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masterofwine

Life

A GLASS RAISED TO WINE MENTORS LOST

Wine Mentors

The recent passing of one of the wine world’s legends, Gerard Basset, has been on my mind a lot recently. Not because I knew him personally, though I wish that I had had that privilege. It was the remarks that people made about him being a mentor; someone who inspired wine enthusiasts to become scholars, and wine scholars to pursue ever loftier academic goals.

His death also made me re-visit the brutal realities of cancer.

I had such a teacher once. A man that instilled his passion for wine in me long before I could (legally) imbibe. A self-proclaimed ignorant farm boy from Saskatchewan who read every tome on wine grapes, vintages, regions and producers religiously. A man who carefully purchased the best vintage Ports of each of his children’s birth years to drink with them at their weddings.

Except that he only made it to one wedding, at a time when his Port drinking days were long passed.

The Christmas of 2006 started off with a bang. I was finishing up a job in Beaune and preparing to leave for a winemaking stint in South Africa early in the New Year. I had just flown home for the holiday. My father was standing over my open suitcase, watching with child-like glee as I pulled out all the smelly cheeses and pâtés that I had smuggled over. With our bounty on display and the week’s menus in mind, we headed down to the cellar to mull over the wines.

This was how it always went. He adored the ceremony of opening his carefully aged treasures (generally Bordeaux, red Burgundies, and Mosel Rieslings). He would pour a small glass, sniff, taste, and then, when the wine was good, a slow smile would spread across his face. He would say, “not bad, not bad at all” and then pass the glass over to me.

When I first decided to pursue a career in wine, he said to me, “You will have a wonderful time. You won’t make any money, but you’ll have a wonderful time”. On the eve of my initial departure to study wine commerce in Burgundy he pulled out a bottle of 1982 Léoville-Las Cases that I will remember to my dying day.

And then, on Christmas day in 2006, everything changed in an instant. We had just finished gorging ourselves on turkey and fixings, and were happily slumped in our chairs, paper hats askew, when my father suddenly became so ashen, he looked as though he had seen a ghost. The episode passed and he shrugged it off, though I won’t soon forget the nervous look on his face as he sipped his postprandial dram.

It was cancer. More specifically lung cancer that had already metastasized to his brain. The location of the 7 different brain tumors made any curative treatment impossible. I went off to South Africa, blithely ignorant of his fate. He didn’t tell me until my return because he so wanted me to enjoy my experience.

When I next saw him, the shrunken man in front of me with the big, haunted eyes seemed almost a stranger. On my mother’s urging (and bankrolling), my sister and I had arrived with 12 bottles of top Burgundies. I had even found a bottle of 1930s Nuits-St-Georges from an old, long deceased wine producer friend of my parents.

I brought them out with such pride only to be faced with a watery smile. Though he was able to share a few bottles with us, his ailing body soon couldn’t face wine’s acidic bite. His brilliant mind remained to the end though, and he continued his love affair with wine vicariously through me to the end.

Today would have been his 77th birthday. Tonight, I will open the finest treasure my paltry wine cellar has to offer and raise a glass to you, Ronald Cole, and to you, Gerard Basset, two wine lovers taken from their families and all those they inspired, far too soon.

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 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?