in mind numbing (and sometimes mindless) debates on Wine Twitter- I don’t ever want to have a day where I don’t learn something. So, at least I know that’s the direction I’m heading . . . but there are many paths to choose from.
We’re almost three months into 2020 and I haven’t managed to write a publishable blog post this year yet. After taking my Fortified Wine exam in January, I’ve been completely focused with my Unit 3 studies (aka “D3”, “The Beast” or “Basically all wines not covered in Sparkling or Fortified.”)
Each time I sat down and tried to write a post, I felt guilty for not studying for D3. So a few weeks ago, I thought “why don’t I start writing about my D3 studies?” My hope was that by documenting my experiences, this would help someone else pursuing the Diploma. I also believed that writing them down might very well help me too.
Since last Fall, I’ve methodically been preparing to take my D3 exam this May. I’d carefully put together my “roadmap” and was planning to follow it meticulously until exam day. What’s a roadmap, you might ask?
A Roadmap (Usually) Helps Prevent Shit from Going Sideways.
To help me stay on track, before beginning my studies for any wine course, I put together a roadmap: a detailed, realistic study plan from my starting point until exam day. I’ve done this for every single one of my Diploma exams so far and it’s helped immensely. My roadmap keeps me focused and, since I have a plan, I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to study each day or running out of time to cover everything. It’s all laid out in front of me – I just need to follow it.
It’s rather intimidating to put together a study plan for an exam that covers almost all wine regions in the world. But if I may draw on yet another law school analogy . . . D3 is quite similar to taking the bar exam. They’re both a culmination of years of learning – not just the weeks before the actual exam.
In law school, I took classes like Torts and Property in my first year and didn’t really revisit these areas until I was preparing for the bar exam two years later. But the material from these classes was still in my brain (and in my outlines!) so I just had to recall and review. Which, let’s be honest, is WAY easier than learning something for the first time.
When making your D3 roadmap – take into account that you already know a lot of the material: the Burgundy pyramid, German labeling laws, the AVAs of my beloved Washington State (ok, maybe you don’t know this last one – but I do!) 😉 Of course, you’ll need to refresh your memory on some of these concepts and dig deeper at this level – but the point is you aren’t starting from scratch.
So, I had prepared my roadmap which took me until mid-May when I was scheduled to take my exam. I was focused on my studies and on my way!
Even With a Detailed Roadmap, There Can Be Unexpected Detours.
Unfortunately, I had to deal with a not-so-slight detour. Two weeks ago, the school I’ve been taking Diploma with informed us that there weren’t enough students interested in taking the D3 exam in May so it wasn’t going to be offered until October.
Needless to say – that sent me scrambling a bit (ok, waaaay more than “a bit”). I started asking myself a lot of questions. Should I just wait and take the exam in October? This would give me several extra months to prepare . . . but it would also push off graduation until January 2022. Do I really need these extra months to study? Or, do I think I’ll be ready for the exam in May? And if so, where can I take it now that my current school isn’t offering the exam?
After spending a chunk of our vacation in Mexico on those questions (a regrettable waste of time), I decided to keep forging ahead for May. I enrolled with the Napa Valley Wine Academy and planned to head up there for my exams. My roadmap had taken a detour, but I’d handled it, and was back to moving forward.
And then, as I’m sure you also experienced, all hell broke loose.
And Sometimes, There are Roadblocks That You Simply Cannot Get Around.
Upon returning home from vacation, the world looked a bit different. And then it quickly started looking VERY different. Suddenly, things that mattered so very much to me a couple weeks ago – like my D3 exam – were no longer my priority.
It turns out that I won’t be taking the exam in May. Nobody will.
Almost the entire world is on hold because of COVID-19. We’ve had to readjust our daily lives to a (hopefully temporary) new normal. In one way or another, this virus is impacting every single one of us. The hospitality industry has been decimated as over 3 million people found themselves unemployed almost overnight (with, undoubtedly, more to come). There are long lines at grocery stores with shelves that are eerily bare. People are self-quarantining or their government is requiring them to do so. Most stores and services are completely shuttered. My 88 year old Dad is up in Washington State – the original epicenter of the virus in the United States – and while I can talk to him on the phone, I can’t hug him for months. And I’m trying not to think about the possibility of him getting sick . . .
I now have several “free” hours in my day that I didn’t have before. Although it seems like this would be a great opportunity for me to study – I can’t focus for shit. Thankfully, my school postponed the exam until October.
Knowing myself, I’ll get back to studying soon enough. I’ll probably tackle my Diploma research paper or pursue the Spanish Wine Scholar program. Or maybe both. 🙂 I need to keep my brain busy with something besides worrying. In any case, the detailed, well thought out, roadmap I’d relied on just a couple weeks ago is no longer relevant. The timeframe to my destination has changed – but I’ll get there eventually.
During this time we all need to readjust our roadmap – or make a new one. Either way, let’s help one another keep moving forward. I hope you and your family are safe and doing well – all things considered. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and interacting with me on social media – it helps keep some semblance of normalcy. And I know that together – we’ll get through this roadblock.
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:
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.
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!
Once 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).
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.
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.
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. There 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.
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.
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!
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.
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/certificate.
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.
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.
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:
And these were my exam 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.
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.
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 . . .