USING STRATEGY TO PREPARE FOR WSET DIPLOMA UNIT 3 THEORY

If you've read through the syllabus for Unit 3 of the WSET Diploma, you'll know what I mean when I say: OMG! How are we expected to remember all this information, in so much detail?

The answer is: we're not. As students, we have to get strategic to succeed. Here are the strategies I used to pass the exam.

Review Past Exam Questions

The first step before studying is to review past exams to see what kinds of questions were asked. Not just on which region, but paying attention to the scope of the question. For example, an essay I answered asked about the styles of wine in the Loire. A very broad scope, with plenty of opportunity to make enough points to pass. Another was on the sub-regions of Chile - there was no question about just one specific sub-region like Bio-Bio, we were able to choose from several.

Knowing how we're expected to respond to questions is important when we study, so that we don't go too far down the rabbit hole of miniscule detail.

Review the past exams and sample essays to get into the mindframe of the examiners, and think about what level of knowledge they're asking you to demonstrate in your essay. It's not naming every soil type, or knowing the GC's of Burgundy off by heart from North to South - the goal is for us to show mastery of the topic, with concise and applied knowledge, and common sense.

Major - Middle - Minor

As wine lovers, we tend to get super geeky about every region - they're all so fascinating. Sweet wines of Greece? Check. Vin Jaune from Jura? Check. But, for the purposes of Unit 3 Theory, we need to categorize the relative importance of the regions/countries to choose how we'll spend our time studying.

I started with France, and recommend you do too. If you look at past exams, there's always at least one essay question on a French region. Given that you have to answer 5 of the 7 questions, better to know France really well so you can save one of those 2 for something where you're stuck. Starting on France is also smart, because if you have extra time for review before your exam, you'll be getting an additional refresh on the material.

For example, here are some of the countries in the curriculum and how I prioritized them:

Major countries - know these in and out: France, Spain, Italy, Germany.

Middle countries - a good chance you'll see a question about them: South Africa, Australia, USA, Argentina, Chile.

Minor countries - it's a toss up, they could make an appearance, are they trending?: Switzerland, Canada, Uruguay, Bulgaria, China, England.

Know The Fundamentals & Apply Logic

Our minds start getting really full of details towards the exam, and personally, it felt like living in a cluttered house - overwhelming and distracting. Two things helped: the first was to take note of the exception. For example, if five wines of a region require 24 months of aging, but there's just one that needs 36, you only have two facts to remember: 24 and 36.

The other thing that helped with mental clutter was to revisit and memorize fundamental truths about viti and vini at the beginning of my studies. What is a maritime climate? What effect does marl soil have on a finished wine? That way you have a database of fundamentals in your head to refer to, and can show mastery by bringing up specific exceptions to the rules. 

W-W-W-W-H

Did you learn these in high school: who-what-when-where-how? Well, this is one of the ways to think about the regions as you study, but replace them with: Viti-Vini-Climate-Rules-Producers.

As you review regions, ask yourself if you can name the soil, climate, grape varietal, any production rules, and a key producer! Don't worry, the exam is not trying to trick you. I found the overarching theme of the exam questions was centered around how a given terroir (the land, climate, grapes, winemaking, and culture) expresses itself in a given wine.

Mind Palaces

I read a short book about mind palaces called The Memory Palace. It's a quick read, only 64 pages, but it teaches how to effectively use mental imagery to remember a series of facts (like the plays of Shakespeare). I used mind palaces to memorize the 10 crus of Beaujolais and their respective styles. A year later and I can still close my eyes and walk through the different rooms of Fleury and Morgon. It was a game changer for memorizing, and I highly recommend you read the book or listen to it!

Have you written the Theory exam for Unit 3? Share your tips and strategies in the comments!

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

BLIND TASTING WSET EXAM TIPS

Me before the exam: please let there be a Riesling!

Me before the exam: please let there be a Riesling!

Some of the trickiest elements of the WSET Diploma are the blind tasting exams. I recently had an email from a reader requesting blind tasting tips for their upcoming exam.

After giving it some thought, I've put together my top 5 tips to help you ace your blind tastings, plus one bonus tip. One item I want to note up front though: you don't need to ID a wine to pass the exam - your ability to accurately assess the wine's characteristics is what will get you a pass (although it's always nice to get it right)!

Have a routine

There was some research recently that said when you have a routine when you taste, like looking in a particular direction, it can help you be more effective. There was also a study on the parts of the brain a somm or wine student accesses as they taste wine, and doing MRI's found they were the regions that govern logic and memory.

After I read the research, I took note of where my eyes went when I tasted, and found it's always up and to the right as I test a wine sample. This was a habit I'd developed without thinking about why. After noting it, I make efforts to repeat the same movement, especially in exams and when I can't pinpoint what a wine is. Having a habit is comforting and helps you feel in control when you're in a stressful situation.

Pretend you're picking up and swirling a glass of wine under exam conditions, and pay attention to any habits you have: where are your eyes looking? Try it out next time you do a blind tasting. I'd be interested to hear in the comments whether you look up and to the right too, or somewhere else completely (maybe your eyes are closed)!

Memorize & Scan

As you smell and taste, mentally run through the different aroma and flavour categories in your mind. Use the same order each time, so it becomes a strategy.

I always start with fruit: red fruit, black fruit, stone fruit, citrus, dried fruit. Oak: toast, vanilla, wood spice. Dairy: cream, yogurt. Herbaceous: cedar, tobacco, mint. etc. You don't need to find something from every category, just mentally ask yourself whether that category is present in the wine. It's a prompt to get you thinking.

Personally, I used to occasionally miss noting minerality, but now I make sure to just ask myself if it's present in the wine.

Pretend you are running a computer scan of the wine with your mind. Yes, it's a bit geeky, but now that I've memorized the categories, it's quick, easy, and intuitive.

With the tasting grid, you need to memorize the categories and their order. Absolutely! When I write a note, the elements are in the same order every time. Avoid going higgledy piggledy and be consistent: markers love it because it makes their job easier. If you're making markers lives easier, and your thoughts are in order, you'll convey 'mastery' (that's what WSET are looking for).

So you might think this is sounding a bit robotic? Maybe, but there's room to let your opinions shine in your note. If you think a wine is excellent, say so. If it tastes muddled and lacking in intensity, say so.

Note Your First Impression, But Don't Judge

The exam begins when the invigilator says it does, but there's no rule against being extra observant as your pour your wine samples. You can already be checking for clues without touching your glass: what's the colour, how viscous is it, is it clear or hazy, are there bubbles. Which order will you taste these wines in (there's no law saying you should taste in the order they're numbered! If one's opaque purple and another's pale garnet, start on the garnet).

When the exam begins, if something leaps out at you right away about the wine, write it down. For example, it's got screaming high acidity, or smells hot and jammy, or it's very floral, put a note at the top of your tasting sheet for later. Often these first impressions will help you suss out what the wine is when you're making a final conclusion. Not to be too neurotic, but choose a place on your scrap paper where you'll make these notes, and put them in the same place every time. Systems = success.

But... don't make a judgement call till the end!

As tricky as this is, try not to immediately jump to a conclusion about the wine. If a grape or region spring immediately to mind, make a note of it, but continue to assess the wine as if you don't need to ID it. If you're convinced at the start your wine is a Syrah, then without even meaning to, you might start writing out a Pinot Gris note when it's really a Torrontes.

Be A Detective

When studying for the Unit 3 Tasting exam, at the end of a flight of three wines, use the notes you've made from your three wines to give you clues. 

On my scrap paper, at the start of the test, I write down a list of all the main red and white grapes. When I go to conclude and an ID is called for, I narrow that list down as much as possible. For example, I recently tried a flight of three red wines. They were all medium intensity ruby, with aromas of black fruit, and peppery flavours. One showed herbaceousness, and another was rich and ripe. One was very meaty.

I narrowed down the grape shortlist to Cab Franc, Syrah, and Grenache. From there I went back to my notes and underlined common words and characters. Black pepper was in every note. Blackcurrant was too. All showed medium+ or higher tannins. One of the wines was extremely herbaceous. The key clue though was the strong smoked meat character of one of the wines.

I ruled out Grenache due to the high tannins present and lack of red fruit character. Hmmm, are these wines Cab Franc or Syrah? What classic regions could these wines be from? I make a list of all the regions these wines could logically come from: on the left for Cab Franc, on the right for Syrah.

If I go with Cab Franc, the Loire would be a prime guess, but are there other Cab Franc regions that would fit the other two wines? Hmmm. If I go with Syrah, the Northern Rhone would be a good fit for the meaty wine. The riper one could be from a hotter climate, like Australia or California. The herbaceous wine is from a cooler climate, but I can't place it. Of the two grapes, Syrah made more sense, and was the correct answer.

All that logic being said, sometimes you get a gut feeling at the end: "these are from Spain" or "this wine is Zinfandel", and it's important not to ignore why that thought is coming to you. Run your gut feeling guess through the lists you made and see if it's a fit.

Practice Under 'Extreme' Conditions

No, you don't need to practice blind tasting in Antarctica, but you do need to train yourself to write excellent notes in short times, under some duress.

You'll have 10 minutes a wine, but in the exam time flies by like crazy, and a blank page gets you no marks. Start by practising at 8 minutes a wine, but each week, drop it down by a minute until you can write a great note in 6 minutes.

During the exam, there will be 20 - 30 very stressed people in the room, shuffling, coughing, clinking glassware, etc. This can be a big distraction if you're used to tasting in silence, so I'd recommend playing music, blind tasting in a group, or having other ambient noises (like a TV in the background) as you practice.

On test day, if you've prepared this way, you'll have extra time to go back and re-taste the wines to make any final comments in your conclusions. I've picked up extra points by going back at the end, and picking up a note of cream or pepper that I missed previously that helps me ID what's in the glass.

You'll also have a little extra time to scan your answers to make sure you haven't left out a category, costing you points. For example, I noticed in practice exams that I sometimes forgot to note flavour intensity or alcohol. I made a point of checking at the end of my exam and caught that I had indeed left it out on a couple notes. Yes, two extra points! Check your tasting notes against the grid to see if you're regularly forgetting categories.

Bonus Tip: Read & Re-read the Questions

This is something that everyone says to do, but only because it's true. Every exam, there's someone who fails to read what the question is asking and may not pass because of it.

There's an easy fix though: bring a highlighter to your exam, and highlight the action words from each question. For example, if the question says, "Note the differences in quality. These wines are from different regions", then highlight and circle in pen "Note the differences in quality" and "different regions". When you're making conclusions, look again at your highlighted sections.

Thanks for reading! If you have a tip to share, please leave a comment.

Cin cin,

Rachel

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

 

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

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

WSET DIPLOMA REVIEW: UNIT 3 THEORY TIPS

Tasting exam tips to follow

Tasting exam tips to follow

My phone rings in the night...

It was 2 am in Verona, Italy. I was already on the phone when it beeped to let me know someone from Napa Valley was calling. Hmmm, telemarketer? Who do I know in Napa, maybe James Cluer? James is a Master of Wine who runs Fine Vintage, the school where I was enrolled for the Diploma.

I let the call go to voicemail. It had been a long exciting day already, with a test on Italian wine, an epic Amarone tasting, then a glass of Champagne after finding out I'd completed the Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador program. We had an 8 am shuttle the next morning, and I really was supposed to be asleep already, not chatting on the phone.

Right before drifting off to sleep, I remembered the voicemail. Curiosity aroused, I listened, and my heart sank as an English accent started to say, "Hello Rachel, it's James Cluer, calling to give you the results of the January Unit 3 Diploma exams".  

For the past 13 weeks, I'd been half dreading, and half sure what I was going to hear in this very message, managing only for short stretches to forget I was waiting for these exam results. 

Unit 3 of the WSET Diploma, only the hardest exam I've ever faced. Through university, financial planning, and culinary school, I've never felt as overwhelmed by a curriculum as I did while preparing for the final and largest exam of the Diploma. 

Unit 3 had already taken me through several stages in these past months: disbelief, as I reviewed the material (do they really expect me to memorize all these soil types, towns, grapes?), acceptance (yes they really do, must re-review), fatigue (do not stay up to 4 am on the night before the test), shock (opening the exam: why are there so many questions about Spain on this paper? Where are the questions on Italy, NZ, USA?), depression (oh my god, I've utterly and completely failed, what a waste, now I have to restudy and retake), before finally reaching acceptance 2.0 (it's ok, it will be good for me to review this material again, I'll pass it on the next try).

James' voice continued, and I closed my eyes, preparing for the news I'd felt so sure of these past months, dun dun dun: that I'd failed the theory exam. Instead I heard, "Congratulations, you've passed the Unit 3 exam tasting portion, and... you've passed the theory portion too. You've completed the WSET Diploma". 

I played the voicemail again, in shock. A gaping hole suddenly opened up in my plans for the foreseeable future, which I'd already mentally filled with more 8-hour daily study sessions to prepare for a June exam resit. Could this even be possible, is this real life? I felt a rush of excitement, possibly euphoria, that kept me up till the sun was almost rising, pure happiness tinged with relief. I was finished the WSET Diploma.

Preparing for the Unit 3 theory exam

Now that I've had a couple weeks to process the news, I thought I'd pass on some tips that I hope you'll find helpful in your studies towards this exam. 

Create your study area

I made a mission control study station desk, atop which, in what I like to think of 'Jancis' corner', were my trusty copies of the Oxford Companion to Wine, and the World Atlas of Wine. A hefty stack of blank cue cards, pens, highlighters, coloured sticky flags, my spiral bound WSET curriculum, laptop, accordion file of blind tasting and lecture notes, my cat Egregious, and a glass of water. The only thing missing: actual wine! 

Try to make a spot dedicated to your studies, away from distractions, and make the chair a comfortable one. You're going to be spending many hours here, your back will thank you.

Make a study schedule

I didn't have one at first, and my progress suffered because of it. My goal was initially to read through all of the Oxford Companion and the World Atlas a second time for every country on the curriculum. Which is great, but when I found myself re-reading the same page on Austrian wine for an hour, I knew it was taking too long - I had just a couple of months till the final, not a year to study at a glacial pace.

Decide how many hours a day you can give to studying. As my mentor said, "Netflix doesn't exist. The news doesn't exist. Any form of fun, doesn't exist". I'm joking a bit, and paraphrasing, but the core truth is that to be successful, you have to become a bit of a wine hermit, at least until you've written the exam. One good thing about writing in January: no chance of a new Game of Thrones season released right before the exam!

Sitting down with the curriculum, I plotted out all the countries into three lists based on their relative importance within the program: high, medium, low. 

In the high column: France. 

France is where you should start studying. It forms the backbone of your studies, and if you start with it, that means when it comes time to re-review, you'll work through the material at least twice. Don't start with a country from the low category, like Japan or Greece. Yes, they're very interesting, but you've got to be strategic with your time.

Odds of France being on the final = 100%. Odds of Japan being on the final = ? This is the way you need to be thinking about the material, like backgammon or blackjack, games of skill and chance. The skill is learning as much as you can about the curriculum, the chance is how lucky you are with the questions that show up on your particular exam.

From France, I made a list of the sub-regions I'd need to cover and put those in order of importance, with Burgundy then Bordeaux at the top. Oh no, it doesn't stop there. From Burgundy, you'll make a list of the key topics you need to know: how the appellation rules work, the most important crus and villages plus what makes them unique, and the flavours you'd expect to find in their wines, the negociant system, the grapes, the terroir, the winemaking. Don't forget a couple of stats, and a key producer for each area.

This is where a spreadsheet is your friend. I made a giant spreadsheet, a page for each country, broken down like I describe above. I then started filling out the columns with key notes for the most important region, in the most important sub-region, of the most important country, working my way down the list.

Cue cards are your friend

Once my spreadsheet, aka the spreadsheet of doom, was compiled, I started in with the cue cards. By the time I was finished, the pile could have been used as trivets for 200 hot pans, or laid end-to-end to reach the moon. At least, that's how it felt.

My theory with cue cards, is that I won't necessarily use them to test myself, but that writing down the information onto them helps my brain retain all these facts. Handling this huge volume of data in as many ways as possible is going to help you remember it. Whether that's via typing into a spreadsheet, handwriting cue cards or notes, touching the information multiple times is going to help.

While reading is the bedrock of studying, it's passive. Sometimes I read things and realize I can't remember much of what was on the page because I was on autopilot. Writing things down is active, and once you've finished the required reading, active studying is how you're going to pass this test!

Time to test yourself

Actively recalling info from your studies is a challenge, but it's the best way to find out where there are gaps in your memory and knowledge.

You can use the past exam topics to practice writing essays and paragraphs. I have to admit, making myself write out practice essays was a bust. I didn't find it very fun, and it took forever to write then check my answers. But for some classmates, this was one of their key study techniques, and they found it worked like a charm.

You can have a friend quiz you from your cue cards (best to be a fellow WSET student so you can both learn at the same time, and take turns). This is really helpful, and you'd be surprised how much you can retain just from quizzing other people. Something about making up the questions just makes the info stick.

There's also the WSET DAPS program, which we had included in our Diploma tuition, where you have to send in an essay or tasting sample each week, and it gets graded by a real Diploma marker online. This is worth paying for, but only if you're committed to sending in the homework each week (many of us didn't).

I tried to find a way to self-quiz myself online, but most of the quiz sites were other students' key notes, similar to what I had on my spreadsheet. I decided to make my own prep quizzes when I had more time (it's what I used to pass the Italian Wine Ambassador program).

Review Review Review

I ran out of time, or I would have loved a chance to review the course materials a third time. The exam date which loomed off on the horizon as I started, crept closer slowly at first. Oh, don't worry, I've got a couple of months! Then it was, OK, I've got a solid month left. Then: don't panic, there's two weeks to get this review done. Full blown panic cramming started at about T-10 days.

You should aim for at least two reviews of the curriculum. I estimate on my own time, not including tastings, classroom lectures or reading the material, that I actively studied for 250 hours. Add 100 hours before that for doing just reading.

When to write

You've probably noticed the huge gap in pass rates between the June and January exams. WSET told me part of the reason January has a lower pass rate is that students who wrote unsuccessfully in June, tend to try again in January, and have a lower pass rate then too. I personally think studying through Christmas holidays is neither easy nor fun. I'd rather be decorating gingerbread men and drinking a rum and eggnog than excusing myself from festivities to study off in a corner.

If you have a choice of when to write your Unit 3 final, I'd recommend June.

Take care of yourself while you study

If I could go back 15 months in time to give advice to myself, it would be this: take good care of yourself. It's a cliché, but I would take the time to eat right, get 8 hours of sleep a night, stay hydrated (I'm talking water here LOL), and most importantly, to exercise!

I gained a goodly amount of weight during my time working through the Diploma, that I'm now working towards shedding. Not from tasting wine, but from stress and not taking enough care of myself. I hope you'll heed my advice as you work towards your WSET designation, and remember that although it feels like you don't have time to take a long walk, a bike ride, or go to a yoga class, getting exercise and having some fun time off is key to managing the high stress that comes from passing these exams.

Think positively

As I put down the pen at the end of the exam, I started to shake my head. Jenny, our invigilator, came by to collect the exams. I smiled, "I think this one got the better of me". She said, "Don't count yourself out, think positively". She was right. 

I've always tried to picture the moment I successfully complete the Diploma to help carry me through this rather challenging program, and still can't believe it's here. I hope that you'll think positively about your studies, have fun envisioning your own success, and that one day we can commiserate and celebrate together over a glass of wine!

PS: I've created Theory Prep Courses for Unit 3, 4, 5, and 6. You can find out more here!

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