Browsing Tag

mw

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

a day in the life of an MW student

Masters of Wine Seminar

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…

 

Life

The Humbling Act of MW Blind Tasting

MW Mock Tasting Exam

Distance learning is a tricky thing. You can easily be lulled into a false sense of confidence working from the comfort of your living room. Nothing brings the reality of your progress (or lack thereof) crashing down around you like a course day. Last Thursday and Friday, I kissed my baby goodbye and headed to New York for a two-day Masters of Wine training session.

I get a lot of sidelong glances when I tell people what I am doing. They kind of smirk a little and say “so basically you sit around and drink wine all day? Gee, that sounds like hard work!” . Well, all I can say is…it is!  It is not necessarily the most vital profession out there, but it is challenging. Here is what a day of MW training looks like:

You start the day with 12 wine glasses in front of you and absolutely no earthly idea what is in each glass. Generally, with blindtasting, you have a few cues that help you cheat a little… the shape of the bottle, screw cap vs. cork, and how well you know the person who poured the wine. I have a dear friend from South Africa who, 9 times out of 10, will serve French or South African wine everytime he presents a mystery bottle. This narrows down the options nicely! Unfortunately, in an MW blind tasting exam, the wines are really BLIND. They can come from a wide range of countries, a huge number of grape varieties and are poured into identical bottles before the tasting. When the examiner says go, you have exactly 2 hours 15 minutes to taste, analyze, make an educated guess and then respond to numerous questions on each wine. This equates to just over 11 minutes per wine. And the questions are not multiple choice. They require paragraph style persuasive argumentation on the grape variety, origin, vintage, winemaking techniques, overall quality and so forth – all based on the “evidence from your glass”. For example, simply stating that the wine is a 2013 Pinot Noir from Sonoma will get you about 3 points out of 20 or more. You need to give all of the reasons why you came to this conclusion, in a clear, detailed yet concise way. All the while watching the minutes slip away, and fighting the panicked feeling that you have guessed wrong or that, even if you are right, you’ll never finish in time.

As it turns out, it is not nearly enough to simply taste a particular wine over and over again until you can pick it out blind. Success in this game is based as much on theory as on actual tasting. You need to memorize the fact that Pinot Noir is thin skinned so the wine is generally paler in colour, and more translucent that a lot of other red grapes. You also need to know where it grows and the style of the wine in different regions to help you narrow down the origin. Common winemaking techniques also need to be learnt. In fact, the book learning may even outweigh actual tasting. I once correctly guessed a Rutherglen Muscat dessert wine from Australia that I had never had before, purely because it matched the description I had read.

I’ll be honest and say that the two days of tasting in New York were not my most successful. I had a few too many deer-in-the-headlights moments, stuck in front of a wine I just could not identify. And while after the first day, I was sorely tempted to hide under the covers and forget the whole ridiculous idea of this degree, the next day I had gained fresh perspective. Making mistakes at this point is almost better than getting everything right. I know what I need to work on and how to go about it. So it’s back to the drinking table for me, with a glass in one hand and a wine atlas in the other!