In my last blog post, I detailed the Master of Wine application process up to the actual entrance exam. The Master of Wine entrance exam is the final hurdle to apply for the program – consisting of a 90 minute theory section and a 90 minute practical (tasting) section. Applicants can attempt either section first and the sections can be taken on different days or both hammered out on the same day.
Here’s a little more detail on what the theory exam looks like: (Richard Hemming also covers this on the IMW website – and clearly he’s more knowledgeable about this than I am!)
Applicants have 90 minutes to answer one question. The question needs to be answered in an essay format and should be presented in a logical and factual manner. Each point made should be supported by evidence and examples from the world of wine. Logic, facts and evidence . . . as a former lawyer, this is music to my ears! In other words, this is not a brain dump of everything you know about a subject matter. There’s no set word count – but Richard Hemming gives an example of somewhere between 700 to 1,200 words (for point of reference – this blog post is about 1,400 words)
The entrance exam questions are past MW exam questions – or at least very, very similar. The MW exam covers five topics:
- Vinification & Pre-Bottling Procedures
- Handling of Wine
- Business of Wine
- Contemporary Issues
However, the entrance exam will only cover four of these. I’ve heard that the “Contemporary Issues” isn’t included on the entrance exam because the IMW wants to test applicants on their technical knowledge for admittance. Not sure if this is true or not, but it does make sense.
MW exam questions from the past 20 years (!!) can be found on the IMW website. For the entrance exam, applicants will choose one question from three options. The past two years’ entrance exams are also published on the IMW website (seriously – how fantastic is this transparency?!) Actual entrance exam questions change every day during the application process – smart move on the IMW’s part to prevent collusion amongst applicants. Which I’d like to think doesn’t happen at this level, but then I remember what happened with the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Of the two exams, theory was the one I was most nervous about, so I spent most of my time preparing for this section. My “strategy” for this hurdle was three-fold:
1. Review Past MW Exam Questions From 2015 Onward. The idea of reviewing 20 years worth of questions was just too daunting and seemed like overkill for the entrance exam . . . and that’s coming from me – the QUEEN of overkill. So, I decided to focus on the past 6 years worth of questions. Interestingly, there does seem to be a number of topics that come up on the regular – yes, I’m looking at you sulfite levels.
2. Focus Most of My Preparation on Q1 and Q4. Based on my research, Viticulture (Q1) and The Business of Wine (Q4) come up as an option on every entrance exam – with Vinification (Q2) & Wine Handling (Q3) rotating as the topic of the third option. As a result, most of my research and prep work was done on past Viti and Wine Business questions. And while I didn’t completely ignore Q2 & Q3, since these are already my weaker spots, I didn’t spend precious hours spinning my wheels on these subjects for the entrance exam. If admitted to the program, I figure I’ll have several years to figure out all things Vini and Wine Handling. Well, probably not ALL things . . .
3. Outline (!!) the Main Points for Each Topic. Outlines have worked for me for over 25 years now, and they’re the basis for this blog – so I can’t stop now! For the entrance exam, I outlined 40+ questions and did a cursory review of about a dozen others. The whole process made think about wine in different ways, like: what should vineyard managers do to prepare for a labor shortage? Are supermarkets a positive force for mainstream wine consumers? Does pale colored rosé mean that the wine is better quality?
For those of you doing the math at home, yes – I had to answer only ONE question and I prepared for about 50. However, this process was by no means a waste of time because if I DO get in – the Stage 1 Assessment exam for MW students is also based on past MW questions. So, having already reviewed and outlined several of these questions – I’ll at least have a start for my studies. And if I don’t get in . . . well, I learned a lot of interesting things about wine.
Alrighty, that takes care of the Theory portion of the entrance exam. Now let’s look at the Tasting section, which Richard Hemming also briefly covers on the IMW website.
Applicants have 90 minutes to answer a series of questions about four wines. The entrance exam wines are released on the IMW website prior to the exam – so, obviously, the goal is not to simply identify the wines. Applicants can either purchase and taste these wines or do a “dry note” based off of tech sheets, etc.
Also, this is NOT writing a WSET style tasting note (Halle-fucking-lujah!) This type of note might help you draw your conclusions – but the note itself is not what the IMW is looking for. Historically, questions that have been asked include: identify variety and origin, discuss quality with reference to winemaking techniques, comment on the method of production and who would buy this wine. Truth be told, I much prefer this approach for tasting notes as opposed to the regurgitation of five aroma descriptors and rote applicable of BLIC.
My strategy for how to prepare for the tasting (aka practical) section of the entrance exam was also three-fold:
1. Attend the Online MW Intro Course. The IMW ran several introductory online live webinars in the months leading up to the entrance exams and I HIGHLY recommend anyone considering the program sign up for one as soon as the dates are released. The moderators walk attendees through the entire program, the application process and go through a practice tasting “MW style.” After the course, I had a better understanding of what the IMW is looking for on the entrance exam and what evidence would help “prove” my conclusions of variety, origin, quality, etc.
2. Practice a Ton of Open Label Tasting. Since the entrance exam isn’t blind, doing lots of blind tasting as prep work wasn’t going to be overly beneficial to me. Instead, I practiced writing “MW style” tasting notes a couple times a week and answered hypothetical questions about what’s in the glass – origin, production methods, consumer appeal, etc. This helped me get into a groove with the IMW way of analyzing a wine.
3. Learn the Shit out of the Wines. The 2021 entrance exam wines were:
- Wine 1: 2019 Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany (approx. £15/$20)
- Wine 2: 2019 Riesling (dry), Alsace, France (approx. £17/$23)
- Wine 3: Pale Cream Sherry, Jerez, Spain (approx. £13/$18)
- Wine 4: Dry Amontillado Sherry, Jerez, Spain (approx. £22/$30)
For the life of me, I couldn’t find a Pale Cream Sherry anywhere (perhaps because over 90% of these wines are exported to the UK!) So I did a dry note for this one, but purchased the other three wines. In addition to tasting the wines (over & over), I also tracked down tech sheets, researched what these styles typically tasted like and how they were produced, and also read up on popularity (or lack thereof in this case) amongst mainstream consumers for these wine styles.
The Actual Entrance Exam!
I opted to get the tasting exam out of the way first and then take theory the following week. The IMW also had a mock exam, not necessarily to test your knowledge, but to get familiar with their online system. This was quite helpful – anything to remove exam day stress is key!
Without going into too much detail – for both exams, I’m happy with how much (and how) I prepared. The IMW will release the entrance exam questions in a few months, so I’m not going to jump the gun and disclose them here. In looking back, I put in a LOT of effort just to gain acceptance to the program. But I wasn’t going to start off half-assed. I wanted to give it my best shot – and I did.
And now I just wait . . . I’ll find out in early September if I’ve been admitted to the program. Either way – I’ll let you know!