WSET Diploma: Getting Back in the Saddle . . . Again.

Although I’ve never ridden a horse in my life, I feel like I’ve been bucked off the Beast (WSET Diploma D3) a few times already.  And I have yet to take the actual fucking exam.  After scrambling to find another school in which to take the exam back in May, only to have that exam cancelled worldwide – I’m now aiming to take it at the end of October.  So Buckaroos – it’s time to get back in the saddle!

Now, it’s entirely possible that the October exam will also be cancelled – but that’s out of my control.  What is IN my control is HOW I’m going to study, WHAT I’m going to study and WHEN I’m going to study it.  So I put together a new roadmap to get me from now (“now” actually started a couple months ago) until exam day.  And while this process is intuitive for me, I’m realizing that it’s not for everyone – primarily because I’ve gotten some questions from other wine students on this!

Here’s how I put together my study plan (aka “roadmap”) – some of these suggestions might work for you, and some won’t.  There are several routes to the same destination . . .

Study Schedule
My life for the next 18 weeks!

First things first: Calculate how long you have between now and exam day. This is the easy part – figure out how many days (or weeks) you have from today until the day of your exam. I prefer to schedule my studies weekly as opposed to daily – but you might prefer otherwise.  What’s important is to find what works best for you – be it on a calendar, spreadsheet, etc., but get your blank schedule in front of you.

What does your life look like from now to exam day?  Make sure to account for other things going on in your life when putting together your study plan (please make sure you have other things going on in your life!!)  Mark these clearly on your roadmap so that you don’t over-schedule your studies during these times.

For example, I had to wrap up my research paper on natural wine and take my Spanish Wine Scholar exam before the end of July – so Beast studies were going to take a backseat during this month.  Hubs and I also took a much needed roadtrip, and I wanted to enjoy this time and not be bogged down with books.  So I budgeted study time accordingly – and focused on Beast regions that corresponded with where we were driving!

Airstream photos
“Studying” Paso Robles and Mendocino AVAs!

Ok, now you’ve got your blank schedule with other life goings on blocked out.  Let’s get to filling in the blanks – and for this part, we need to figure out WHAT to study.

What will be covered on the exam?  The Beast focuses on all still wines of the world . . . so, that limits it [insert eyeroll here].  But seriously, for the best guesstimate on what will be covered on your exam – pull out your textbook and look at how it’s broken down.

WSET Diploma D3 Textbooks
The Beast in all it’s glory

For the Beast, France represents over 25% of the total text.  Italy is second with 15%, followed by Spain and Australia with 7% each, and then California 6%.  It therefore lends itself to reason that questions on France will come up more frequently than other regions – so obviously I should spend most of my study time on France, right?  Well – yes, and no.

Let’s say – purely hypothetically – that you have a decent grasp on France, but the entire Southern hemisphere is a bit of a blur to you.  If that’s the case, it might be best to spend a good chunk of your time on what you don’t know instead of cozily reviewing the 10 Cru Beaujolais for the hundredth time.   Let me explain a bit more . . .

Look at what you already know and (this is very important!) analyze your weak spots.  It is SO easy to focus on our strengths and review these instead of tackling the areas we’re weaker in.  Of all wine growing countries, I’m probably most confident about France.  (Yes, even more than my own country – unless a lot of Washington wine questions happen to pop up on the exam).  Given my druthers, I’d focus on all things France and pretty much ignore the entire Southern hemisphere.  So maybe the above example wasn’t purely hypothetical. 😉

You’ve got to balance reviewing what you already know with a more intense focus on what you’re less confident about.  Here are some suggestions on how to go about this:

Break it up a bit.  Let’s say, like me, France is your strongest point.  Rather than plow through the entirety of the country over several weeks in a row – break it into smaller areas and divide these up on your schedule.  This way, you’re spreading out your strength – which will (hopefully!) help keep your confidence level boosted throughout your studies.

Pair up different regions.  I don’t know about you, but I get rather bored studying the same country for weeks on end.  For my Beast roadmap, I decided to group regions together to study in a few different ways:

  • Common threads.  Chenin Blanc does well in the Loire and in South Africa (just ask Vincent and Tania Carême) so I paired those regions up in Week 12.
  • Tannic red with fatty steak.  One of the most traditional food and wine pairings is a big, tannic red with a juicy, fatty steak.  These two balance each other out in part because the steak’s fat and protein break down the tannins in the wine.  So – pick a region that is tannic and hard to swallow on its own for you.  (For me, that’s Germany – it’s a jumble fucking mess in my brain with terms like flurbereinigung and pendelbogen . . . you cannot make these words up!) Now, pair this “tannic” area with a juicy, easy to digest region.  I went with New York because I’ve been there, it’s relatively easy to wrap my brain around and it’s only six pages long! 🙂
  • Review v. Learn.  I paired up Central Italy and Australia in Week 10 – having completed the Italian Wine Scholar program, Central Italy will be more of a review for me.  However, I’ve always struggled with Australia.  So this week’s study session will give me a balance of refresh and review, and learning more from scratch.

Bottom line: fill in your study schedule however makes sense to YOU.  If you’d rather tackle all of Italy at once before moving onto another country – do it.  But know yourself and how your brain works best . . . and this will help you with this next part: figuring out HOW you’re going to study.

Be realistic about time dedication.  This is tough for me because I always think I can get more done in a set time-frame than is actually possible.  Hubs jokes that just because ONE time I drove from our house to San Diego in 50 minutes, that I now think that’s how long it should always take. (Note: except for that one time, it always takes about an hour and ten minutes – and that’s without traffic).

So ask yourself: how much time are you honestly going to be able to study each week, or each day?  I know one Diploma graduate who treated her D3 studies basically like a full time job and studied from 8-5 every day for a few months prior to the exam.  While that’s incredibly impressive – that’s just not realistic for me.  The Beast will be a part-time job for me from now until exam day – probably around 20 hours per week of study time.

How in depth do you want to go?  This is another question that you’ve got to ask yourself and answer honestly: do you want to pass this exam – or do you want to achieve a higher score?  Diploma candidates are made up of wine students who are used to achieving high marks.  Many of us received Merit or Distinction on our WSET Level 3 exams and have come to expect that level of performance from ourselves.  But with the pass rate for the theory portion of the Beast hovering around 40% – you might need to reassess your goals.

Sidebar . . . When I started Diploma, and passed my first exam with Distinction, I set the bar that high.  I was used to doing extremely well on exams – why should Diploma be any different?  (Right now I am laughing at how naïve I was!)  Then my next exam rolled in  with Merit, and the next . . . a straight Pass.  It was about that time I finally accepted that the Diploma is some tough shit and that I might need to lower my expectations of myself – for my own well-being.

So for ME, I’m going to be thrilled to Pass the Beast.  This is my last Diploma hurdle – so if I barely clear it, who cares?  I fucking cleared it and made it to the finish line.  THAT is my goal right now.

This means that for my studies I’m going to focus on the concepts – and not agonize over the details.  For example, regarding Bordeaux, I’ll be able to describe how and why botrytis develops in Sauternes, explain the importance of the 1855 Classification and En Primeur and detail how the various soil types impact wine styles.  But I won’t bog down my brain with minimum aging requirements, permitted yields, or being able to list all the second growths.  Giving myself permission to not attempt to learn everything has been incredibly freeing.  However, if you’re aiming for a Merit or Distinction, you’ll probably need to focus more on those details – and allocate enough study time in order to do this.

Be Accountable.  How are you going to hold yourself to your roadmap?  If you slack off and miss a week, or fall behind because you burrow down too many rabbit holes, do you just say “oh well!” and create a new schedule?   I suppose you could do that . . . I’ve done it.  Several times.  But that kinda defeats the purpose of making a schedule to begin with – doesn’t it?

To help hold myself accountable, besides weekly check-ins with Hubs, I posted my roadmap above and plan to do a few blog updates on my progress between now and the end of October.  So, you all will know if I’ve fallen behind.  And that’s not going to be something I’ll be super excited to admit.

Like I mentioned earlier, everyone’s roadmap will look different because we each have a different starting point.  Some of us might take shortcuts along the way and others might take a much longer route.  Regardless, we’re aiming for the same destination – and hopefully, each one of us will get there intact and still in the saddle. 🙂

 

WSET Diploma Fortified Wines: This was a Sticky* One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make a Quick List to Trigger Your Memory.

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

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

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

Skittles rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Freak Out if You Misidentify a Wine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally – Study Madeira.

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

Best of luck with your studies!

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

WSET Diploma: Changing Up My Roadmap

We’re almost three months into 2020 and I haven’t managed to write a publishable blog post this year yet.  After taking my Fortified Wine exam in January, I’ve been completely focused with my Unit 3 studies (aka “D3”, “The Beast” or “Basically all wines not covered in Sparkling or Fortified.”)

Each time I sat down and tried to write a post, I felt guilty for not studying for D3.  So a few weeks ago, I thought “why don’t I start writing about my D3 studies?”  My hope was that by documenting my experiences, this would help someone else pursuing the Diploma.  I also believed that writing them down might very well help me too.

Since last Fall, I’ve methodically been preparing to take my D3 exam this May.  I’d carefully put together my “roadmap” and was planning to follow it meticulously until exam day.  What’s a roadmap, you might ask?

A Roadmap (Usually) Helps Prevent Shit from Going Sideways.

To help me stay on track, before beginning my studies for any wine course, I put together a roadmap: a detailed, realistic study plan from my starting point until exam day.  I’ve done this for every single one of my Diploma exams so far and it’s helped immensely.  My roadmap keeps me focused and, since I have a plan, I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to study each day or running out of time to cover everything.  It’s all laid out in front of me – I just need to follow it.

It’s rather intimidating to put together a study plan for an exam that covers almost all wine regions in the world.  But if I may draw on yet another law school analogy . . . D3 is quite similar to taking the bar exam.  They’re both a culmination of years of learning – not just the weeks before the actual exam.

In law school, I took classes like Torts and Property in my first year and didn’t really revisit these areas until I was preparing for the bar exam two years later.  But the material from these classes was still in my brain (and in my outlines!) so I just had to recall and review.  Which, let’s be honest, is WAY easier than learning something for the first time.

When making your D3 roadmap – take into account that you already know a lot of the material: the Burgundy pyramid, German labeling laws, the AVAs of my beloved Washington State (ok, maybe you don’t know this last one – but I do!) 😉  Of course, you’ll need to refresh your memory on some of these concepts and dig deeper at this level – but the point is you aren’t starting from scratch.

So, I had prepared my roadmap which took me until mid-May when I was scheduled to take my exam.  I was focused on my studies and on my way!

Even With a Detailed Roadmap, There Can Be Unexpected Detours.

Unfortunately, I had to deal with a not-so-slight detour.  Two weeks ago, the school I’ve been taking Diploma with informed us that there weren’t enough students interested in taking the D3 exam in May so it wasn’t going to be offered until October. stop roadsign with detour sign

Needless to say – that sent me scrambling a bit (ok, waaaay more than “a bit”).  I started asking myself a lot of questions.  Should I just wait and take the exam in October?  This would give me several extra months to prepare . . . but it would also push off graduation until January 2022.  Do I really need these extra months to study?  Or, do I think I’ll be ready for the exam in May?  And if so, where can I take it now that my current school isn’t offering the exam?

After spending a chunk of our vacation in Mexico on those questions (a regrettable waste of time), I decided to keep forging ahead for May.  I enrolled with the Napa Valley Wine Academy and planned to head up there for my exams.  My roadmap had taken a detour, but I’d handled it, and was back to moving forward.

And then, as I’m sure you also experienced, all hell broke loose.

And Sometimes, There are Roadblocks That You Simply Cannot Get Around.

Upon returning home from vacation, the world looked a bit different.  And then it quickly started looking VERY different.  Suddenly, things that mattered so very much to me a couple weeks ago – like my D3 exam – were no longer my priority.

It turns out that I won’t be taking the exam in May.  Nobody will.

Almost the entire world is on hold because of COVID-19.  We’ve had to readjust our daily lives to a (hopefully temporary) new normal.  In one way or another, this virus is impacting every single one of us.  The hospitality industry has been decimated as over 3 million people found themselves unemployed almost overnight (with, undoubtedly, more to come).  There are long lines at grocery stores with shelves that are eerily bare.  People are self-quarantining or their government is requiring them to do so.  Most stores and services are completely shuttered.  My 88 year old Dad is up in Washington State – the original epicenter of the virus in the United States – and while I can talk to him on the phone, I can’t hug him for months.  And I’m trying not to think about the possibility of him getting sick . . .

I now have several “free” hours in my day that I didn’t have before.  Although it seems like this would be a great opportunity for me to study – I can’t focus for shit.  Thankfully, my school postponed the exam until October.

Knowing myself, I’ll get back to studying soon enough.  I’ll probably tackle my Diploma research paper or pursue the Spanish Wine Scholar program.  Or maybe both. 🙂  I need to keep my brain busy with something besides worrying.  In any case, the detailed, well thought out, roadmap I’d relied on just a couple weeks ago is no longer relevant.  The timeframe to my destination has changed – but I’ll get there eventually.

During this time we all need to readjust our roadmap – or make a new one.  Either way, let’s help one another keep moving forward.  I hope you and your family are safe and doing well – all things considered.   I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and interacting with me on social media – it helps keep some semblance of normalcy.  And I know that together – we’ll get through this roadblock.

With much love…

Noelle

 

 

Italian Wine Scholar: Tackling This Boot Was No Small Feat

Nobody likes a braggart or a know-it-all.  If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know I can’t stand this type of personality and have even created a WSET Irritation Scale to evaluate them.  (Yes, I’ve been told that sometimes I take things too far).

Unfortunately, we (mostly women) are often so fearful of looking too egotistical that we don’t celebrate our accomplishments.  We downplay our successes, or qualify them by saying something like “I’m just a good test taker” or “I can memorize facts, but don’t retain them very well.” (I’ve uttered both of these phrases many times over).  Why is it so difficult to say “hey – I’m really proud of myself, I did this: [fill in the blank here with your awesome accomplishment].”  (Hubs Note:  And yet you don’t have any problem telling my friends that you kicked my ass in law school).

I think we need to be better at sharing our wins and encouraging each other to do the same. So, with that, I’m going to give it a shot- here goes: I passed my Italian Wine Scholar exam with Highest Honors!  I studied my ass off for this certification and I am thrilled with my results.

IWS certificate

And, because I’d like to see others succeed, here are some tips that will hopefully help other students rock their Italian Wine Scholar Unit 2 exam (my Unit 1 exam tips can be found here):

1. Study the glossary!

There were several questions relating to these terms and I know I answered at least one of them incorrectly.  Now I will never forget that Baglio is the name for a Sicilian farmhouse.  (However, the degree to which this particular question relates to wine knowledge is debatable IMO . . .)

2. Memorize this equation: The percentage of the text dedicated to a region = the number of exam questions on that region.

This may seem obvious, but it will help you schedule your time more efficiently if you keep this in mind.  You’re better off focusing a majority of your studies on Toscana, Sicilia and Campania than knowing all the little nuances of Molise or Basilicata.  And besides – you can use my outlines as a good starting point for both of those regions! 😉

For me, I found it best to tackle a larger region over the course of a week and then follow this up with a day covering a smaller one.  Being able to knock out a more minor region in such a short period gave me a much needed sense of accomplishment when I felt I was dragging.  Which happened more than I’d hoped!

3.  Read the answers carefully!

I know most people say read the question carefully, and clearly you should do that too, but Calabria and Campania were both options for a few questions.   Maybe it’s just me, but throughout my Italian Wine Scholar studies I would get these two regions mixed up.  Make sure you know which one you’re talking about!

4. If you don’t know the answer, move on and come back to it.

You very well may find a clue to the answer in a later question or something might trigger your memory.  This happened to me with an exam question on Verdicchio – I skipped it and a question later in the exam helped me recall the answer.  And don’t stress out too much if you have to temporarily skip a question – having an open and relaxed mind will make it easier for you to recall the information you need. (If that sounds like Headspace to you – it is!  I always do a short meditation the day of an exam . . . consider that another study tip.)   (Hubs note:  With the dogs.   She meditates with the dogs.  I don’t even know how this is possible).

5.  Don’t underestimate Sardegna.

I left Sardegna until last and, frankly, didn’t spend much study time on this region.  I figured that since it was an island, and not even the most “important” one, that there wouldn’t be many exam questions related to it.  However, I should have heeded my own advice above regarding “size of the chapter = exam importance” because based on this theory – about 8% of the exam questions would be related to Sardegna.  And although I didn’t count, there probably did end up being somewhere between 7-9 questions on it.  Thankfully, I read and reviewed Sardegna the morning of the exam so I was able to at least recall specifics relating to the island’s grape varieties.

And finally, this is not really a “tip” but something to keep in mind throughout your studies: enjoy learning.  After over a year of being in the Italian Wine Scholar program, I am so thankful to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Italy.  You don’t need a certificate or a pin to prove anything.  But if you have one – be proud of it.  I am!