WSET Diploma Fortified Wines: This was a Sticky* One

I know we’ve all got a lot on our minds right now, and most of these things have absolutely nothing to do with wine studies. But I also know that if you’re passionate about learning about wine – either you’re still cracking open your textbooks, or you’re hoping to do so in the near future.

After weeks of being surrounded with negative statistics and bad news, I recently received some much needed GOOD news: I passed my WSET Diploma Fortified wine exam!  Several months ago, I mentioned in a post how receiving a “Pass” on an exam wasn’t exactly something I wanted to celebrate.  Well, times have changed and I will embrace this Pass like a finding the last package of extra strength Charmin toilet paper in my local grocery store.  Funny how a worldwide pandemic puts shit in perspective, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, WSET no longer publishes past Diploma exam questions for students to review.  And while I haven’t replicated the questions verbatim here, a quick read will give you an idea of what was asked on my exam – and perhaps what to expect on future exams.  So, for those of you planning to take the Fortified wine exam in the not-to-distant future – here are some exam tips that worked for me:

Before Even Reading the Exam Questions: Write WHY at the Top of Your Paper.

At the Diploma level, it’s not enough to only give the WHAT as your answer. We should fairly easily be able describe the WHAT when it comes to a question on, say – patamares.  In order to succeed on an exam, we also need to explain the WHY.

Imagine the WSET Examiners are incessant, annoying 3 year olds.  After reading your responses to the exam questions, they should NOT be able to still ask: “but WHY“?

I wrote WHY on my scratch paper to remind myself to go beyond a basic explanation and to give details as well as specific examples to back up my answer.  So, in addition to describing what patamares are – I also explained WHY they are a better (or worse) vineyard layout choice, WHY they can lead to uneven ripening, etc.

Make a Quick List to Trigger Your Memory.

For me, this was the 9 factors impacting style, quality and price of fortified wines.  Did I have these factors memorized?  Yes.  Did I NEED to write them down?  Absolutely not.  But doing so helped me get my brain calmly flowing into an exam mindset instead of frantically jumping into the questions.  And truth be told, this list came in mighty handy for a theory question on comparing two different wine styles.

Ok, so now that you’ve written WHY and your key points – get going on the exam for fuck’s sake! 😉  You can start with either the Tasting or Theory section – but I highly recommend picking one and following it through to completion.  Don’t bounce back and forth.  Think of it like oxidatively aging Sherry . . . once you make that choice, you can’t go back.

Remember that Skittles Commercial “Taste the Rainbow”?  Think of Fortified as an Adult Version of this.

Skittles rainbow

Since color is a major clue with fortified wine styles, what I found helpful during my study prep was to group similarly colored wines together and taste them side by side.  By practicing tasting this way, I was eventually able to identify possible wine choices just based on sight.  For example, if I was lucky enough to get a very pale lemon colored wine for one of the exam wines (spoiler alert: didn’t happen), I knew I could quickly narrow it down to a handful of possibilities: White Port, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, or Muscat.

The day before the exam, I poured almost every single bottle I had open at home and reviewed the rainbow.  This helped solidify in my mind where certain wines fell on the color scale – from pale lemon to medium amber to deep ruby. On my actual exam, all three blinds were deeply colored – ruling out about half the rainbow immediately.

Fortified rainbow
How I spent the night before my Fortified exam . . .

Familiarize Yourself with Both Expensive – and Inexpensive – Fortified Wines.

If you think the Examiners wouldn’t splurge on a Vintage Port on an exam – think again.  One of our blinds was a 2016 Sandeman Vintage Port – and this wasn’t the first time a Vintage Port has appeared in an exam lineup.  We also had an el cheapo Basic Ruby Port for one of the blinds, which unfortunately I hadn’t tasted at home.  This wine screamed Grenache at me during the exam – it was all sweet, juicy red cherries and plums.  Which brings me to my next bit of advice . . .

Don’t Freak Out if You Misidentify a Wine!

WSET releases the blinds a couple of days after the exam is finished.  So,  you can either celebrate that you called a wine correctly, or freak out if you missed one.  I correctly identified 2 of the 3 wines (the Vintage Port and the Rutherglen Muscat) but mistook the basic Ruby Port for a Banyuls.

This wasn’t horribly off base – both styles are similarly colored, sweeter, and are protected from oxygen – showing juicy red fruit aromas and flavors.  So even after the wines were released, I was confident that I would still earn marks for several of my descriptors.

What also helped me not panic was past experience because I had misidentified one of the wines on my Sparkling wine exam last year.  I thought the Roederer Estate from Anderson Valley was a NV Champagne and I still passed that exam – with Merit.  Fortunately, WSET cares more about your analysis as opposed to whether you “nailed” the wine.

Speaking of the Sparkling wine exam – as I mentioned with that exam’s tips: budget your time. Thankfully, I learned my lesson and with the Fortified exam I didn’t spin my wheels on whether an aroma was dried blackberry or dried black plum – I picked one (or just put them both down!) and moved on.

After finishing the tasting portion of the exam, I was thrilled to have left myself more than half the allotted time to complete the theory portion of the exam.  There were 3 essay questions – weighted 30%, 50% and 20% respectively.  Most exams will have something similar where the questions aren’t equally weighted.

So . . . which one do you answer first?  Again, here’s what worked for me:

Answer the Essay Question You’re MOST Confident About First.

Now, other people may suggest tackling the question worth the largest % first. And I completely understand that line of thinking.  However, for me, answering the question I’m most confident about gets me in a rhythm and helps give me a “Hey, I’ve got this!” mentality for the remaining essays.  On the flip side, tackling a question I’m not confident about stresses me out, raises my heart rate and gets my hand shaking (less of an issue than on previous exams, but still there!)

So on this exam, I chose the question focused on comparing Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and a Grenache VDN – even though this was the second highest weighted at 30%.  However, since I was confident in my knowledge about this topic, I mentally budgeted less time to it, cranked it out, and moved on to the second question.

Of the Two Questions Left – Answer the One Worth the Highest Marks.

Unless you know absofuckinglutely nothing about this question, I recommend answering the question worth the highest marks next. Leaving this question until last will likely cause rushing, sloppy handwriting and brain dump as you try and throw in anything remotely related to the topic to get credit.  I’m speaking from experience here.

The question on blending in Sherry I thought was rather vague – but seeing as it was worth 50%,  I answered it second.  I wanted to answer the 20% question because I was more confident about patamares, but knew that leaving 50% to the last would only end up causing me additional stress.

And finally – Study Madeira.

Especially if your exam is coming up soon.  My exam didn’t have one damn question on Madeira! Chances are – the next one will for sure. 😉 Here’s my outline on Madeira to help you out!

Best of luck with your studies!

*Sticky is a style of Australian fortified wine . . . I simply cannot write a post without at least one wine pun!

WSET Diploma: Changing Up My Roadmap

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. stop roadsign with detour sign

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.

With much love…

Noelle

 

 

Law School v. WSET Diploma: Advice From My Younger Self

Recently, I received an annual periodical from my alma mater – Gonzaga University School of Law (Go Zags!!). It’s always fun for me to flip through this and see what’s changed (the new Dean now looks my age!), and what hasn’t (20+ years later and some of my favorite professors are still there).

But what really caught my eye in this issue was this: Law and Wine

Gonzaga Law School is developing a certificate program for future attorneys where they can specialize in the business, management and legal aspects of the wine industry. My first thought was: where the hell was this program when I chose tax law?! And my second: how can I get involved in this program?

There will most certainly be a future blog post after I learn more about the Gonzaga Wine Institute. How fortuitous would it be to somehow combine my history with this particular law school together with my (hopefully future) career in wine?

It’s probably not surprising that the article got me reminiscing about my law school days. I don’t think I’ve ever studied that hard in my life! That is, until I began my wine studies. When I compare these two experiences – I see several similarities, but some pretty remarkable differences as well. And I think my 25 year old self would have some things to say about how I’m approaching my wine studies.

Study Materials: Books v. Internet

Prior to law school, I don’t think I truly understood how to study. The hours upon hours of reading, note taking, outline making, bluebook exams, etc. I attended law school from 1995-1998, before smartphones and just at the cusp of the internet for the masses. As a result, the vast majority of my research was done the old fashioned way – in the law library physically pulling books off shelves. Research took time and effort. And when I finally found the answer, it usually stuck with me because there had been a bit of a journey to get there.

Law books and Internet
My study materials: 1995 v. 2019

Today, information is so (or should I say too?) readily available. If I forget which Beaujolais producers make up “the Gang of Four” – I just need to quickly google it to find the answer. And then usually, just as quickly, I’ll forget at least one of the four.

Now – this might be in part because my brain is 25 years older than it was in law school. But I suspect that it’s also because information is so readily available that we don’t have to put forth much effort.  One of my wine instructors encourages us students to “develop a yearning for the answer.” When you have a question, don’t look it up right away!  Instead, go deep in your brain and try to figure it out first. This is such a wonderful way of practicing memory recall, but very challenging to do when answers are at the tips of our fingers 24/7.

Study Methods: Outlines v. Outlines + Flashcards + Podcasts + Online Study Groups + et. al

Just as I did in law school, I’m studying my ass off for the WSET Diploma. It was in law school that I started putting together outlines as my primary study tool – a very standard practice for the incoming first year law student. Outlining was a way for me to put all the legal gobbledygook into a language and format that I could understand. Now, I’m doing the same for wine.

But in addition my outlines, for wine study I’m also creating flashcards on my iPhone to carry everywhere with me, and listening to podcasts about wine in my spare time, and participating in online wine study groups, and running thrice weekly wine quizzes on Instagram. I’m beginning to wonder if all these study outlets are necessary – or helpful.

Outlines v. Chaos
Study Methods: Clean & Focused v. CHAOS!!

My focus is being pulled in a dozen different directions with wine studies. During law school, I didn’t have all these options. As a result, I think it was easier to concentrate: I read my textbooks, made my outlines, and then memorized the hell out of them. And I ended up graduating near the top of my class.

Sidebar on study groups. A popular study aid for many people are study groups – which were prolific during law school. The handful of times I “participated” in one, there was always someone who dominated the group. So, I found them to be more adversarial than educational.  But maybe that’s law school – we were in training to be on opposing sides.

Thus far for wine studies, I’ve been a single variety. I’d love to find a tasting group that’s supportive, yet challenging. But unfortunately, like in law school, there are quite high yields of “know-it-alls” and egos in the wine study world.

Exams: IRAC Method v. SAT Method

 

IRAC v. SAT

Similar to how the Systematic Approach to Tasting method becomes second nature after time for WSET students – in law school, we had ingrained in our brains the IRAC method. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion – and this is how we law students were to address almost every single exam question. For example, you’re given the following fact pattern:

Sommelier Sam hates Jimmy Bigcellar.  One night, Jimmy comes into Sam’s restaurant with a bottle of DRC from his cellar. Sam takes the wine in the back of the restaurant, decants it, and then brings it out to pour for Jimmy and his guests. Jimmy gushes enthusiastically about the wine and rambles on about how there’s no comparison to the iconic DRC.

After the dinner (and after seeing that Jimmy has left a barely 10% tip) Sam bring the FULL DRC bottle back out to Jimmy. He waves an empty bottle of Apothic Red in Jimmy’s face – because THIS is what he actually poured for Jimmy! Sam merciless mocks Jimmy about how stupid he is for not realizing he was drinking such inferior wine. Jimmy is mortified and embarrassed in front of his friends.

What is Jimmy’s cause of action against Sam?

Law students would then go through the IRAC method to answer this question – looking something like this:

Issue: Did Sam commit the tortious act of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED)?

Rule: IIED requires extreme or outrageous conduct that intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress.

Analysis and Conclusion: Here is where you’d apply the rule to the facts (i.e. was Sam’s conduct extreme?) add in any mitigating circumstances (i.e. Jimmy is an egomanic, a poor tipper and deserved it), and then conclude whether or not Sam is liable for IIED.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I’m no longer a practicing attorney and I have no idea whether this would be a cause of action or not. That part of my brain has long since departed. However, I guarantee you that I would know the difference between a DRC and an Apothic Red.

Final Hurdle: Bar Exam v. Unit 3 Exam

The end goal of a law student is passing the bar exam. The end goal for a Diploma student is passing the six Diploma Units – with Unit 3 being the biggest hurdle.

I took the Washington state bar exam in the summer of 1998. We’d just moved to the Seattle area and spent most of that summer in a bar review class and studying. Oh, and planning our wedding in a city I was new to with no family nearby. And starting my career at a downtown megafirm.

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

This is where my younger self is getting annoyed with me and finally stepping in with her well worn Doc Martens.

Student: 25 year old v. 46 year old

Law school me and IWS me
My law student self v. my Italian Wine Scholar self

We’ve all heard the question: “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?”  But I’ve never heard the flipside: “What advice would your younger self give you today?”

Well, my 25 year old self is telling me to calm the (expletive) down, pour myself a glass of Sutter Home Chardonnay, turn on Friends and just enjoy the evening.  (One thing that my 46 year old self has in common with my 25 year old self is that we both have a mouth like a trucker.)

I think I’ll take her advice (except for the wine). And this is the Friends episode that I’ll start with:

Friends pivot

I need a Pivot Strategy.

I’m going to change how I approach my wine studies. I’m scattered and spreading myself too thin amongst several study methods and aids. I rely too heavily on looking up an answer quickly instead of relying on myself and what I’ve already learned. My outlines are becoming regurgitations of the entire materials as opposed to concise summaries. And I’m studying WAY too much . . . because I do a little here, and a little there, and am constantly distracted by the phone and social media.

My next Diploma unit is Fortified Wines of the World. Class is in a couple of weeks, and our exam is in mid-January. I’m implementing my Pivot Strategy for this unit. Less study time – but more focused. Going back to concise outlines as my primary study tool. Tuning out distractions.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

But right now, I’m listening to my 25 year old self’s advice and going to just enjoy the evening. So – I’m heading out for beers with my law school boyfriend, aka Hubs.

 

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 . . .