The life of an MW student - Three
I pick up my story having submitted my application form to the Institute of Masters of Wine. So, was I in yet? Not quite. There are a few more things to do before becoming an official MW student. A respected member of the wine trade has to write a lovely reference about you (thanks Ted). And then, there are the entrance exams.
These are two 90-minute papers, one for theory and one for practical - aka tasting - done at home on your own computer. They must be done under exam conditions. You can choose any point from the release of the exam to the final deadline to sit them, so obviously I did them on the last possible day.
For the tasting paper, the institute specify four wines that you'll need to obtain. When I learned this, I breathed a sigh of relief. So it wasn't going to be a blind tasting exam! Phew! That's not to say, though, that it was easy - far from it!
The challenge, and what is being assessed here is how you think and communicate about wine. How good you are at drawing logical conclusions about the origins and production methods behind a wine based only on the wine itself, or, to use the IMW's phrase, the 'evidence in the glass'.
The specified wines were: a 2015 Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace, a 2017 Pinot Grigio from Italy, a Cream Sherry, and a Rutherglen Muscat Classic. An interesting selection - and I was already starting to guess at what sort of questions I might be asked.
I picked up a bottle of Tenuta Ca'Bolani Pinot Grigio and a Lustau East India Solera Cream Sherry at OWC, but the other two I needed to source elsewhere. After a little research, I ended up with an Albert Boxler Sommerberg Grand Cru Pinot Gris and Stanton & Killeen Classic Rutherglen Muscat, both from the Wine Society.
At the time I (wrongly) believed that there was no revision you could do for a tasting exam, especially one where I already knew what the wines were. Congratulating myself on getting the first step done, I put the bottles away and paid them no more thought.
The theory element was more of an unknown quantity. I'd be given a choice of three questions, randomly selected from past MW exams. In contrast to my happy complacency on the tasting exam, this one really scared me. I set about a revision programme largely based on getting my knowledge of viticulture and winemaking back to where they had been when I sat my WSET Diploma. The Oxford Companion to Wine, Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW and David Bird MW's Understanding Wine Technology were permanently by my side. I wrote page after page of notes. Flashcards may have been involved.
I decided to do both parts of the exam on the same day (deadline day). Theory would be in the morning, then a break for lunch, and I would tackle my tasting exam in the afternoon.
On the morning of the exam, feeling reasonably ready amongst the nerves, I sat at my computer ready to begin. Taking a deep breath, I clicked the link that would open the exam paper. I checked a box to affirm that I would write my answer under exam conditions and would not consult any outside resources, and started the 90 minute timer.
Looking at the questions available to me, I relaxed straight away. They were alright! I knew something about all of them! I must confess that I now only remember two of the questions - the two that I was slightly torn between. One seemed on the surface to be made for me: 'Assess successful approaches to social media by the wine industry.' YES! I could do that! Although the question continued 'Give examples from different parts of the world' - ouch. I wasn't sure that my wealth of examples from an Oxfordshire-based independent wine merchant would pass muster.
The question I chose was 'What opportunities exist, as part of the winemaking process, for the winemaker to bring complexity to his or her wine?'. Planning out my answer, I quickly realised that this topic was ENORMOUS. This essay would be more about what I left out than what I put in!
I structured my answer by going through the winemaking process chronologically. I won't bore you with everything I mentioned, but I was hugely helped by some very good advice from Alice at Cambridge Wine Merchants, now a second stage MW student, who told me that I should include real-world examples in my answer. I stretched my mind back to all the wine visits I'd been on, and peppered my essay with anything and everything I could think of. 90 minutes seemed to go by in a flash - I worried that I'd waffled, but there was no time to go back and make amendments.
The tasting exam was an altogether different experience. I opened my bottles an hour or so before starting and wrote thorough tasting notes on them. This done, I confidently began the exam.
The first few questions were ones I had expected. How, based on the evidence in the glass, did I know that my wines were made from Pinot Gris/Grigio? How did I know that one was from Italy and the other Alsace? What could I tell the examiners about the quality of the wines? So far, so good.
Until, that is, I arrived at one specific question. Looking back on this exam, it seemed obvious that having known there was a Rutherglen Muscat in the exam, I should make sure I was really familiar with the production method of Rutherglen Muscat. I hadn't done this. Inwardly (ok, and outwardly) cursing myself, I tried to dredge up from my memory how this style of wine was made, and come up with a reasonable answer to the question. I knew vaguely what the process was. Wasn't there some heat involved? A solera? Fortification, of course. Cobbling together what knowledge I had into something that hopefully made good logical sense, I did what I could.
In contrast to the theory exam, I found myself with time left over, and a nagging feeling that I had not done myself justice. Somewhat deflated, I wrote a few more cursory sentences before closing the window and ending the exam.
It was a beautiful Summer's day. I had the house to myself. I shut my laptop, and strolled into town, feeling my head clearing and a weight lifting off my shoulders as I walked. Remembering the bottles of delicious wine I had left over from the exam, I decided it was time for a reward.
Later on, I sat in the garden next to a bowl of king prawns sautéed in garlic and chilli, a slather of mayonnaise, and some good French bread. A glass of the Pinot Gris that I'd opened for the exam. Not the best pairing, but the feeling of relief that this hurdle was behind me meant that everything tasted delicious. With my feet up and the sun on my back, I wondered if I'd done enough to get in.