For the fourth time in my life I find myself preparing for the next few days buried in a conference room at Opus One trying to pass the MW exam. This year, having passed the theory section last year, I’m focusing on the practical section (tasting section for those not familiar with the set up of the exam). Tonight I’m enjoying two white Burgundies; a Macon Villages and a delightfully lovely Puligny-Montrachet which I enjoyed much more than the Macon. The thought being that tonight instead of analyzing, dissecting and studying the wine I’m just going to enjoy it, relax, and focus on why I started this journey in the first place. I started this journey to learn more about the world of wine and to be able to avoid the dreaded cellar (or regional) palate. I feel that I’ve accomplished so much yet there is so much still to learn that I’ve only scratched the surface. This is truely one of those industries where it is impossible to know it all. In fact the title of Master of Wine is so strange because it is nearly impossible to “Master” all aspects of it. So here I am, enjoying my little piece of Burgundy before undertaking one of the most challenging feats of mental agility that exists in this industry. I’ll find out in September if I was finally successful this year. I feel like I will be but we’ll have to find out then.
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.
In just two days time close to 70 MW students will converge on Yountville, CA all with the same goal of one day becoming a Master of Wine. This will be my fourth seminar and my last as a full program student. As this is my 3rd shot at the exam this year there are only three outcomes for me.
I sit the exam for the 3rd time and…
1) following the “third time is the charm” saying will pass both the theory and the practical. Thus, come September, I will be heard celebrating all up and down the west coast and then promptly get my nose back to the grindstone working on my dissertation that I’ve been looking forward to starting for the past 4 years. This means that this year’s seminar will be my last as a student.
2) I pass either the practical or the theory but not both. This will put me in a partial seminar focusing on the one that I didn’t pass next year. I’ll still be attending but not the full seminar.
3) I fail both parts AGAIN and because it’s the third time I don’t get to come back. This means that it will still be my last seminar.
It is an odd sense of freedom when you break it down like that. Logic would dictate that I would be nervous given the options. Instead I find myself with a feeling of excitement much like the same feeling I had my first and second years. Either way I have nothing to lose at this point and regardless of the outcome I am proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. Last year at this time I felt like I was in a bit of no man’s land, in the middle of a marathon without mile markers. It’s so different this year. Almost a serene feeling of peace about whatever the next few months will bring. Perhaps I’ve finally gone crazy?
Or… perhaps I KNOW I can do this and have finally reached that zen state that all the MWs talk about reaching. Only time will truly tell.
I know that the sense of comfort comes from the knowledge that I’ve gathered through out the years of study so far. Regardless of what happens I’ll always have that and it brings me joy to see how much I’ve learned and stored away from my studies. Maybe it comes with age, as I’m still fairly young but definitely not as young as I was when I first decided to embark on this journey 6 years ago. I have spent the past 6 years with the single minded determination to finish this program regardless of the odds. Regardless of all the well meaning friends that would smile and say “you’ll make it next time”. Regardless of all the maybe not so well meaning acquaintances that say “I’ll be thinking of you in September” with the slightly sympathetic and pitying smiles on their faces as if they want to be the first to hear you’ve actually failed what you set out to do.
I never knew my maternal Grandfather but my Mom used to quote him frequently when I was growing up. “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I live by that. I throw myself into whatever comes my way with passion and purpose until the time comes that the goal is achieved or it is time to let it go.
So this week, with the sense of anticipation that comes from truly enjoying the process of learning, I’m going to my last full MW seminar as a student because I’m going to pass this year. I’m going to greet my friends who have traveled this road with me like solders in the trenches and the MWs who have provided so much knowledge and time unselfishly. I’m going to take full advantage of the learning that is available this week and then when the time comes in June I’m going to show the examiners what I think about the chosen topics and let the chips fall where they will, walking away head held high, regardless of the outcome, knowing I’ve done my best and that’s all I could have done.