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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

My Top 10 Wine Moments of 2019

It’s that time again – when we reflect back on a year that’s almost over. What was so special about the 2019 vintage?  For me, there were several things that made 2019 memorable . . .

Retweet by Eric Asimov

I peaked early this year – January 22nd to be exact – when I was retweeted by New York Times wine writer, Eric Asimov.  His first monthly “wine school” column of 2019 focused on three big brand, readily available, supermarket wines.  These wine selections of his caused quite the uproar on Twitter.  While some wine enthusiasts applauded his efforts to understand what appeals to the masses – others accused him of promoting these wines.

Eric Asimov retweet

This was Eric’s first “wine school” that I’d actively participated in and I wrote a post about the “assignment.”.  The results weren’t all that surprising to me, but his retweet of my post WAS.  This was my first real lesson in the power of social media – his single retweet led to a huge uptick in visits to my site (thank you Eric!)  Unfortunately, this didn’t translate to an increase in subscribers . . . I guess his wine school crowd isn’t particularly interested in outlines on the 1855 Classification or WSET Diploma study tips.

And interestingly, at least to me anyway, this was not my most viewed blog post of 2019 . ..

Stepping Into the Instagram Influencer Fray

For the first few months of 2019, I sat on the sidelines watching a longtime Instagrammer (aka Amarone) vent with regularity about the rise of “wine influencers.”  I understood his frustration, but disagreed with his methods – which consisted primarily of snarky memes and posts mocking these “influencers” (mostly attractive, younger women).  However, when Amarone decided to take a shot at me (together with my dead yellow Lab), well . . . the result led to my most viewed blog post of 2019.

Instagram

In fact, an entire hashtag movement was actually spawned because of Amarone and a few others (to be clear, not because of my post). #youcansipwithus is still going strong, but thankfully, the antagonists appear to have backed off a bit. I might revisit this issue sometime next year – to see what progress has been made (or not made).

Personally though, I made some progress in 2019 . . .

Finding My Groove on Instagram

In 2019, I found my Instagram niche.  I finally determined who my target audience was: people wanting to learn more about wine – including both serious wine students and curious consumers.  And also who my target audience was not: Jimmy Bigcellars with trophy bottles as well as the ChardonnYAY crowd.

Based on this, I decided to focus my content on wine studies and education – but I wanted to do this in a fun and engaging way.  So I started creating Instagram wine quizzes.  I’m a wine geek at heart (I mean, I prepare outlines on wine for shit’s sake!) and I genuinely enjoy producing this type of content.  Not only do the quizzes help me retain information better, but I’ve also connected with wine students from all over the world (Mumbai, Cape Town, London) – and have met several in person!  I really do get a tremendous amount of satisfaction hearing from other wine people that my quizzes or outlines have helped in some small part with their studies.

In addition to finding my own groove this year, I was also able to assist others with theirs as well . . .

Supporting Other Endeavors

I have a pact with myself to never agree to write about a product, class, person, wine, whatever that I don’t believe in.  For me, this means turning down certain collaborations – even if they’re offering payment.  However, there were a few opportunities that I jumped at the chance to participate in this year. Not surprisingly, they each had an element of wine education to them:

Cristie Norman launched a unique online wine course for beginners that is both highly educational and entertaining.  Wine Masters released two seasons of their documentary series focusing on winemaking families of France and Italy.  Snooth Media hosted a virtual wine tasting of Sweet Bordeaux wines. And I was thrilled to support each of these ventures – they were all genuinely educational and incredibly well-done.

Completing Half of the WSET Diploma

This past year I completed my third exam for the WSET Diploma – so I’m officially halfway done!  I have the Fortified Exam in less than one month (eek!) and then it’s complete focus on the dreaded Unit 3 Exam for the next five months.  And finally, the research paper which is due at the end of July.  So if all goes well, I should have the Diploma completed by August.

I had hoped to have 4 of the 6 units completed by now, but due to a change in scheduling at my school this didn’t happen.  The Tracy Flick in me was initially annoyed AF, but this WSET Diploma break actually turned out to be a good thing because it allowed me to pursue other things like:

Becoming an Italian Wine Scholar IWS certificate

I completed the Italian Wine Scholar course and passed with Highest Honors!  As I mentioned in a prior blog post, this venture took me quite a bit longer than anticipated, but was well worth the time and effort.  Not only do I have a much better grasp on Italy and its 20 different wine regions and umpteenthousand different grape varieties, but since I passed with such a high mark I also qualified to teach the course!  Which I started to do in 2019 . . .

Teaching Wine Courses

I have two of wonderful mentors up in the Pacific Northwest who gave me some incredible teaching opportunities this past year: Mimi Martin and Tanya Morningstar Darling.  I got my feet wet by leading sections of the Italian Wine Scholar course and WSET Level 2 – and have plans to wade in a bit further in 2020.  I still believe wine education is the direction I’m heading with my future wine career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be certification courses only – because consumer focused classes are just as enjoyable . . .

Presenting Wine and World Views Seminar

Last year, Hubs was in a major bind when he was hosting a wine event at a fancy schmancy SoCal restaurant for some clients when the sommelier at the restaurant resigned just a few days prior to the event.  He asked me to fill-in at the last minute to speak about the wines being served and to lead the discussion with about 50 well traveled wine enthusiasts.

True confession: I’m not overly confident about my public speaking abilities – I get jittery and tend to talk too fast.  (Ok – truer confession: I sweat when I’m nervous!!).  Yes, I know this is ironic since I’m leaning towards wine education which requires speaking in front of others to some degree.  However, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure of (maybe my daily meditation practice, or gaining more confidence in my knowledge) – I really did nail this presentation.  And you know what else – I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it!  Maybe that’s the key: have fun and don’t worry so much about getting every little fact correct.  Give Tracy Flick the night off. 😉

I still have a ways to go before I get truly comfortable speaking in public – but thankfully, I’ve got a couple of very good examples to learn from . . .

Attending Master Classes with Masters

I’m fortunate to be taking my WSET Diploma classes from a Master Sommelier and auditing the French Wine Scholar course from a Master of Wine.  While they’re both incredibly knowledgeable individuals, they also have very different ways of approaching wine studies.  By learning from both of them, I feel like I’m getting the best blend of education and gaining a more thorough understanding of the wine world.

Master WinesThey each teach certification courses, but also focused tasting classes.  And since I have yet to find a tasting group in SoCal (a goal for 2020 – send me a note if you’ve got a lead for me!!), I attended as many of these Master Classes as I possibly could last year – including Brunello, Bollinger, aged Rieslings, Northern Rhône and Vintage Port.  I’m soaking up as much information as I can from these Masters – and some pretty damn good wine too.  Speaking of damn good wine . . .

Traveling to Walla Walla

This last “top wine moment of 2019” hasn’t actually happened yet, and I normally avoid setting my expectations too high but I think in this instance I’m safe.  Hubs and I are on our way to one of my favorite wine regions in the world – Walla Walla.  We’ll be spending my birthday and New Years Eve and Day there, partaking in some wine tasting, and … looking at some property while we are there.

While I’m not sure exactly what Walla Walla has in store for us this visit, I know that at least some part of this adventure will be a highlight of the year.  And, well, perhaps for many years to come!

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

 

Law School v. WSET Diploma: Advice From My Younger Self

Recently, I received an annual periodical from my alma mater – Gonzaga University School of Law (Go Zags!!). It’s always fun for me to flip through this and see what’s changed (the new Dean now looks my age!), and what hasn’t (20+ years later and some of my favorite professors are still there).

But what really caught my eye in this issue was this: Law and Wine

Gonzaga Law School is developing a certificate program for future attorneys where they can specialize in the business, management and legal aspects of the wine industry. My first thought was: where the hell was this program when I chose tax law?! And my second: how can I get involved in this program?

There will most certainly be a future blog post after I learn more about the Gonzaga Wine Institute. How fortuitous would it be to somehow combine my history with this particular law school together with my (hopefully future) career in wine?

It’s probably not surprising that the article got me reminiscing about my law school days. I don’t think I’ve ever studied that hard in my life! That is, until I began my wine studies. When I compare these two experiences – I see several similarities, but some pretty remarkable differences as well. And I think my 25 year old self would have some things to say about how I’m approaching my wine studies.

Study Materials: Books v. Internet

Prior to law school, I don’t think I truly understood how to study. The hours upon hours of reading, note taking, outline making, bluebook exams, etc. I attended law school from 1995-1998, before smartphones and just at the cusp of the internet for the masses. As a result, the vast majority of my research was done the old fashioned way – in the law library physically pulling books off shelves. Research took time and effort. And when I finally found the answer, it usually stuck with me because there had been a bit of a journey to get there.

Law books and Internet
My study materials: 1995 v. 2019

Today, information is so (or should I say too?) readily available. If I forget which Beaujolais producers make up “the Gang of Four” – I just need to quickly google it to find the answer. And then usually, just as quickly, I’ll forget at least one of the four.

Now – this might be in part because my brain is 25 years older than it was in law school. But I suspect that it’s also because information is so readily available that we don’t have to put forth much effort.  One of my wine instructors encourages us students to “develop a yearning for the answer.” When you have a question, don’t look it up right away!  Instead, go deep in your brain and try to figure it out first. This is such a wonderful way of practicing memory recall, but very challenging to do when answers are at the tips of our fingers 24/7.

Study Methods: Outlines v. Outlines + Flashcards + Podcasts + Online Study Groups + et. al

Just as I did in law school, I’m studying my ass off for the WSET Diploma. It was in law school that I started putting together outlines as my primary study tool – a very standard practice for the incoming first year law student. Outlining was a way for me to put all the legal gobbledygook into a language and format that I could understand. Now, I’m doing the same for wine.

But in addition my outlines, for wine study I’m also creating flashcards on my iPhone to carry everywhere with me, and listening to podcasts about wine in my spare time, and participating in online wine study groups, and running thrice weekly wine quizzes on Instagram. I’m beginning to wonder if all these study outlets are necessary – or helpful.

Outlines v. Chaos
Study Methods: Clean & Focused v. CHAOS!!

My focus is being pulled in a dozen different directions with wine studies. During law school, I didn’t have all these options. As a result, I think it was easier to concentrate: I read my textbooks, made my outlines, and then memorized the hell out of them. And I ended up graduating near the top of my class.

Sidebar on study groups. A popular study aid for many people are study groups – which were prolific during law school. The handful of times I “participated” in one, there was always someone who dominated the group. So, I found them to be more adversarial than educational.  But maybe that’s law school – we were in training to be on opposing sides.

Thus far for wine studies, I’ve been a single variety. I’d love to find a tasting group that’s supportive, yet challenging. But unfortunately, like in law school, there are quite high yields of “know-it-alls” and egos in the wine study world.

Exams: IRAC Method v. SAT Method

 

IRAC v. SAT

Similar to how the Systematic Approach to Tasting method becomes second nature after time for WSET students – in law school, we had ingrained in our brains the IRAC method. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion – and this is how we law students were to address almost every single exam question. For example, you’re given the following fact pattern:

Sommelier Sam hates Jimmy Bigcellar.  One night, Jimmy comes into Sam’s restaurant with a bottle of DRC from his cellar. Sam takes the wine in the back of the restaurant, decants it, and then brings it out to pour for Jimmy and his guests. Jimmy gushes enthusiastically about the wine and rambles on about how there’s no comparison to the iconic DRC.

After the dinner (and after seeing that Jimmy has left a barely 10% tip) Sam bring the FULL DRC bottle back out to Jimmy. He waves an empty bottle of Apothic Red in Jimmy’s face – because THIS is what he actually poured for Jimmy! Sam merciless mocks Jimmy about how stupid he is for not realizing he was drinking such inferior wine. Jimmy is mortified and embarrassed in front of his friends.

What is Jimmy’s cause of action against Sam?

Law students would then go through the IRAC method to answer this question – looking something like this:

Issue: Did Sam commit the tortious act of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED)?

Rule: IIED requires extreme or outrageous conduct that intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress.

Analysis and Conclusion: Here is where you’d apply the rule to the facts (i.e. was Sam’s conduct extreme?) add in any mitigating circumstances (i.e. Jimmy is an egomanic, a poor tipper and deserved it), and then conclude whether or not Sam is liable for IIED.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I’m no longer a practicing attorney and I have no idea whether this would be a cause of action or not. That part of my brain has long since departed. However, I guarantee you that I would know the difference between a DRC and an Apothic Red.

Final Hurdle: Bar Exam v. Unit 3 Exam

The end goal of a law student is passing the bar exam. The end goal for a Diploma student is passing the six Diploma Units – with Unit 3 being the biggest hurdle.

I took the Washington state bar exam in the summer of 1998. We’d just moved to the Seattle area and spent most of that summer in a bar review class and studying. Oh, and planning our wedding in a city I was new to with no family nearby. And starting my career at a downtown megafirm.

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

This is where my younger self is getting annoyed with me and finally stepping in with her well worn Doc Martens.

Student: 25 year old v. 46 year old

Law school me and IWS me
My law student self v. my Italian Wine Scholar self

We’ve all heard the question: “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?”  But I’ve never heard the flipside: “What advice would your younger self give you today?”

Well, my 25 year old self is telling me to calm the (expletive) down, pour myself a glass of Sutter Home Chardonnay, turn on Friends and just enjoy the evening.  (One thing that my 46 year old self has in common with my 25 year old self is that we both have a mouth like a trucker.)

I think I’ll take her advice (except for the wine). And this is the Friends episode that I’ll start with:

Friends pivot

I need a Pivot Strategy.

I’m going to change how I approach my wine studies. I’m scattered and spreading myself too thin amongst several study methods and aids. I rely too heavily on looking up an answer quickly instead of relying on myself and what I’ve already learned. My outlines are becoming regurgitations of the entire materials as opposed to concise summaries. And I’m studying WAY too much . . . because I do a little here, and a little there, and am constantly distracted by the phone and social media.

My next Diploma unit is Fortified Wines of the World. Class is in a couple of weeks, and our exam is in mid-January. I’m implementing my Pivot Strategy for this unit. Less study time – but more focused. Going back to concise outlines as my primary study tool. Tuning out distractions.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

But right now, I’m listening to my 25 year old self’s advice and going to just enjoy the evening. So – I’m heading out for beers with my law school boyfriend, aka Hubs.

 

How I Spent my Summer Vacation (aka My Diploma Study “Break”)

The sun is setting earlier, there’s a slight chill in the evening air, and the first week of football is underway.  It’s time to go back to school . . . and I am more than ready.

I’ve been on a study break from the WSET Diploma for the past several months.  My last exam was in March for the Unit 1 case study and my next Unit, Fortified Wines of the World, doesn’t start until November 23rd!  By that time, I will have had a gap of EIGHT MONTHS.

Even though I haven’t been working on the Diploma this summer, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been studying or learning more about wine.  So, if any of you other wine students find yourself with an unplanned “study break” – here are some suggestions on how best to spend it, and still enjoy your time off:

Teaching.

There’s an old adage that says the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.  (There’s also a saying that “those who can’t do, teach” – but I think that’s arrogant BS, so I’m going to ignore that one.)

In June, I started teaching WSET Level 2 courses as well as the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  Quite honestly, I spent more time preparing for teaching these classes than I did when I was actually a student in these courses myself!  There’s an additional layer of stress because it’s not just you counting on you, there’s a classroom full of students counting on you.  Thankfully, all that preparation benefitted not only the students – but me too!  I have a better grasp on Franciacorta, Bardolino, and German wine laws now having explained them to others. (Well, German wine laws are still confusing AF . . . )

If you don’t have the opportunity to teach a certification course, do a consumer level class at a local wine store, or host a wine tasting with friends, or see if you can lead a course at a community college.  Hell – I poured some oaked Cali Chardonnay to compare with a Chablis and had a mini-class in my house with my Hubs and our friend.  Doesn’t matter where or how you do it – the lightbulbs will still go off for your students and you’ll still gain a better understanding of the subject matter you’re talking about.

class-at-home.jpg
Two of my favorite students!!

Tasting.

Many people who aren’t in the wine industry think that studying wine means “you get to drink wine all day.”  Nope.  Tasting wine is not the same thing as drinking wine.

Tasting wine requires getting as close to examination conditions as you possibly can.  Sit down with your notebook, compare a couple/few wines against each other (blind is best), and write out your notes exactly how you would for the WSET, CMS, etc. in whatever timeframe you’d be permitted under the exam.  And – SPIT for shit’s sake!

Chardonnay comparisonOnce you’ve reached your conclusions – reveal the wines.  And don’t focus so much on whether you got them right or not!!  Pay more attention to the WHY.  Why did you think the Cabernet Sauvignon was from Napa instead of Bordeaux?  Why did you call Chablis instead of Sancerre?  Learn from your mistakes.  And then taste again the next day.  And the next.

Take advantage of your study break to not have to focus on a specific region or variety. Try wines from various regions, styles, and price ranges.  Although – be wary of the $3 Chardonnay.  Just . . . trust me (or visit my archived stories on Instagram).

Traveling.

Visiting and exploring a region yourself is one of the best ways to learn about wine.  By experiencing something firsthand, as opposed to simply reading about it in a textbook, you’re much more likely to retain – and comprehend – this information.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a limited amount of wine travel these past few months – limited to just the North Fork of Long Island and my beloved Washington state.  (So, I’ll be sure to nail the .0007% of the Diploma exam that covers those regions.)  This old guy is a big reason why I haven’t gotten out of the house more. Linus

Life gets in the way of studying sometimes . . . but life is more important.  Soon enough, Hubs and I will be back on the road and in the skies to explore more wine regions.  Bottom line: If you have the means to travel to further your studies, and you don’t have an old dog with separation anxiety who gets up half a dozen times a night – DO IT.

Social Media. 

Yes – I’m honestly suggesting spending time on social media to further your wine knowledge.  But there are caveats: like drinking, keep it in balance and try different outlets.  And if you’re truly wishing to expand your studies, just like constantly consuming crap wine affects your palate, following crap accounts affects your mind (and sometimes makes you concerned for the future of humanity – but that’s another blog post).  Here are a few suggestions for consuming “higher quality” social media:

Facebook.  Search for “wine study” and you’ll find several groups that you can join.  Most require you to answer a couple of questions before they’ll approve you (what certification you’re studying, where you’re studying, etc.)  I’m a member of a few wine study groups and while there are definitely some obnoxious know-it-alls, most of the group members are supportive and encouraging.

Twitter.  Hubs can attest to the fact that I fought joining Twitter for the longest time, but once I caved, I realized he was right (don’t tell him I said this!).  Twitter is a seriously awesome platform for wine!

There are several Twitter chats that revolve around wine.  UK Wine Hour is my favorite for covering global wine matters and Wining Hour Chat is fun for just getting to know others in the wine community.  With these, jump right in and introduce yourself!

Additionally, I’ve found a number of wine accounts on Twitter who discuss and debate a wide range of issues in the wine world – Jamie Goode, Paul Mabray and Felicity Carter to name just a few.  With these, it’s not as easy (for me at least) to jump right in, so I tend to watch from the sidelines.  Nonetheless, these discussions give me new perspectives and make me think about wine in a different way.

Instagram.  Let’s be honest: this can be a challenging platform for informative wine accounts.  It’s also time consuming to sift through all the wine lifestyle accounts to find people that focus on wine education as opposed to selfies with bottles.

I post quizzes 2-3 times a week in my stories on my Outwines account.  And there are several other accounts that post wine quizzes on a regular basis – my favorites include Spitbucket, Grapegrind, and bin412pgh.  There are also accounts like Wineterroir and Wine.by.Alex who post tasting notes in more of a WSET format that are helpful for wine studies.

Listen to Podcasts. 

In addition to those mentioned in my post from last year, I’ve also discovered several new (to me!) podcasts that have been helpful with my studies.  VinePair discusses current – and often controversial – issues in the drinks business.  Matthew’s World of Wine and Drink provides educational overviews of various wine regions, grape varieties and viticulture and winemaking terms.  And the UK Wine Show covers more global issues with informative interviews with members of the worldwide beverage industry.

Pursue Other Courses or Certifications.

Just because you’re on a study break from one school, doesn’t mean that another isn’t in session.  As I mentioned in a prior post, I strongly suggest not overlapping your certification studies – it just gets too damn confusing and complicated.  However, if you have a study gap, this can be a perfect time to pursue a different certification.

During this past summer, I took the Bordeaux Master Level course through the Wine Scholar Guild. Bordeaux studyThere are several of these specialized, higher level programs available for various French wine regions (and rumor has it the WSG is planning to have similar, focused courses for Italian regions as well).  The Master Level courses are entirely self-study with a detailed text and access to the Wine Scholar Guild’s online webinars and other materials.

These programs are incredibly deep dives into the regions – way more information and detail than you’re likely to need for any WSET course – including the Diploma.  So my hope is that when it comes to studying the Bordeaux and Rhône sections of the dreaded Diploma Unit 3 that I’ll only need to do a cursory review since I’ve taken both of these Master Level courses through the WSG.  I’ll keep you posted on how that theory works out. 😉

So as the summer is winding down (or HAS wound down, depending on where you live), I’m gearing back up to study for the second half of the Diploma.  The Fortified Wines Unit is next – class is in November, exam in January.  Then Unit 3 classes take up most of January and February, exam in May.  Finally, I’ve got the research paper which is due at the end of July.  I’m wondering if I’ll be kicking myself for leaving that one to the end . . . stay tuned.

 

WSET Diploma Unit 1 Case Study: a Case for Studying Smarter . . .

I recently received the results of my WSET Diploma Unit 1 Case Study – and I have good news and bad news:

The good news is . . . I Passed!

The bad news is . . . I Passed.

Now some (many?) of you might be thinking: WTF?! And you’d be right. Nonetheless, I am honestly a bit disappointed with a Pass. (Hey, they don’t call me Tracy Flick for nothing.)  As I mentioned in an earlier post, a Pass means you scored anywhere from 55% to 64.9%. I have no idea where I fell within this range.  I’m disappointed because I walked out of my exam incredibly confident that I’d given thorough answers and a detailed analysis.  Except for writing more neatly, I honestly don’t know what else I could have done.

And unfortunately, it appears that I’ll have to remain in the dark on this because you can only receive feedback on your WSET Diploma exams if you fail.  If you pass, but are unhappy with your mark, you can make an enquiry (essentially, challenge your grade) and have a different examiner re-mark your exam. But that’s not really what I’m after – I’d like to know what I could have done differently to earn a Merit or Distinction.

So – I’m a bit nervous because I gave it my best effort, felt confident, and . . . Passed.  Does that mean I have to study harder for my next exam? Let’s fucking hope not, because I honestly don’t think I could have studied any more than I did. I could have, however, studied smarter.

But before I get to what I mean by that – let’s revisit what this part of Unit 1 is all about:

Unit 1 – Case Study Exam.

The case study is a unique beast in the WSET Diploma pursuit – it’s basically a crapshoot research project followed by an in-class exam.  You sign up in advance and then, 30 days before the exam, the topic is released.  Signing up means you’re all in – you cannot change your mind if you don’t like the topic.

So, after researching your topic for 30 days, you then take a 75 minute closed book handwritten exam. The exam usually consists of 3-4 questions related to your subject.

The pass rate for the case study has hovered around 80% the past few years. To put this in perspective, the dreaded Unit 3 has a pass rate usually around 40%. However, there must’ve been a shitty Unit 1 case study topic in November 2014 because it dipped below 60% for that exam. I’m guessing it was “Why Wine Scores are the Best Indicator of Wine Quality” or something equally as painful.

The case study always has a business focus – past subjects have included: Selling Wine Online, Restaurant Wine Lists, Sustainable Wine Tourism and The South African Wine Industry.  My case study was “The Ups and Downs of the Sherry Market” and here’s the brief that I received:

Unit 1 Case Study

And these were my exam questions:

Unit 1 Case Study questions
I wasn’t surprised by any of these, and I felt well prepared for each question. Whew!  So, I obviously focused some of my studies on the right things.  But, I also missed what would’ve put me at the Premier or Grand Cru level of the Unit 1 pyramid (Hubs Note:  I’m really trying to ween her off these terrible “replace-everyday-words-with-wine-words-of-the-same-meaning” schtick of hers.  Please be patient.)

After hosting a minor pity party for myself (Hubs did not attend because he thought I was being ridiculous), I’ve decided that I’ll take my Village level grade and move on (Hubs Note:  Insert Eye-Roll Emoji for doing it again.  We get it – they’re wine words.  Move on.).  But, for future students tackling Unit 1 (or D2 as it’s now going to be called), here are some study tips that will help you Pass – and hopefully with Merit or Distinction:

Review Past Examiners’ Reports.

My recommendation: go over these before you even begin your research. Examiners’ reports are published annually on the WSET Global Campus website and include past exam topics and questions, an example of higher marked answer (so you can also see that your handwriting really isn’t as crappy as you think it is!), as well as “suggestions” for what would give a candidate a Merit or Distinction as opposed to a Pass.

Unfortunately, many of these suggestions are very vague. “Lack of analysis” is often cited as a reason, as is “lack of original thought.” “Failure to bring the topic to life” is another one – which is frequently used in tandem with “predictable and unimaginative.”

In hindsight, I probably could have added more original thought and given my opinion on the future of the Sherry market which might have helped “bring the topic to life.” However, as you can see above, “What’s your opinion on the future of the Sherry Market?” wasn’t one of the exam questions.  So, I’m not sure how much I would have gained by giving my thoughts on something that wasn’t specifically asked. (Did I mention that “failure to address the question asked” is also a reason cited for not receiving a high score?) :-/

Stay Out of Those Pesky Rabbit Holes.

Rabbit hole
Hey – whatcha doing down there?

My brief mentioned “in the last three decades” and “over the last thirty years” – clues that I would need to know what happened in the Sherry market since the 1990s. So where did I begin my research?  Well, I promptly went back to when Sherry was likely established by the Phoenicians – 1110 BC.

Don’t Do This!  Sure, I learned some interesting factoids – like that the Moors introduced distilling back in the 700s and that Shakespeare paid tribute to Sherry in his play Henry IV.  I also revisited Sherry’s unique production method and spent a few days and several outline pages on this.  But these were rabbit holes that could have, and should have, been avoided if I’d stayed on course with my research.

Thankfully, I have Unit 6 Fortified Wines coming up later this year, so my massive amount of Sherry research won’t be a complete waste of time. But, all this information did clutter up my limited amount of brain space and suck up precious time for Unit 1. Remember: the case study is focused on the business side of wine. So . . .

Have Some Stats in Your Back Pocket. Stats in head

Statistics will help you avoid “lack of analysis” as mentioned above. Know several facts and figures related to your topic – dates, percentages, rankings, etc.

For example, my brief stated that there had been a “marked reduction in Sherry production and global sales.”  So walking into the exam, I had at the ready:

  • How much vineyard acreage had decreased since the 1970s
  • Amount of peak Sherry production v. production today
  • Total market broken into domestic sales v. exports
  • The categories of Sherry that made up the highest %s of both domestic and export markets
  • You see where I’m going with this . . .

Once you have your statistics memorized, don’t just regurgitate them.  Be prepared to explain what they mean and cite your sources.  And speaking of this . . .

Consult a Variety of Resources.

My topic was pretty easy in this aspect because there is a ton of information about Sherry.  Almost TOO much.  I had the incredibly thorough book by Julian Jeffs, the Consejo Regulador website, periodicals, podcasts, blogs, online articles, social media, etc. Do not discount the power of social media! I found Sherry guru, Ruben, through Twitter – he and his blog were immensely helpful.

However, there was so much information out there on Sherry that I (irrationally) thought might be relevant that I failed to stay the course.  I read the entire Sherry book. I had umpteen articles on the “Sherry renaissance/resurgence/revival.”  Instead of reading every single one of these – I should’ve saved time and brain power and stuck only to those written by knowledgeable people in more reputable journals (sorry Cosmo!)

Have an Opinion.

We wine people have an opinion on fucking everything – the best type of closure (screwcap – sorry, but it’s true), whether Crémant is a substitute for Champagne (nope) and which wine region is the most underappreciated (my beloved Washington state, obviously). When researching your case study exam, make sure to formulate some opinions – and be prepared to back them up.

I’m going out on a limb here . . . but even if you’re not specifically asked for your viewpoint, give it anyway.  Personal commentary will “bring the topic to life” and provide “original thought” – both of which can gain you higher marks (according to past examiners’ reports).  However, make it brief so that you don’t spend so much time opining and forget to answer the question asked!

Other Pre-exam Prep Suggestions.

Practice under exam conditions.  I mentioned this in a previous post, but I highly recommend making a list of possible questions or topics, throwing them all in a hat, and then drawing a few out and answering them within a certain timeframe.  This will help you better manage your time during the actual exam and will get you used to writing under pressure.  Hey – it might even improve your handwriting too.

Listen to podcasts for information on the current market and opinions.  You know I love my wine podcasts and I was very thankful for a couple in particular for my Sherry research.  Vinepair gave some great insight into why consumers aren’t embracing Sherry as much as sommeliers are.  And I’ll Drink to That had several in depth interviews with bodega owners, Sherry champions and writers.

While researching your topic – keep these questions in mind and be able to write about them:

  • The pros and cons of your topic
  • Any challenges faced
  • Your future predictions or suggestions for improvement.

On exam day: make an outline before answering the question.  I know it’s shocking that I’m advocating outlines. 😉  But seriously – if you dive headfirst into answering the question, you’re likely to forget something, spew a bunch of facts with no cohesiveness or just flat-out panic.  Briefly sketching an outline will help keep you on track with your answer and ensure you hit the major points.

Best of Luck to future Diploma students on your Unit 1 Case Study!  And stay tuned as I revisit Sherry in a couple of months when I start my Fortified Wines of the World – Unit 6 studies . . .