2017 YEAR IN REVIEW, 2018 GOALS

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,

Rachel

BECOMING A WINE JUDGE

IWSC Icewine Flight

One of the most interesting experiences I've had since starting a wine career, is learning to be a wine judge. 

I applied to the International Wine & Spirit Competition when almost done the Diploma, and was accepted as an Associate Judge. This is a fantastic program in London which allows students to sit in during judging and to score the wines with the panel, with the caveat that a trainee's scores are not part of the final tally. (I'll include the link at the bottom of this article for those interested in applying). 

This year I returned to the IWSC, this time as a fully fledged Judge, sitting on the USA and Canada wine panels. This year, my scores counted! Here's a rundown of what happens in the judging room, along with a few lessons I picked up from the expert tasters I worked with.

Calibrate Your Palate

Each day of judging begins with a warm up flight (or 'kite'), of two red wines and two white wines. We're given the grape varietal, vintage, and provenance of the wines on our summary sheet for the day, which also lists every flight to be judged. For example: Warm Up - Sangiovese, Chianti Classico, 2014. P1. P2. Garganega, Soave, 2015. P3. P4.

The wines are brought out by the pouring team in ISO glasses that have a little numbered sticker on the base which correlates to the wine judging list. All the bottles are stored in a separate room, and our samples come to us pre-poured, so judges never find out what producer/brands they're tasting from.

We take a few minutes to score the warm up flight, then one by one, call out our score to be recorded and tallied. The chief judge scores last. We write down the total score the wine achieved, and the average. The average is used to determine whether the wine has received a medal.

During the warm up, it's a chance to sort out your palate for the day, and calibrate your scoring to quality, which was especially important as an associate. Coming into the very first day, I wasn't sure how the scores worked! 

Use The Range

Wines can be scored on a scale up to 100. One of the key lessons I took away was to use the full range of numbers, and not to sit safely in a zone of say, 77-80 points. If a wine is superlative, give it a commensurate score. If a wine is a Silver, give it a solid silver score and not barely a silver score.

If a wine is fatally flawed, it gets sub-49 (if a wine is flawed, a fresh bottle is opened and judges mark the second sample. If the second bottle is also flawed, it's a shame).

I've been asked whether a great wine will cause disagreement among judges. What generally happened with a fantastic wine was a unanimous recognition of its high quality, which was almost uncannily accurate among the panel. So, a superior wine has specific qualities which rise above subjective opinions!

 A flight of sparkling wines from BC's Okanagan Valley

A flight of sparkling wines from BC's Okanagan Valley

Learn From Experienced Judges

Judges from around the world were on the various panels - Masters of Wine were thick on the ground, and trainees visited from Plumpton College and various corners of the globe (California, Italy, and Hungary last week). Everyone had unique perspectives that enhanced the judging experience. I had the pleasure of sitting on panels chaired by Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, who shared a miniature masterclass on scoring icewine with us.

NOSE FIRST, THEN TASTE & SCORE

The chief judge decides on how the flights of wines may be grouped together. The day starts with reds, then progresses to sparkling, then dry whites, and finishes with any sweet wines.

After the flight arrives, we commence, tasting in silence (no phones during judging). We'd nose the wines first, getting consensus on any that may be showing flaws. While nosing, I marked with an asterisk on my marking sheet any that had particularly lovely aromas.

Then, I'd work my way through the wines, making notes as I went. I tasted through all of them, scored, then tasted through again. As I re-tasted, I made a point of not looking at my previous score, to see whether my assessment was accurate against my first impression. 

Once everyone was finished, we'd call out our scores, always in the same order of judges. The chief judge reviewed the scores at the end of this process, to be fair to any wines that were sitting on the boundary between medals, or between no medal and a bronze - or any wines which had been brought up or down by one judge versus a consensus of scores. I was impressed with how fair to the wines the process was!

 A flight of Okanagan Valley Merlot

A flight of Okanagan Valley Merlot

TIDBITS

What question do you really want to ask... is it whether judges get paid? I know I was curious.

I learned that top tier judges, such as Masters of Wine, will often be paid to be judges at the various competitions around the world, although sometimes it is just their airfare and hotel that is covered. One judge mentioned receiving first class airfare, which sounds lovely, and I wonder whether that still happens.

As an associate judge at IWSC, you are paid in experience. For full judges, there is a per diem.

Another question is about finding out who has made the wines we taste. Do we get to learn the names? No! We have to wait for the medal winners to be announced to find out. I know that I have a few marked down that I'm very excited to learn about.

~~~~~~~

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Cheers, Rachel

Link to IWSC Judging

 

STUDYING FOR THE WSET DIPLOMA?

Do you know someone who’s signed up for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust WSET Diploma? Or is that person you?

It’s a big investment, and massive commitment. I’m approaching the final exam to finish it – Unit 3 – and I can’t wait to pop some vintage Champagne to celebrate!

I’ve been getting lots of questions popping up asking which books are worth investing in. For me, there are two indispensable books that you’ll read every day while you’re studying: The Oxford Companion to Wine, and the World Atlas of Wine. 

But… I bought at least 30 books while studying. Did I need them all? No way. But about a dozen were well worth the money and made studying much easier.

So I put together the guide I wish I’d had when starting out in my diploma studies, including: which books you NEED to buy, a full list of websites to bookmark for each unit, what specifically to do 90 days before, 60 days before, and 30 days before your classes start, what one magazine you should subscribe to, what one social media site to join and who to follow, and how to find people for a tasting group.

Cheers,

Rachel

PS: The next enrollment for the Diploma Prep courses will begin in January 2017!

MY WSET DIPLOMA REVIEW

I hesitate to tally, pondering all the bottles, books, flights, and hours of studying, just what the total cost of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (or WSET) Diploma has been. However, the final exam looms four weeks ahead: UNIT 3, the exam that instills fear in the hearts of wine students around the world. Given a choice between the tallying and studying, I choose to tally (and dally) by writing a review of my WSET Diploma experience. 

WSET Diploma Costs

Here are the expenditures thus far, with the major caveat that I travelled to my course in another city and bought the lion’s share of wine for solo study:

Tuition cost for WSET Level 4 = $9,975 CDN* (covered 11 weekends of lectures, 30-60 wines poured in each lecture, field trip to Okanagan wine country, exam fees, official WSET texts, and DAPS preparatory exams)

Spirits bought for Spirits unit = $700 approximately 

Wine bought for Unit 3 Light Wines = $2,000 approximately

Fortified wines purchased for Fortifieds unit = $300 approximately

Sparkling wine & Champagne for Sparkling unit = $400 approximately

Coravin (to maximize my investment in all these wines) = $431 for the starter kit, and well worth it

Coravin argon capsules = $325 for 24 pack (one capsule lasts about 50 tasting pours)

Books for additional study (I bought way too many, see note below) = $1,000+

Total = close to $15,000 CDN

(*I was incredibly grateful to receive a scholarship from the BC Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier for $1,000 towards my WSET tuition, I highly recommend you apply for scholarships and bursaries for your WSET studies)

The Classes

I researched several providers offering the WSET Diploma, including the correspondence option, and ultimately decided to take the one run by Fine Vintage (owned by James Cluer MW). I chose this program because it had a condensed package structure of 15 months start to finish. I knew by signing up I would be taken through the material and exams at a fast clip.

James, in addition to leading a weekend tour of the Okanagan for us and teaching on both viticulture and Bordeaux/Burgundy, had arranged an incredible list of guest lecturers who included: Ian d’Agata on Italian wine, Philip Goodband MW on the Global Business of Wine and Spirits, David Lawrason on Southern Hemisphere wines, and Stephen Skelton MW on Viticulture/Viniculture. Our class was very lucky to have instruction from two very bright and engaging MW candidates: Lynn Coulthard and Jenny Book.

Like many people in our class of 22 students, I flew/drove in for the monthly lectures in Calgary. Students hail from Edmonton, Oregon, Kelowna, and Prince Rupert, and about 2/3 of the class are Calgarians. For this program, it was worth the trip, but the locals had a huge advantage when it came to forming study groups, something to consider when you’re choosing your provider.

About one quarter of the class are not in the wine trade, either hobbyists or looking to enter the trade. Some of the careers represented are: wine agents, those who work in/manage wine stores, sommeliers, entrepreneurs, wine educators, and writers. There was even a Canadian MP, who showed up once or twice then never came back. It’s a highly competitive and competent group of people, not unlike what you’d expect in an executive MBA class. The attrition rate is higher than I expected, of the 22 we started with about 17 people are still showing up (even though there are no refunds).

PASS/FAIL?

The pass rates are posted for each exam within the WSET portal, and about 12-16 weeks after we write, our results arrive. Thus far, knock on wood, I’ve passed everything.

The multiple choice viticulture exam is by far the easiest of the six, although some questions are very difficult. It was our first exam and everyone in the class passed. At the time, I thought it was one of the more challenging exams I’d face (ha ha, if I only knew). Grade = Distinction.

We then moved on to Fortifieds and Sparkling, which we studied simultaneously and wrote the exams on the same day. I loved fortifieds, as the wines are so distinctly coloured and flavoured that it helped immensely: Port in all its incarnations, Madeira, a rainbow of Sherry.

The sparkling wines, with the exception of sparkling shiraz and lambrusco, were rather more challenging to pick apart (is this clear, pale sparkling wine a Cava or Champagne, or a NZ or California?? Luckily I was able to pick up some last minute rubber tire notes on an exam Cava and ID it – it pays to always go back to your wine samples at the end).

These exams are each based on a blind tasting of three wines, plus a series of three theory essays. By far, the tasting is easier than the theory, at least in my opinion. There are relatively few points awarded for correct ID of a wine, so it’s possible to do very well by analysing your blind sample carefully even if you can’t place it. There is no faking the theory. Don’t forget, the examiners are from the land of Jane Austen, so specificity and style rule the day. Grade = Sparkling/Merit – Fortified/Distinction.

Next, we studied Spirits and Global Biz. Spirits, I loved studying, because of the variety of production, culture, and mainly history! If you love history, you’ll particularly enjoy this unit. Spirits, like fortifieds, are very distinct in colour and flavour. The exception may be some whiskies, as the subtle difference between a slippery and sweet Irish can sometimes blur with a Canadian blend. In our final exam, we were given a grappa (immediately identified by its soapy florality), Famous Grouse blended whisky, and a double bourbon cask finished Single Malt. That last one was a bit tricky. For theory, you need know the different methods of distillation inside and out, all the stages of production too: Single Malt vs Blends, Cognac, Gin, Vodka, Rums. Grade = Distinction.

For Global Business of Wine and Spirits, the first gauntlet is a case study. We were given the case three weeks before the exam. In our class’ case it was: The Négociant System in Burgundy. We had to research everything topical, newsworthy, historical, etc and be prepared to offer our informed opinion. I handed in seven handwritten pages, in what I thought was an epic (but upon reflection may have been a bit wobbly) style. Our class wrote this exam on the same day as spirits – a lot of handwriting. The second half of this unit is comprised of a paper of between 2500-3000 words on a topic chosen by WSET. Ours was The Gin Renaissance. We had a few months to put together a concise (it took me longer to edit down below 3000 words than to write the paper) opinion on the future of the gin market, history of the spirit, methods of manufacture, and why the resurgence of the last 30 years happened. Still waiting on the grade for this paper. Grade = Case Study/Merit.

Unit 3 Still Wines is the behemoth unit. We’ve been having lectures on this since July, and the final is in January. Synopsis: take every non-sparkling, non-fortified wine in the world, then study it. The exam is comprised of a blind tasting of 12 wines, in groups of three, plus three hours of theory paragraph and essay questions. The pass rate for January theory exams is unfortunately very low, around 30%, which suggests a few things: the exam is too hard, students are not prepared, and/or too much Christmas holiday relaxing is happening. I’ve been blind tasting several times a week for months, so the name of the game over the next several weeks is theory theory theory.

Is it worth it?

Yes. Yes, it’s worth it. Wine is my favourite subject, because the more I learn, the more I realize I'll never know it all. It’s the everlasting gobstopper of topics.

Take history, geography, food, agriculture, culture, travel, the pleasure of a good glass, endless variety, sharing with others. Once you get into the Diploma, you will know how much you didn’t know and if you love to learn, it will make you very, very happy.

(Fine print = you might drive friends/family a little crazy with all that studying)

The WSET Diploma is the direct route into the Master of Wine program, should that interest you. The Diploma itself is a respected program, highly recognized in the trade. If you say “WSET Diploma” to people in the wine industry, they’ll know right away that you work hard and know your stuff.

I’ve already seen it in the career progression of several classmates over the past 15 months: they’ve moved from employee to manager, from somm to owner, written books, are teaching new students, taken trade trips, it’s really quite impressive. I believe several of us will be applying to the MW program. The level of tasting ability is incredible. We went from not being able to pick out the best quality wine in a flight, to nailing Alsatian Pinot Gris and picking out Eden Valley Riesling blind with confidence.

In Conclusion

I should mention that the Diploma has been much more challenging than I anticipated coming out of WSET Advanced. It’s a huge leap in technical tasting, and memorization of SO MUCH INFORMATION. Now, when someone tells me they’re an MW student, I bow down to their chutzpah.

That being said, every level of the WSET is challenging and a bit nervewracking. Level 1, I was nervous in the exam. Level 2 I was nervous in the exam. Level 3 I was nervous in the exam… Whatever level you’re at, keep going – it doesn’t get easier but it doesn’t get harder than you can handle!

WSET Diploma Prep Checklist

If you’re going for the Diploma, I’ve put together a free checklist of what you need to do to get prepared 90-60-30 days before you start. I give you a list of the books and one magazine you’ll most use, along with basically all the tips I think you need to start off on the right foot.

PS – I’ve created a WSET Diploma prep course, with practice multiple choice exams and flashcards! You can find out more here. If you have any tips or suggestions from your experience studying, I’d love to hear. Find me on Instagram or Twitter.

 

WSET DIPLOMA DIARY: PHILIP GOODBAND, SPIRITS & GLOBAL BUSINESS

 I'm becoming rather fond of this peach pouf

I'm becoming rather fond of this peach pouf

April passed in a blur of rainshowers followed by glorious Vancouver sunshine. Birds are chirping on those sunny mornings, and the lilacs are in bloom.

I was in Vegas earlier this month, followed by a two day session in Calgary on the global business of wine led by Master of Wine Philip Goodband. The class is prepping for both the Global Business as well as the Spirits units of the WSET Diploma, the last exams we’ll need to take before the big final comes up in January.

To prep for the Spirits unit, I visited the biggest liquor store in the city armed with quite a list of spirits and liqueurs to buy.  These will be used for blind tastings to help me prepare for the exam. I now have the best equipped bar on the block, but a bit of a shame because most of it will be used for practice and not for enjoying in a cocktail.

Tasting spirits, I must admit, is not quite as pleasurable as tasting wine! You know when you’ve got a rum and coke, and towards the end it may be a little hot out, and the drink is now mainly rum and water… well that’s a little like tasting watered down rum. We pour it into our ISO glass, check out the color, then water it down about 50% before smelling and tasting, so that we don’t burn out our nose and palate. The water can help bring out some of the aromatics too (before we spit it out). Mmmmm, watered down vodka and gin! The plus side is that studying the spirits is fascinating, lots for history buffs to love.

The big news for the month was that I was honored with a scholarship from Les Dames d’Escoffier towards my wine studies. What a thrill to toast the news with a glass of wine among such incredible women.

A fun event to dress up for, the BC Wine Appreciation Society (BCWAS) held a gala to celebrate their 10th year. I recently posted some incredible BC wines and wineries to look out for after tasting them at this event. If you’re a Vancouverite, this is the wine society to join. They are active with holding tastings and events, and a very friendly, jovial group.

My weekly WSET tasting group has been meeting on Mondays to taste a series of wine, totally blind. Often we have no idea where in the world the wines are from – is this white a Riesling from Germany or Oregon? Is this a Rioja or a Rhone Syrah? It makes for some interesting conversation! Do we have the courage of our convictions to stand up and declare what the wine is? Check out my instagram for pictures from these tastings, and my picks of the best wines from each group.

Cheers,

Rachel

WSET DIPLOMA DIARY: FORTIFIED & SPARKLING

 I save my peach flounced pen just for diary writing...

I save my peach flounced pen just for diary writing...

The past few weeks have been so busy, that while I still feel it’s nice to wish people Happy New Year, somehow it’s almost Spring.

Off on a plane I went, to an intensive weekend of preparing for both the Sparkling and Fortified WSET Diploma unit exams in Calgary. The days consist of sitting in quite a nice lecture hall with 20 other students, while a Master of Wine candidate reviews the study materials (fascinating, but an intimidating amount of information {memorize the villages of Champagne, the grapes they grow, the soil types etc}) and pours us many wines. The trick is that they are poured from a black sack, which handily obscures what the heck they are! Yes, if you want to cheat, you can peek to see the type of bottle, but I am steadfast in looking at only the wine as it pours into my ISO tasting glasses. I am a woman of principle. 

If you like port and sherry, you would have loved day two: tawny port, Amontillado sherry, old Madeira, vintage port, Rutherford muscat from Australia, and lots of Vins Doux Naturels (VDNs) from France. Personally, I love fortified wines and think they are some of the tastiest and most interesting wines to be had. The Sparkling unit, unfortunately, has reduced Champagne from an occasional luxurious delight, to “wine with bubbles” that I must taste repeatedly and pragmatically (LOL don't worry Champagne, I still love you). 

Don't tell the wine makers, but after a long day, one Non-Vintage Champagne can taste remarkably like a chardonnay-based Cava, and even like a NZ sparkling made with chardonnay and pinot noir. They’re all made using the same method, and feature similar grapes. It does lead to a bit of second guessing as the timer winds down, and I know I’m not alone in the class. Thank goodness for sparkling shiraz and Lambrusco, at least I can tell what they are right away! The shiraz tastes like sparkly jam, and the Lambrusco, gritty sour cherries (caveat emptor: I've had lovely Lambrusco’s, but not all are created equal). At least the vintage Champagne does taste distinctly of toasty, nutty goodness. I can’t wait till the exams are done, when I can celebrate and truly enjoy downing a glass of bubbly!

I was recently at a tasting in Seattle for Walla Walla wines, what a fun group of grapes to be drinking. The Walla Walla specialties are Syrah and Merlot, and there’s also some great Chardonnay and Riesling, but there are many, many types of grapes being grown. There were about 50 wineries pouring for an eager crowd of people “in the trade” (writers, bloggers, restaurant owners), and of course people that just wanted to drink for free. My favourites were easily Sleight of Hand Cellars, L’Ecole 41, and Watermill Winery (from the Oregon side).

One of the hazards of a tasting event is the spit buckets. Yes, spit buckets. You were probably taught as a child, like me, that spitting in a public place is not only rude, but disgusting. Against this conditioning, I am expected to spit a bright red substance a substantial distance into buckets sitting on a table, that are already quite full of other’s efforts. Yuck. Yet, if you don’t spit out the wine, you are looked at like a heathen that knows nothing about wine. And, you stand quite a chance of getting drunk (quelle horreur). Plus, people are crowding around you, sometimes jostling, and watching your technique… no pressure!

Despite the presence of spit-bucket hogs (the peeps that sidle up to the bucket, and block others access through various means), I was making a valiant effort with an inky syrah, trying in vain to keep my long locks from impeding the process, and feeling quite suave about it, when some wine splashed back up from the bucket to spray on my face. Yuck times 1000. Would it be chic or déclassé to bring my own personal spit solo-cup to the next event, I wonder?

Coming up this soon is the Vancouver Wine Fest, the largest wine festival in North America, and this year’s theme is Australian Shiraz/Syrah, where I hope to taste some delish Aussie sparkling and fortifieds too. Then, the big WSET exams loom closer. Very exciting stuff!

PS: The next enrollment for the Diploma Prep courses will begin in January 2017!