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.”


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 . . .


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 . . .



WSET Diploma Unit 5: Opting for the Sparkly Object

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

Unit 1 – Global Business of Alcoholic Beverages.

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

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

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

Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World.

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

Unit 4 – Spirits of the World.

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

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

Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World.

See Below.

Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World.

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

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

Champagne books
Unit 5 – In-Class Experience.

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

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

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

Unit 5 – My Study Plan.

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

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

Unit 5 – Exam.

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

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

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

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

WSET Diploma Unit 2: The Results Are In!

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

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



Unit 2 DOs

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

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

Studying in between flights at SeaTac’s Vino Volo!

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

Unit 2 DON’Ts

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

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

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

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

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

WSET Diploma Unit 2: Grades and other Bits ‘n Bobs

50%?  That’s an F.

-My Dad whenever I told him that I’d halfway finished something

Growing up, I heard the above relatively frequently from my Dad.  Usually, it was regarding one of my household chores that I’d completed somewhat, but not fully.  Often, this was mowing the lawn.  It’s been 20-some years since I set foot in my childhood home, but in my mind the lawn was roughly equivalent to the 153 square blocks that constitute Central Park in New York.  In actuality, it was 1/4 an acre (I just Zillowed it).

Nonetheless, I could never seem to complete the mowing of our lawn in a single day.  I’d do the front, and maybe part of the back, before throwing in the towel and promising that I’d finish up the following day.  “I did half of it!” I’d tell my Dad . . . and then he’d come back at me with some variation of his zinger “Half?  That’s an F.”

The first time I said this to Hubs it was in response to him saying he’d done “half the laundry” – which really means just moving the wet stuff from the washer into the dryer. He replied “no it’s not, 50% is a C.”  We had a nice long debate over this until he came around to my way of thinking . . . but had he been British – he would’ve had a point.

British Grading System.  I recently started pursuing my Diploma through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).  When I found out their grading scale for exams, I was a bit surprised (more on that later).  Since the WSET is based in the UK, I did a little research on the country’s grading system as a whole.  Turns out – it is VERY different from the US.  (I promise I get to the wine portion of this entry shortly, but humor me for just a moment…)

As a rough guide, here’s how a Bachelor’s Degree in the UK would shake out: (and yes, I’m spelling it honoUrs because we’re talking about the Brits!)

  • First-class honours – typically 70% or higher
  • Second-class honours, upper division – typically 60 – 69%
  • Second-class honours, lower division – typically 50 – 59%
  • Third-class honours – typically 40 – 49%
  • Without honours – awarded an ordinary degree, sometimes known as a “pass”.

I am gobsmacked by this.  Does this mean that a bloke with a 35% gets a Bachelor’s degree from University and graduates with the rest of his mates?  If so – that’s a bit barmy.  (“Use ‘gobsmacked’ in blog entry” is officially checked off the bucket list!)

Anyhoo – onto wine specifics:

WSET Grading Scale.  The WSET somewhat follows the general UK system – here’s their grade range:

  • 75% and Above – Pass with Distinction
  • 65% – 74.9% – Pass with Merit
  • 55% – 64.9% – Pass
  • 45% – 54.9% – Fail
  • Below 44.9% – Fail Unclassified (read: you REALLY fucked up here)

So essentially, I need to get a 55% to pass each of my Diploma exams.  I haven’t mentioned this to my Dad yet, but I know exactly what he’d say.

I had some difficulties finding information on overall pass rates for the various Diploma Units – but the dreaded Unit 3 has a pass rate hovering around 50%Other sources put it closer to 32%.  Unit 3 is likely the reason why there are only 9,441 individuals in the world who have the WSET Diploma certification. And likely why this Unit is the last one tackled by most candidates.  (FYI: Unit 3 covers “Light Wines of the World” – which essentially means all wines in the world except for Sparkling and Fortified Wines as these are covered in other Units.   From what I’ve heard, it’s recommended that Diploma students take the Oxford Companion to Wine and put it to memory – because basically everything in that 900+ page tome is fair game on the Unit 3 exam.)

Believe me, I’m not knocking the material – I’m already studying a ton and there is a LOT of information to digest and learn/memorize. And I’m only taking the “easy” Unit right now!

And since we’re having a chin wag about grading scales (I could just keep going with this British slang!), for the record here are how a couple other wine certification programs rank their exams:

  • The Wine Scholar Guild (who runs the French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Scholar, etc. programs): Passing grade is 75%. Candidates scoring 85-90 pass with Honors. Candidates scoring 91-100 pass with Highest Honors.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: 60%. It doesn’t appear that there are honors or merit – just pass/fail.

Ok, enough about obsessing about the grades before I get the collywobbles (last one, I promise!).  Here’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks:

Unit 2 – Where it All Begins.  Yes, the entire program starts at Unit 2 rather than Unit 1 – just accept this as fact and move on (I’ve done the research and don’t have an answer).  Unit 2 covers “Wine Production” – so, basically all things Viti and Vini (aka viticulture and vinification).  This actually makes sense as it gives candidates a good foundation for the rest of the Diploma Units (which include Fortified Wines, Sparkling Wines & Global Wine Business). The Unit 2 exam is 100 multiple choice questions which I’ll have 90 minutes to complete.

There’s a study guide for Unit 2 provided by WSET and everything on the exam will come from this text.  So, I’m madly highlighting and outlining and trying to tackle a little bit each day.  WSET books

I’ve heard through the grapevine (pun seriously NOT intended but I decided to keep it in) that Unit 2 is used to “weed out” individuals who may not be ready to pursue the full Diploma.  Basically, if you can’t pass a multiple-choice exam where the answer is somewhere in front of you, you may want to rethink whether you’re ready to continue on to other Units (please don’t let me regret typing that last sentence).

My Unit 2 Class – Neptune School of Wine. My in-class sessions for Unit 2 were held on 3 consecutive Saturdays (approximately 6 hours per day).  Other WSET providers have different schedules – some meet for 10 weeks for 2.5 hours each session (International Wine Center in NYC) or there’s a (super) intensive weekend where you go all day Saturday and Sunday (Napa Valley Wine Academy).  I think my classes hit the goldilocks spot for me and was just right.  Now I’ve got 5+ weeks to self study before my exam on June 30th.

There were a total of 3 students (aka candidates in WSET lingo) in my Unit 2 class.  All ladies. 🙂  This was quite a change from my WSET Level 3 class where there were around 20 of us – and split fairly evenly between guys and gals.  With 3 students, there’s no hiding in the back of class (which is where I normally plant myself).  And there’s no ability to abstain from participating (which is also what I normally do).  So I was front and center – and I never thought I’d say this but . . .  it was kinda awesome.

Our instructor, Peter Neptune MS, is a wealth of knowledge and experience.  These classes were essentially getting one-on-one tutorials from a Master Sommelier – something that most wine enthusiasts would pay a shit-ton of money for.  In my previous wine classes, I didn’t often speak up for fear of sounding stupid or being wrong.  And I sure as hell didn’t want to sound like the the jackass who “corrected” my FWS instructor as to the distance between two areas in Burgundy when she said it was 13km (he annoyingly chimed in “ahhhh, I think it’s more like 12km.”)  Seriously – don’t be that guy.  Nobody likes that guy.

That All Sounds Fine & Dandy – But Did You Get to Drink Wine in Class? Even though there isn’t a tasting component to Unit 2, we did go through a fair amount of tastings in class to get a better grasp of the WSET method of writing tasting notes (aka the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine in WSET lingo).  The examiners want their notes done in a specific manner and the best way to do this is practice, practice, practice! 🙂

I enlist Hubs to blind pour me wine a couple of times a week.  However, I usually know which wines he’s pouring – just not the order.  Which is not the same as true blind tasting where you have NO idea what’s in the glass in front of you.  Going through this with Peter in class was eye-opening – and the results not completely surprising to me:

– I’m much stronger at French wines then Italian wines.

– I need to work on picking up oak aromas – in wines besides the typical California Chardonnay where it all but hits you upside the head.

– Expand my palate – move beyond Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Try to get my hands on some aged wines.

– Stop second guessing myself and trust my gut (and my nose, and my taste buds).

Thankfully, WSET is more concerned with you identifying characteristics of the wine (aromas, structure, quality) then they are with you identifying the actual wine itself.  I think you only get 1 point for correctly identifying the wine.  Although, of course, many people – including myself – often focus on this.

I feel fortunate to have been in such a small class because it really boosted my confidence and made me realize that I know more than I think I do.  But – there’s still a lot more that I don’t know. 🙂  So, back to the books and I’ll post an update on my WSET journey after my Unit 2 exam!  Keep your fingers crossed for me!  Cheerio!





Book Review: Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW

I recently finished reading Viticulture: An introduction to commercial grape growing for wine production by Stephen Skelton MW.  Like many of my friends, I assume your first response may be “Why?!?!”  Well, the book is recommended reading for WSET Diploma students, so way back in October  – well before I could even register for the Diploma –  I ordered it.  Anyone who knows me is probably not surprised by this fact.  However. . . I’m embarrassed to say that it took me until the end of January to finish Viticulture.  At 123 pages, this means that I averaged just about one page per day.  A fact I’m not particularly proud of.

Viticulture is one of the densest, most information-packed texts I’ve ever read (yep, this includes my three years at law school) which might help explain why I went through it at such a snail’s pace.  Another excuse explanation is that a lot of this stuff was new to me and I wanted to absorb it slowly.  My only other academic exposure to this particular subject has been (i) my WSET Level 3 course last Spring; and (ii) my current enrollment in Northwest Wine Academy’s Viticulture class with Sparkman Cellars’ winemaker, Linn Scott (who is incredibly knowledgeable and has an awesome ability to make the subject matter more interesting with tons of personal stories and experiences.)

Yet another reason why this book took awhile for me to get through is because, well, . . it deals with science.  Much to the disappointment of my metallurgical engineer-working, astronomy-loving Dad, I’ve just never taken to science ever since I got a D+ in Life Sciences in 7th grade (thanks a lot, Mr. Santner!).  Even today, it’s just much easier for me to memorize the 10 Crus of Beaujolais, or the 13 permitted grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, than for me to learn the different types of rootstocks or soil pH levels.

Even though Viticulture is a science textbook at heart, the author thankfully writes in a humane and comprehensible manner.  Overall, I found his writing style to be straightforward and educational, a fact that is greatly appreciated by those of us who are scientifically-impaired.  I also enjoyed the occasional personal anecdote or opinion – particularly on the topic of biodynamic viticulture.

Trellising Systems

What’s this book about?  The book covers everything from the annual cycle of the vine, to site selection, to canopy management.  As with most viticulture texts, several pages are dedicated to phylloxera, its history and its “solution” via rootstock development and grafting.  Viticulture digs deep (pun totally intended) into the various soil layers and their characteristics.  And there are two entire chapters on diseases, viruses and vineyard pests.  The author goes into such detail about these various insects, larvae and bugs that I found myself getting the heebie jeebies.  (Sidenote: surprisingly, the heeby jeeby is, in fact, NOT a vineyard pest – but the ever popular Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer is.)

Saint Joseph granite
Granite from the Northern Rhône

Who’s this book for?  This is neither a light, nor particularly fun, read.  So I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s just curious about viticulture and is looking for some general information.  Pick up The Oxford Companion to Wine or The Wine Bible instead.  Viticulture is way too intense and detailed for the lay person merely looking for a broad overview on the subject.

However, if you’re studying for a higher level wine certification, or working in the wine industry, or you’re my Dad, then this book is perfect for you.  Just give yourself plenty of time to digest the subject matter – this isn’t a Dan Brown page turner.

At this point, I have no idea whether this book covers more (let’s hope so!) or less than what I’ll need to know for my first WSET Diploma exam in June.  But I do know that having finished Viticulture I’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on the subject that I simply didn’t have before, so for that Mr. Skelton, I thank you.  Viticulture will undoubtedly do wonders in helping me with my never-ending pursuit of wine education.  Now let’s just hope that I can do a little better than a D+ on the exam! 😉