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Life

The Master of Wine Tasting Exams – One Student’s Story

Masters of Wine Exam Story
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

The month of May began gray and dreary, with a near constant patter of rain. I told myself that this was for the best, as I hunched over my daily flight of mystery wines. Nothing to distract me from my studies. A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach. Each week I did the math. Only 3 weeks left, only 2 weeks left, only 10 days left…

What had me in such a state? The Master of Wine tasting exams.

This was to be my second attempt at the notoriously hard three-day session of 12-wine blind tastings.

A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach.

After successfully navigating the introductory year of studies in 2015, I moved on to stage 2. Studying became a way of life. I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon. I read him bedtime stories about the importance of monitoring pH through out the winemaking process.

I came out of the 2016 exams with passing marks across all five theory papers and one of three tasting papers. Unfortunately, if even one tasting exam is failed, all three need to be re-sat. Approximately 10% of candidates pass the tasting portion of the exams each year. With that sobering statistic in mind, I decided to simply redouble my efforts in 2017.

And then life intervened.

A second pregnancy with a due date mere weeks after the 2017 exams meant that no airline would fly me to the exam centres in San Francisco or London. So, I had to bench myself. As frustrating as it was to take a year off, when June rolled around I was mighty glad that I hadn’t subjected myself to three days of intensely stressful exams in my exhausted state.

I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pregnancy takes a toll on your palate and your memory. Despite trying to keep my studies up, I was feeling decidedly rusty when I embarked on the 2018 course year. A week in England in February for the annual MW study seminar brought me home in a blind panic.

Each day of the seminar began with a mock version of the tasting exam. Each day I failed miserably. I couldn’t finish any of the papers. I was way off in identifying wines that I had previously had no trouble blind tasting. I got loads of advice from the MW educators that contradicted previous instruction. I felt paralysed.

In the months that followed I forced myself to keep chugging along, leaning on my study partners for support. Every week my amazing husband would organize blind tastings for me, and every week the results were the same. I felt like I was turning in circles, never able to finish my practice exams, misidentifying the same set of wines over and over again.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go. I finally started to do well and feel confident. Meanwhile, between my husband and two tiny boys, my house was a non-stop germ fest. Roseola, laryngitis, strep throat, gastro… they had it all. Every twinge in my throat made me nervous. I wanted to isolate myself inside a sterile bubble.

I left for the exam in San Francisco with my stomach in knots. I worried that I was getting sick, I worried that the tendonitis in my elbow would slow down my writing too much, I worried that I would forget all that I had studied and tasted, I worried that I was worrying too much…

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready. I won’t lie and say that a transcendent calm descended upon me. I was still a bundle of nerves, but had managed to convince myself that my countless hours of study would pay off.

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready.

Over the three days I developed a morning ritual…healthy breakfast, exam anxiety mini meditation, a couple bites of a banana to rinse my palate of all traces of toothpaste, and a swig of Muscadet to calibrate my perception of wine acidity. I made a playlist of catchy pop music and blared it through my headphones on my walk to the exam centre.

Each candidate must bring their own glasses for the exams and pour their own wines from identical green Burgundy bottles labelled only with the number of the wine. Every morning I steeled myself to maintain a steady hand, nervous that a broken glass or spilled wine would throw off my fragile equilibrium. I also made damn sure that I was pouring wine number 1 into glass number 1.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable. Sustained nervousness over such a long period is a rare experience in my adult life, and not one that I soon wish to repeat.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable.

And now…the long wait. Exam results are given in early September. Until then I can only hope for the best and distract myself with the simple pleasure of a chilled glass of bubbly on a warm summer’s day.

 

 

 

Life

A PREGNANT PAUSE

Wine tasting, pregnancy, wine

I remember the feeling of nervous anticipation as I navigated my way through the Vienna airport in the winter of 2015. I was on my way to meet my fellow Masters of Wine students for our first year seminar in Rust, the heart of the Burgenland wine region of Austria.

There were a host of reasons for my sweaty palms and racing heart. Would my new colleaugues prove to be far more knowledgeable and experienced than me? Would our MW teachers be pretentious and aloof? And, above all…how would the group react to my rather prominent mid-section?

On retrospect, I suppose that preparing for the worst (judgemental comments and disapproving stares), made the reality a pleasant surprise. The organizer singled me out in a loud, yet jolly voice as ‘the pregnant one’, and reactions were a mix of disinterest or polite congratulations. No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

In fact, I was regularly regaled, through out the week, with the story of Jancis Robinson sitting (and passing) her Masters of Wine exams while 8 months pregnant. To the MW set, this was irrefutable proof that one can prevail in the face of changing tastebuds, heartburn and general exhaustion.

Now, two years on, I find myself back in the same position; waddling into industry tastings to ply my trade. This time around I am in North America rather than Europe, and while I have not noticed any outright disapproval, I have met with much more curiousity about the logistics of wine tasting while pregnant.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey. Your hormones are all over the place and most definitely affect your sense of smell and taste. Each woman has their own experience, and I can only speak of my two rides on this crazy carousel.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey…Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity.

The first three months are tricky. Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity. It is almost impossible to neutrally judge a wine’s merits in these conditions. The tasting portion is even worse, with the separate structural elements of acid, tannin, oak, alcohol, residual sugar all standing out in jarring opposition. I suppose that this is nature’s way of keeping me off the sauce in that first critical phase while the embryo implants.

Around month four or five, a renewed sense of pleasure returns and with it, the bitter reality of having to wait out a long, dreary ‘dry season’. On the plus side, sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass. Wines seem more harmonious on the palate (depending on quality level) and infinitely more desirable. 

The only foe that plagues me until the end is acidity. Dry wines with high acid levels remain unpalatable through out. Beloved wines like Chablis, Sancerre and Champagne lose much of their appeal.

Sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole process is the aftermath. While my sense of smell didn’t remain quite as sensitive after giving birth, I definitely feel that I retained more accute olfactory capacities than was previously the case. A specific wine tasted pregnant, that had revealed so much more nuance to me than before, still did so afterwards. Come July, I am hoping for a similar result.

And oh the sheer bliss of drinking wine again after such a long spell of carefully sniffing, swirling and spitting! In my case, absence definitely does make the heart grow fonder. Favourite wines are rediscovered like long lost friends, grown infinitely more special after such a long spell apart.

All in all, I think that pregnancy has and is enhancing my tasting ability and enjoyment. There are undeniable setbacks as our tastebuds adjust, and as we settle into a new, slower work pace during the waiting months and the sleepless nights with crying newborns. However, in my opinion, the rewards vastly outweigh the sacrifices.

Life

A Partial Pass! The Long Road to MW

Jacky Blisson

As many of you know, I have been toiling away for the past two years, working towards a Masters of Wine (MW). For those unfamiliar with this qualification, the MW is among the highest levels of scholastic achievement in the field of wine.

The path to MW is a long and difficult road for most candidates. Just being accepted onto the program is cause for celebration. At the end of the first year, many students are asked to repeat first year or even take a few years out. The second year (or stage as it is now called) of the program culminates with the notoriously difficult final exams. These consist of: 5 theory papers in viticulture, oenology, wine handling (bottling, storage, shipping, etc.), business and contemporary issues, and 3 practical (ie. blind tasting) exams in white still wines, red still wines and a mixed bag tasting of any possible wine style (dry, sweet, fortified, sparkling, rosé, and so on).

It is a grueling week. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my entire life. I was mentally, physically and emotionally drained at the end of the 5 days. However, when time is called on the last paper and the ordeal ends, a magical thing happens. Bottles of Bollinger Champagne are produced and the stress of the week is washed away on a tide of delicate, little bubbles.

And then, the wait…

The 2016 exams ended on June 10th and the results came back on September 5th. For three months, I dreamt about all the various possible outcomes. The wait became almost a way of life. So when the big day finally rolled around, it suddenly seemed too soon. The email came through when I was navigating the Lyon airport with my lovely husband and rowdy toddler in tow. We were rushing to catch a plane, but still decided to take five minutes to sit, (attempt to) calmly sip espresso and read the blessed or dreaded words.

Nervously scanning the text, I came across these wonderful six words “I am delighted to report that…”. I had passed the theory portion of the exam.

Fireworks went off in my brain. A huge sense of relief flooded over me. 5 hours of daily study was over!

I was also proud to see that I had passed the red wine practical exam. Five years ago, I never would have believed I could achieve this level of tasting ability so I was literally overjoyed. Unfortunately, I was not so successful on the white wines (C+…a “near pass”) or the mixed bag tasting (D….total fail!).

Sadly, any failed practical exams mean that all three exams must be re-sat. So, this is my mission for 2016/2017. I will taste, and taste, and taste. White, red, rosé, sparkling, fortified, botrytised, straw wine, natural wine, orange wine…any and all kinds. It is a hard job, but someone’s got to do it, right?

 

Life

IT’S ALL A MATTER OF TASTE

Wine Shop

I went to a very interesting tasting last Sunday, hosted by the gracious and talented Ontario-based wine writer Natalie Maclean. There were wines from all over the map to taste, over 70 in all. While there were some real stand out bottles on offer, what really struck me were the tasters.

All sorts of ages, styles and backgrounds were represented; lots of sommeliers, writers, product consultants and the like. The idea was to amass a common pool of reviews for the wines, all fed onto Natalie’s website. Idle curiosity got the better of me, as it usually does, and I found myself looking at the scores and comments of my peers after posting my reviews. They could not have been more different. Where one taster found intense, black berry aromas, another found the same wine closed and earthy.  One wine deemed fairly light, was called full bodied by another reviewer. A wine slammed with a lowly 80pts was worth 90pts for someone else. Here we were, a pool of experts, with vastly different views. And herein lies the beauty of wine. It’s all very personal and depends on a large number of extenuating circumstances.

And herein lies the beauty of wine. It’s all very personal…

The label – if you have heard good reports on a wine from friends, colleagues, respected reviewers, etc. you will likely approach it in a more favourable light. And vice versa. It is human nature. If you watch a movie that a friend raved about, or that just won a slew of Oscars, you are primed to love it. And this feeling is very hard to overcome. Even if you thought is was painfully bad, you would still try and praise the cinematography or something. Whereas, if the same film was panned, you would have no trouble dismissing it as trite rubbish.

What you just ate or drank – ever tried drinking a glass of wine shortly after a cup of coffee? I bet you didn’t love it. The bitter coffee tannins likely exaggerated the sensation of astringency in the wine. What about a tart, light-bodied Pinot Noir after a big, bold Napa Cab? The second wine likely seemed thin and reedy. The obvious course of action is to ensure your palate is as neutral as possible before starting, and then tasting from lightest to fullest. But when are things ever ideal?

External stimuli & mood– is there an argument going on in the background? Does the lady next to you smell like she bathed in patchouli? Are you in a hurry to beat traffic? All of the craziness going on around you can throw off your focus and lead to snap judgements. Just like your mood. Picture it, Sicily 1922 (I digress…), seriously though, picture your last vacation. The scenery is stunning, you are relaxed and happy, and just loving the sweet, frothy, peachy bubbles served before dinner each evening. So you buy a couple of bottles to take home. And when you try it again in your kitchen, it tastes …sickly sweet, the bubbles fall flat instantly, and the finish is cloying. The holiday romance is over.

Your personal, sensory library – when I was a kid, we used to pick black berries every August at the seaside in England. The smell of fresh, and baked blackberries is highly evocative for me. If I find that singular smell in a wine, I am happy. But someone else’s version of blackberries could be a cheap brand of jam their mother used to buy, and the associated smell would be quite different. All over the world, people’s lexicons of smells are vastly different. Many aromas we identify are unknown to African or Asian drinkers who have not been exposed to the same fruits or spices and so on. And the exotic fruits that they find so easily will not be detected by many of us westerners.

We take an airplane trolley’s worth of baggage with us into each wine tasting without even realizing it.

The list goes on and on. We take an airplane trolley’s worth of baggage with us into each wine tasting without even realizing it. So what’s a novice wine lover looking for a little guidance in the bewildering aisles of the liquor store to do? First of all, trust yourself! If you like it, that’s good enough. Wine is meant to fun. It doesn’t matter if the Wine Spectator didn’t like it. If you poke around the internet long enough you will find another reviewer who does. Second of all, know that we all have personal bias. Even critics that only taste wines blind have styles they prefer. While better tasters can objectively praise a wine they don’t like but recognize is well-made; they will never rave about it in the same way they would a wine they adore. Try as I might, I will rarely score a hugely extracted, teeth staining, overtly fruity red as well as a lighter, more elegant and restrained style. So go forth and sample widely from a range of wine folk and you will end up finding someone that has a similar palate to yours. It’s a bit like finding a favourite author. You know that when you curl up with their latest book, you’ll probably like it. Now try settling in with the book AND the glass of wine…heaven!

Life

a day in the life of an MW student

masters of wine student

When I graduated from university, I remember thinking to myself thank god…I’m out! I am NEVER going to school again. No more last minute, desperate attempts to finish essays or cram a ton of facts into my wee brain before a big exam. No more week-ends feeling guilty about all the study I wasn’t doing. And then, after a mere year out in the “real world” I realized that I had absolutely no interest in my field and found my job utterly tedious. Doh! So…back to the classroom. This time in Burgundy, with far more scientific content than I bargained for, in a language I spoke very poorly. When I finished that incredible, exhausing experience, my first thought was, now I REALLY am done.

Fast forward 10 years, to the seminar I attended in Napa & San Francisco this past week. An intense flurry of blind tasting sessions and theory preparation for the notoriously hard Masters of Wine exams. In less than 6 months’s time, I will put myself through this 5-day feat of endurance with a pass rate of less than 10%! So, of course, the obvious question keeps running through my mind. Why on EARTH am I putting myself through this again? And, more importantly, why am I TELLING everyone about it, considering the spectacularly unfavourable odds of passing? I try to reassure myself by saying that it is the journey, the knowledge that I am obtaining, that is important; the simple fact of pushing myself to excel at something. Then again, maybe this is all some elaborate scheme to make my wine drinking habit seem classy and professional. Yeah, probably a little more the latter…

So what does a Masters of Wine student do at a seminar? Well, while it is far from the challenges faced by a rocket scientist, it is nonetheless intense. Imagine yourself, bleary eyed, staring into your coffee cup at 7:30am. While you were doing that, I was pouring 12 mystery wines into 12 glasses. At 7:45am each day, a deathly silence would fall, broken only by sounds of sipping, slurping, spitting and furious pen scratchings. I had 10 minutes per wine to write detailed arguments, using “evidence from my glass”, identifying the grape(s), origin, quality level, style, winemaking techniques, vintage, residual sugar level, commercial appeal and so on. My “move” was to start each tasting by wasting a couple of those precious minute looking around the room in a blind panic watching everyone tasting and nodding their heads smugly, while my mind emptied of all useful information. Then I proceeded to calm down, taste, make notes and then take more-or-less wild stabs at determining the wines and writing logical, vaguely intelligent sentences. Once the buzzer sounded the end of these daily torture tasting session, the feedback began. Here is why you are absolutely and totally wrong…and so on.  Some days, I did fairly well and started feeling a little cocky. Other days I wanted to borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

The afternoon sessions were a mix between lectures and field trips. The Masters of Wine program is as much, if not more, a theoretical degree. Tasting well is just the tip of the iceberg. You also need to acquire in-depth knowledge of all major aspects of viticulture, winemaking, quality control, business, marketing and latest industry issues and trends. It is this holistic approach that drew me to the MW, over a sommelier program. That, and the fact that I am far too clumsy for fine wine service in a posh restaurant. The idea behind the theory session is to prepare us for the dreaded exams, where we will be expected to write 3 ~1000 word essays in 3 hours on highly technical subjects, with a wealth of real world examples, in a confident, authoritative manner. Again, my attempts at these time essays generally began with a couple minutes trying to tap into the old memory bank while only useless bits of fluff trivia or lame song lyrics floated to the surface.

The idea is that, come June, the hours of dilligent studying will pay off, I will discover a newfound serenity, and pass on the first try! Cheers to that…