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 . . .

 

 

 

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!!

 

2019 Wine Goals: Now THESE are Resolutions I can Keep!

In addition to being timely – which I still clearly need to work on – I made several resolutions for 2019. Not surprisingly, many are wine related. And while these might be more enjoyable to accomplish than my other annual goals (such as running “x” miles by year end, eating more greens, and limiting my screen time) they are by no means a slam dunk.

Find more daily drinkers. I want to find more (enjoyable!) wines in the $20 and under range.  So, this means purchasing less Champagne, Oregon Pinot and Northern Rhône Syrah – and more from undervalued wine regions like the Loire Valley, Chile and Portugal. It also means exploring some obscure varietals that don’t command the prices of many popular, international varieties – so hello Pinotage, Zweigelt, and Godello!

rosso di montalcinoA producer’s entry level or a region’s “second wine” can also be great daily drinker values.  I recently had a Rosso di Montalcino – considered to be the first example of a “second wine” concept in Italy.  The Rosso di Montalcino zone of production is exactly the same as the more prestigious Brunello di Montalcino.  However, Rosso di Montalcino is released earlier – so these wines are more fruit forward, easygoing and approachable than Brunello.  There is also no mandatory oak aging requirement and the price tag is usually much lower.  This one was full of floral and bright red fruit aromas, paired deliciously with lasagna and was under $20.

Stop waiting for special occasions to open up the good stuff! While I don’t have too many “daily drinkers” in my collection at the moment, I do have a number of bottles that I feel warrant some type of major event in order to justify opening them.  By no means am I bottle-bragging – I’ll never have that type of cellar – but bottles like Gramercy Reserve Cabernets and Syrahs, Quilceda Creek, Tignanello, Sassicaia, and wines from our travels to the Rhône and Burgundy have a more special place in my heart.  Oh yeah, and I would probably add to that list the Pol Roger ‘Winston Churchill’ that I might have just ordered.

These wines aren’t something I usually open on a Tuesday night to pair with my comfort food dishes . . . but – why not? Why not make a mundane Tuesday eve (sorry Tuesdays, I honestly don’t mean to pick on you) a little less so? What exactly am I waiting for?  I plan to change this in the coming year and open some of these “special occasion” wines when it is in fact NOT a special occasion.  Because as Maya said to Miles in the movie Sideways: the day you open a ‘61 Cheval Blanc… that’s the special occasion.

Keep up the Studying.  As I’ve said before, I’m not pursuing wine certifications so that I can end up having an alphabet soup of letters after my name.  I simply love learning about wine and am more disciplined about it if I have some structure .  Otherwise, I tend to dive deep into a series of rabbit holes that I struggle to get out of – such as trying to figure out the 65 soil types of the Ancient Lakes AVA and who are the 80+ owners of Vougeot.  You know, important need-to-know shit.

wset logo
I love that the WSET logo is a female!

In 2019, I’m hoping to obtain my Italian Wine Scholar certification (results expected in February!), get through at least 4 of the 6 Units of the WSET Diploma, and perhaps pursue another Wine Scholar Guild Master Level Course.  I’m leaning towards their Bordeaux course since this region is quickly replacing Italy as my “Achilles’ heel.” (Sidenote: I know that I will be afflicted with this “ailment” throughout my entire wine studying life . . . which is one of the reasons I love doing what I do.  There will ALWAYS be something to learn!)

Improve my tasting notes.  I think of this goal as kind of a “mindful drinking” type of thing. Basically, I need to pay more attention to what’s in my glass.  Sitting down and focusing on a wine’s aromas, structure, and quality helps immensely with the whole study process.  And as I continue to pursue the WSET Diploma, I should get to the level where I’m able to write a tasting note that meets an examiner’s criteria in my sleep.

I’m not a huge fan of publishing tasting notes – I think they’re boring and ubiquitous, so I won’t be doing that (did I just hear a collective sigh of relief?).  But I do have a beautiful tasting notebook for me to keep track of my thoughts.  I just need to bring it out more often – at least a couple times a week.

tasting notebooks
My tasting notebooks over the years

Have FUN with wine.  If I allow it to, studying wine can dominate my life.  It’s currently the focus of my school, upcoming travels, and honestly, quite a bit of my social activity.  I don’t want to get so caught up in the study of wine that I forget to enjoy it. Sometimes, I need to just have a glass and drink it – not analyze it (fortunately, this is Hubs’ strong suit!).

So on THAT note, I’m going to sign off, finish that daily drinker bottle of Rosso di Montalcino and binge watch last season’s Better Call Saul!

Cheers to a delicious 2019!!

 

 

 

 

WSET Diploma Unit 5: That’s a Wrap on Bubbly

Earlier this month I took my second exam in my WSET Diploma pursuit – Sparkling Wines of the World. Now that I’m well past the 48 hour restriction on discussing the exam “using social media or otherwise”, and WSET has actually published the questions asked and revealed the wines poured blind, I think I’m safe to write about my thoughts on Unit 5.

Unit 5 study table

A brief aside before I get started:  On exam day several people (4 or 5) just didn’t show up.  Our instructor waited a few minutes past the 12:30 start time, but no word.  Did they get the time wrong?  Change their mind at the last minute?  Whatever the reason – it’s odd to go that far, pay the course & exam fee, and then not show.  Reminds me of when Hubs took the bar exam 20 years ago and a guy sat down next to him with all his testing materials and asked “how long do we have to take this test?” He then left his stuff at the table next to Hubs, said he was going to the restroom before the start of the exam – and never came back.  We still wonder what the hell happened to that dude.  He’s probably in Congress.

Anyhoo, back to the WSET exam – we were given an hour and five minutes to do both sections: tasting and theory.  We could tackle them in either order, so I opted to do the tasting first – thinking that this would take me less time to get through, therefore leaving me longer for the theory section.  Well, to quote the sage wisdom of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

UNIT 5 – TASTING.

The three wines were bagged up and each student was responsible for pouring into his or her own glasses.  (I’m curious as to the reasoning for this . . . maybe so we can’t claim the instructor mixed up the wines?  So we can pour as much or as little as we want?  Any thoughts on this?)  In any case, when wine #2 was poured, and it was red – I think that threw off a lot of students.  I know it threw ME off.  You just don’t expect to get a sparkling red on the exam.

We weren’t required to specifically identify the wines, but rather discuss possible grape varieties and an assessment of quality.  Surprisingly, we also weren’t asked to write about possible production methods.  These were the three wines on my the exam (posted recently on the WSET website):

Wine 1: Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry NV
Wine 2: Barossa Valley 2012 Sparkling Shiraz
Wine 3: Roederer Quartet NV (Note to self: find this wine – it was delicious!)

After seeing the official reveal of the wines, I feel pretty confident about the tasting portion of the exam.  My notes match up fairly well with the wines above, so I don’t believe I missed anything obvious.  However, I got so wrapped up in writing slowly and legibly and nailing my aromas (was this ripe pear?  Or more of a baked pear?) that I took longer on the tasting then I planned – and then panic started to set in . . .

UNIT 5 – THEORY.

Before starting the tasting portion of the exam, I took a quick peek at the questions for theory – just to make sure there wasn’t anything completely wackadoodle.  When I saw the three topics: Transfer Method, Climate and Weather in Champagne, and Limoux, I relaxed a bit.  I could at least answer each of those with some semblance of intellect.

Unit 5 handwriting

But after spending too much time on tasting, I felt rushed when I started in on theory.  I got nervous about time constraints and then my hand started shaking (I’m not kidding).  This made my handwriting worse than normal – which on a good day is barely legible (see example at left).  At one point, my pencil lead broke four times and I just about lost my shit.

Post-exam, other students lamented about their handwriting too, so at least I’m not alone in hoping that the examiners are able to decipher my essays.  Seriously though – who the hell handwrites these days?!

There’s no point in stewing about this over the next three months.  The exam is done and over with and there’s nothing I can do about it now – except think about how I’ll take what I learned from this Unit and apply it to my next one.

So, to piggyback off my Unit 2 “Dos and Don’ts” here are a few more:

DO use a variety of study materials.  For Unit 5 I continued to use my trusty Outlines (of course) as well as flashcards – which were particularly handy when I was on the road or running.  Going over the finer points of Champagne trade structures definitely helped take my mind off my aching legs.

Unit 5 study topics
My “practice exam” topics – you’ve got 30 minutes: GO!

I also incorporated practice exams for this round of studying – I highly recommend doing this!  A few weeks prior to the exam I made a list of all the topics that I thought could be asked – everything from various pressing methods to Pol Roger to Chilean sparklers.  I put them in our oversized Gonzaga cup (Go Zags!!), had Hubs draw out three, and then I’d write a brief essay on each for 30 minutes.  This helped me get used to writing for a longer period of time as well as get over that immediate mind blank when you see the subject matter you’re supposed to write on:  “Cava?!  WTF is Cava?” (Or am I the only one that this happens to?)

DO budget your time.  Aim to spend no more than 10 minutes per wine or question on the exam.  Each theory question is weighted equally, so it doesn’t make sense to write a lengthy diatribe on one and only a few sentences on another.  Bring a watch in case the room you’re in doesn’t have a clock.  And you won’t be able to use the clock on your phone.

DO make yourself a roadmap. Before writing out my answers to the theory questions, I sketched out my thoughts on a scratch piece of paper.  So instead of jumping right into writing about the Transfer Method – I essentially recreated a very general outline on it: what it was, how it’s different from Traditional Method, where it’s used, what are the pros and cons of it, etc.  This gave me a roadmap to follow when writing out my answer and helped me stay on track.  In reviewing past WSET Diploma exams, one big issue I’ve noticed is that candidates fail to actually answer the question asked.  Making a roadmap helps prevent detours that will only take up precious time and won’t get you any credit.

and finally . . . DON’T PANIC.  Take some deep breaths.  Sip some water (another DO: bring your own water!)  If you’re not getting any aromas from a wine, don’t keep sniffing and swirling – just move on and come back to it later.  If you don’t know where to start with a theory question, try to at least answer the basics: what is it, where is it, how is it made, etc.

After finishing Unit 5 I asked myself – would I study any differently? And I honestly don’t think I would. Even though a LOT of what I studied wasn’t even on the exam: no producers, hardly anything on Italy (other than wine #1 being Prosecco), no Spain or Germany, and besides wines 2 & 3 – nada from the New World. However, you never know what you’re going to get asked on these exams – so I’m glad I was prepared for anything. Bottom line: learning shouldn’t be just about passing the exam (says the girl who broke four pencils taking said exam).

And just in case you get Limoux as one of your theory questions too 😉  . . . here’s the outline.