WSET Diploma Unit 5: Let’s Pop the Cork on this Already!

My Unit 5 exam is Wednesday (tomorrow!) and I feel like a bottle of bubbly that’s been aggressively shaken.  The pressure is building and I just want to let all this information about sparkling wine fly out of my brain like CO2 frantically escaping its glass bottle.  I’ve been studying for this exam for three months now – I am ready to be DONE.

Champagne corks

I’ll admit it – I’ve hit a wall.  But I’m not overly worried about it because the exact same thing happened back in June near the end of my Unit 2 studies (which I ended up passing with Distinction – woot!).  I’m not hitting a wall because I’m disinterested in studying wine (God forbid) – it’s just that my brain is full and I cannot cram in any more information.  However, what DOES worry me a bit, is that my upcoming Unit 5 exam is maybe 1/10th the size of the ginormous Unit 3 (which covers all wines of the world – except for sparkling and fortified) which I’ll tackle in early 2020.  So, before that time, either my brain has to get bigger or I’ve got to study smarter.  I’m hoping for the brain enlargement, but I’ll table officially panicking on that until a later date . . .

Asti outlineI realized that even Hubs is done with my Unit 5 studies when he begged me this past weekend “can we please have something to drink besides bubbles?”  This coming from a guy who used to frequently complain that we didn’t have enough sparkling wine in the house.  And I know he’s tired of me saying “studying” when he asks “what’s the plan for tonight”?  Plus, he’s probably as sick as I am of my outlines laying all over the house – Argentina in the kitchen, Vouvray in the office, Asti in the bathroom (I swear this isn’t an implication of its quality!)

For those of you readers who are interested – I’ve added Unit 5 specific outlines on Asti, Champagne – Subregions  and South Africa to the Outlines pages.

Last Sunday, Hubs & I took a break and went over to a friend’s house to watch our beloved Seahawks.  I brought some “leftover” sparkling wines with me (read: ones that I’d opened the night before to study/taste).  When the host commented that he didn’t usually like Champagne, but he liked the Champagne that I brought, I promptly informed him that what we were drinking was in fact NOT Champagne, it was sparkling wine from New Zealand – a completely different beast due to climate, varieties used and production method.  I’m sure we’ll be getting an invite back to his house soon.  Perhaps I should revisit the lesson I JUST learned at my MW tasting regarding humility and how nobody likes a know-it-all.

So – what am I going to do after my exam on Wednesday?  Well, for starters, I’m looking forward to catching up on some non-wine reading.  You know I’m buried when I let something as pertinent as my subscription to People magazine lapse!  I’d also like to finish “nesting” (Hubs’ endearing term for my habit) in our new home . . . which we moved into seven months ago.  And I can’t wait to get that fucking “Martini & Rossi – Asti Spumante” jingle out of my head.  I’m just excited to look up from my laptop, put away my outlines, and get outside of the house and into this beautiful Southern California weather.

But before I get to all that, I need to go see what the UPS driver just left on my doorstep.  It might be my Unit 2 materials for the Italian Wine Scholar exam I’ll be taking in a few months . . .

 

 

Lessons Learned from Tasting with a MW: Part 1

I recently attended my first in a series of blind tasting classes with Lindsay Pomeroy – newly minted Master of Wine (MW).  With the recent cheating scandal surrounding the blind tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam (a completely separate organization from the Institute of Masters of Wine), some people outside – and even inside – the wine industry might wonder why this is even a part of certain higher level certifications.  I get it. Blind tasting seems like a rather amusing party trick: here’s a random wine – now guess its varietal, region and vintage!  But there’s more to blind tasting . . . at least, there should be.

From my (albeit limited) understanding – the tasting portion of the MW exam focuses a lot on the WHY as opposed to the WHAT.  For example – if you believe the wine in your glass is a Barolo – why do you think this?  What is it about the color, aromas, structure, complexity, etc. that leads to you Barolo?

With wine certification exams, getting the wine “right” certainly helps – but you also need to be able to explain your answer (remember this with math tests?  Show your work!)  So when I saw that Lindsay was offering these classes through her business, Wine Smarties, I signed up immediately because I wanted to get an MW’s perspective on blind tasting. WineSellar and Brasserie

The classes are held in The WineSellar and Brasserie in San Diego – the epitome of a “hidden gem” as it’s tucked away in the back of a very non-descript industrial/business park.  Lindsay herself was warm, welcoming and wearing her trademark pink fanny pack (which she claims is coming back in fashion).  I liked her right away. 🙂

Our first class focused on identifying the “Classics” – wines such as Burgundy, Brunello, Bordeaux (and no, they don’t all need to start with the letter B – although Hubs did offer up Budweiser and Bud Light to help out further).  Although this was only a two hour long class, I can already tell that I am going to learn a ton of invaluable information from this lady.  Here’s what I came away with just after the first session:

Make sure ALL your evidence backs up your conclusion.  As mentioned earlier – show your work.  If the wine in front of me is red with lots of cherry and red berry aromas, some white pepper notes and heat on the finish – does this support a conclusion of Pinot Noir?  The berry flavors might, but that white pepper and heat doesn’t.  The totality of evidence (good grief, I feel like I’m back in law school!) is more indicative of Grenache.

Put your blinders on and don’t second guess yourself.  I have a horrible habit of doing this!  In class, we were poured two white wines blind and when the gentleman next to me started to read his notes on the first wine – “lighter bodied, higher acidity, herbal notes, white pepper – I’m guessing it’s a Grüner” . . . I panicked.  Because this is what I had written for the SECOND wine.

I immediately assumed that I was in error, or that I must have mixed up my wines.  So when I was asked my thoughts on wine #1, I read my description for wine #2 (including “it reminds me of a green salad”) which garnered some odd looks.   Because as it turns out,  I HADN’T mixed up my wines, my neighbor was just off base.  And I didn’t trust myself enough to stick to my own notes – where I had called the second wine a Grüner (which it was).  The first was a village level Chablis – which should not remind anyone of a green salad. :-/

Blind Tasting with an MW

Don’t jump to conclusions based on one (or even two) facts.  I took a deep inhale of the last red wine and got aromas of tar and asphalt.  Right away this led me to Pinotage.  I hung onto that assumption and didn’t let go.  Despite other evidence to the contrary – like extreme depth and complexity and higher than normal tannins.  I also ignored the fact that to put Pinotage in a blind tasting flight of Classic wines that Lindsay would have to be a complete psychopath.

The wine ended up being a 2013 Brunello – which made a lot more sense.

Humility.  I’m getting to the point in my wine education where more and more obnoxious know-it-alls are rearing their ugly heads.  And this is coming from someone who went to law school – so I’m incredibly well versed in this particular species of jackass.  I’m looking right at you, guy on Facebook who called the WSET Level 3 “ridiculously easy” and claimed to have passed with distinction after not studying for it at all! (Perhaps I need to put my blinders from above on when it comes to these sorts of people as well).

Lindsay is one of 380 people in the world to have achieved the MW certification(!!!).  Her depth and breadth of wine knowledge could run circles around us students.  Yet during our class, she never spoke above us and she barely mentioned her MW achievement.  She has a quiet air of confidence about her, but there was no ego or bragging.  I think the wine world could use a few more Lindsays.

More lessons to follow . . . my next class is later this month!

 

 

 

 

Italian Wine Scholar: One Exam Down, One Exam to Go!

This past Monday I (finally!!) took my first of two exams in pursuit of the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  This first exam focused on the wine regions of Northern Italy, as well as general information about the entire country (history, geography, soils, viticulture, etc.).  The second exam will be focused solely on Central and Southern Italy.    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m tackling the IWS primarily because Italian wines are my Achilles heel and I’m going to need to know this country inside and out for my WSET Diploma studies.

Since I opted for self study as opposed to an instructor led course, I was scheduled to take the exam online where a proctor takes over my computer remotely (to ensure there aren’t any hidden notes to cheat with) and watches me via camera the entire exam.  While learning the names of dozens of grapes I’d never heard of like Timorasso and Marzemino, and memorizing a myriad of DOCGs, DOCs and IGTs, might sound challenging – I think the most stressful part of the whole experience for me was setting myself up on Skype and Adobe Connect the day prior to the actual exam.

First, I accidentally called the proctor on Skype while sitting in front of my screen in . . .  well, let’s just say I was wearing something that I wouldn’t wear out in public as I had just gotten up from a nap.  Thankfully, she didn’t pick up – so I dodged that bullet.  But then I DID somehow leave a recorded message where you can hear Hubs in the background yelling “[insert my very private petname here] what’re you doing?” and me responding dopily “oh, just trying not to make a complete ass of myself in front of my examiner!  Tee-Hee!” (Yes, I actually did say TEE-HEE).  I’m not sure if this message was deleted despite my best efforts.  But at least my proctor was classy enough not to say anything to me about it the next day.  (I think she was British, and thankfully they’re into etiquette and manners.)

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on my whole exam experience, besides not leaving the technical setup to the last minute, I’ve realized there are several things that I wish I would’ve done differently for my first exam.  At least I’ve got a “second chance” (so to speak) with my second exam, which I’ll be tackling early next year.  So I plan to follow these helpful tips:

1. 10 Months is Waaaaay Too Long to Spend Studying for this Exam!  I started my Italian Wine Scholar self-study course back in January – TEN MONTHS AGO.  While I’m not making excuses, I did get derailed by some pretty big life events since then: moving from my beloved Washington state to Southern California, starting my WSET Diploma classes, and learning that the upcoming season of The Walking Dead will be Rick Grimes’ last.  However, even after taking all these factors in account, I still should have completed my IWS exam sooner.  For the second IWS exam – I’m giving myself three months of study time: November through January.  Take the exam in early February, and move on!

2. No Multi-Tasking!  One Exam at a Time.  I love multi-tasking – I get half as much done in twice as much time.  And that was definitely the case here.  I tried to study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 2 Diploma exam at the same time.  That didn’t work overly well for my brain, so I thought I’d try it again (what’s the definition of insanity?) and study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 5 Diploma exam.  Surprisingly, this wasn’t optimal either.  I’ve learned my lesson: for the next month, I’m focusing solely on my Unit 5 studies until exam day (November 7th).  After that, I’ll jump into IWS Central/Southern Edition.

3. Use the Wine Scholar Guild Online Materials.  The Wine Scholar Guild online resources are a wealth of information that I just did not take enough advantage of for my first exam.  There are practice quizzes, flashcards, maps and short overviews of each wine region – a wine geek’s dream!  During the last week of my studies, I tried to frantically make my way through some of these – and I’m glad I at least did this as some of the questions from the practice quizzes were quite similar to those on my exam. (Those of you planning to take the IWS exams – make a mental note of this!)

4. Don’t Focus So Much on %s.  I spent a lot of time and brain space memorizing the various %s of permissible grapes in certain blends.  Now, I’m not going to say that there weren’t any questions on this, but certainly not as many as my studies would have warranted.  I would have been better off focusing on major bodies of water and synonyms for Nebbiolo instead (another mental note!)

5. More drinking!!  This one should be easy enough to do.  During my studies, I did manage to go through several bottles of Italian wine – but there’s always room for improvement!  When there was a question about these grapes or appellations on the exam, and I was confident of my answers –  in part due to the fact that I’d previously sat down with a glass (or two, or three) of the wine.

Linus and IWS

So, now I’m going to put my IWS to rest for awhile. I’m heading off with Hubs to our first ever Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend!  Stay tuned!

Editors Note: as I was putting the final touches on this post, I received this email from the Wine Scholar Guild with my exam results.  Now I’m thinking I should just do everything the exact same way for my second exam!

IWS Results
96%!!!! 🙂

 

 

WSET Diploma Unit 5: Opting for the Sparkly Object

After successfully completing Unit 2, I started thinking about the next Unit I was going to tackle in my WSET Diploma pursuit.  (Ok, let’s be honest, I started thinking about this months before actually completing Unit 2).   So without further ado, here were my options, my thought process, and my decision (Spoiler Alert:  Bubbles.  Always Bubbles).

Unit 1 – Global Business of Alcoholic Beverages.

There are two parts to Unit 1: a 3,000 word research paper and an in-class case study exam.  Candidates can do either of these at any time during the Diploma process.  Both involve a fair amount of research and writing, which as a former lawyer, I was actually pretty damn good at once upon a time.  So, I’m looking forward to tackling these writing assignments – assuming I’m assigned a topic that I enjoy writing about.

The research paper topics are established by WSET and are released each academic year.  This year’s were released in early August, and neither one particularly spoke to me: “The short and long term implications of the 2017 vintage“, or “The Rum Revival.”  The 2017 vintage question seems incredibly broad and I’m not all that excited about spending a lot of time researching spirits – particularly since spirits will no longer be a required Unit of the Diploma beginning in August, 2019.  I’m optimistic that when I get around to doing the paper that both options will be more wine related . . . and hopefully one will be “why Washington state is the future for the United States wine industry.”  A gal can dream, can’t she?

The case study exam is offered three times a year. This is a complete grab bag of alcohol business topics – past case studies have ranged from “social media and the wine industry” to “the négotiant system in Burgundy” to “the wines of South Africa.” I think any of these would’ve been fascinating to explore in detail, which of course means that when I register for the case study (likely in March 2019) my topic will be something like “what sulfur dioxide means to me” or “why mass produced New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the most awesomest wine in the world.”

Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World.

This is the behemoth of the Diploma – covering all wines of the world that don’t fit into the Fortified or Sparkling categories.  I don’t know if the tales of its difficulty are greatly exaggerated or not, but I’m not planning to find out any sooner than I need to.  Unit 3 will be my last Diploma Unit.

Unit 4 – Spirits of the World.

My wine school is doing one last offering of the Spirits Unit and exam. I originally had this all worked out before we moved down to SoCal – my father-in-law (the infamous T-Bone) was going to be my spirits study-buddy and Hubs and Mom-in-Law (aka Authorista) were going to foot the (bar) bill. T-bone and I would frequent local watering holes to sip and study and then head back to our respective homes for our daily nap.  Win-win for everyone. Well, two of us anyways.

However, since Spirits soon won’t be part of the Diploma program, I struggled with whether to try and tackle this Unit or not. I eventually opted for not.  Sorry, T-Bone. Sidenote: don’t actually feel sorry for him.  I’ve been stocking his wine “cabinet” (underneath his bathroom sink) with Oregon Pinot and Washington Syrah since we moved down here.  He’s fine.

Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World.

See Below.

Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World.

Unit 6 is being offered in early September and the exam is on the same date as Unit 5.  I know several candidates that are tackling both Units together – and I considered this for about 5 seconds . . .

Bottom line is – I’m not in a huge rush to finish the Diploma.  And, like much of what I do in life, would prefer to methodically and systematically go through my studies as opposed to frantically cramming it all in.  I am a true ISTJ.  So, I opted for the Unit that interested me the most – the shiny object of the Diploma – Sparkling Wines of the World!

Champagne books
Unit 5 – In-Class Experience.

After registering for Unit 5 the day after my Unit 2 exam (seriously – I am Tracy Frickin’ Flick!) I did a little prep work by starting in on some of the suggested readings.  Class itself was one very intensive, very full day in early August.  Other WSET providers spread Unit 5 in-class time over two days (Napa Valley Wine Academy), or three weeks plus a practice exam (Capital Wine School).  WSET Unit 5 manual

My class was a broad overview of sparkling wines – from different production methods, to Champagne sub-regions, to common labeling terminology.  We also tasted through 11 different sparkling wines in class.  Although, unlike Unit 2, this wasn’t blind and there was quite a bit less class discussion on them as well.  Maybe this was because there were more students in class (10 compared to my 3 in my Unit 2).  Or because it was a sunny summer Saturday and people wanted to skedaddle. Although, this is SoCal, almost every Saturday is sunny.

Whatever the case, to me – this portion felt rushed.  Actually – the entire day did.  Covering all sparkling wines of the world in one day is not my ideal way to learn. It’s just way too much information all at once. But on the bright side, I suppose this is good practice for the MW if I’m able to pursue that in the future since that program is practically all self-study. So until Unit 5 exam day – November 7th – I’m on my own.

Unit 5 – My Study Plan.

I started out with a detailed study plan (I realize this is not shocking).  But then with all my travel in August – I quickly had to revise it. I got wrapped up with visiting my beloved Washington state and attending the fabulous Auction of Washington Wines.  And then visiting my awesome Bestie and travelling to New York’s Finger Lakes region.  In my defense – both were wine related travels, so some degree of “research” was done.

So – here’s my revised Unit 5 study schedule.  As I did with Unit 2 – I’m aiming to do some degree of studying daily.  I think of my brain like a balloon – I’ll add a little bit more information each day, not too much so that it explodes, and not too little (or too much time off) so it deflates.

Unit 5 – Exam.

Unlike Unit 2, the Unit 5 exam is not multiple choice.  It consists of a tasting portion and a theory portion.  Both of which must be completed within 65 minutes.  I think it’s 30 minutes per section, and then a 5 minute freak out session in between.

Tasting.  Candidates are poured three sparkling wines from anywhere in the world and have to write tasting notes on each one in the approved WSET format.  Past exams have included a trio of Cava/Vintage Champagne/Prosecco and a NV Champagne/Sekt/Vintage Champagne.  After describing the wines, candidates are then asked a “conclusion” question like “discuss the quality/readiness for drinking/country of origin” of the wines.

Theory.  Here candidates are asked to write about 3 topics related to sparkling wine.  These questions can be ANYTHING!  Past exam topics have been: Tank Method, Franciacorta, Pinot Noir, Côtes des Blancs and Prestige Cuvées.  So, basically, you’re asked to regurgitate everything you know about these subjects.  And quickly – you’ve got about 10 minutes per question.  I’m going to need to work on my timing here because at times I can be a bit verbose.  True story.

And on that note – I’ll quit writing about the exam and get to studying! 😉

WSET Diploma Unit 2: The Results Are In!

Well, I have officially cleared my first hurdle in my WSET Diploma pursuit!  Now there’s just four more exams and a research paper.   :-/  As I mentioned in my previous post on the Diploma, Unit 2 is required to be taken before any of the other five Units are attempted.  But, once you pass Unit 2, you’re free to move onto whichever Unit(s) you choose.  (Editorial Note by Hubs:  Ms. Noelle passed “with Distinction” – a designation akin to summa cum laude for this particular Unit – the highest honor awarded.  The dogs and I simply couldn’t be more proud of her!!)

As I look back at my studies for Unit 2, there are definitely some habits that I will continue as I move forward with my Diploma pursuit (the “dos”) – and others that I absolutely will not (the “don’ts”).  Now, anyone who grew up reading Glamour back in the day probably recalls their fabulous back page of DOs and DON’Ts.  Although it wasn’t particularly PC – it was absolutely my favorite part of the magazine (admit it, yours too!).  So, without further ado (and with a similar lack of PC) here are my WSET Diploma Unit 2 DOs and DON’Ts:

Glamour2

 

Unit 2 DOs

DO read the suggested readings.  Even though all questions on the exam come from the actual Unit 2 textbook, I found the supplemental readings invaluable.  Specifically, Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW and Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird MW (future book review/blog post forthcoming!)  BooksBoth of these books cover similar information as the Unit 2 text, but they go into more depth and detail.  Being able to read about concepts such as the effects of nutrient deficiencies in a vineyard, or SO2 limitations in wine, in plain English helped me get a more fundamental understanding of the subject matter.  As I might’ve mentioned before – I don’t “science” very well.   😉

DO study every day – even if it’s just a little bit.  Some days I dove into the text for a few hours, and others I just reviewed my outlines and flashcards.  But I honestly don’t think there was a single day in between when I had my first Unit 2 class and when I took my exam that I didn’t study for at least a short while.  I wanted to keep what I learned at the forefront of my brain so it was easy to recall, because believe me, at 45 I have amassed a lot of useless crap in there. (If anyone wants to know the lyrics to any song on The Smiths “Louder Than Bombs” album, or the chronological order of deaths on The Walking Dead, I’m your gal).

Studying
Studying in between flights at SeaTac’s Vino Volo!

DO practice the sample questions in the Unit 2 textbook.  I won’t go into too much detail as to specific questions on the exam, but let’s just say that some of them were eerily similar to the sample questions in the textbook.  Review these.  You won’t regret it.

Unit 2 DON’Ts

DON’T get stuck in the minutiae.  When studying, I have a habit of trying to learn – and memorize – everything.  I tend to get bogged down in the details . . . sometimes at the expense of moving forward.

With Unit 2, I spent a lot of time memorizing types of vineyard pests and learning which rootstocks do best in which types of soil.  And no, this wasn’t because I was fascinated with grapevine yellows or Vitis rupestris.  I was just totally struggling with these areas and thought that if I memorized as much as I possibly could about them that I’d do better on the exam.  So, I spent an exorbitant amount of time on these topics and, while there were a couple exam questions on them, there were more questions on quality control and herbicides – areas that I hadn’t spend much time on because I’d been so in the weeds (pun intended) with others.

DON’T overthink the exam questions.  This advice came to me courtesy of Spitbucket.net after her experience with the exam, and it was spot-on.  Come exam time, you’ve learned so much that you’re likely to overanalyze the test questions and wonder if the examiners are actually asking you something else or trying to trick you.  (Answers: they’re not, and they’re not.)  The Brits might be strict and reserved, but they’re a fair lot.  Feel free to remind me of this quote when I don’t do well on one of my upcoming exams.

And finally, DON’T overdo it. Although I mention above that studying every day is a DO, it is possible to go overboard. Like accessories, sometimes less is more. So if you’re practicing flashcards while getting a bikini wax – you’ve probably taken this too far. Purely hypothetically, of course. :-/

My next WSET class is in a few weeks – I’m tackling Unit 5: Sparkling Wines of the World.  And yes, I’m already making my way through the recommended reading.  But, lesson learned, I’m leaving the book at home before my next appointment at OC Wax.

Becoming a Certified Sherry Wine Specialist

“Isn’t that the shit you use for cooking?”

-Hubs on Sherry (did I mention he’s a beer guy?)

As if there weren’t already enough post-nominals in the wine world (WSET, CMS, FWS, etc.), last week I learned about one more: Certified Sherry Wine Specialist – CSWS.

The CSWS course is a 2.5 hour seminar sponsored by The House of Lustau – one of the most revered Sherry producers in the world.  The course has recently been making industry rounds in California from the Napa Valley Wine Academy to Neptune Wine School (where I’ll be taking my upcoming WSET Diploma classes!).

There’s quite a lot of information covered in this brief 150 minutes including the history of Sherry, its grapes and growing environment, and the famous (and fascinating) solera system shown below.

sherry-solera-system

In addition to a broad overview, class participants taste 6 different styles of Sherry – 2 Finos, a Manzanilla, an Amontillado, an Oloroso and a Pedro Ximénez.  This alone was worth the price of admission in my mind (a very reasonable $40).  It’s one thing to read about how Manzanilla Sherry has a briny/salty edge to it or that Pedro Ximénez is SO lusciously sweet, often tasting of dried fruit and coffee.  For me, the knowledge really sinks in when I can smell and taste these things for myself.  I’m no longer just memorizing facts, I’m having my own experiences – which are a helluva lot easier to recall if I need to for an exam!  Speaking of which…..the 2 hour seminar concludes with a 28 question exam (most of it multiple choice) and those achieving a score of 20 or higher will receive a CSWS certification.

Sherries

Although it’s advertised as an intermediate level course – I wouldn’t let this scare off any wine newbies out there.  Compared to some of the other wine classes I’ve attended, I found the CSWS to be completely welcoming (read: nonthreatening).  Nobody is put on the spot unless you want to be. 🙂  Our seminar was led by Lucas Payà who, along with being incredibly knowledgeable and patient with questions, also had a gorgeous accent that I could listen to all day.

I’d highly recommend this seminar to anyone interested in learning more about Sherry – no matter what your current wine knowledge level.  And for those other wine bloggers out there – the CSWS course is going to be offered at The Wine Bloggers Conference in October (and is a total steal at $15!)

Here’s my outline on Sherry which will provide you with a great overview, but just isn’t the same as tasting an amazing Pedro Ximénez!!