You know that feeling an Olympic athlete has after she’s trained for years for one event, successfully competes on the mat/in the ring/on the field, takes her place on the podium to celebrate her victory, then goes home, looks at herself in the mirror and asks “so, now what do I do?”
Yeah, neither do I.
But I DO know that feeling when after nearly 3 years of studying, completing 5 exams and 1 exhaustive research paper, countless ounces of wine spit, swallowed or spilled, you receive the words “you’ve passed!” on your last WSET Diploma exam. 🙂
Since early 2018, pursuing the WSET Diploma has easily taken up 20 hours of almost every week. Even if I wasn’t actually sitting and studying – I was listening to podcasts, writing tasting notes, meeting with my study group, attending online workshops on how to actually write the fucking exam or wondering whether the whole thing was worth all this time and effort.
But now that it’s over, I’m looking ahead and wondering “so . . . what the hell do I do now?”
This is probably not a surprise to those of you who know me – but I love making lists (second only to making outlines, of course!) So, I’ve brainstormed some options for my next step:
I tend to thrive when I have a clear, set goal to achieve. And a large part of me wants to see how far I can go. However, another part of me wants to just enjoy this moment with Diploma and be content at this level. There are just over 10,000 individuals in the world who have earned their WSET Diploma – so this is a huge achievement in and of itself! But I know myself, and if I don’t at least apply for the MW program – I’ll always wonder . . . “what if?”
Regardless of what I do, I’ve fully embraced the fact that I’m a lifelong learner. No matter whether it’s pursuing a formal certification, researching topics for wine quizzes, or participating in mind numbing (and sometimes mindless) debates on Wine Twitter- I don’t ever want to have a day where I don’t learn something. So, at least I know that’s the direction I’m heading . . . but there are many paths to choose from.
It’s that time again – when we reflect back on a year that’s almost over. What was so special about the 2019 vintage? For me, there were several things that made 2019 memorable . . .
Retweet by Eric Asimov
I peaked early this year – January 22nd to be exact – when I was retweeted by New York Times wine writer, Eric Asimov. His first monthly “wine school” column of 2019 focused on three big brand, readily available, supermarket wines. These wine selections of his caused quite the uproar on Twitter. While some wine enthusiasts applauded his efforts to understand what appeals to the masses – others accused him of promoting these wines.
This was Eric’s first “wine school” that I’d actively participated in and I wrote a post about the “assignment.”. The results weren’t all that surprising to me, but his retweet of my post WAS. This was my first real lesson in the power of social media – his single retweet led to a huge uptick in visits to my site (thank you Eric!) Unfortunately, this didn’t translate to an increase in subscribers . . . I guess his wine school crowd isn’t particularly interested in outlines on the 1855 Classification or WSET Diploma study tips.
And interestingly, at least to me anyway, this was not my most viewed blog post of 2019 . ..
Stepping Into the Instagram Influencer Fray
For the first few months of 2019, I sat on the sidelines watching a longtime Instagrammer (aka Amarone) vent with regularity about the rise of “wine influencers.” I understood his frustration, but disagreed with his methods – which consisted primarily of snarky memes and posts mocking these “influencers” (mostly attractive, younger women). However, when Amarone decided to take a shot at me (together with my dead yellow Lab), well . . . the result led to my most viewed blog post of 2019.
In fact, an entire hashtag movement was actually spawned because of Amarone and a few others (to be clear, not because of my post). #youcansipwithus is still going strong, but thankfully, the antagonists appear to have backed off a bit. I might revisit this issue sometime next year – to see what progress has been made (or not made).
Personally though, I made some progress in 2019 . . .
Finding My Groove on Instagram
In 2019, I found my Instagram niche. I finally determined who my target audience was: people wanting to learn more about wine – including both serious wine students and curious consumers. And also who my target audience was not: Jimmy Bigcellars with trophy bottles as well as the ChardonnYAY crowd.
Based on this, I decided to focus my content on wine studies and education – but I wanted to do this in a fun and engaging way. So I started creating Instagram wine quizzes. I’m a wine geek at heart (I mean, I prepare outlines on wine for shit’s sake!) and I genuinely enjoy producing this type of content. Not only do the quizzes help me retain information better, but I’ve also connected with wine students from all over the world (Mumbai, Cape Town, London) – and have met several in person! I really do get a tremendous amount of satisfaction hearing from other wine people that my quizzes or outlines have helped in some small part with their studies.
In addition to finding my own groove this year, I was also able to assist others with theirs as well . . .
Supporting Other Endeavors
I have a pact with myself to never agree to write about a product, class, person, wine, whatever that I don’t believe in. For me, this means turning down certain collaborations – even if they’re offering payment. However, there were a few opportunities that I jumped at the chance to participate in this year. Not surprisingly, they each had an element of wine education to them:
Cristie Norman launched a unique online wine course for beginners that is both highly educational and entertaining. Wine Masters released two seasons of their documentary series focusing on winemaking families of France and Italy. Snooth Media hosted a virtual wine tasting of Sweet Bordeaux wines. And I was thrilled to support each of these ventures – they were all genuinely educational and incredibly well-done.
Completing Half of the WSET Diploma
This past year I completed my third exam for the WSET Diploma – so I’m officially halfway done! I have the Fortified Exam in less than one month (eek!) and then it’s complete focus on the dreaded Unit 3 Exam for the next five months. And finally, the research paper which is due at the end of July. So if all goes well, I should have the Diploma completed by August.
I had hoped to have 4 of the 6 units completed by now, but due to a change in scheduling at my school this didn’t happen. The Tracy Flick in me was initially annoyed AF, but this WSET Diploma break actually turned out to be a good thing because it allowed me to pursue other things like:
Becoming an Italian Wine Scholar
I completed the Italian Wine Scholar course and passed with Highest Honors! As I mentioned in a prior blog post, this venture took me quite a bit longer than anticipated, but was well worth the time and effort. Not only do I have a much better grasp on Italy and its 20 different wine regions and umpteenthousand different grape varieties, but since I passed with such a high mark I also qualified to teach the course! Which I started to do in 2019 . . .
Teaching Wine Courses
I have two of wonderful mentors up in the Pacific Northwest who gave me some incredible teaching opportunities this past year: Mimi Martin and Tanya Morningstar Darling. I got my feet wet by leading sections of the Italian Wine Scholar course and WSET Level 2 – and have plans to wade in a bit further in 2020. I still believe wine education is the direction I’m heading with my future wine career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be certification courses only – because consumer focused classes are just as enjoyable . . .
Presenting Wine and World Views Seminar
Last year, Hubs was in a major bind when he was hosting a wine event at a fancy schmancy SoCal restaurant for some clients when the sommelier at the restaurant resigned just a few days prior to the event. He asked me to fill-in at the last minute to speak about the wines being served and to lead the discussion with about 50 well traveled wine enthusiasts.
True confession: I’m not overly confident about my public speaking abilities – I get jittery and tend to talk too fast. (Ok – truer confession: I sweat when I’m nervous!!). Yes, I know this is ironic since I’m leaning towards wine education which requires speaking in front of others to some degree. However, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure of (maybe my daily meditation practice, or gaining more confidence in my knowledge) – I really did nail this presentation. And you know what else – I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it! Maybe that’s the key: have fun and don’t worry so much about getting every little fact correct. Give Tracy Flick the night off. 😉
I still have a ways to go before I get truly comfortable speaking in public – but thankfully, I’ve got a couple of very good examples to learn from . . .
Attending Master Classes with Masters
I’m fortunate to be taking my WSET Diploma classes from a Master Sommelier and auditing the French Wine Scholar course from a Master of Wine. While they’re both incredibly knowledgeable individuals, they also have very different ways of approaching wine studies. By learning from both of them, I feel like I’m getting the best blend of education and gaining a more thorough understanding of the wine world.
They each teach certification courses, but also focused tasting classes. And since I have yet to find a tasting group in SoCal (a goal for 2020 – send me a note if you’ve got a lead for me!!), I attended as many of these Master Classes as I possibly could last year – including Brunello, Bollinger, aged Rieslings, Northern Rhône and Vintage Port. I’m soaking up as much information as I can from these Masters – and some pretty damn good wine too. Speaking of damn good wine . . .
Traveling to Walla Walla
This last “top wine moment of 2019” hasn’t actually happened yet, and I normally avoid setting my expectations too high but I think in this instance I’m safe. Hubs and I are on our way to one of my favorite wine regions in the world – Walla Walla. We’ll be spending my birthday and New Years Eve and Day there, partaking in some wine tasting, and … looking at some property while we are there.
While I’m not sure exactly what Walla Walla has in store for us this visit, I know that at least some part of this adventure will be a highlight of the year. And, well, perhaps for many years to come!
The sun is setting earlier, there’s a slight chill in the evening air, and the first week of football is underway. It’s time to go back to school . . . and I am more than ready.
I’ve been on a study break from the WSET Diploma for the past several months. My last exam was in March for the Unit 1 case study and my next Unit, Fortified Wines of the World, doesn’t start until November 23rd! By that time, I will have had a gap of EIGHT MONTHS.
Even though I haven’t been working on the Diploma this summer, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been studying or learning more about wine. So, if any of you other wine students find yourself with an unplanned “study break” – here are some suggestions on how best to spend it, and still enjoy your time off:
There’s an old adage that says the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. (There’s also a saying that “those who can’t do, teach” – but I think that’s arrogant BS, so I’m going to ignore that one.)
In June, I started teaching WSET Level 2 courses as well as the Italian Wine Scholar certification. Quite honestly, I spent more time preparing for teaching these classes than I did when I was actually a student in these courses myself! There’s an additional layer of stress because it’s not just you counting on you, there’s a classroom full of students counting on you. Thankfully, all that preparation benefitted not only the students – but me too! I have a better grasp on Franciacorta, Bardolino, and German wine laws now having explained them to others. (Well, German wine laws are still confusing AF . . . )
If you don’t have the opportunity to teach a certification course, do a consumer level class at a local wine store, or host a wine tasting with friends, or see if you can lead a course at a community college. Hell – I poured some oaked Cali Chardonnay to compare with a Chablis and had a mini-class in my house with my Hubs and our friend. Doesn’t matter where or how you do it – the lightbulbs will still go off for your students and you’ll still gain a better understanding of the subject matter you’re talking about.
Many people who aren’t in the wine industry think that studying wine means “you get to drink wine all day.” Nope. Tasting wine is not the same thing as drinking wine.
Tasting wine requires getting as close to examination conditions as you possibly can. Sit down with your notebook, compare a couple/few wines against each other (blind is best), and write out your notes exactly how you would for the WSET, CMS, etc. in whatever timeframe you’d be permitted under the exam. And – SPIT for shit’s sake!
Once you’ve reached your conclusions – reveal the wines. And don’t focus so much on whether you got them right or not!! Pay more attention to the WHY. Why did you think the Cabernet Sauvignon was from Napa instead of Bordeaux? Why did you call Chablis instead of Sancerre? Learn from your mistakes. And then taste again the next day. And the next.
Take advantage of your study break to not have to focus on a specific region or variety. Try wines from various regions, styles, and price ranges. Although – be wary of the $3 Chardonnay. Just . . . trust me (or visit my archived stories on Instagram).
Visiting and exploring a region yourself is one of the best ways to learn about wine. By experiencing something firsthand, as opposed to simply reading about it in a textbook, you’re much more likely to retain – and comprehend – this information.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a limited amount of wine travel these past few months – limited to just the North Fork of Long Island and my beloved Washington state. (So, I’ll be sure to nail the .0007% of the Diploma exam that covers those regions.) This old guy is a big reason why I haven’t gotten out of the house more.
Life gets in the way of studying sometimes . . . but life is more important. Soon enough, Hubs and I will be back on the road and in the skies to explore more wine regions. Bottom line: If you have the means to travel to further your studies, and you don’t have an old dog with separation anxiety who gets up half a dozen times a night – DO IT.
Yes – I’m honestly suggesting spending time on social media to further your wine knowledge. But there are caveats: like drinking, keep it in balance and try different outlets. And if you’re truly wishing to expand your studies, just like constantly consuming crap wine affects your palate, following crap accounts affects your mind (and sometimes makes you concerned for the future of humanity – but that’s another blog post). Here are a few suggestions for consuming “higher quality” social media:
Facebook. Search for “wine study” and you’ll find several groups that you can join. Most require you to answer a couple of questions before they’ll approve you (what certification you’re studying, where you’re studying, etc.) I’m a member of a few wine study groups and while there are definitely some obnoxious know-it-alls, most of the group members are supportive and encouraging.
Twitter. Hubs can attest to the fact that I fought joining Twitter for the longest time, but once I caved, I realized he was right (don’t tell him I said this!). Twitter is a seriously awesome platform for wine!
There are several Twitter chats that revolve around wine. UK Wine Hour is my favorite for covering global wine matters and Wining Hour Chat is fun for just getting to know others in the wine community. With these, jump right in and introduce yourself!
Additionally, I’ve found a number of wine accounts on Twitter who discuss and debate a wide range of issues in the wine world – Jamie Goode, Paul Mabray and Felicity Carter to name just a few. With these, it’s not as easy (for me at least) to jump right in, so I tend to watch from the sidelines. Nonetheless, these discussions give me new perspectives and make me think about wine in a different way.
Instagram. Let’s be honest: this can be a challenging platform for informative wine accounts. It’s also time consuming to sift through all the wine lifestyle accounts to find people that focus on wine education as opposed to selfies with bottles.
I post quizzes 2-3 times a week in my stories on my Outwines account. And there are several other accounts that post wine quizzes on a regular basis – my favorites include Spitbucket, Grapegrind, and bin412pgh. There are also accounts like Wineterroir and Wine.by.Alex who post tasting notes in more of a WSET format that are helpful for wine studies.
Listen to Podcasts.
In addition to those mentioned in my post from last year, I’ve also discovered several new (to me!) podcasts that have been helpful with my studies. VinePair discusses current – and often controversial – issues in the drinks business. Matthew’s World of Wine and Drink provides educational overviews of various wine regions, grape varieties and viticulture and winemaking terms. And the UK Wine Show covers more global issues with informative interviews with members of the worldwide beverage industry.
Pursue Other Courses or Certifications.
Just because you’re on a study break from one school, doesn’t mean that another isn’t in session. As I mentioned in a prior post, I strongly suggest not overlapping your certification studies – it just gets too damn confusing and complicated. However, if you have a study gap, this can be a perfect time to pursue a different certification.
During this past summer, I took the Bordeaux Master Level course through the Wine Scholar Guild. There are several of these specialized, higher level programs available for various French wine regions (and rumor has it the WSG is planning to have similar, focused courses for Italian regions as well). The Master Level courses are entirely self-study with a detailed text and access to the Wine Scholar Guild’s online webinars and other materials.
These programs are incredibly deep dives into the regions – way more information and detail than you’re likely to need for any WSET course – including the Diploma. So my hope is that when it comes to studying the Bordeaux and Rhône sections of the dreaded Diploma Unit 3 that I’ll only need to do a cursory review since I’ve taken both of these Master Level courses through the WSG. I’ll keep you posted on how that theory works out. 😉
So as the summer is winding down (or HAS wound down, depending on where you live), I’m gearing back up to study for the second half of the Diploma. The Fortified Wines Unit is next – class is in November, exam in January. Then Unit 3 classes take up most of January and February, exam in May. Finally, I’ve got the research paper which is due at the end of July. I’m wondering if I’ll be kicking myself for leaving that one to the end . . . stay tuned.
Recently, something disturbing came to light in the wine social media world. Dynamo wine writer Marissa Ross disclosed that someone had been harassing and stalking her for over two years on social media. And she put his posts out there for all to see.
If you’re not familiar with Marissa, she’s an outspoken voice in wine media, a fierce proponent of natural wine, inventor of the “Ross Test” and author of “Wine. All the Time.” She has a loyal following of supporters, as well as a number of individuals who disagree with her – which she openly discusses on her Instagram stories and Twitter. However, her stalker went way beyond disagreeing with her natural wine fervor and Ross Testing. His comments were cruel, threatening and scary.
Thankfully, the wine community came together en masse to support her – including those who normally tend to dismiss her antics (she often refers to them as the “old guard”). It was encouraging to see everyone put aside their differences and agree that this type of behavior was not to be tolerated – on social media or anywhere. As of now, Instagram has banned the individual (the least they could do IMO).
As I was reading through the hundreds of supportive comments on Marissa’s page, one of them jumped out at me. It was from a wine related (perhaps some would call it an “influencer”) account and she said she’d had “similar things happen to me.” She wrote that a “certain individual” and small group of men in the industry had been shaming her, her photos and women in wine in general. I’ll refer to her as Dolcetto. I knew which “certain individual” Dolcetto was referring to because I follow that account – which I’ll refer to as Amarone.
But before I go any further, let me take a step back and see if I can kinda sorta explain where Amarone was coming from. At least initially . . .
The Rise of the Wine “Influencer.”
In the wine world, there have been several articles recently regarding the increasing number of wine “influencers.” For that matter, influencers have risen in recognition across all of social media endorsing products and – the theory goes – holding sway over their thousands, and sometimes millions, of followers. This article is particularly well written and helps explain why the word is sometimes used in quotations (hint: it’s because some of these individuals aren’t truly influencing anyone.)
Unfortunately, wine seems to be one of a growing number of subjects that an individual can “influence” and have minimum actual knowledge about it. Snap a ton of pictures with wine bottles and smile, make sure to comment constantly and generically on others posts (something like “That looks like some good wine!” or “I’ll have to try that!”), join multiple pods, and boom – you’re on your way to being an influencer. For those in the wine industry, some of these influencer accounts can be exasperating since they tend to focus way more on engagement as opposed to actual wine education or experience. In order to be a true “wine influencer” – shouldn’t an individual ideally have some combination of all three?
(Please note: this is not saying that all wine influencers are frauds, or that none of them have any wine knowledge or experience. There are plenty of legitimate, intelligent and genuinely engaging wine influencers out there. This would actually be a great subject for a future blog post!)
The Shaming of Wine “Influencers.”
Originally, Amarone’s account poked fun at the wine “influencer” group as a whole. There was a generic jab at those who constantly post about “National Anything Day” (every day is a National “Something” Day – and it is admittedly annoying as fuck…even though I’m guilty of participating in some). He’d call out wine reviews that were a complete cut and paste of the winery’s tech sheets with no individual thought whatsoever on the part of the “influencer”. Or lament the rise of the IG pod, which often results in skewed engagement metrics because it’s basically the same people commenting on each others posts – over and over again. Months ago, someone on Twitter called pods the “IG circle jerk” – which is a colorful, and not altogether inaccurate, description.
Sometime around the beginning of this year, the tone of many of Amarone’s posts changed. They became more mean spirited and targeted at specific individuals. Often, the focus was attractive women in their 20s and 30s who post about wine – a group he started referring to as the “girl gang.”
These gals have carefully curated IG feeds with beautifully composed, even professionally taken, photos. Many of their posts aren’t about wine per se, but rather enjoying life, drinking wine and being with your friends and family. And seeing as how most of their accounts have over 10,000 followers, clearly there are many people interested in this type of content. (True confessions: I follow several of them and the vast majority of their posts are refreshingly light and upbeat – like if Beaujolais Nouveau had an IG account).
So, instead of the usual generically humorous memes, Amarone’s account started copying photos directly from some of these ladies IG accounts. Everything from what they wore, to how they held a wine bottle, to their WSET credentials, was mocked. I’m guessing this is what Dolcetto is referring to when she mentions “shaming” behavior. And I get what she’s saying, because I noticed this the other week . . .
This photo on Amarone’s account was followed by the comment “You couldn’t manufacture these kinds of metrics if you TRIED.” After seeing this post on IG, I immediately thought something had happened to Marissa’s sweet old dog, Zissou. After scrolling through her feed and finding nothing, I started wracking my brain as to who else has pets that they post about on IG. And then I thought HOLY FUCK . . . this is about ME.
I initially took this pic of me “kissing” Luke and sent it to Hubs and then realized – “hey, I don’t look godawful in this photo!” So, I decided to post this shot of me on IG, and one of Luke, because I’d had a WSET Diploma exam that day and wore my lucky necklace – which is made from Luke’s ashes. Honestly though, I rarely post personal photos on IG because: (a) my account is focused on learning about wine, and (b) I take incredibly crappy pictures.
Did I post about my “dead pet” specifically to get likes or “manufacture” metrics? No. Did it happen to get more engagement than my usual posts – which are typically bottle shots or wine tasting notes? Yes. So, maybe there is something to be said about including a bit of your personal self on your feed – you’ll get more engagement, but also leave yourself open for someone to make snarky comments.
(Sidenote: I’m guessing that many members of the “girl gang” have blocked Amarone on IG because he’s really scraping the bottom of the “influencer” barrel if he’s taking a shot at me with my barely 1,000 followers. FTR – his main account, the non-parody one, has over 32,000 followers.)
Shaming Isn’t Stalking – but it’s still Shitty Behavior.
However, shaming someone is still shitty – and what’s the point? Particularly when you’re over the age of 13 and should have better things to do with your time and energy? Yet even as I write this post I’m bracing myself for the snarky comments which I’m sure will be forthcoming. Funny, I didn’t feel this way when I wrote about Chenin Blanc or the Italian Wine Scholar exam.
This recent increase in shaming behavior has made me take a second look as to how I feel about wine “influencers.” I understand the wine community’s concern if these individuals are purchasing followers, or not disclosing that they’re being paid to endorse whatever wine or product they’re posting about. That’s dishonest and the latter is actually against FTC regulations. And I totally feel the frustration of wine academics who cringe when an “influencer” posts something massively incorrect or misleading about wine – like when Drew Barrymore said that Rosé is made from peeled grapes.
But otherwise – what harm are they doing? Is their presence taking away from your number of followers or engagement? Highly doubtful. Are you even interested in the same type of followers? Probably not. My point is: there’s room for everyone in the IG sandbox – and it would be awesome if we could all play in it a bit more nicely.
Don’t get me wrong, after all this ranting about IG – I actually really do enjoy it. I’ve gotten to know a number of amazing people in the wine community through IG and am hoping to meet many more of them in person – including Amarone and Dolcetto. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about wine and it would be awesome to pick his brain on which out of the way California wineries to visit. And I’d love to get her recommendations for spots in Napa – and, well, perhaps a few pointers on how to take better pictures.