Tag Archives: Essay writing

Life After the MW Exam: Hindsight’s Look at My Past 4 Years

Three weeks ago I was one of the 98 students to attempt to pass the rigorous Master of Wine exam. Full details of the exam questions are posted here.  However unlike the majority of other students (in Napa at least), I was taking the full exam for what will be my last time.  I originally went over the possible exam outcomes in detail in an earlier post but the short version is I fail both sections again, pass one or the other, or pass both.  Naturally, I’m hoping for the latter but only time will tell. I think very few people outside of the program truly understand the level of dedication and commitment it takes to even attempt to sit the exam, much less actually pass it.  I was reminded of this while reading the comments generated by a blog from Dr. Vino last week. 

 There seems to be a great misunderstanding about the purpose of the tasting portion of the exam particularly.  The Practical exam (as it is called) is not a parlor game where one has to name the wine, vintage, variety, and producer but a logical deduction based on what is tasted in the glass and clues given by the questions themselves.  Case in point, one particularly popular question format in the past has been 4 wines in a flight, same variety but from 4 different countries.  Initially this could mean any number of potential varieties however students are generally discouraged from chasing “flying zebras”.  Thus while Gruner Veltliner may be found growing in 4 different countries it is highly unlikely that you are actually dealing with Gruner in this question.  If it is Practical Paper 1, the white wine paper, the odds are that it is Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, or Pinot Gris since those are more internationally used varieties and incidentally the varieties that show up the most over the past 13 years of exams.

 How do I know that?

 Like any good MW student, I’ve studied the past 13 years of exams in great detail of course!  They are available on the MW website in the student section and are really like manna from heaven to people interested enough to take the time to really get to know them.  The exam is not a fixed thing however and changes can happen in the design from year to year.  Imagine my surprise when this year’s Theory paper 4, Contemporary Issues, after 4 years of being pick 2 of 5 questions switched back to the 2005-2007 format of the “pre-fix menu” (Pick one from section A and one from section B) similar to that of the rest of the exam (Theory Papers 1-3 require 2 questions from section B).  Of course that format only came into existence in 2005 where before that there was one compulsory question and then 4-5 options for the additional essays needed.  Personally, I liked the 2008-2011 formats but not being an examiner I have no control over it.  Also, since I did not pass my attempts in 2010 and 2011 perhaps this minor change will yield better results.

 For myself, part of the fun of the exam (yes, I know, I’m crazy to think it is fun on some level) is seeing how the examiners are able to never ask the same question twice but cover the same material regardless.  Take the following two questions from Paper 2 for example…

 In order of priority, what quality assurance procedures should a producer have in place to avoid contaminated or defective wine? (Paper 2, 2011)

 As the Quality Assurance manager of a contract bottling operation, what actions will you take when microbial contamination is found in routine samples taken off the bottling line? (Paper 2, 2009)

 Both cover QA but each question needs to be answered in a very unique way.  The first asks for an order of priority of QA procedures while the second asks for actions that will be taken once contamination is found. If one had written a practice essay for the 2009 question and then answered the 2011 question in the same way one would likely fail. Not because of lack of knowledge about QA but because you didn’t answer in the question that was asked.  This is a common theme on the examiner’s report which is released after results are announced and goes over the common pitfalls and what the examiners were hoping to see in the answer to each question.  It is another invaluable resource for the MW student and I think I can safely say that any student that does not read it is setting themselves up for failure.

 Now, after 4 years (6 if you count the WSET programs) of all my free time being spent studying, tasting, analyzing, and compiling information in an effort to mentally “master” the wine industry, I find myself with some down time.  Time that I’m sure will come to a swift and fast end around the middle of October when my husband and I are expecting our first child. I know I didn’t mention that but, yes, I did just sit the MW exam 5 months pregnant! It definitely added an extra dimension of challenge to the whole thing, if it wasn’t challenging enough.  Regardless of the outcome of this exam, I’m happy.  I’m happy with the level of knowledge that I’ve reached and skills I’ve developed through the program to constantly seek new knowledge which I know I will continue long after the stress of the program is forgotten.  I’m happy to have met all the wonderful people that are in the program or involved with the institute in some way.  I’m very blessed to have been given opportunities to travel and speak with some of the top experts in the industry worldwide.  Most of all, I’m happy that I did not give up, ever, regardless of how depressing or challenging the program was.  I’ve always been serious about getting the MW certification and I would have always regretted it if I hadn’t gone for it, 100%. I know that even if I fail this third time, I tried my best, studied my hardest, and worked tirelessly towards that goal.  That is all anyone can be expected to do and it gives me peace to close this chapter of my life and move on, either through the rest of the program or not.  I’m excited to see what the next phase of life brings with a more personal distinction…Mother.      



FAIL: The Word Everyone Hates to See on MW Exam Results

As you probably assumed from the title of this post, I have once again failed the MW exam.  This was my second attempt and the IMW follows the rules of baseball in the three strikes, you’re out philosophy.  I have one more try before I’m benched. I decided to blog about this failure while it was still fresh this year rather than waiting for January to work up the courage to disclose it as I did last year.  I’ve read all the posts from successful canidates and congrats to them, they deserve it!  However, I decided that the one voice that was missing was the voice from the multiple people who received FAIL on their letters yesterday(Yes it does come capitalized and in bold so you can visualize the examiners yelling at you through the magic of technology).  This is me, stripping myself bare, as a last effort to try and understand what I’m doing wrong.


As far as the exam itself goes there are 4 theory papers and three practical (or tasting) papers.  The breakdown of my grades is below…


Theory                                                               Grades

Paper 1- The Production of Wine – Part 1             C-

Paper 2- The Production of Wine – Part 2             B (passing)

Paper 3- The Business of Wine                           C-

Paper 4- Contemporary Issues                            C+


Practical                                                             Grades

Paper 1 – White Wines                                          C-

Paper 2 – Red Wines                                              D

Paper 3 – Mixed Bag                                              D


I hope you, my readers, can appreciate how difficult this is for me to acknowledge let alone to post for the entire world to see.  After putting 5 years of my life towards this goal I have hit a roadblock that I, thus far, am unable to fight.   Of all the grades above the one that grates the most is the C- on Theory paper 1.  I am a winemaker however my life in the industry started and my true love continues to be the vines and the wine that I and others make from them.  My degree from Cornell is in viticulture. Winemaking has primarily been learned on the job.  Theory Paper 1 is viticulture and winemaking through the end of Malolactic fermentation. I know it is not the examiners goal to imply that I don’t know enough about how a vineyard manager thinks or fermentation runs to pass this paper but this one still stings the most of all the papers.  I answered the following questions…


Q1 : What are the vineyard factors that influence the choice of rootstocks?

Q5: What are the options available for the control of acidity in musts and wines from selection the date of harvest to the end of the Malolactic conversion?

Q6: Explain recent changes in the uses ofSulphur(note this is the English spelling) and Sulphur Dioxide in the vineyard and cellar prior to the completion of the malolactic conversion.


Rootstocks were an entire section during Viti 1 at Cornell during which my esteemed professor Peter Cousins (a rootstock breeder with the USDA) did his best to get us all excited about rootstocks.  At the time, I thought it was something that I could always look up when I needed them but those notes were absolutely dusted off and re-visited prior to both attempts at the exam.  I also became very interested in other rootstocks beyond my personal favorite of 3309 which as I learned through visits to France is also popular with other winemakers in Europe as well.  You can imagine my dismay when that particular question only merited a D during the exam.  The acid question also threw me with a C- but I won’t go in to the numerous ways and processes that can be used to adjust acid that I only use 4-5 times a day.

So my assumption after my first attempt at the exam was that I was not being downgraded by my lack of knowledge on the subjects but the style of writing with which I have been delivering said knowledge. This past year I refined my writing style, again wrote an endless number of essays from questions cut from the 1999-2009 exams (which perhaps one day I’ll use as blog posts as I can’t think of anything else they would be useful for), and even went so far as to dissect body paragraphs of each of my passing essay assignments with highlighters ( Pink for intro sentence, orange for supporting sentences, green for global examples, blue for closing sentence and so on) hoping to find some sort of structure pattern that I could rely on for a passing grade.  As the grades above show, not only did I not pass but I actually did worse than I did the first time around.  C+ to a C- is not a long way to fall but it’s enough to seriously consider if I’m going about this in the proper way.


So readers I’m stumped.  This is me throwing up my hands and asking “What do you want from me???”  I have 9 months before my last attempt next June (but who’s counting).  I’m asking for any possible suggestions for a direction for the next 9 months that may help.  Feel free to leave a comment if you have a suggestion for study or writing techniques otherwise I have nothing to change and we all know what the definition of insanity is…




The Master of Wine Exam…A Two Week Retrospective

Two weeks ago at this point I had finished the second day of the four day long MW exam.  Now after that time has passed, I’ve had time to chew over my answers in my head, wake up in the middle of the night remembering some small detail that I can’t remember if I mentioned, and mentally rehash my wine placements.  It really is three months of waiting from the last day of the exam to that day in September where you discover if you’ve shown the examiners that you are an MW or not.  This year the last day of the exam was made all the more interesting by an article written by Slate.com.  Funny enough, the title of the article sounded like a perfect Paper 4 (Contemporary Issues) question to me; The Master of Wine Exam: Is the reputed “hardest test of knowledge” in the wine world worth taking?


My answer would be absolutely a resounding YES for those people who want one!  That is my opinion but I’ll be the first to admit it is not the best course of action for everyone.  I live my life on the assumption that learning anything above what one already knows would be beneficial and I’ve always been one to go after new challenges. However if one is the type of person to be satisfied with their current accomplishments, I can understand why they wouldn’t want to go through the trouble.  Mr. Steinberger points out in his article that the program is expensive, the exam is grueling, and there is no guarantee even after pouring your heart and soul into the program that you will come out the other side being able to use those coveted two letters.  All this is true. He also points out that one can become successful in the business of wine with out the MW and references several accomplished persons to support his argument.  This is true as well but I have to ask myself, how much more successful and influential would these people be if they had attempted the program?  What would they have taken away from the time in the MW student trenches?  Even though I have yet to reach the coveted title, at least I’m trying. I’ve already seen myself grow to become a better winemaker and communicator from being in the program. The exposure to other aspects of the wine business and fellow students has broadened my horizons and taught me to think outside of my home region of the US.  The people that attempt the MW certification are some of the most amazing and intelligent people that I have had the pleasure of knowing. I am constantly amazed at the range of experiences and passion that the students bring every year to the seminar when everyone is introduced. 

When I do get to the point where I have passed the final hurdles and I have my MW the main payoff will be, in my mind, the personal satisfaction of reaching my goal. Of being able to look back over however many years at that point and see how I was able to overcome the mental and physical challenges that the program puts on you.  I likened it in a previous blog post to running a super marathon.  I never really understood why someone would put themselves through that sort of rigorous training and stress until I began the MW program.  Unless one knows the feeling of accomplishment that comes from surviving overwhelming obstacles and beating the odds, you probably wouldn’t understand why anyone would want to tackle the MW.  In short, no one needs an MW, but those who want it, REALLY want it. It’s personal and not for the faint of heart!