The Masters of Wine Marathon: The Application Process

Today, there are 416 Masters of Wine in the world.  Without a doubt, achieving this distinction is an incredibly challenging feat.  Nonetheless, I’ve officially decided to give it a go and apply for the Masters of Wine program later this year!

I plan to document my experiences here on my blog – so depending on how the application process goes, this might be a quick three-part series, or a several years long one.  I’m inspired by what Richard Hemming did when he wrote about his Master of Wine journey for Jancis Robinson’s site, but if you’ve read me for any length of time you know my language will likely be a bit more . . . colorful? 😉

To become a Master of Wine, there are several hurdles to clear – the first one being: get accepted into the program. So I’m focusing my energy on the application process right now (and not what might come after!) and am seriously hoping I don’t end up like this poor gal and miss this hurdle right out of the gate. 

The Institute of Masters of Wine accepts applications annually each May.  Individuals who are accepted into the program are usually notified sometime in September.  So, like waiting for WSET Diploma results, you’re in for a relatively long waiting period where you can either obsess over it daily or forget about it because it’s outside of your control.  I’ll try to do the latter, but – let’s be honest – will probably end up doing the former.

Recently, it’s been estimated that between 50-60% of applicants are admitted. There are numerous requirements to even apply – but after looking at the criteria, I believe I have a decent shot of getting in.  And when doubts start to creep in (as they frequently do), I just ask myself: “why NOT me?”

For those of you who are curious – I’ve detailed the requirements for admission to the MW program as well as a WSET inspired personal “quality assessment” of myself clearing these hurdles below.  Disclaimer: as someone who is merely planning to apply, I obviously should NOT be your main source of information for this process – the IMW website should be your true north.

Alrighty – let’s take a lap around the application process:

The Nine Hurdles of the MW Application Process

Hurdle #1: Wine Qualification –  Candidates must have a wine qualification “at the WSET Diploma level or equivalent.”  Based on the IMW website, a Bachelor’s or Master’s in enology or viticulture, or a higher level sommelier certification (Advanced and above) would qualify as “equivalent.” 

My personal assessment: Outstanding.  I’ve earned WSET Diploma, so this hurdle is easily cleared.  Well . . . not “easily” – but this is one requirement I’m confident I’ve satisfied.

Hurdle #2: Work in the Wine Trade – Candidates must have a minimum of three years professional work experience in the global wine community.  This encompasses everything from wine buyers to winemakers, journalists and educators. 

My personal assessment: Very Good.  I have several years wine retail experience in addition to being a WSET and IWS instructor.  I also developed and taught one of the courses for the Gonzaga University Wine Institute. The only reason I’m not giving myself an “outstanding” here is that this past year presented some challenges in pursuing a full-time career in the wine industry.  I know I’m not alone with this, so am hopeful they’ll factor this into their decision.

It is also specified that candidates who may not meet the minimum three years experience requirement can apply if they feel they fit “within the spirit of the IMW mission”, which is: to promote excellence, interaction, and learning across all sectors of the global wine community.  I strongly believe I satisfy this criteria.  With my Instagram wine quizzes, mentoring and coaching of wine students, and leading corporate and consumer tastings – my passion and career (albeit much of it gratis) is encouraging others to learn more about wine.  I’m confident that my myriad of experiences in wine education will be enough to get me over this hurdle.

Hurdle #3: Reference Letter – Candidates must submit a letter of reference to support their application from a Master of Wine or another senior wine trade professional.

My personal assessment: Outstanding.  I’ve already chatted with an MW and she has agreed to be my reference. Additionally, my Diploma instructor is a Master Sommelier (and would qualify as a “senior wine trade professional”) so I have a plan B if necessary.

Hurdles #4-7: Personal Statements and Supporting Documentation – Candidates also must include the following with their application:

  • A statement regarding how you intend to dedicate sufficient study time to be fully prepared for the MW exam.
  • In no more than 500 words, a statement of motivation on how you see yourself contributing to the IMW’s mission of promoting excellence, interaction and learning in the global wine community.
  • Brief details on your wine tasting experience and how you intend to access wines throughout your studies, in preparation for the MW exam.
  • Supporting documentation for your applicationsuch as copies of your WSET Diploma (or equivalent) certificate.

My personal assessment: Very Good.  In short:

  • I have an incredibly supportive spouse (which is of utmost importance!) and no kids. After years in the corporate world, I’m at a point in my life where I have ample time, energy and passion to dedicate to studying for the MW exam.
  • As mentioned above, I’m currently spending countless hours on my edutaining wine quizzes and coaching wine students for certifications.  And I truly LOVE doing this!!  If this doesn’t fall within the mission of promoting “excellence, interaction and learning in the global wine community” – frankly, I’m not sure what would.
  • For WSET Diploma, I personally purchased 95% of the wines necessary for the course.  And although I’m willing to do this again for MW, I’m hopeful (as is Hubs!) that we can bring that percentage down a bit.  As the world starts to open back up, I’m planning to resume regular tastings at my favorite local wine store, forming a tasting group and participating in blind tasting courses from local wine experts.
  • So . . . I actually don’t have this in hand – and I’m not sure if I will by May.  But there’s got to be a way for WSET global to confirm to IMW that I have indeed passed all required units of the Diploma.  This is just a slight hiccup more than a hurdle.

Hurdle #8: Costs Associated with the Application – The MW program in total is several thousand dollars (we’ll get into those details in a future post – gulp).  The application alone is $325.  There are scholarships available and I know of at least one individual who has established a GoFundMe account for his pursuit of MW.  The costs are an unfortunate barrier to entry for many as opposed to merely a hurdle . . . and this is something that I’d like to help solve in the future.

My personal assessment: We are very fortunate to be in a position to afford the costs of the MW program. This is basically the college education and/or wedding of the children we didn’t have.

Final hurdle: Entrance Exam

Once candidates have met all the requirements above and submitted all the necessary documentation, there’s an online entrance exam consisting of a theory question and a practical tasting component.  I’ll cover this last hurdle in detail in my next blog post.  Just as there are techniques for clearing actual hurdles (who knew??!) – there are techniques I plan to put in play to clearing the entrance exam as well.

Stay tuned! 

Blind Tasting Lesson: Assessing a Wine’s Flaws . . . As Well as Our Own

Blind tasting is an exam component for many different wine certifications.  Typically, candidates are required to describe a wine according to set standards (i.e. “the Grid” or “the SAT”), identify the wine, and then give reasons for our choice.  We’re also often asked about the quality of the wine: is it outstanding, good, or merely acceptable?  One of these quality categories used to be “faulty” – but for whatever reason, WSET recently removed this as an option.  Perhaps they assumed that all exam wines would be faultless.

When practiced rationally, I’m a big proponent of blind tasting.  It lets you play detective by gathering clues about the wine: its color, aromas/flavors, structure, quality, etc. before naming a suspect.  Blind tasting is also a form of meditation because we focus on the present moment and tune out everything else.  Hubs calls this “clearing the mechanism” (his Kevin Costner crush is pretty strong, but it’s an apt analogy nonetheless).  Since we cannot have any preconceived notions based on the label, with blind tasting we focus solely on what’s in the glass to judge the quality of a wine.

Unfortunately, all too frequently, we end up judging ourselves based solely on how close we came to correctly identifying the wine.

Airbrushing at its Finest: Hollywood Makes Blind Tasting Appear Flawless.

MS Candidates blind tasting
Photo credit: Somm documentary

While documentaries like the Somm trilogy and short series Uncorked have helped to bring the pursuit of wine certifications mainstream, I fear that they’re disillusioning people (including individuals pursuing such certifications!) about blind tasting.  It’s not a party trick, and it’s not all about “nailing” the wine. And, contrary to a certain newly released film, one should NOT expect to be able to identify a wine down to the producer and vintage mere weeks after picking up The Wine Bible.

Problem is, many wine students DO expect to be able to do this, and when we can’t – we  conclude that we’re not good at blind tasting.  We think we’re the “faulty” ones, so to speak.

But Everyone is Flawed – Even (Especially?) Those Who Act Like They Aren’t.

Many times, we wine students lack faith in ourselves – so we hesitate with our descriptions.  I will forever remember my Introductory Sommelier Course when a gal was describing a red wine’s aromas to the rest of the 100+ students by stating: “I want to say red plums and cranberries . . .”  One of the Master Sommeliers leading the course interrupted her and said “You WANT to say, or you ARE saying?”  And honestly, I don’t think he was being a jerk here.  His point (I think) was to have confidence in yourself.  That being said, I highly doubt that being called out in a room full of Somm-wannabes boosted her confidence level very much.

I cannot tell you how many wine classes I’ve been in where people hesitate to speak up about what they think is in the glass for fear of being wrong. “You think there’s lime in this Riesling? Are you nuts?! It’s clearly lime ZEST.”

It’s also disheartening to observe an online conversation about identifying Malbec in a blind tasting devolve into a pissing match with this zinger: “You can either nut up and contribute content that’s worth a damn or you can see yourself out.  The choice is yours. But no one is going to kiss your ring for ‘dry, savory and frequently oaked’.  Crush us with your intellect, you fucking hero.”

(Ok, the Riesling example I made up.  But the second one literally just happened on a study board while I was putting this blog post together.  And even worse, it was written by a wine industry “professional.”  Have I mentioned that I should perhaps stay off these boards for my own sanity?)

We Easily Comment on a Wine’s Flaws, So Why Not Our Own?

Speaking up, for fear of being wrong or saying something others perceive as “stupid”, is sometimes challenging. And obviously that’s not just the wine world – it’s human nature. But we all have flaws and we all make mistakes. And in blind tasting, some of these errors are big ol’ doozies.

Full Disclosure: I made one of those big ol’ doozies just last week.  I was mortified, humbled and a bit humiliated that I had been SO off base with my call: White wine, with some yummy aromas of peaches, apricots and floral notes.  Medium+ body with a slight heat.  Off-dry, medium acidity.  The palate was full of ripe stone fruits with a hint of baking spices and vanilla.  This wine screamed Viognier to me.  Not a high quality Condrieu, but possibly from California.  Needless to say: Nope!!

Yellowtail reveal
What I thought was an entry level Viognier was a VERY mass produced Australian Chardonnay

Oddly enough – I wanted to share this experience with others!  But I hesitated before putting my mega-flaw out there . . . would this be seen as my ineptitude as a blind taster?  Would people think I’m a complete dumbass for mistaking a Yellowtail Chardonnay for a California Viognier?  Did I care if they thought this?

I ultimately decided: Fuck It. So I posted it on Instagram for all the world to see . . . or, at least, you know, my (almost!) 2k followers. 😉  My Instagram account is all about helping people improve their wine knowledge.  By sharing my own mistake, my hope was to make others less embarrassed about when they’ve been way off base in blind tasting -and to realize that this happens to everybody. We should help one another learn from our mistakes – because you know what? Blind tasting is not a competition.

In my Instagram post, I asked others to share their worst/most embarassing blind tasting call and was VERY curious to see what the responses were.  Most people commiserated or gave me a virtual “it happens to all of us” pat on the back.  Thankfully, nobody mocked me (at least not to my face!).  And I was pleasantly surprised that several shared their own blind tasting blunders!  Interestingly, most of those who did were fellow Diploma students.

And there was one comment that absolutely floored me.  A Master of Wine student, who happens to be one of my favorite wine podcasters and someone that I greatly admire, said that he had recently blinded the same Yellowtail Chardonnay . . . and had also called it Viognier.  If someone of his level of experience and education can make the same call I did – maybe there’s hope for me after all. 😉

So I’ve been kicking around starting a series of shorter blog posts about blind tastings.  (I can hear one of my followers cheering, and the rest of you frantically searching for the unfollow button.)  Personally, I’ve been doing a lot of blind tastings whilst in quarantine and have learned a lot about what works for me – and what doesn’t.

For my Diploma exam (now scheduled for October but – who knows?), we’ll be asked to identify common themes for three of our blind flights: same variety, same region and same country.  I’ve been collecting notes from various sources to help me with the “evidence gathering” process – which will allow me to better describe and identify what’s in my glass.  I’m also improving on “ruling out suspects” by recognizing what’s NOT in my glass.  (Unless it’s Savenniéres . . . this has been my white whale of blind tasting for some reason.)  I’m thinking of compiling these notes into some study aids (yes, there will be outlines involved!) and sharing with others who are also studying for wine exams or who just want to improve their blind tasting skills.

Please weigh in with a comment if this is something you’d be interested in – or, you know, not!  My thoughts are that if me choking down a glass of Yellowtail helps another wine student out, or encourages them to speak up in class, or gives them the confidence to say “I AM SAYING that there are red plums and cranberries in this wine!” then it’s worth it.

So stay tuned – and stay safe.

 

 

 

 

 

The Downside of Living with a Perpetual Wine Student (by Hubs)

In college I worked in a sorority house as a dishwasher.  In the rare instance that I relay this tidbit of information about my past to someone, without fail they cast a knowing smile, arch an eyebrow, and say something to the effect of “well, that must have been a tough job.”   You know what – it was.   There was absolutely zero Red Shoes Diaries component to my three hour daily shift of cleaning dishes for 100 girls while standing in what was lovingly referred to as “The Pit.”

Over the past few years I’ve once again become the recipient of that same sly reaction – only this time it happens when I tell people that my wife is a wine student.  While I admit it’s better than operating The Pit, there are some legitimate gripes to spending your life with someone who has chosen this particular academic pursuit.

#1 – The Bottles.   Sweet Jesus…they…are…everywhere.   We are now on our fourth wine refrigerator and the bottles just keep stacking up.   It’s like trying to stop springtime. I’ve found them stashed in closets, file drawers, desks, packing boxes, garageIMG_9783[284] cabinets, etc.  I think she has a problem.  Like a wine hoarder or some other  rare affliction we’re going to have to address with an intervention at some point.

This may sound trite – bottles are relatively small and stack easily.  Right?  Well, here’s a snapshot from move-in day to our new house.  To be clear, this is a small house, so you’re looking at approximately 25% of the total square footage.   You know it’s become a problem when the UPS guy is passing judgment!

#2 – Knowledge by Association.  I know very little about wine (true story).   Perhaps slightly more than the average person as a result of being married to a vinophile, but honestly – not much more.  Nonetheless, whenever I’m out with friends or co-workers and the wine list is presented they always give it to me because of Noelle.   Now, there’s really only two ways I can go here:  bullshit my way through it, or try to convince my dining mates that I have no idea what I’m doing.   I’m a guy, so I obviously choose bullshit every time.

Gramercy PicpoulHowever, once you choose bullshit you have to be totally committed to the bullshit process.   Last month I ordered a Picpoul at Gramercy Tavern in New York.  Do I know anything about Picpoul?  Absolutely not.  Do I know it exists only because of Noelle?  You betcha.  It’s kind of like saying Yellow Ledbetter is your favorite Pearl Jam song – everyone is going to pick Jeremy, so you have to pick a deep track in order to try and impress.

Now, when you try to the bullshit the Somm you’re going to get your test results back immediately.   She or he is going to think (but not say) either: “Wow, Picpoul?  Well I read this dude all wrong, that’s a great choice – clearly he knows his wine.” or “This guy has absolutely no fucking clue what he is talking about.  None.  I could serve him apple cider vinegar in a thimble and he wouldn’t say a word.”   My results?   Winner!!  The Somm was incredibly impressed by my choice and we excitedly discussed what paired best with Picpoul with my admiring table guests looking on!  (Of course, I bullshitted my way through that conversation as well.)  Look, it’s a 50/50 proposition at best when they hand you the wine list, but you have to go for it when Noelle isn’t in attendance.

#3 – The Interrogation.   While watching a movie with some friends recently, I asked Noelle to open – and I’m quoting here – “a bottle of white wine.”   What followed was a thirty minute interrogation that made the bar exam look like a true/false question on the back of a cereal box: What alcohol level?   Old world or new world?   Zippy?  Passion fruit?  What are you guys going to eat with it?  Is a little residual sugar ok?   My answer was: I don’t care!!  Any bottle of white will do.  Literally – any bottle.

And so it goes.  Every single time I open a bottle in our house I’m forced to render a dissertation on Spain’s climate in 2012, why French oak is vastly superior (or is it vastly inferior?),  AVA controversies of the late 1990’s, etc.   Want to know why I chose this particular bottle?  It was the first one I saw when I opened the door to the wine refrigerator.  You want real blasphemy?  I didn’t even look at the goddamn label!  Chardonnay?   Pinot Gris?   No idea – don’t care.  It’s wet and white, so both boxes are checked in order to pair it with this horrific Velveeta grilled cheese on stale bread I’m currently choking down.

At this point I should be clear that the upside to living with a perpetual wine student far outweighs these pedantic observations.  And for the sake of my marriage, I should further say that living with Noelle specifically does the same.   However, the next time someone asks me what my wife does for a living, I may consider telling them her prior career “tax lawyer” in order to avoid what inevitably follows.  Of course, if I do that I just know I’ll get a tax question about the deductibility of insurance premiums or some other scintillating inquiry.   Screw it – I choose wine student.

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

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

Unit 5 study table

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

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

UNIT 5 – TASTING.

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

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

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

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

UNIT 5 – THEORY.

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

Unit 5 handwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!