I am writing this about 3 weeks after I completed a rigorous day of wine testing in early November. For the first time in a couple months, I feel like I have a life! Before the test I was studying 2 hours every day before work, any evenings I was free, and one full weekend day each week. And the crazy part is that you’re studying an insane amount of information, and only a tiny piece of that information would appear on the exam.
The exam consisted of 3 separate tests covering two different units. Unit 1 is the Business of Wine and Spirits. The exam portion of that unit consisted of a case study in which you had to write a timed essay on the riveting topic of supplier/retailer relationships. The average pass rate of the case study over the last 5 years is 75%. Unit 5 is Sparkling Wine. There were two exams associated with that unit. One was a blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines. We are tasked to assess the wines using the SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting) as well as to draw conclusions about the wines (i.e. what winemaking style was used, country of origin, grapes used, quality assessment, age, etc). I will say that we got lucky as hell. One of the wines was a sparkling red, which can only be one of two things: a Lambrusco or an Aussie sparkling Shiraz. Once you determine what wine you’re working with (in our case it was the Shiraz) the tasting notes are a piece of cake. So I felt very strongly about that one. The other piece of the exam was 3 short essays. This is where all that studying came in. You spend tens of hours studying sparkling wines from around the world, yet only three highly specific topics are asked. Kinda crazy. Unit 5 has had an average pass rate of 80% over the last 5 years.
Studying for these exams was intense. For tasting study, it involved a lot of tasting groups with my classmates. This allows you to taste a large number of wines for a small price, versus buying the bottles individually. There would usually be 12-15 of us (there are 18 people in our class) tasting on a Sunday afternoon. We’d have our instructor or someone at our local wine shop pick out 12 sparkling wines. We’d brown bag them all and spend about an hour and a half tasting the wines on our own and writing our tasting notes. At the end, we’d do a grand reveal to see how we did, and then spend some time talking about the doozies or sharing how we got to our conclusions. The cost to taste the 12 wines was usually $20…not bad!
We also did a couple study groups for the case study. We had the topic ahead of time (but not the exact questions), so we could talk about the history of supplier/retailer relationships, examples of good or bad relationships, and also share our resources.
Studying for the sparkling wine theory exam was more of an individual task. I spent hours reading our WSET study guide, reading prior exams, and reading the “Bubbly Bible”, which is Tom Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. As per usual, the Oxford Companion to Wine was sprinkled in as well! I started with flash cards on topics such as: the traditional method (i.e. pressing, riddling, second fermentation, etc), champagne regions, key producers, key regions, etc. As I got closer to the exam, I needed to see the information presented in a different way, so I took my flash cards and turned them into huge handwritten posters. The running joke was that our house started looking like the crazy guys house in A Beautiful Mind. It literally looked like a crazy person lived there with all my huge posters plastered on every wall! No joke, I started dreaming about Champagne pruning methods. It was intense.
Once the exams were over, I made the decision to take the month of November off from studying. My mind definitely needed a break. This is perfect timing because I love Fall/Winter and the Holidays, so it’s a nice time to start to slow down and enjoy each day. In December I will spend time working on my Course Work Assignment, which is a research paper on the topic of wine brands. That is not due until the beginning of April. However in January we are starting up with Unit 4: Spirits, and it will be nice to have the bulk of my CWA research done and only have to focus on perfecting the draft in the new year. The Spirits exam comes up quickly in early March.
One funny thing that people kept asking me as I was studying this last month is: so are you drinking A LOT of wine? The answer is NO! In our tastings, we’re not drinking, we’re only tasting and spitting. And with as much studying about wine I was doing, the last thing I wanted to do was drink wine! When I’m reading about mineral contents of the soils of Champagne, fermentation temperatures, and the effects of uninoculated yeasts, all I could do to stay sane was drink a Cosmo. The studying does sometimes take out the romance out of the wine, which I think would make a great topic for a future post.
The next post coming up will be a recap of a couple Vintastic Voyages I took over the last couple months: Los Olivos up in the Santa Barbara area, and Amador County near Sacramento. Part of my goal as I work through this two year process of the WSET Diploma, is to become more familiar with the wine regions in my own backyard. Specifically throughout California. Stay tuned as I take my studying out of the glass and into the vineyards!