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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mission Accomplished

Mission Accomplished

Did you miss me?  Probably not.  I know many of my family members and friends have over the passed several months.  

I have been off studying for both the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level 2 and Level 3 exams.  I took them both back to back (within a month of each other) through the American Wine School, which teaches classes in many cities throughout the US.  If you are in the midwest and looking to take the WSET exam, I would suggest that you look them up.  They have a great approach to the exam prep, and distribute several mnemonic devices, and other hints for passing the exam.  I found the test prep course to be invaluable for helping me feel confident and prepared to take the test.

The Level 2 test has 50 questions and is straight forward.  I already received results.  I passed as seen by the pin above and did so with distinction (pat, pat, pat on the back). 

The level 3 test ironically has 3 parts.  The first part is multiple choice.  This is 50 questions on wine regions, wine making, vineyard practices, soil types, wine types, spirits, and other fun facts about wine and spirits.  It is a lot of information to cover, but otherwise is not very difficult to handle.  The second section is a short essay section.  This is the most challenging part of the exam as not only do you need to know the topics, but you also need to have knowledge of what the test administrators and graders are looking for.  Questions are broad, like describe a wine from XYZ and its style...GO!  You could spend a week answering a question like that, but in this case they are looking for certain things, and you get points for each item you mention in your answer.  The prep class was great for explaining what the WSET is likely looking for with each type of question.  Finally, there is a blind tasting.  The blind tasting covers one red wine, and one white wine.  You have to write an appropriate tasting note and guess the wine along with the age-ability and price.  The wines chosen were straight forward, and naming the wine only counts for a small portion of the points.  Most of the points are given for a proper tasting note. 

Overall, I felt the test was more than fair, and was actually enjoyable to take.  The only drawback is that there is a lot of writing, and at the end I felt like my hand was going to fall off.  I even brought a wrist brace knowing that I sometimes have difficulty when asked to do a lot of writing.  It did not matter much.  I mean, hen was the last time you wrote, like actually wrote that much with a pencil and paper?  For me, it was likely grade school.  Those muscles were not used to that kind of writing.  OUCH!!!

WSET logo is the sole property of the WSET
I will say, that the WSET is unique in many ways.  They are not teaching you to only work in a fine dining establishment as a Sommelier.  Nor are they teaching you to be a wine educator.  Both of those philosophies are heavy in some of the other accrediting bodies of wine, and while you can do either with the WSET accreditation, there is much more that one can do with this certification.  Really, if you are in or desire to learn about any part of the wine business, the WSET has something for you.

The WSET is different than other accrediting bodies in wine, in that they basically teach you wine from vine to glass.  Perhaps this is why I leaned their way after much research and contemplation.  I know I am interested in wine, but where I want to focus my interest changes for me still day to day.  As many of you know, I make wine at home, which is fascinating and humbling.  I grow grapes in my yard, Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), Cane pruned Hybrid vines that grow well in Chicago.  I also have interest in a wine store concept of sorts down the road  (More to come on that later).  Finally, I have always entertained a job in wine distribution at some point in my life either direct from the wineries, or through a distributor.  This is why I believe the WSET is a perfect option for me.  I continue to challenge my brain and learn a broad cross section of the wine business, while keeping future options opened.

I am glad to be done, and looking forward to finding how I did on the Level 3 test.  I feel good about passing, but they also do one additional step and give people a chance to pass with distinction.  I set a personal goal for myself to gain distinction with both exams.  I am hopeful but cautiously so, particularly due to the essay.  It is a lot of information, and one needs to gain a score of 85% or higher to get that added to their certificate.  Again, I am hopeful.

I should mention that there is one more step in the WSET called Diploma.  It is 6 grueling tests that take place over the course of 2-3 years.  Topics are vast and broad and include independent research, Wine technology, wines of the world, Spirits, Sparkling and Fortified wines, and others.  I would love to sit that exam at some point, but for now, I am content with the level 3 certification.

When I finished the exam, I went home, and packed for Napa, CA.  I will share that experience with you all when we chat next.  Until then, take care.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Soap Box Issue

Soap Box Issue

I went to get a quick workout in this morning, and, as I frequently do on the elliptical machine,  I listened to a podcast on wine.  Which podcast is unimportant, but it was one of my usual suspects.  About half way through, the hosts began talking about the issue with consumers being overwhelmed by wine.  The premise put out by the two hosts was that, "Wine is still Mysterious to people and we have to solve the mystery."  I loved that quote.  After all, is that not why we desire to be Sommeliers in the first place.  Our job is not to memorize esoteric facts about grapes, regions, and weather.  Our job is to educate, and pair the right bottle of wine with the right person at the right time.  So far, I have no issue.  However, I went on listening.

The next thought that came out of the podcast was in the form of a question, "Is that even a problem that can be solved?"  WAIT A MINUTE???  Can we make people fly?  Can we cure Cancer, Can the Cubs win the World Series?  These are problems that cannot be solved!  

Wine, and the education of people who are curious about it, is most certainly a problem that can be solved.  How you might ask?  Well, I am going to tell you.  I can think of at least one example today.  

Sit back, and listen to a little tale, a tale of a faithful ship...Oops, wrong tale.  A tale of a small wine region in Spain called Priorat.    Just 20 years ago, the wines of Priorat were not on anyone's radar.  In fact, because it was expensive to farm the steep cliffs, and all farming had to be done by hand, and the reputation of the region was not warranting big price tags for the wines, many farmers just abandoned their vineyards.  They just moved away, leaving the vines to grow.  Abandoned, cold and lonely these vines did what any vine would do, they dug their roots deep into the soil and continued to grow.  They went wild, and about 20 years ago, new winemakers showed up.  They invested money into the region.  They used good vineyard management.  These new wine makers implemented new technology, and soon they were making among Spain's best wines.  Priorat is one of two DOCa regions in Spain (The other Rioja), and yet, many people still do not know about it.

They don't know that these are big wines that tend to be fruit forward.  They tend to have big tannins, they tend to be high in alcohol.  They tend to drink like New World Wines in a lot of ways.  They will have black fruits and some spice.  We can bore people with the details that I just went through, or we can tell them, if you like your big, fruity, California Cabernet, and you tend to go that way, try this wine.  I think you will like it.

This is precisely why Australia has been so successful.  Brand Australia is good, easy to drink, enjoyable, fruit forward wines.  Ultimately, there is good quality for the money, and people like them.  What?  People like them... There is certainly no mystery in that.

I think wine stays a mystery in part because we continue to tell stories to mystify.  We are both the solution and the problem.  Because in the end, there is only one thing that matters when you think about wine and people.  Do they like it?  Not should they like it?  Not that it has a hint of salinity which matches well with oysters (Which I don't eat anyway), not even that it has black or red fruit, or big tannins or high acid.  Most people just don't care.  They know what THEY like.  We need to listen to what THEY like.  We need to find wines that are similar to what they like and slowly expand their horizons by saying, If you like California Cabernet, try this...  That will allow them to learn what they like and order it again.  People learn through their experiences, and we need to create those experiences for them.

We should take a page from the book of the beer makers and tell people that wines has the same number of calories as light beer, but it tastes better.  The story is great, and putting  wine on a pedestal is fantastic when you are geeking out with wine friends.  Ultimately, though, our role is to remove barriers, reduce the mystery and to sell more wine. Stop complicating the hell out of it.  :)