THE WSET DIPLOMA: IS IT WORTH IT?

Should I do the WSET Diploma or climb these mountains? Hmmm.

Should I do the WSET Diploma or climb these mountains? Hmmm.

I've been getting a lot of questions lately, for WSET diploma study tips and also from people considering whether to embark on the Diploma. Is it worth it?

Part of learning about wine, is the more you learn, the more you realize there is so much more to learn about.

When I finished WSET, I was in a state of being totally wine-humbled, convinced I knew less than ever (and I'm still there). A good thing for someone driven by curiosity and the need to learn more!

Before doing the diploma, I thought that the difficulty level would be a commensurate step from Advanced, just like moving from Level 2 to 3. What happened for me was the overwhelming realization that the Master of Wine program must be darn hard (the difficulty of Level 4 approached what I had mistakenly thought the MW program would be like).

The Costs:

Time and money are the key considerations here. Do you have them to spare? You'll need both.

Time: I'd say 15-20 hours a week to study as you prepare for each unit, more for Unit 3. More as you come up to the exam. Four weeks before each exam, it was closer to 30-40 hours per week. 

One of the hardest parts of the time equation for me, was missing out on fun. Christmas? Usually I'm in the kitchen all week beforehand, my idea of heaven. What do I remember from last Christmas? Studying. Studying while my family had rum and eggnogs and watched movies. The Diploma means devoting your free time to flashcards and tasting.

Money: Tuition, textbooks, and wine are expensive. I paid close to $10,000 in tuition alone. 

The wine costs above and beyond tuition for blind tasting can be high too. The wines you taste in class are not enough to pass, you'll definitely need to supplement with your own tastings. If you set up a tasting group, your pocketbook will thank you.

Ex: Weekly blind tastings of 12 wines at an average cost of $30/bottle = $360. If you can get 6 people that's $60 each per week, or $45 if you have 8 people. Ideally someone in your group has access to wines at wholesale or near wholesale prices. 

The Benefits:

There's nothing like the feeling of finding out you've passed the Diploma! Suddenly you'll have so much time to fill with fun activities! Also...

Respect: While the general public has little idea of what the WSET is ("so, you're a sommelier"?), your industry peers do know, and the Diploma is highly respected. 

Employers Love WSET: I've spoken with grads who found the Diploma was instrumental in standing out from other job applicants, and really gave them a step up in credibility and confidence, and others who decided post-grad to take the leap into wine entrepreneurship (check out my Wine Career Q&A Series around this topic).

Confidence: It's a big benefit of finishing WSET. The confidence to help others learn about wine, know when something you're told is incorrect, or to go out on a limb to note that a wine is corked or superlative. Most especially the confidence to delve even deeper into the world of wine, maybe even enter the Master of Wine program!

Appreciation: The more you learn about wine, the more you appreciate the effort that goes into each bottle. Your education will enhance the rest of your life, when you go out for dinner, entertain, or when you travel, you will get more out of the experience because of your wine knowledge.

Mad Skillz: By the time you finish, your friends will be getting you to do their new favourite party trick - pouring you a blind wine and making you guess what varietal it is. More than some of the time, you'll be right. You might also be able to name the region, vintage, winemaking techniques, and have a go at the quality level. Magic! Or, the benefits of blind tasting hundreds of wines!

In conclusion, I found the effort of studying and writing the exams to be worthwhile. When I consider what I knew before, and how much more I've learned it's amazing, and excitingly, my eyes have been opened to how much more there is to learn. 

If you're deciding whether to enroll, I hope this helped. Feel free to leave a question or comment below and I'll do my best to answer.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

 

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED AT MISSION HILL FAMILY ESTATE?

Winery Visits: Daily 9:30-7

Location: 1730 Mission Hill Rd, West Kelowna

Website: www.missionhillwinery.com

Phone: 250-768-7611

Located in West Kelowna, with a commanding view over Okanagan Lake, this iconic winery is a place of pilgrimage for wine lovers touring the Okanagan, its soaring Tuscan profile and bell tower visible from miles away.

If you'll be visiting the area, Mission Hill is a benchmark setter, and you'll want to have lunch on the Terrace just for the view, or catch a concert in the grass-stepped amphitheatre; the extensive cellars make it a memorable place to take a tour, where you can spot the antique drinking cups, admire the barrel-vaulted ceilings and dramatic lighting, and peek into the winemaking area to see a wide variety of fermentation vessels: the Italian amphorae, concrete eggs, and big German oak tanks, bubbling away with the many wines produced here.

Behold: the Mission Hill bat cave!

Behold: the Mission Hill bat cave!

Mission Hill's Chief Winemaker Darryl Brooker

Mission Hill's Chief Winemaker Darryl Brooker

Owner Anthony von Mandl made a fortune with Mike's Hard Lemonade, and used the considerable funds to build Mission Hill. In 2014, Kelowna's CedarCreek Estate Winery was purchased, becoming part of the von Mandl Family Estates, joining Mark Anthony Wine Merchants, along with CheckMate Artisanal Winery (focused on ultra premium small lot wines) later in 2015. 

Darryl Brooker, who was Chief Winemaker at CedarCreek, took over winemaking from John Simes as of the 2015 Mission Hill vintage, after assisting with the 2013 and 2014 blending. Darryl has worked all over the world, including Villa Maria Estate in New Zealand, recognized as a leader in sustainable wine production.  John is now in charge of viticulture for all the von Mandl properties.

According to Darryl, he's excited by the wines produced in "what may prove to be the best harvests ever in British Columbia from 2013 to 2015". You heard it here, it's time to stock the cellars!

The impressive entry to Mission Hill winery

The impressive entry to Mission Hill winery

Being one of the largest producers in the province, it might be assumed that this is a bulk wine operation, but that's far from the case. I'm very impressed by Darryl and Mission Hill's commitment to improving farming techniques and sustainability, along with making small lot and site specific wines. They're one of the first BC wineries to use drones to map vigour (very cool), by flying over vineyards to measure how the vines are growing.

They're now releasing their first organic Merlot, which comes from a special spot in Oliver. The 2013 Terroir Collection Whispering Hill Organic Merlot, is not just grown in a certified organic vineyard, but also meets Canada's tricky organic wine production rules.

If such a large company is willing to make a commitment in moving to biodynamic and organic production, I say kudos to them.

A view over Okanagan Lake as twilight turns the sky violet 

A view over Okanagan Lake as twilight turns the sky violet 

Mission Hill makes wine in several ranges, tasted below are wines in the following categories:

Terroir: Very premium, made with the top 3% of their estate grown fruit in small lots $$$$.

Reserve: Well made wines from select vineyards and special sites, in limited quantities. Offering a good balance of quality and cost. $$

Five Vineyards: Larger production wines and keenly priced, from the five Okanagan Mission Hill vineyards, offering full flavour and surprisingly good value for money! Look out for the appealing new redesign on the labels in shades of blue and rose. $

2013 Mission Hill Family Estate Whispering Hill Organic Merlot

Picking up the bottle, I'm struck by the substantial weight, and the sense of craft in the embossed golden crest, and sepia vineyard photo. Being part of the Terroir series, it's noted up front that only 19 barrels were produced, and there's a nice level of detail on the back label about the making of the wine including site, clone, and winemaker (John Simes).

A romantic deep garnet red shade, with notes of mocha cocoa out of the glass, along with spiced plums. On the palate, soft and full with dense yet fine tannins. Cocoa with dried mint, and black cherry in the background. The glass is pleading with me for a food pairing: cherry sauced duck, Dijon mustard sauteed mushrooms, or slivers of crumbly Manchego cheese. PS: this wine opened up quite a bit after two hours of decanting, and gained an added dimension of cherry and plum fruit.

2015 Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Limited Edition Viognier

An unctuous and mouthcoating wine, delightfully textured, with honeysuckle, baking spices and ripest peach (reminding me of sneaking a slice of peach from the pie dish). Has a hint of sweetness, but balanced.

2015 Mission Hill Family Estate Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio

You had me at hello, lemon citrusy nose. A very zesty Mandarin orange flavour is joined by honeyed pear at first sip. Fuller bodied, this might be heading in to richer Pinot Gris territory. A little heat on the finish at 14% ABV. Delivers lots of flavour and very good value for money. 

2015 Mission Hill Family Estate Five Vineyards Rosé

A vivid watermelon pink hue, and strawberry nose. It might be the power of suggestion, but the flavour is decidedly watermelon, zingy, with red cherry and a snippet of red rose. Dry, but generous. Could stand up to roast chicken, but best shared with friends at a Friday sunset.

 

All images courtesy of Mission Hill Family Estate. Wines samples were provided by Mission Hill. Please see my Sample Policy for more information. Cheers!

YEALANDS WINERY: THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE BABYDOLL SHEEP

Why is this sheep so happy...?

Why is this sheep so happy...?

Because this is his view each day!

Because this is his view each day!

Perhaps you've heard the tale that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand?

There are definitely more sheep than people in Yealands' Marlborough vineyards, over 1,500 of them, and they're called Babydolls.

Nestled in the Awatere Valley, in the northeast corner of New Zealand's South Island, the vineyards are surrounded by a ring of hills, and buffeted by ocean winds, keeping it chilly at night.

Chief Winemaker Tamra Washington visited the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference to pour Yealands wines, and share more about the winery's initiatives, some more successful than others, but all unique: seaweed mixed with crushed green-lipped mussel shells laid down as compost for the vines, a team of guinea pig lawn mowers (sadly, not a winner), solar lights in the wetlands areas to attract bugs for the fish, solar panels powering classical music played to keep vines happy, vineyard clippings to help power the winery, and of course, there are those roaming Babydolls among the vines.

NZ's Awatere Valley, south of the Wairau Valley, within the Marlborough zone. In the Maori language, Awatere means "fast flowing stream", and the deep stony soils here are remnants of river paths.

NZ's Awatere Valley, south of the Wairau Valley, within the Marlborough zone. In the Maori language, Awatere means "fast flowing stream", and the deep stony soils here are remnants of river paths.

In the winery, there are cool advances too: like switching from an egg white fining product to one produced from potatoes, making the wine certified vegan.

Sunny days and cool nights, plus strong coastal winds produce small, intensely flavoured grapes. Fruit from the northern Wairau Valley is known for tropical fruit flavours, and from the southern Awatere, a notable saline herbaceousness (with inland vineyards giving blackcurrant, citrus, and floral notes).

Sunny days and cool nights, plus strong coastal winds produce small, intensely flavoured grapes. Fruit from the northern Wairau Valley is known for tropical fruit flavours, and from the southern Awatere, a notable saline herbaceousness (with inland vineyards giving blackcurrant, citrus, and floral notes).

Thinking differently is what we do at Yealands. Crafting award-winning wines in harmony with nature has seen us lead the world in sustainable winegrowing. But most importantly, it means great tasting wines that don’t cost the earth.” –Peter Yealands
Yealands' Chief Winemaker Tamra Kelly-Washington

Yealands' Chief Winemaker Tamra Kelly-Washington

Yealands' Owner Peter Yealands

Yealands' Owner Peter Yealands

Babydoll Sheep.jpg

Don't the sheep eat the grapes?

No, they're too short to reach them! This diminutive breed get to roam the almost 1,000 hectares of vines while munching on the green grass, with chickens and tiny Kune Kune pigs for company. The sheep are built in weed eaters, with the benefit for Yealands of less tractor use, saving the ground from compaction and reducing machine use.

All this sustainability would be for nought, if the wines weren't delicious; thankfully they are. Start here:

2014 Yealands Estate Single Block S1 Sauvignon Blanc: gunpowder meets elderflower in this powerhouse SBL. Think dried herbs, blackcurrant, perfumed with a long finish. Pair: fruit salad, grilled asparagus, pesto pasta, ripe goat's cheese.

2014 Yealands Estate Single Block S1 Sauvignon Blanc: gunpowder meets elderflower in this powerhouse SBL. Think dried herbs, blackcurrant, perfumed with a long finish.

Pair: fruit salad, grilled asparagus, pesto pasta, ripe goat's cheese.

2015 Peter Yealands Pinot Gris: peachy, honey and tangerine zest, with great intensity and a satin texture. Pair: sablefish, spicy moules frites, honey glazed chicken.

2015 Peter Yealands Pinot Gris: peachy, honey and tangerine zest, with great intensity and a satin texture.

Pair: sablefish, spicy moules frites, honey glazed chicken.

2015 Peter Yealands Pinot Noir: mocha cherry action in this juicy Pinot, with a little peat smoke on the nose, raspberry and cinnamon on the palate. Notably smooth tannins. Pair: roast salmon, duck with black cherry sauce.

2015 Peter Yealands Pinot Noir: mocha cherry action in this juicy Pinot, with a little peat smoke on the nose, raspberry and cinnamon on the palate. Notably smooth tannins.

Pair: roast salmon, duck with black cherry sauce.

The people demand more sheep! If you want to learn more about how the Babydolls help out in the vineyards, check out Yealands' video.

All images and video courtesy of Yealands Family Wines.

WINE CAREER Q&A WITH JOANNE DIGESO

This is the third Q&A in a series, wherein I'm asking friends I've met in the wine world about their experiences taking WSET and their career in wine. I hope you enjoy!

Today, I'm chatting with the charming Joanne DiGeso; we met while taking the VIA Italian Wine Ambassador program together in Verona.

Q Hi Joanne, can you share with readers about where you’re at in the WSET Diploma right now? What’s been the most challenging unit thus far (and did the difficulty level line up with your expectations)? 

A: The most challenging unit is the unit 3, in Level 4 Diploma, Light Wines of the World. The difficulty lay in the breadth of the course, and how much detail you needed to know for every wine-growing region in the world. Furthermore, I was working as the Wine Director at the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler and there were months of 15-hour workdays. So, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to cover enough. When the day came, my study group and I decided that if we had to take the exam over again, at least we would know those chapters so much more intimately. 

The difficulty did not line up with my expectations – ha! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy exam. I made some silly errors (such as I forgot to fill out the region of origin and the final analysis in the right section of one of the tasting papers) and I certainly could have done better. In fact, I won’t know until September if I passed. But I’m quite confident that I did!

Q What’s your best study tip? 

A: Start a tasting group right away! Meet every week and make sure you read the Specification guide. Your friends will help you with your weaknesses. Most people feel concerned about the blind tasting so it’s good to get on it immediately. After a few months, start writing timed essay questions together. Know that in fact more people fail the theory then the tasting. 

Q How do you feel the Diploma has impacted your career or presented you with career opportunities? 

A: Contacts. You form bonds with the people in your class and those contacts prove very useful in future job opportunities. You also have many different experts presenting each class. These contacts are invaluable as they are leaders in our field. 

Q You’ve been a sommelier at some of the top restaurants in Canada, what’s it like to manage such an impressive cellar, and what are the best and most challenging parts of the job?

A: Haha, who’s going to be reading this?!

It is of course an honour and a very special thing to be in charge of a huge cellar. When you have access to a huge cellar with old and diverse wines, you get to taste them too. Having the ability to offer the best of everything to a customer is what makes this job interesting, and being able to surprise our customers with hidden treasures from the cellar, makes our nerdiness and passion shine on the job.

The challenging part for me was to coordinate the needs of my boss and the requirements of the accountants who wanted totally different things in regards to inventory and availability. There was also trying to keep the catering manager content and having to explain why wines for groups will not come in within a week’s deadline in the BC liquor ordering system. And then, of course there are the weekly stops at the BC Liquor store trying to find wines that haven’t arrived after 7 weeks. 

I think we all have a romantic image of a sommelier tasting wines all day and poetically waxing their attributes to guests in the restaurant. There seems to be a lot less of this than I previously thought! 

Q What’s the coolest wine you’ve been able to try because of your somm career?

A: My favourite was a 1945 Marques de Riscal Gran Reserva Rioja because it still tasted somewhat fresh and not completely tertiary. There was still some plum fruit in there!

Q Where do you see your career progressing as you complete the Diploma?

A: I definitely want to be even more engaged with wine makers all around the world and in traveling a lot more to meet them. I love hearing their stories, their challenges and the risks they had to take in order to make the precious liquid gold elixir that we get to drink.

I’m also looking forward to sharing my experience on the field with others through my website SommWine.com.  

Q Wildcard: anything else you want to share? 

A: WSET is definitely under-represented in the public eye. Movies such as “Somm” explain the path to becoming a Master Sommelier but most people don’t know about the Master of Wine program.

WSET is an internationally renowned program, widely used in the wine industry and I would love to spread the word on the big screen! You are thinking of doing your MW as well, correct? Maybe we should star in a movie about that together! 

Absolutely! The MW Journey: There and Back Again :) 

_____

Thanks for reading! I hope you gained some insight on taking the Diploma and working as a high profile somm from Joanne. You can catch her on Twitter @sommwine or Instagram @sommwine.ca and feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

Cheers, Rachel

 

WINE CAREER Q&A WITH MATTHEW LESLIE

This is the second Q&A in a series, wherein I'm asking friends I've met in the wine world about their experiences taking WSET and their career in wine. I hope you enjoy! Today, I'm chatting with Matthew, who was one of the strongest tasters in our WSET Diploma classes, and an all around great guy.

Q Congrats on completing the WSET Diploma! What did you find to be the most challenging unit (and did the difficulty level of the program line up with your expectations)? 

A: Thank you and congrats to you too.  It sure is nice to have closed this chapter and be looking to the next mountain to climb.

Personally, I felt that Unit 3 was by far the most challenging in the diploma programme. The breadth and depth required to excel in this unit really tested my resolve and forced me to study much more than in previous units.  Effectively, Unit 3 is the same scope of all the other five units combined.

As far as my expectations of the difficulty in the programme, I was under no illusions that this would be an easy course to pass.  There are less than 10,000 graduates around the world since its inception and some of these names are highly recognisable in the wine trade.  I feel that the biggest difficulty is the fluidity of the wine trade; everyday something new is available: studies, journals, new Regions and Sub-regions being defined.  This is the wonderful part of studying wine, but certainly provides some added anxiety when preparing for examinations.

Q What’s your best study tip for current WSET level 4 students?

A: Spend lots of time hitting the books. Spend lots of time practicing under exam conditions. Theory is by far the hardest part of the process and tasting is just theory in practice. However, don’t let the task burden you so that you lose your passion. Keep chipping away at your goals everyday, every week, every month. Read a lot. Taste a lot. Get a great group to study with, if you can. It helps keep up your motivation.  

Moreover, whenever I felt like I was losing my passion or getting tired of studying, I would open something delicious to drink and just like magic, my love of wine would come screaming back and I’d feel reinvigorated.

Q How do you feel the Diploma has impacted your career or presented you with career opportunities? 

A: It is quite amazing how being a diploma graduate has already opened new doors for me.  I have begun teaching for Fine Vintage in Calgary and now in Edmonton as well.  I have had the chance to judge the Alberta Beverage Awards recently too.  I also own a consulting business which, when you are marketing yourself in a sea of competition, having the extra accreditation puts me at a leg up when looking for work.  Because of the relative rarity of graduates, it certainly gives potential employers pause on your resume when they see WSET Diploma. 

Q You're teaching WSET at one of the best schools in North America. What impact did the Diploma have on this? What are the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of teaching about wine?

A: I am the luckiest guy in the world.  If I had known that I could have made a life out of wine, I would have started down this path at a much earlier stage in my life.  I have previously taught ESL in Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia in addition to Phys-ed and ran staff wine trainings while I was running restaurants in Calgary and Toronto, which sparked the teaching bug in me a long time ago.  However, teaching wine professionally for Fine Vintage is equally, if differently, rewarding to me.  If not for the WSET Diploma, I would have never met James Cluer, MW, the owner of Fine Vintage, and I never would have been able to join FV as a teacher. 

I love teaching; it is stressful yet wonderful, challenging yet rewarding. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people to make sure I can stand up and run a course. And it takes lots of people caring to make it go off without issue. I get the fun part of standing in front of the group and making sure everyone is along for the journey.  

I often picture myself sitting where students are when I teach and how in a few short years they could be right alongside me, following their own dreams in the industry.  It’s the greatest feeling.  

Furthermore, I also love that it forces me to keep studying.  Students ask amazing and sometimes difficult questions that you need to have answers to, while conveying it in a language that is appropriate for the level that you’re teaching.  You can’t rest on what you know as new information is available everyday.

Q Where do you see your career progressing going forward?

A: Oh dear. That’s a tough question. There’s so much more available to me now with the diploma. Trade trips, wine judging, new job opportunities in restaurant and wine retail.  

I hope to continue teaching, judge more wine competitions and travel to more wine regions around the world.  Additionally, I have sent in an application for the Institute of Masters of Wine programme and I’m currently completing my Champagne Masters through the Wine Scholar Guild. I really like learning and want to keep progressing as a student of wine.

Professionally, I hope to get into a high level position in wine purchasing for a high quality retailer, respected import agency or restaurant group.  I’m keen to keep growing my consulting business too. And I also have a dream to make my own wine one day soon. 

Q Wildcard! Anything else you want to share?

A: It’s been said that the WSET Diploma is extremely difficult, which it is, but unlike Level 1, 2 & 3, where all the information is in the book.  At Level 4, it’s really up to you to find the answers and, more importantly, to ask the right questions.  Nobody will give you all the answers, especially WSET.  They merely guide you on what to study.  You need to find the relevant information and disseminate those parts that are useful and applicable.

There’s also something to be said for all the people that you meet.  I have met and stayed in contact with many of my classmates, teachers and guest instructors from the diploma group who are both in Calgary and further afield around the world.  At the end of the day, you will meet lots of great, dedicated, fantastic people who come from such diverse backgrounds and who all love wine at least as much as me.  To me, this has to be one of the best and most satisfying aspects of the diploma and all the hard work that goes into completing it.

_____

Thanks for reading! I hope you gained some insight from Matt's thoughtful responses. You can catch him on Twitter @mattyleslie and feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

Cheers, Rachel

TIPS FOR WRITING A BOOK

Presenting at WBC16 in Lodi, California

Presenting at WBC16 in Lodi, California

I recently attended the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) for the first time; this year it was held in fantastic Lodi, California. It's got to be the best conference I've ever been to, with all kinds of tastings, trips to the vineyards, talking with winemakers, and meeting so many interesting and passionate people.

WBC had sent out an email asking for volunteers to do blogger reports, updating the group on the goings on in various blogger's corners of the world. I thought, awesome and applied.

Then I remembered that I’m terrified of public speaking. Especially in front of several hundred wine bloggers.

If you were there, you'll know that my speech was a little shaky, because I got stage nerves. But at least I got up there and gave it my best! 

Today I'm sharing on the blog what I wanted to share at WBC. My presentation was entitled, From Book to Blog: A Hardhitting Exposé ;) Really, it's just a collection of tips I put together after reflecting on getting my guidebook completed.

BACKGROUND

My background is varied, but I’ve always loved food and wine. I did a degree in Classical Archaeology, which logically lead to getting into the financial services business, and opening my own practice. A few years ago, I followed my dream of going to culinary school, which included the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level 1 class, and I just knew that I needed to make wine my career.

In this post, I’ll be sharing some of the process and challenges I experienced in finishing my first book, called Winetripping Okanagan.

After I finished the WSET Diploma at the beginning of 2016, I suddenly had way more spare time now that I wasn’t studying wine 30 hours a week (20 if you count the extra Star Trek TNG reruns & reading mysteries set in ancient Rome). 

I’ve been blogging about wine for the last two years, more seriously in the past year. I knew that writing a book was something I wanted to achieve, but I faced some indecision on what to write about, which I’ll talk more about in a second.

WHY I WROTE THE BOOK

My goals for the guidebook were promoting and supporting the family owned wineries of BC’s Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. I want these wineries to be successful, and see myself as an advocate for craft growers & producers.

As much as I love the wineries, my primary goal is to be consumer centric, helping readers find awesome wineries, so I was pretty focused about including only the producers that had mastered both the customer experience in the tasting room, as well as making delicious wines.

This is the cover, which I wanted to be fun and to feature some of the flora and fauna of the region. Ogopogo’s there in Okanagan Lake, which is like our version of the Loch Ness monster, along with our ever-present quails, and even a rattlesnake.

FORMULATING THE IDEA

I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a book, but was having trouble deciding what exactly I should write about. It really became clear when I gave some thought to what people most often asked me about, which was which wineries they should visit in the Okanagan, or if I could please recommend an itinerary for a friend who'd be touring with visitors through the valley. I'm so passionate about this area, and there are over 200 wineries now! It can be a bit overwhelming trying to choose which to visit.

RESEARCHING & PLANNING

Next was the most fun, doing the "research" and getting to visit the tasting rooms, which is one of my favourite things about wine. If you're looking to start a passion project, I highly recommend choosing a topic that’s going to bring you more of what you most enjoy, and in this case it was wine travel. Making the trip up to taste at wineries all the time was a compelling and motivating perk!

INVESTING IN YOUR PROJECT

This next bit is all about procrastination… I wouldn't call myself a procrastinator, but as they might say in a Dilbert cartoon, I am highly deadline motivated.

For me, the decision that really got this going was hiring a designer. I made a big investment in a great designer and illustrator (Laurie Millotte & Rafael Varona), and needed to have the documents ready for them so they could proceed with their work, which kept me accountable. You don’t need to hire anyone, but if you can't create this kind of accountability, it will help. Which leads into my next tip.

TELL EVERYONE

Please tell everyone about your project, and when it’ll be complete. If you’re deadline motivated like me, this really keeps you on track, and you’ll have cheerleaders supporting your progress along the way.

I belong to a mastermind group of four women; we meet every two weeks to update each other on our projects, and keep each other accountable, as well as supporting each other, and I highly recommend setting up a group like that.

START SMALL & BUILD

As I worked on the book, I struggled with thinking maybe I didn’t have enough to offer, that the book needed to be gigantic and the most impressive guidebook full of bells and whistles and 500 pages long. This lead to getting stuck and overwhelmed, with very little writing getting done! 

What cured this was telling myself it’s OK to start small and build from there, including only the best of the best wineries. So next year, I’ll look back and say, I’m so glad I wrote that in 2016 because it gave me to foundation to improve upon. I can keep adding value to the guide with each edition.

ON WRITER'S BLOCK

With writer’s block, which I had a bad case of, I went old school. I’d put down a stack of sheets of paper, and write the name of the winery on the top of each one, then set my timer for 5 minutes and made myself write by hand, freeform with all my thoughts. Then I'd type up my stack of wineries and fine tune the writing.

I pretended I was writing to my friends and telling them about the winery. My mantra was to be entertaining and helpful. Thinking entertaining and helpful helped me stay focused and finish the book, and be of service to visitors to Okanagan wine country too! 

If you're interested in Amazon Createspace publishing, you can find more information here.

Please feel free to comment below with any questions you have and I'll answer there, or message me on Instagram (which is the social media channel I’m most active on) @rachelvonsturmer

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

WINE CAREER Q&A WITH COLINA MARSHALL

This is the first Q&A in a series, wherein I'm asking friends I've met in the wine world about their experiences taking WSET and their career in wine. I hope you enjoy! Today, I'm chatting with Colina, who was a superstar in our WSET Diploma classes.

Q Congratulations on achieving the WSET Diploma! What’s the biggest improvement you’ve seen in your wine-abilities since completing the program?

A: Thank you! I would say that the biggest improvement I have seen is my ability to speak to wine in a way that everyone can understand. At the winery we are constantly explaining the winemaking process to people of all levels of wine education and it’s really fun to make that approachable for all. I feel like I can do that in a correct, and in-depth way due to the diploma training, while still making it interesting and approachable. 

Q Which unit did you find the most challenging and why?

A: Unit 3 was definitely the most challenging for me. I think it’s because of the sheer volume of knowledge expected and the minutiae of regions that I previously didn’t even know existed, like the wines being produced in Japan, Romania and Croatia. One of the biggest obstacles is not falling into the so-called ‘rabbit-holes’ and remembering to always think of the entire world of wine. 

Q How did the Diploma compare to WSET Level 3, and was there anything that surprised you about the curriculum?

A: I remember at the time when I was taking WSET Level 3, I felt so intimidated and overwhelmed. This was especially true for me as it was the first time I had done a blind tasting under exam conditions. Comparatively to the diploma, now, it feels like it was a piece of cake. I think the most important difference for people considering the diploma coming out of Level 3 is that the Diploma demands a large piece of your time, I would not recommend having a full-time job while doing it, if you can keep your work week to <20 hours, do it. It’s not only having the 10 hours/week, to devote to studying, it’s having the time and energy to fully immerse yourself, not to mention the group tastings that are invaluable.

Being a part of a tasting group is one of the best tools I was fortunate enough to have, but it does take a time commitment. The other aspect that requires more time is sourcing the wine. While I really LOVE shopping for wine, it can be a bit of a challenge when you’re looking for some of the more esoteric pieces, luckily Calgary is such a great market there were few things I was unable to taste. 

Q You did very well in the program. Could you share your favourite study tip? {I believe I remember you mentioning writing notes on different surfaces!}

A: Forgo everything. I mean everything. Take whole days where you literally eat, sleep, study, nothing else, have meals prepared in advance for this. For the days when you can’t do this I ended up writing study notes on my glass shower door and also on my sliding glass patio door. For a while I had all of the major appellations in Burgundy listed on my shower door so I could memorize them in the mornings. Always be running through the pieces of information that are memory work, whether it’s in a line up at a grocery store, while you’re driving, always keeping them top of mind. 

Q What was your career/role while going through the program, and what do you do now? Did having the Diploma factor into getting your new job?

A: Ha, this is a bit of a loaded question for me. When I decided to start the programme I was a server at a restaurant in downtown Calgary, moved to another restaurant to manage, then went back to serving at a different location (as I didn’t have the time I needed to commit to the programme), subsequently took on a role managing a wine boutique and the time needed to study disappeared again, so as I had initially budgeted I was able to take the last month and a half of the diploma off of work to focus on studying.

After the programme I was at a crossroads. Do I stay in Calgary, the city I was born and raised in with an amazing wine culture and incredibly informed and passionate professionals? Or do I try something completely different and see the production side of the wine industry? My curiosity took me to the Okanagan where I am now employed at a working Vineyard/Winery as a tasting room and administrative assistant.

The Diploma factored into the new job as it really sparked the curiosity wanting to know more, but also has a significant amount of weight when an employer sees it on your resume. I was fortunate enough to have several options to choose from before deciding which vineyard/winery I would be working at. 

Q Can you tell me a little bit about a typical day at the winery? What’re the best and most challenging parts of your role?

A: If there is one thing I know, there is no typical day at the Vineyard/Winery. Being a part of a small team is always a quality I have loved in the roles that I’ve had, the versatility of the role and the teamwork that goes into it is motivating. Since I started almost 3 months ago I have done a range of tasks including website development, hosting tastings in our tasting room, suckering vines, bottling, shipping, balancing accounts, making arrangements for the new on-site vineyard vacation rental and, oh ya, removing snakes and birds from the tasting room. Everyday is a new adventure truly, and the variety is amazing. 

Q You recently moved from the city to wine country. What’re your favourite things about living in the heart of the Okanagan?

A: It was a big change, and to be honest it is in line with a lot of my values. I have always tried to eat local as much as possible, where in the city that can almost seem like a novelty at times, here it is just a way of life because of the amazing access to local products. The trail systems here are outstanding, there is never a shortage of activities to fill your time with. Really, if you get the opportunity to move to paradise all you can say is ‘yes!'

___

Thank you for reading, and thanks Colina for your most excellent responses. You can follow Colina on Instagram @colina.k.marshall or Twitter @colina_marshall.

Please leave your comments below, I love reading them!

Cheers, Rachel

VINHO VERDE RISING

Mists in Melgaco, Minho 

Mists in Melgaco, Minho 

The white wines of Vinho Verde have a reputation: they're spritzy, light, and refreshing. But lately, there's been rising interest in the wine world as quality improves. 

If you've been looking for a wine to while away the Summer heat, say hello to 'veen-o vaird'. Or, 'veen-o vair-day', if you prefer. In the glass, this lower alcohol wine can be shockingly zesty and flavourful with lime, melon, kiwi, and a uniquely juicy salinity. Just remember that some wines are meant to be enjoyed in their youth, and this is one of them.

Green as far as the eye can see

Green as far as the eye can see

The vines are located in the far northwest of Portugal on the Atlantic coast, a surprisingly mild and verdant area with plenty of rain and lush river valleys.

You might see VV labelled on the bottle as Vinho Verde DO (for Denomination of Origin) or Minho GI (for Geographical Indication).

The wine regions of Portugal. Got them all? Good

The wine regions of Portugal. Got them all? Good

This is a hotspot for native grapes, some with challenging names, which helps to explain why we don't often hear about them. Wines are often blends of several grapes, but increasingly producers are releasing 100% varietal wines. Some white grapes you'll encounter are: Alvarinho (kin to Spain's Albarino; intense aroma, complex, floral), Arinto (minerality, vibrant acidity), Loureiro (meaning 'laurel leaf'; similarly floral nose to Gewurz), and Trajadura (peach, lower acidity, full bodied, adds weight to blends).

Lindoso Espigueiro, Portugal

Lindoso Espigueiro, Portugal

Over 2000 years of wine history. The Romans were here (of course)

Over 2000 years of wine history. The Romans were here (of course)

Although there are over 2000 brands made in the region, here in Canada there are two exports that dominate the market: Casal Garcia and Gazela, which are both appealingly light on the pocketbook. That's starting to change though, there's a new push to bring in more selection. The people demand Vinho Verde!

Everyone turn to channel 13 on your headset and follow me. Mizarela, Portugal

Everyone turn to channel 13 on your headset and follow me. Mizarela, Portugal

Terraces galore

Terraces galore

A word you might see on VV label's is Quinta ('kin-ta'), which means estate or farm.
You want sub-regions, you get sub-regions! To the North: Minho River, South: Douro River, West: Atlantic Ocean, & East: the Marao Mtns

You want sub-regions, you get sub-regions! To the North: Minho River, South: Douro River, West: Atlantic Ocean, & East: the Marao Mtns

Notable Vinho Verde Wines to Buy:

Via Latina Vinho Verde DO Loureiro 2015: A rosey floral on the nose of this spritzy, high acidity sipper made by a wine co-op. Green mango and apple notes are the perfect antidote to rich, high fat dishes. 100% Loureiro.
Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde DO 2014: A winningly steely blend of Loureiro and Alvarinho with flashy saline acidity, and peaches 'n cream textured palate.
Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde DO 2014: Silky gunmetal and very, very mineral, with a touch of lime peel, and downright salty in the best kind of way. 95% Loureiro, 5% Arinto.
Pluma Alvarinho Vinho Regional Minho 2015: Yellow flowers are the lead into this satiny, juicily acidic wine. Lots of tasty white peach on the palate. 100% Alvarinho.
Tapada Do Marques Vinho Verde DO Arinto 2015: Green melon, tropical kiwi, and green apple skin are balanced by an appealing bitterness and white floral perfume. 100% Arinto.

Have you ever tried Vinho Verde? Do tell in the comments below!

Cheers,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Vinho Verde & Wines of Portugal

THE CHARMING WINES OF VALPOLICELLA

The 'valley of many cellars' is formed of several famous fingerling valleys

The 'valley of many cellars' is formed of several famous fingerling valleys

Some of you know I spent almost a month in the Verona area earlier this year, to study with the Vinitaly International Academy in becoming an Italian Wine Ambassador. While in Italy, I was happy to explore from Lake Garda all the way over to Venice, with a focus on the wines of Valpolicella.

As I walked the city and hiked the hills, my previous affection for the local red wines blossomed into full blown amore. I suppose that's not hard to believe, given the area has natural beauty in spades, a sense of romance, Roman ruins galore, and some of the best food anywhere on the planet (served from a multitude of delightfully no frills osteria: polenta with melting gorgonzola, anyone?). 

Back to those wines. There are several local grapes that are blended together to create a spectrum of styles ranging from simple and quaffable tavern fare, to richer and rounder, and some so intense they're given the distinction of being called a vino da meditazione or 'meditation wine'. What a blissful concept.

The unmistakable flavour of cherries is the foundation they all share: Valpolicella, Ripasso, Amarone, and Recioto.

Grapes drying in traditional wooden racks (originally used in the region's production of silk)

Grapes drying in traditional wooden racks (originally used in the region's production of silk)

The main grapes are Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella, each adding something special to the blend. Corvina brings deep colour, Corvinone is excellent for drying, and Rondinella brings fruitiness. What makes them easy to remember is that they are all named for birds. Corvina and Corvinone are both named for the raven's black plumage (the -one in Corvinone implies greater plumpness), and Rondinella is named for the swallow. It's tempting to imagine they got their name for the birds' enthusiasm in plucking ripe grapes off the pergolas in Autumn.  You'll also hear of Oseleta (for dark colour and backbone), and Molinara (pale, adds acidity and herbal spice) playing a role in blends. 

Golden pergolas

Golden pergolas

Valpolicella has three sub-regions centered in the hills just to the north of Verona: 1) Valpolicella DOC Classico, the historic heart of the area, with the famous finger-shaped valleys of Fumane, Marano, and Negrar (and the towns of Sant'Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano), 2) the Valpatena Valley (Roman writer Floro said the sweetness of Valpatena wines made them a favourite with Romans and Celts), and 3) the larger zone of Valpolicella DOC.

Valpolicella's sub-regions, in the Verona foothills of the Eastern Alps, with Lake Garda to the west

Valpolicella's sub-regions, in the Verona foothills of the Eastern Alps, with Lake Garda to the west

If you pick up a bottle of Valpolicella DOC off the shelf, you can anticipate a light bodied cherry-flavoured red with enough natural acidity to stand up to rich regional dishes like creamy risotto or hearty bigoli ragu. If the label says Superiore, it's a step up in terms of aging, creating a little extra roundness on the palate.

Valpolicella Ripasso DOC is one of the great easy drinking wines of the world, and I'd love to see it receive more attention. Take a basic Valpolicella wine, and add the skins left from the Amarone or Recioto (more on those below). These skins give a sugar boost to the wine, which ferments a little longer for more oomph. Slightly higher alcohol, rounder body, and smoother tannins are the reward. These are available as a Superiore as well. Ripasso is sometimes called 'baby Amarone', as it's in between the lightness of a Valpol and the richness of an Amarone.

Grapes in the fruit drying loft called a 'fruttaio' in the magical process of appassimento

Grapes in the fruit drying loft called a 'fruttaio' in the magical process of appassimento

Now we get to the meditazione: Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG (from amaro meaning bitter). Why lie? This is one of my favourite styles of wine IN THE WORLD. I cannot hide my enthusiasm, so there it is. Bias!

Amarone is a dry to off-dry wine that evolved from the very sweet Recioto style. Take your grapes into the fruttaio, a loft where the drying winds blow coolly through the racks, and leave them to dry for 100 to 120 days or so. The water in the grapes evaporates, and the sugars remain and interact with the skins creating extra complexity. 

What you get is a powerful wine, with alcohol that can knock your socks off if you don't share the bottle. Sip slowly, friends. We're talking 16% ABV, but with all the dried cherry, tobacco, spice, and vanilla, you might not even taste it. Tannins are smooth and ripe and round in the mouth. Amarone can age for eons, but I prefer to drink it on the youthful side (under 10 years old). 

Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG is a distinctive dark red sweet wine. I like to imagine a Roman emperor sipping on it as he issues directions to his scribe by torchlight. The name derives from the ears of the grapes (those little wings that form at the top of the bunch and become super ripe), which in Italian are called orechie.

Recioto's fermentation is stopped while there are plenty of grape sugars left, making it richly unctuous, endowed with jammy cherry deliciousness, and a perfect pairing for gorgonzola.

Notable Valpolicella Wines to Buy:

Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore 2013: Soft velvet textured tannins and a plush ripe nose of summery sun-ripened fruit, spiced with clove.
Cantina Castelnuovo Del Garda Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Classico Superiore 2014 Ca' di Mori Montaer: Medium ruby with soft velvety tannins, dried cherry, plummy cinnamon spice, cocoa and licorice. A great food wine.
Domenico Fraccaroli Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore 2012 Grotta del Ninfeo: Vibrant but earthy. Clove spice lifted by tart red cherry freshness. This estate dates back to a Roman farm.
Cantina Valpolicella Negrar Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2010 Domini Veneti Vigneti di Jago: Bright fruit and muscular tannic structure with cherry, plum, and warm spice from this co-op produced wine. Classic Valpol dust and peppery earth.
Corte Scaletta Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2011: Marzipan spice, purple floral, pure, fresh, bright, peppery. Unique and delicious. Grapes were dried 90 days and a natural ferment was done.
Cantina Valpatena Verona Amarone della Valpolicella 2012 Torre del Falasco: Hint of garnet colour, higher alcohol, dried fruit, licorice, vanilla, and a hint of oaky toast. A popular style that can be enjoyed young. The grapes spent four months drying before fermentation.
Scriani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2011: Very pure ripe cherry flavour, singing with baking spice, dried plums. Full bodied and intense.

What's your favourite version of Valpolicella, or favourite producer? Please share your wisdom!

Cin cin,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Valpolicella Consorzio Tutela Vini

PROSECCO SUPERIORE & WHY IT'S WORTH SPENDING MORE FOR

Future UNESCO site? An application is in the works

Future UNESCO site? An application is in the works

It's a truth universally acknowledged... that a chilled bottle of Prosecco must be in want of a drinker. But must it be true that all Prosecco is equally cheap and cheerful?

Dear reader, today I will try to convince you in favour of spending a smidgen more in pursuit of higher quality. I put it to you that Prosecco Superiore is not only a delicious wine, but that it's worthy of your respect and interest.

Prosecco is made in an area of Italy called Conegliano Valdobbiadene, in the Veneto region in the northeast of Italy. Perhaps you've heard it's a hilly place where the vineyards are so steep they have to be harvested by hand, as no tractor would survive the slopes, but I think this picture says it best:

It's a leg day

It's a leg day

There are two towns which give the region its name: Conegliano (home of the famous oenology school) and Valdobbiadene. There are 15 communes in this area, and you may see the name of one of 43 individual sites, or Rive ("ree-vay") on your bottle, in addition to the words Prosecco Superiore DOCG

The most famous subzone within the DOCG area is called Cartizze ("car-teet-zay"), a tiny 107 hectares that is known for some very special bubbles. One trick I learned from a winemaker is that Cartizze often has the scent of wisteria blooms, which is very romantic, as is the touch of sweetness found on the palate.

So what sets Prosecco DOCG apart? It's these steep, steep slopes, which make the best home for quality sparkling made from the Glera grape = the best aspect, the best soils, the best ripening (ps: Glera's a distinctive creature: it has a delicate floral aroma, peaches too, especially white peach, plus green apple). 

Wines made from the best steep sites have a definite brightness and lift that is utterly refreshing, and yes, you can taste the difference in a blind test. By law, the grapes must be picked by hand. Non-DOCG wines have a huge demarcated area, including the lesser regarded valley floors. 

Aren't you curious to try more of the wines produced in these hills? I know I am.

These slopes are mayjah (the terraces are the work of centuries)

These slopes are mayjah (the terraces are the work of centuries)

Here's where things get a little confusing: the residual sugar content. There are three levels you'll see on the label: Brut, which is the driest (0-12 grams/litre), Extra Dry is the traditional style in the middle (12-17 g/l), and the sweetest is called, wait for it... Dry (17-32 g/l). So, easy to remember: just think the reverse of dry is Dry!

Other terms you might see are: Millesimato, which is the vintage the grapes were harvested. Spumante means sparkling. Frizzante, which is semi-sparkling and aged on the lees in a traditional style, and Tranquilo, which means 'still' (the rules are that Frizzante and Tranquilo wines aren't labelled with Superiore). Demi-long refers to the wine sitting on lees for at least six months, and Long is for at least one year.

Most Prosecco is made using the Martinotti (also known as Charmat or autoclave) method, which helps glorify the Glera perfume, although interestingly there are some wines being produced in the Traditional (or Champagne) method. 

Veneto, meet Friuli. Friuli, Veneto. Protected from north winds by the Dolomites, with the Adriatic to the east.

Veneto, meet Friuli. Friuli, Veneto. Protected from north winds by the Dolomites, with the Adriatic to the east.

Notable Prosecco DOCG Wines to buy:

Bisol Superiore di Cartizze DOCG Dry 2014: Meyer lemon meets purple floral, and sweet red apple, lightly spiced with ginger. Creamy bubbles, luxurious.
Colvendra' Prosecco Superiore Millesimato Brut DOCG 2015: Soft candied pear, white honeysuckle, refreshing acidity with harmonious mineral and green apple palate. Summery. Melon kissed with grapefruit zest.
Sorelle Bronca Particella 68 Prosecco Superiore DOCG: Delicate green melon, leesy, creamy, yet vibrant. A stony mineral core with lilac top notes.
Terre Di San Venanzio Fortunato Valdobbiadene Brut DOCG: Luscious bubbles, fuller bodied. Notes of pear drop, green apple, and floral.
Val D'Oca Le Rive Di Colbertaldo Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry DOCG 2015: Full of green apple and crisp fresh pear. Orange peel citrus, green melon. Mineral for miles. Acidity balances plush residual sugar. Notably creamy mousse. Pair with delicate foods.
Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene Superiore Di Cartizze Vigna La Rivetta Brut DOCG: Lilac and fresh bloomed purple wisteria. Leesy complexity meets red apple on the palate. A treat.

I hope I've piqued your curiosity and you'll give these wines a try. Let me know, what's your favourite Prosecco? 

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consorzio