studying wine

Have you noticed your ability to concentrate is dimishing lately?

I'm an inveterate book reader. Or at least, I thought so.

One day, I started to notice all the books I bought were piling up in stacks - the bedside table. The coffee table. Beside the coffee table. But I wasn't really reading them.

I'd start and a few pages in, pick up my phone to look something up. Or, I'd get a text and then realize I'd stopped reading half an hour ago, and was down a rabbit hole of links. 


What does this have to do with studying wine...

If you're in WSET Level 3 or the WSET Diploma, then you've probably got a copy of the Oxford Companion to Wine. A key resource for us wine students, but not exactly a thrilling read.

If I could barely make it through a long form article, what hope was there for memorizing the information needed to study for tough wine exams? Or to be able to focus in an exam?


Our ability to concentrate & notifications

I've been driving back and forth between Vancouver and our vineyard in the Similkameen Valley, four hours each way, regularly for the last two years. Recently, I've become a huge fan of audiobooks. I'd download a couple to listen to during the drive. One that captured my attention is Bored and Brilliant - How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, the story of how a podcast became a movement for thousands of people to examine their relationship with technology, and regain productivity and creativity.

A surprisingly helpful book for wine students

A surprisingly helpful book for wine students

I recommend this to students of wine who have a few hours to spare. The audiobook medium is helpful, especially if fitting in more reading has become a challenge.


Here are the top lessons from the book, and how I incorporated them into my life:


#1 Turn off all non-essential notifications

This includes: text messages, WhatsApp messages, Instagram notifications, email notifications etc. If there's an emergency, family can still reach me by calling.

The book explains how these notifications were developed by experts in human psychology to create a dopamine response. Effectively, they are engineered to capture our attention and reward us for noticing them. 

Within a week of turning them off, I had a much greater ability to focus on the present. Time spent on tasks became more absorbing. I think these notifications were the major contributor to a dampened ability to focus.


#2 Limit time on social media (sorry, Mark Z)

I'm not a prolific social media user, but definitely like to check in on IG, FB, and Twitter. However, the book delved into the negative effect these platforms can have on us with too much time invested. I now limit myself to 15 minutes a day on these platforms.

Effect: less time scrolling, more time reading, creating, and enjoying real life. 


#3 Have a phone free space

In the book, the author describes a woman who takes daily walks without her phone, and the feelings of boredom she encounters. Then the boredom starts to transform into curiosity, observations, and ruminating about challenges and solutions in her head.

The advice I took is having technology free spaces. The dining table is a phone/laptop free zone. Restaurants too. Sometimes, it's fun to go out and leave the phone at home. One last rule for myself: no using the phone while walking.


The result? 

I'm making headway on the piles of books, and can focus more effectively for much longer. Keeping phone free spaces means less distractions and more quality time. This is not a skill, but a practice that resulted in enjoying life more, and yielded concrete results in wine studies and while blind tasting.

So, with these regained skills, I'm off to savour a glass of wine with a pleasant meal, and later on, read the OCW entry on Prädikatswein.

Cheers & Cin Cin,



blind tasting vs open tasting

I talk a lot about blind tasting here, but wanted to cover something that's important to do when your goal is building up tasting memory, and that is tasting 'open label'.

AKA tasting while knowing what you are tasting.


Here's why this is so important:

You can assess a wine blindly, for acidity, tannins, body, etc, but until you've tasted a broad range of wines, you have no context.

When I was just getting started learning about wine, I found it helpful to taste the flights open label first (i.e.: knowing what they were). Then, our tasting group would repeat the tasting of the same wines, but this time the wines would be bagged so we could taste blind. This helps to develop palate memory. Moreover, even when you're a relatively advanced taster, this technique is helpful to revisit.

When tasting a particular type of wine (i.e. McLaren Vale Grenache, GC Chablis, etc), note to yourself as you taste: what are the key markers or characteristics of this wine? On your tasting notes, {circle} items that jump out at you.

After tasting several Chablis for example, do you have any flavours or characteristics that you particularly notice about these wines (here are some of mine: green apple peel on Chablis, burnt toast and lime curd on Hunter Valley Sem, grapefruit pith on Pinot Gris).


Once you ‘get’ a particular flavour or aroma, it’s like learning a new verb in another language, and as you add more and more to your lexicon, you will become fluent in your new language.

These are the tells which will later help you when you are narrowing down your list of likely wines in a blind tasting or exam. 


Should I watch the grid?

I’d also recommend open tasting while looking at your WSET grid and descriptors, and asking yourself if you sense each category while you taste.

It takes a little practice, but you will naturally memorize the different flavour camps, and eventually, will be able to run through them in your head by rote as you taste: ‘do I taste citrus, stone fruit, oak? etc.


PS: When you write your notes, be methodical about writing out the categories in the order of the tasting grid. It will help organize your thoughts as you taste (and will be helpful for the exam, because you won't miss any point categories).


tasting with MW students.jpg

Lessons from a weekend of mock MW exams:

1) Set up mock exams using past exams

Scan old exams for questions and wine flights. Look for what the examiners are trying to test on, and find comparable wines, or wine styles. Really figuring out what the test is about helps you as a student: often, it's about winemaking techniques and quality.

We did a flight of 12 white wines on day one and a flight of 12 reds on day two, all under real exam conditions: totally blind, timed to 2 hrs 15 mins, no talking. A good exercise, as I felt tasting all one colour at a time made it more challenging on the palate (there are pictures on my Instagram if you want to see what we tasted).

Where you learn the most won't be during the exam, it will be after when everyone shares their thought processes, which wines or regions they considered and/or rejected. Did several students think something was something else, and why?

2) When blind tasting, if you don't consider an option, you can't choose that option

After the first mock exam, I recognized where I had gotten some wines wrong because I had not considered the correct answer as an option. This can happen when you feel stressed or rushed. After assessing and writing my notes on acidity/alc/body etc, I'd note a list of potential grapes. It was a real face palm moment when the wine was revealed and it wasn't on that list! How was I supposed to get it right if I hadn't thought of it? The second day, I made sure to be more considered in listing out potential candidates as I 'funnelled', which resulted in better logical thinking.

3) Assume the default position of learning from others

Blind tastings in a group setting can sometimes feel competitive or intimidating. Taking the position of being determined to learn from every person present takes the pressure off being correct, or feeling embarrassed at getting something wrong, and puts the focus on improving. How did the person who nailed a wine perfectly get to that answer? How did they funnel? What other grapes did they consider? 

4) It always comes back to knowing theory

As talented as any taster can be, accuracy is underpinned by knowing the theory solidly. In an exam, there's no time to be second guessing the components of regional blends, or winemaking techniques in a certain type of wine. These facts need to become intuitive, so they can be accessed with ease while tasting.

5) Blind tasting talent = hard work + experience + opportunity

Getting better at blind tasting is all about practice. Take every opportunity you can to taste, especially with students at a level above you. The MW students I tasted with were not always as good as they are now, they were once WSET Level 3, then 4 students. There is no substitute for experience, whether that is trying wines, meeting with producers, attending seminars, or travelling to wine regions.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself to be patient with my current level of understanding. The Diploma is all about breadth of knowledge, and those in the MW program are working with that plus depth.

I'd love to hear about your experiences as you worked to improve on blind tasting, please leave a note in the comments below.

Cheers & Cin Cin,



sparkling wine blindtasting tips unit 5 wset

Q: Dear Rachel, my study focus is on Champagne and sparkling wines right now, so I'd be interested in more observations and tips for how to do well in a blind tasting for sparkling wines.

A: Thanks for your question, here are some tips on blind tasting sparkling wines, along with exam strategy and suggested tasting flights to practice with! Feel free to comments below with your own sparkling wine blind tasting tips.

Cheers, Rachel

Blind Tasting Strategy

When tasting sparkling wines, it can be confusing for the palate. So many sparkling whites, so little time (or, you could luck out and getting a sparkling Shiraz).

When tasting, don't try to slot the wine into a category right away, take your notes as per usual and after you've assessed them, go back to them to look for clues. 

I find major clues on the nose of the wine. Yes, of course the mousse/bubbles are the defining character in a sparkling wine, but the nose helps me with ID, and I don't typically find the bubbles very helpful for this (exception: when a wine is poured and it's really, really frothy). Look for these items in particular as you nose the wines: floral notes (Prosecco, Sekt, Asti), autolytic/leesy notes (Trad Method, time on lees), rubber (some Cavas), diesel (Riesling), minerality (Champagne), tropical fruit (California, Australia), wet wool/lanolin (Chenin). These are not hard and fast rules, but general prompts to ask yourself about as you smell and then taste. 

On the palate, determining acidity is so important. Knowing which wines are likely to display lower acidity is a major helper for you. Personally, I find quality Champagne in particular has a high ringing acidity that lingers at the back of the throat, and BdeB Champagne can have a particularly piercing minerality on the palate. I often find Cava has less acidity and a more rounded body.

Other clues:

Strength of mousse can be helpful. Take note if you feel the bubbles/atmospheres are lower in a particular wine, as several styles are made with lower pressure.

Alcohol level can be a challenge to assess, with the bubbles and sometimes high acidity in sparkling wines interfering in our perceptions. The ABV can be a clue to be aware of, so when you do practice tastings, I recommend that you note not only the category of alcohol level (ie Med+, Med-) but take an actual guess at the specific ABV (ie 13%, 11.5%). Then make a point of noting after the reveal what the actual ABV was and compare to your assessment. You'll start to see a common range for the different styles/regions of bubbly.

Exam Tips

Clean Glasses: make sure you have properly washed your glasses of any residue so the bubbles don't adhere to any debris in your glasses.

Watch While Pouring: The exam starts when the examiner says it does, but you can carefully observe the wine while you pour it. Look at the bubbles, how frothy it is when poured, and the colour. This will help you move quickly through the appearance section of your exam with ease.

Sniff, Then Decide Order: Nose the wines, then decide the order you will taste them in. You don't have to taste wine sample #1 first. Leave any with strong aromas till last.

Not Getting Anything on Nose: If you are trying in vain to ID any aroma characteristics, take a slurp of the wine and write your palate note. Then go back to the nose. Often, this will help you ID some aromas you couldn't before.

Re-Nose the Wines: After you've tasted all the wines and written your notes, go back to the wines again. The warmer temperature of the wines may help release extra clues that weren't apparent at the beginning (for example, I caught a rubber-y note on a wine that helped to confirm it was Cava during my exam).

Making an ID: Not every tasting exam question will ask you to ID the wine. For those that do, think like the examiners - they want you to identify classic examples, not to trick you. So, here's a list of questions I use to suss out the potential candidates:

1) is the wine aromatic > Yes (think tank method Asti, Prosecco, Sekt)

2) is there autolytic character & how much > Yes (think Trad Method = Champagne, Crémant, Cava, new world sparkling) 

3) is there high or low acidity and corresponding body -plus what kind of fruit character? (Low acidity, fuller body with tropical/stone fruit> think warmer region / High acidity, light to medium body with citrus/green/apple/pear fruit> cooler region).

4) is there evidence of oak and is it balanced? (Think: reserve wine, barrel ferment, old world vs new world)

5) what's the quality level: how long is the finish and is the wine balanced? (Long finish with balanced acidity> premium / Short finish with neutral flavour, unbalanced sugar/acidity, flabby> less premium)

6) does the colour give you any extra hints to confirm your assessment? (Pale - young/cool climate. Deeper colour - oak use/bottle age/warmer climate)

Comparison Flights

Here are some suggested flights for blind tasting practice:

Traditional Method - Champagne Comparison

Non-Vintage Champagne - Vintage Champagne - Another new world traditional method (such as Cali/NZ/AUS/SA)

Traditional Method - Non-Champagne Comparison

Crémant d’Alsace - NV Cava (traditional grapes) - Cap Classique SA - (Bonus points: Franciacorta)


Asti - Sekt - Prosecco

The Rosés

Rosé Cava - Rosé Crémant - Rosé Champagne

Sparkling Reds

Brachetto d’Acqui - Lambrusco - Sparkling Shiraz

Crémant Flight

Crémant de Loire - Crémant d'Alsace - Crémant de Bourgogne - (Bonus points: Crémant de Limoux/Blanquette de Limoux)

Chenin vs Chardonnay vs Riesling

Vouvray/Saumur - Chardonnay-based Cava - 100% Riesling Deutscher Sekt or new world


Deutscher Sekt - New Zealand Sparkling - Australia Sparkling 

Mass Production Bubblies - choose low-mid priced, widely available producers

New world tank method - Cava - Crémant

New World Premium Flight

Choose three premium sparkling wines from: NZ, Australia, South Africa, USA (WA/OR/CALI), Chile, or Argentina


unit 4 wset spirits & unit 1 coursework assignment.jpg

Q: Hi Rachel, I'd love to hear your suggestions on how to tackle forming a study plan for Unit 4 and the Unit 1 essay assignment.

I'd also like to hear your recommendations for how much reading you did beyond the WSET provided materials for Unit 4, and how much you felt that reading (or lack thereof) contributed to your pass with distinction?

A: Thanks for your questions! Here are my thoughts on studying for Unit 4 and prepping for the Unit 1 coursework/essay assignment.

Coursework Assignment

I found the research for the coursework assignment was so much fun (more than writing or editing the essay), so I spent about a week doing lots of reading. The most important part is tracking your sources as you research. That way you don't have to muddle through later trying to remember where you got what info for your quotes and citations. 

I added the extension Tab-Snap to my browser, so that I could open lots of windows at once, then email myself the list of links when I was done for the day. It makes it so much easier for when you need to assemble your source list. I would add my own subtitles to the emailed list and keep all my sources in a Unit1Sources.doc:

For example, my email to myself would look like this for each source link:

(date last accessed - source material description - link): Oct 31, 2017 - historic gin recipe with earliest known gin bottling - link.example.link

For older book sources online, google books was great, just be sure to list the page numbers, author, title etc you reference when keeping track. WSET likes to see a broad range of sources - magazines, books, news articles, you can even look up and request an MW thesis if you find one on your topic. I also did an in person interview with a subject matter expert and recorded it, then used a quote from him in my paper. 

Unit 4 Spirits

Unit 4 reading that I found particularly useful beyond WSET provided info (these three are the books that I found most contributed to passing with distinction):

~Dave Broom Rum - it’s an older book, but fun pictures and descriptions of the different islands’ rums which really brought the subject to life for me

~Dave Broom World Atlas of Whisky - you don’t need to read all the write-ups of the distilleries, but I loved how he explained the distilling process and different styles and regions here

~I was lucky that my coursework assignment was on Gin, which has a fascinating history, so I read lots of books. The one I found most useful for studying was the Gin: the Manual, again by Dave Broom. The first 50 pages in particular give a concise summary of this spirit. (Maybe I should buy stock in Dave Broom!)

~For the Spirits unit, I found video particularly helpful in studying. Many of the distillation techniques and processes sound very academic and sometimes confusing on paper, but watching them on video helped me recall the details during the exam and when studying. If you visit my youtube page, I’ve made playlists of videos for each of the spirits. The ones on whisky are particularly good! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKUKyUZYTBY9Horl27LSTGg

~If you have a distillery nearby, especially with nice distillation equipment, I’d recommend arranging a tour, as seeing it in person really helps.

~Tasting: I did buy all the spirits on the WSET list. Luckily the flavours in spirits are so distinct, it makes the tasting portion of the exam easier. Especially if you have your theory down pat, it can make describing quality and identifying the spirit easier.

Cheers & Cin Cin,



2017 year in review wine

The year has blown by. Once in a while, I looked up to find a month had passed in a blur. The overwhelming feeling I have for 2017 is gratitude that I can earn a living doing something I adore. Thank you for reading this blog, and thank you to the wonderful wine students around the world who inspire and spur me on!

I'd love to hear about your goals for 2018 - please share in the comments section below.

Big Things 2017

~ I was elevated to Full Judge at the IWSC, and attended in April judging the wines of Canada and USA.

~ Presenting two seminars at Cornucopia Wine Fest, on the best wines from BC and wines from old vines, was a thrill. It gave me perspective on the huge volume of work behind the scenes for every tasting and festival. I also gained insight into the importance of importers and distributors, and knowing their portfolios. 

~ My husband and I continued to work on our small Similkameen vineyard (bought in 2016) and build our house. After last year's serious haircut, our overgrown vines started to look on their way to manicured. Ultimately, however, we failed to bring in a crop of wine grapes due to powdery mildew, which was a heartbreak, although there were some tasty table grapes which had the requisite heartiness to survive our steep learning curve. We bought a small tractor, a Kubota, which didn't arrive until July - but will hopefully improve our success in 2018. This year tested some of the more romantic ideas I held about farming, such as how often the vines needed to be sprayed with sulphur. It was also edifying to do more real vineyard work. Book smarts are not a substitute for hands on experience.

~ The greatest joy I had this year was working with my fantastic students, who live around the world (in over 20 countries!!!), helping them prepare for their wine exams. Reading your tasting notes, emails, comments, and essays has been such a pleasure, and I find it so very inspiring. There are now four Diploma level theory prep courses and a new Level 3 prep course in the stable.

Goals for 2018

Travel:  Each spring, I look forward to visiting London for IWSC, and this year I'll be journeying to Portugal afterwards to visit Lisbon, Porto and the Douro. I'm also heading to Verona in January for Anteprima Amarone, then on to Rome for a few days of wandering, mainly restaurants, ruins, and museums. I'd like to return to Walla Walla in Washington, and Oregon's Willamette.

Harvest: Bring in a proper crop of wine grapes. This will be the second full pruning we give our vines. Now that there's snow on the ground, we can see the new canes are in the right spot (before, the trunks reached to nearly the top of the wires), and I'm confident we can get them looking spiffy with a real crop of fruit. There's high demand for organic Chardonnay in the Okanagan/Similkameen, and we have a tractor to pay for!  

Book: I'm releasing the second edition of Winetripping in spring 2018. There are fast changes going on in the Okanagan, and many new producers to visit (I heard there are close to 100 applications for new wine producers in BC). Have you been before? 

Courses & Secret Project: Updating and enhancing my Prep Courses. New features include a blind tasting and exam strategies clinic! I love working one on one with students and this is something I will be incorporating more of in the New Year. Plus, there's a surprise project I'm working on right now, something that I think will be really useful for wine students in their blind tasting efforts. 

Study: Applying to the MW program has been on my radar since passing the WSET Diploma. I'm making on a 6 month study schedule which will begin in January 2018 to prep for the application which opens in summer.

Taste: By scouring importer websites and restaurant wine lists, I've put together a sheet of key producers by region. My goal is to be more focused in learning about producers in 2018. The body of wine knowledge is so delightfully vast: first you learn grapes, then region, then winemaking, then producer. Then you start all over again at a deeper level! 

Here's a link to your 2018 wine goals worksheet. I'd love to hear what your New Year plans are. 

Wishing you vintage Champagne, generous friends, good health, and plenty of joie de vivre for the New Year!

Cheers & Cin Cin,



Here's a running list of recent wine appellation changes, updates, items of note etc (links open in new page). Please submit any recent changes in the comments section, and I will update this list.


Dec/2017 Wine industry body named 'Wines of Great Britain - WineGB'



Nov/2017 Bourgogne Côte d'Or AOC launched

Nov/2017 Vézelay promoted to Village AOC


Apr/2018 XO spirit minimum age raised from 6 to 10 years



Canary Islands

Dec/2017 New PDO for Terenife wines


Aug/2017 Rioja Consejo allows village labelling

Jun/2017 Rioja creates Viñedos Singulares 'single vineyard' classification




Dec/2017 Petaluma Gap AVA created


Nov/2017 Focus on Oregon AVAs


Wine Gifts 2017.jpg

Hmmmmm, what to get for that super hard to buy for person? That savvy individual who loves wine, and seems to have everything they need. 

In this case, the person was me, buying things for myself, but I'm hoping you spot something on this list for a Christmas treat you'd enjoy too, or for the wine lover in your life:

1 The gold standard in wine bottle opening, a Laguiole. For a little extra history, this one's handle is made from a 300 year old tree from Versailles. Spendy, but will last a lifetime.

2 Playing cards as a wine gift? In our house, this is the idea of a fun Friday night. Opening some Port (see below), and sitting down to share a game of crazy 8's, bridge, or gin rummy, especially during the holidays. This Theory 11 deck is just plain handsome, and pleasingly tactile. Also, the faces on those court cards!

This year, I decided to invest in two online journals: The Feiring Line & The Art of Eating. By subscribing, I help support independent writers, and in exchange, am exposed to new ideas, great vocabulary, and inspiration galore. Seems like more than a fair deal.

3 The Feiring Line is run by natural wine supporter, Alice Feiring. She's an evocative and sometimes controversial writer, and focuses on wines and locations that otherwise wouldn't cross my radar. The ability to evoke the sense of place and taste through writing, now that is a gift.

4 For the food obsessive: The Art of Eating. An online magazine covering wine, cheese, heritage foodstuffs and more. Endlessly interesting, the articles will make you want to rush out and buy obscure wines to match obscure foods from around the world. Top notch writing.

5 325th Anniversary Taylor Fladgate Port. Yes, I'm a sucker for anything with this kind of historical detail, as the 17th century repro bottle here has. A blend of 10-40 year old tawnies. Very tasty indeed. 

6 I wasn't sure what to expect from this rather theatrically titled book, How to Drink Like a Billionaire. Cracking the cover, I loved the way Mark broke down wine from a consumer-centric viewpoint. Yes to more joie de vivre, wine should be fun! Would make a great read for the wine curious person in your life.

7 Maps galore! Historic maps of Champagne! Do you sense a theme in this list? A great book for those studying Unit 5 of the WSET Diploma, or as an armchair read: Champagne: the Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region.

PS: On pronunciation... do you ever mispronounce words as a joke, and then they just stick? Then, you use your new pronunciation in front of someone and they look at you like, she doesn't even know how to say 'x'? I do this with Cham-pag-ne (Futurama reference).

Did you spot something on this list for a Christmas gift? Have an idea to add? Please comment below to share your wisdom!

Cheers & Cin Cin,



Youtube Playlists for Wine Diploma Students.jpg

Sometimes you just need a break from reading and making cue cards. watching videos is the cure.

Here are playlists for each wine region the WSET Diploma covers, including sparkling & fortified wines, and spirits, but I think they'll be of interest to anyone who's studying wine and spirits.

Hope you enjoy and find these helpful! I'll be launching wine study videos in the new year, so don't forget to subscribe. If you have any video suggestions, please comment below.

Note: links below will play video, hit mute before clicking if silence is important ;) To view all the playlists, click here.


















FORTIFIED > Madeira, Port, Rutherglen Muscat, Sherry, Vins Doux Naturels

SPARKLING > Argentina/Chile, Australia/NZ/South AfricaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, USA

SPIRITS > Absinthe/Aniseed, Bitters, Brandy de Jerez, Calvados, Cognac/Armagnac, Gin, Grappa, Pisco, Rum, Tequila/Mezcal, Vodka, Whiskies