Tag Archives: Masters of Wine

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Of What are MW Students Afraid? Or Why I’m Out of Reasons to be Afraid.

This week marks the beginning of my 7th MW seminar.  This blog will be 6 years old in March so I have managed to chronicle most of my triumphs and despairs on it.  When one come into the program as a “first year” (yes it’s very Hogwarts-esque) there are lots of feelings one has to deal with.  The excitement of being in the program and on my way to becoming an MW is what I remember most from my first year.  That first seminar was an eye opener.  It was so amazing to be in the same room with so many people as passionate about wine as I was.  I also remember getting half way through the seminar and finding one of my fellow First Years in the hallway, freaking out because he had not realized how much effort it was going to take to prep for the exam.  “I’m 40 years old,” he said. “I don’t have time to do all this.” Which brings me to fear #1.

How do I find time to do all of this?

Like Nike always says, JUST DO IT. You make time.  If it is important enough in your life, you make time for it.  I’ve been up until midnight working on assignments, I’ve read wine books on airplanes, and I’ve gotten up at 5 in the morning to work on notes. I’ve fallen asleep on my practical notebook and woken up with three ring binder imprints in my cheek.  No one said this is easy and no one is forcing anyone to do it.  Just make it a priority if it’s that important.  If it’s not that important, save your money and don’t put yourself through this.

What if I fail my first year assessment so badly that they kick me out?

Every successful MW student comes to the end of their first year with this fear. If one doesn’t have this fear then one is either are a freaking genius with nothing else going on or so egotistical that one doesn’t realize that they don’t know everything.  I’ve seen more of the latter than the former.  The vast majority fall into the camp somewhere in between that they have at least pondered this fear at one point or another.  The first year assessment is the last gas station on a long road through the desert and those that have done the prep are usually fine. On rare occasions, students will be asked to repeat the first year or move to the second year without sitting the exam at the end but most are just fine. You stop in, fill up, get supplies and then set off into the “Second Year.”

What if they figure out I don’t know everything?

At some point in the journey to the MW, you begin to feel like a little bit of a fraud. It seems so many people around you have it all figured out and you are just waiting for someone to point out that you really are dumb at something and shouldn’t be here.  I’ve heard this come out of the mouths of MW’s who have passed it all and are still wondering how it happened (I won’t mention names of course).  What you eventually come to realize is that it is impossible to know everything and each student has their strengths and weaknesses.  The key is to find students that have your weaknesses as strengths and hang out with them.  Pick their brains, don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions, and learn all you can from them.  I have always found that my fellow students were some of the best resources for knowledge and the seminar gives you a week to befriend as many as possible to share knowledge with.  They are in the same boat so they understand the detail which you need to glean.  People who are not in the program are helpful but generally not as helpful as students who are walking in the same trench you are.

What if I fail the exam?

At the end of your second year it is time to sit the exam. Nowadays, students only have the option of putting this off a year if they don’t feel ready but must sit during their second “second year”.  Back in the day, when I started this trek, you could wait almost indefinitely to sit the exam which resulted in many students that didn’t feel ready, not sitting for years.  The second year is the doldrums.  It is truly the most depressing part of the program.  The more “second years” you go through the more depressing it is.  I’ve heard many a student say “But what if I fail? I’ve used up one of my three chances to pass!”  So what?  You’ve failed.  You have more chances and are the wiser for trying it.  The only way to become an MW is to pass the exam and the only way to pass the exam is to sit the exam.  If you fail, you have lost nothing and have probably gained valuable experience and knowledge along the way (if you have properly prepped for the exam, which if you haven’t please see my final sentence under fear #1).  Trust me, as someone who has failed the exam 5 times in some way, shape, or form at this point, failing the exam is not as bad as everyone assumes it is.  Take time to grieve, decide if you want to continue, then if so, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, make a plan, and go again.

What if I fail so often, they kick me out?

There are two points that this fear comes into play. The first is on your third attempt if you haven’t passed either the practical or the theory by then.  The second is on your fifth attempt if you have passed either by your third attempt. If a student is worried about this prior to either of these moments please re-read the paragraph above.  Again, so what?  It’s an opportunity to remember what life was like before the MW.  It’s time to reevaluate and decide if this is something that is truly worth it.  After my 5th fail, I had decided that I needed to hang it up.  I was ready to do that.  I found other things in my life that were just as important to start working on.  After about a month, I was already missing the camaraderie of the program and (strangely enough) I was missing having something to occupy every spare minute of every day.  There was a hole in my life that could only be filled by being involved with this organization, which brings me to the following fear…

What if people think I’m crazy? Heck, I think I’m crazy!

Honestly this doesn’t matter. All that matters is that my family is supportive and I have the passion and the drive to keep going regardless of the odds and regardless of the obstacles in my path.  At some point, probably soon, I’m going to run out of money to keep going at which case I’ll probably take some additional time off and then get back at it however. Having decided that at some point in my life I will be an MW, nothing is going to stop me because I’m not afraid anymore. Well, maybe I’m afraid of one thing.

What if I take the most times to pass the exam that ANYONE has ever taken?

Honestly, I probably won’t care because I’ll still have the initials and the camaraderie of the group and I’ll have looked at the exam forwards, backwards, and sideways to the point that I breathe it and what future MW student could ask for a better mentor than that?

So here we go, attempt number 6! Bring it!

 

 

 

Wandering Through Germany: Part 3 – Mosel

Our final stop in Germany was, of course, the Mosel. None of the pictures prepared me for the sheer beauty of these vineyards. Steep slopes dug into rock with little but rock for soils in the best sites. Iconic German architecture reminiscent of Oktoberfest in quaint villages tucked along the stunning, swiftly flowing river was a sight to behold.

Website size Mosel Pic

Our first stop was to Weingut Willi Schafer, an unassuming building tucked away in a relatively residential looking villiage, where we were hosted by Andrea Schafer. We tasted several bottled wines first then toured the cellars afterwards to taste the most recent vintage.

2004 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese – Stone and Chalk

All flinty and minerally with a linear palate that is weighty and lean at the same time. Lemon lime fruit and a hint of white flowers with 70g/L residual sugar cut through with racing acidity.

2012 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese – Zesty and Fruity

Warmer fruit than the 2004 with fresh apricot, lime zest but continuing with minerality on the palate, 70 g/L residual sugar and racing acidity.

Andrea told us that the most recent vintage (2013) was more suited for the off-dry style due to a high level of botrytis influence. “We make the wines but nature decides what style we will make.” They try to interrupt the fermentation at the right time to achieve the proper balance in the wines. “When you have too much sugar you lose the elegance and the terrior.” We asked for her interpretation of the different styles of Riesling and she gave us the following.

Kabinett – Light and fresh in style with less richness than Spätlese.

Auslese – More honeyed notes and a very rich style.

Spätlese – A lighter more spritzy style than Auslese but with extra richness and depth above Kabinett.

There were two top highlights of my trip to Germany.  The first was an amazing dinner with Dr. Uli Fischer of the Neustadt Research Institute with awesome food and conversation that ranged far beyond wine to economics, philosophy, sports, politics, religion, and every other topic under the sun.

Our next stop in the Mosel was definitively the other top moment.  We were treated to a personal tour of Weingut Dr. Loosen with Ernie Loosen.Dr. Loosen Arch

 He first took us for a quick jaunt around their vineyards in his Range Rover. They own 10 hectares split into 184 different parcels, the smallest of which is 15 vines. This is of course thanks to the Napoleonic code that affected both Germany and Burgundy very similarly. The government in Germany, however, is trying to remedy the situation by introducing a “reorganization”. They are killing several birds with one stone in typically efficient German fashion. Each vineyard involved must have buy in by a majority of the owners of the vines. The owners agree to give up a maximum of 10% of their land to the government to build roads to traverse the steep slopes for machinery to be more easily moved about. The government builds the roads and regrades the slopes to allow for mechanization with crawlers. Each of the owners then gets a consolidated section of the slope equal to 90% of the number of vines they owned prior to the consolidation. The upside is the vines are now all together rather than spread out over the slope and are able to be mechanized to some extent. The un-reorganized slopestake 2-3,000 manhours per ha and the reorganized slopes take 1/3 of that time. The downside is that it is expensive costing $30-40,000 for the vines however the government is subsidizing this and offers the ability for the owners to pay the balance with a 10 year interest free note which is held by the government itself. With a labor shortage being the biggest problem in the Mosel any level of mechanization is helpful. It takes a single crew a full day to pick the equivalent of 1.5 acres because of the treacherous slopes. Standing on top of them I wondered why anyone would be willing to haul grapes up and down them.  Another downside? How can you be sure the vineyard will not be changed?  Ernie assures us that not all slopes will go through with this plan just for this reason but it is a huge undertaking for those that have.

Website size NC and Ernie Loosen

After our vineyard tour we went back to the tasting room and went through several amazing wines.

Dr Loosen 2012 Riesling Trocken Blauschiefer (Blue Slate) – Zesty and Fruity

Very elegant and fruity with a subtle minerality. Flavors of white peach and apple with zesty linear acid. Fermented with indigenous yeast in a 1000 Liter Füder with 12-24 months on lees.

Dr Loosen 2012 Riesling Troken Rotschiefer (Red Slate) – Zesty and Fruity

More spicy and floral, almost Gewurztraminer like with fresh acid and a rich palate balanced by a steely mineral backbone.

Ernie stated that these two wines needed lots of air to show their best and generally needed to be open for 3 days to fully experience the flavors.

He is also working on lots of different winemaking techniques in the winery such as extended lees contact as well as different types of fermentation vessels. He offered as an example where after the 3rd century the Romans switched to oak barrels for fermentation because they showed better quality than the amphoras. “We need to learn the old ways so we can make them better” when talking about reviewing ancient winemaking practices.

Erdener Pralat Wines

Dr Loosen 2011 Erdener Prälat Riesling Alte Reben Reserve– Unbelievably Unique

Fruit from 120 year old vines planted on a steep, rocky red slate filled, southern facing slope of the Mosel fermented in neutral oak and aged on lees for 12 months. This wine is highly complex with intense aromas of white flowers, peaches, and slate with a rich sweet profile with enough acid for a dry finish. The palate brings spiciness reminiscent of pepper and cinnamon with intense weight. GO FIND IT!!! It’s amazing and a wine which every winelover should experience once at least!

Dr Loosen 2011 Erdener Prälat Riesling Alte Reben – Zesty and Fruity

Restrained nose with flavors melon and tropical fruit with all the richness on the palate of the sweeter translation above. The finish brings more mineral characters and additional tropical fruit notes with slightly less spicy intensity than the reserve.

Dr Loosen 2012 Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese (Gold Capsule) – Zesty and Fruity

Amazing intensity for fruit with pineapple, melon, grapefruit, and honey complemented by an equally intense rich palate which is weighty and long. It is sweet at 110g/L but is easily balanced by the zesty 9 g/L of acidity!

All in all it was an amazing day and a fitting end to a whirlwind trip through Germany’s three wine regions. I can’t wait to go back to spend more time getting to know the wines and the people who make them.

Mosel Vines Website size

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.