(Final?) reflections of an MW student

My time as an active Master of Wine student has come to an end, at the very least for the next two years. Here are my reflections on the last six momentous years.  

WSET Diploma to MW student

In 2013 I graduated with the WSET Diploma while working full time in a role related to UK higher education, while also writing and maintaining this wine website, www.winefriend.org.  In many ways I did not need a new challenge but I was keen to go on learning about wine. My options were limited but I did have time to study and I wanted to learn to taste to a higher level so I embarked on the Master of Wine programme. I knew the chances of overall success were slim – around 10% is the usual pass rate quoted – but I was not overly deterred.  How else was I going to deepen my understanding about wine while being based in an office job in London? 

Now six years later, it is two months since I learnt that my time as a student has come to an end.  The rules of the MW are quite complicated. There are three elements, Theory, Practical and Research Paper and you have to pass the first two before you can start on the last.  In order to proceed, you have to pass at least one of Theory or Practical within three attempts. If you only pass one of these, you have a total of five attempts to get the other element. As the exams are only set once a year, this can make for a lengthy process. 

Passing Theory

After two years of the most intense study I can remember in a lifetime of study, I passed all five Theory papers at the first time of asking. However, I didn’t get close to passing Practical. I nearly hadn’t sat the exams in 2015 as I was not at all clear that I was ready. But a MW who had encouraged me to start on the whole enterprise thought I should have a go and he was right. I was thrilled to pass Theory. For the first time, I really felt that I belonged in the study programme.

Between 2016 and 2019 I took the Practical exams a further four times. The exasperating thing was  that my first two resits were no better than my first attempt. In fact, 2016 was worse than 2015. I was not making progress, despite having hugely deepened my tasting experience of the key wines of the world. 

In 2017 my results were even worse! But I had a good excuse in that I had been seriously ill in April, took a mock exam in May and did reasonably well and decided to sit the real exams in June, wrongly. Three months later I was fully recovered and realised that I should not have sat that year. I  picked up my studies again. 

In 2018 I took decisive steps to improve my argumentation. The two key skills for MW Practical are tasting accuracy (aromas, flavours, the structural elements of wine – acidity, tannin and more) and argumentation. Can you persuade the examiner that you have not guessed the identity of the wine but can prove why it is what it is.  Have you considered and ruled out reasonable alternatives? Is your logic as sharp as your tasting?  I made real improvements in my argumentation from 2018 on, particularly with the approach developed by Marina Gayan MW. In brief this is:

a) taste with a purpose: take your notes against the headings of the questions you are answering

 

b) use the most minimal note taking scheme, CAFABS+Q+MOP: Colour, Acidity, Flavour, Alcohol, Body, Sweetness + Quality level + Method of Production)

 

c) plan your answer: even though you have only about ten minutes to write an answer, a minute planning more than repays the time investment)

 

d) have two approaches to answering:

If you know what wine is show your confidence, argue authoritatively for it and do not consider other options.

If you don’t know what it is, identify the most important features of the wine (e.g. the acidity, tannins and flavour), consider the three most likely wines and systematically work through them, eliminating two and arguing positively for the other. If you are correct it shows you have been thorough; if you are wrong and it is one of the other wines, you will get a decent number of marks.   

I prepared well for the 2018 exams but narrowly did not pass.  I was hugely disappointed and it took months to get back down to work again.

Practical 2019

2019 was my last chance – in the sense that under the rules, if I did not pass, I would have to take a break of two years and I would have to take Theory again. If I was 30 or 35 that might be reasonable … but I am not.  In any case, I was beginning to miss the chance to continue to specialise in Italy and France. My only loss in taking the MW was that I had to have a worldwide focus and so Italy had to go on the back burner.  

My preparation for the exams in June 2019 was systematic and thorough. My state of mind was as calm as it could be under a big challenge. A few sessions with a sports psychologist were really helpful in that area. In addition, I finally had a mentor who was genuinely helpful on the tasting front.  On the three mornings of the exams in early June I wrote full and well-timed answers to all three papers of the Practical exam and I even slept well during the exams, something I certainly hadn’t done in any of the preceding attempts.  But overall I did not pass; I passed one paper but not the other two.  This is – in all likelihood – the end of this particular road. 

What did I learn as an MW student?

It is really difficult to convey how much I learnt as a MW student and how many valuable, horizon-expanding, experiences I have had. But let’s try. 

– A broad theoretical understanding

Put simply, MW Theory is a level above the knowledge and insight needed for the WSET Diploma enriched by examples of current practice.  It is not enough to know in some depth how grapes are grown, how all the main wine styles of the world are made, how wines are bottled or packaged and how the resulting liquids are sold. You need to be able to illustrate your answers by pithy, relevant examples which show that you know how all this works in practice. 

I revelled in this side of the course.  I love study anyway and now I had these huge fields to get to grips with and to enliven with real life examples.  Typically, I dived in much too deeply on the technical side – using Ron Jackson’s academic tome  Wine Science as my text book – but got away with it.  (Ok, I skipped the pages which were pure chemistry but the rest I read and made notes on.) My only regrets here are that my basic Chemistry was undertaken so long ago that really it was no help at all, and that limits what you can understand in both grape growing and winemaking.

After the first year exams, called Stage 1, and long before I got my results, I took just 10 days off and then got into studying Wine Business. I knew I needed the time to learn about business from scratch.  

– A wine education through visiting wine regions

There is no actual study programme for MW students; it’s up to you to decide what you need to learn about and how you go about learning it.  The most pleasurable and arguably the best way to do this is to go on as many research visits to wine regions as possible.  The proviso is that you relentlessly ask professionals what they do and more importantly, why they do what they do.  Why do you choose this vine training system over another, what are the advantages and disadvantages? Why do you choose one fermentation temperature or type of yeast over another?  Yes, the visits are excellent for seeing the wine regions of the world, for tasting, for eating and drinking, for making friends with fellow students but the heart of them is that relentless interrogation. 

Broadly there were three types of visit: those organised for students by the Institute of Masters of Wine, prizes for essay competitions and self-organised visits. 

The Institute has a regular programme of visits to classic wine regions. I went to:

  • Bordeaux – the standard second year seminar for European MW students is held at Dourthe’s conference facility in Entre-deux-mers but with visits to a range of wineries from Cheval Blanc to a large cooperative, with a visit to a barrel maker as a bonus.
  • Burgundy, sponsored by Maison Bichot – this provided an excellent in-depth experience of tasting Burgundy from the basic level to Grand Cru with many of the variables taken out. The wines are made by the same winemaker using the same methods. 
  • the Douro, sponsored by Symington Family Estates, Quinta do Noval and the Fladgate Partnership) – three fabulous days of all things Port.

The advantage of these visits is that they are very well organised, the wineries visited understand that we are interested in a high-level of technical information and the visits are very good value as they are usually sponsored by a winegrower’s association or a large wine company. The disadvantage is that everyone else on the visit is an MW student and they all want to ask questions. And not necessarily in the order you had in mind. 

Secondly, the Institute encourages its sponsors to run competitions for MW students – usually writing a short essay – and the prize is a visit to a region or a company.  Having won the WSET Champagne scholarship in 2013, I had firsthand experience of how valuable these visits were, how they transform your understanding of a wine region. At the beginning of my MW studies I  thought that only really fantastically bright students won these prizes but I came to see that most students didn’t have the time or didn’t give priority to these essay prizes. As a result I decided that I would enter all of these competitions. I needed to learn about the wines of the region in the essay question anyway and so I might as well do so in a way that forced me to organise my thoughts.  I was fortunate enough to win quite a few of these prizes.

As a result, I was able to do the following:

  • spend a whole fortnight in Germany (Ahr, Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen). I had some money from a Diploma prize I had won and put the two prizes together (Reh-Kendermann prize + WSET Wine Trade Club Paten prize). The Wines of Germany did a first class job in creating an itinerary and arranging visits in the Ahr, Mosel, Rheingau and Rheinhessen.
  • make a sponsored visit to the Graves 2014 press preview.  I am not sure that the sponsors ever paid for the flights as they were supposed to but the experience was great including visits to first growth Château Haut-Brion and to Châteaux Smith Haut Lafitte and Bouscaut.
  •  make a brilliant five day visit organised by AXA Millésimes. This included a visit to Bordeaux, with accommodation in the magnificent Château Pichon Baron, and to Quinta Noval in Portugal’s Douro valley.  This was a huge privilege.
  • Family of 12 New Zealand prize. I told my wife Janet that there was yet another competition to enter and, yes, the prize was a fortnight’s visit to New Zealand including all the transport and accommodation. As a very reluctant flyer her spirits sank but I assured her that there was no way I was going to win this amazing prize.  I spent a month researching and writing my essay and then months later that innocuous email arrived to say that I had indeed won the prize … I was amazed, flabbergasted and delighted! We eventually travelled in January 2016 for an unforgettable series of visits to the twelve wineries of the ‘Family’ in eight regions and to the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc conference in that month. And we tacked an equally wonderful week in South Australia on to the journey to the far end of the earth (from our limited parochial point of view). 

In addition, through self-organised visits, I visited:

  • Madeira: this was an excellent trip organised by three students, Tim Jackson (now MW), Gabrielle Gorelli (now writing his research project) and myself. And Tim’s bike came too so that he could cycle up the crazily steep mountains of Madeira!
  • Sicily: Part of this gang then visited many regions of the island in 2016 with Pietro Russo, winemaker at Donnafugata and MW student (currently also writing his research project).
  • An even smaller sub-group then visited Marsala, Sicily, in 2019 to learn about the venerable and much misunderstood fortified wine.
  • The Institute’s 2014 Symposium in Florence, a four-yearly event for 300-400 participants. At one level Tuscany was the region I least needed to visit. But I was hardly going to miss the fabulous tastings and presentations in Tuscany… I also attended the next Symposium in Logrono, Rioja in June 2018
  • Geisenheim and Württemberg: a study day at the top enology school in Geisenheim with visits to the Rheingau and Württemberg, a new region for me, organised by the German Wine Institute.
  • Austria: Erste Lage (‘premier cru’) Preview Tasting 2016 for some important appellations on the Danube (Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental)
  • I finally visited Jerez, Spain, to understand Sherry better in 2019. I had wanted to do this as a Diploma student and now it finally happened. This was a really worthwhile visit with my wife Janet and fellow student Anna Jarosz. 
  • Various locations for MW exam practice – Paris a couple of times for full mock exams organised by two French-based MWs and Verona and Marsala for mock exams attended mainly by Italian-based MW students. These last two also included opportunities to visit wineries in the regions.

And finally, I also did my best to keep up my Italian and French contacts and knowledge with visits during these student years. These included visits to Vinitaly (the giant Italian wine fair), Romagna, various parts of Tuscany, Umbria, Friuli, not to mention Champagne, Burgundy and the northern and southern Rhône. And I also squeezed in wine blogging visits to Spain (Rioja, Navarra, Rueda, Ribera del Duero), Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel, and Switzerland.  

My current work (see further below) also provided many opportunities to visit wine regions:

  • Trentino and Alto Adige, Campania and Basilicata, Prosecco DOCG and Asti in Italy
  • Alsace and Provence in France
  • unforgettably, a 10-day visit to South Africa with excellent support from the Wines of South Africa

I have laboured this point for a number of reasons. First, I wanted a record in one place of the main wine-related visits I have made since 2013.

Second, my MW studies, latterly supplemented by work, have given me an in-depth wine education in themselves with obvious strengths in Italy and France but also in other European countries plus New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. 

Thirdly, I can’t really believe what an exciting time I have had and how many wonderful growers, winemakers and wine business people I have had the good fortune to meet. Not to mention the amazing places I have been to and even the places I have got lost in!  (Somewhat weirdly, Tuscany wins that accolade partly because I have been there more than other regions.) All this experience has formed the person I now am and what I can offer back to the world of wine.

– What else did I gain? A job as a wine researcher and writer

In 2015, as I was preparing to sit the MW exams for the first time, I was made redundant from my long term job in vocational higher education. As the exams approached a job came up at the London headquarters of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, WSET to its friends. I nearly did not apply for this as I was in a pre-exam tunnel.  But my wife Janet got me to ring up and enquire about it, and indeed helped me to apply for it. After all, if I didn’t like the job I could always turn it down … or even leave it. 

I was pleased to get an interview. I vividly remember walking into the interviews thinking, you can ask me any question you like about the world of wine I will be able to make a fist of answering it – I had just spent two massively intense years studying for MW Theory. Amusingly, the one topic I decided to skip in my studies was malolactic fermentation as there had been a whole question about that in the previous year’s MW exam. And – yes, you have guessed it – that is exactly what I asked about in interview.  Anyway, I apparently was the only candidate who could give a decent answer. For what ever reason – and I did have relevant backgrounds in adult education, in writing for the web and in research – I was offered the post and have thoroughly enjoyed it ever since.  It has been really exciting and a genuine privilege to be one of the two main writers for the completely re-written study guide for the WSET Diploma, a vast undertaking.  MW study made me a strong candidate for this job. 

Why did I not pass the MW Practical?

Despite all these positives, the reality is that I did not pass the MW Practical.

It was not for want of trying. Preparing for these exams was the main focus of my study life in the years 2015–19. If you want the full, gory details, read my piece on my preparations in the 2018–19 academic year. 

Of course, I cannot know exactly why I did not pass all three papers. There is no feedback on the exams, apart from the grades that tell you if you were close to passing or nowhere near. But over the four years of focus on MW Practical you can build up a very accurate and painfully revealing picture of what is going wrong in those 11 minutes you have to taste and analyse each wine and write one page of A4 of concise and totally persuasive, logical arguments.  (And then do that for the 36 wines that make up the exams.) For each wine you are basically being asked three or four of these questions:

  • where does the wine come from?
  • what grape varieties is it made from?
  • how was it made?
  • what is the quality of the wine?
  • how would you sell it?

I did improve as a taster and my argumentation improved considerably. Despite this there was frustration too.  I sought but could not find professional help to improve my tasting. I have written about this in Helping MW students to improve their tasting skills. This is my only real regret about my time as a student. I never found a course or a learning context which could help me improve systematically as a taster.  (And not passing the exam of course!) 

Despite making real progress, I remained prone to a combination of weaknesses.

Sometimes my tasting accuracy let me down. I would just miss completely that the white wine was aromatic and would argue for a non-aromatic or semi-aromatic variety. It is difficult to recover from this. I noticed that this basic misidentification failing was more frequent if I felt under pressure or if I was not feeling one hundred per cent.  My worst efforts were if I tasted with an MW I found intimidating or in a semi-public setting. I can’t help wondering if that also happened under the pressure of the exams themselves.  But you can pass with a small number of misidentifications of this sort. 

Another issue was the internal and well hidden compulsion to come to a conclusion, sometimes before I had really considered all the evidence.  Thus I would decide the wine was Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc before I had really considered the full range of flavours, the acidity and alcohol level and the winemaking style.  Of course I knew I should not do this – but there is the counter-balancing need to trust one’s tasting instincts. I don’t think I found a way to work creatively with that tension. 

More surprisingly, I found that having assembled the basic features of a wine, I found it difficult to call to mind the range of wines it could be.  Having thought it could be cool climate unoaked Chardonnay, I could not recover the other options (Chenin, Grüner Veltliner, Cortese, etc.) to consider them properly, discuss them and rule them out.  I practiced funnelling extensively during the study year, but my mind would freeze during mock exams and I don’t know how regularly I did it in the actual exam. 

I was also prone to assemble the evidence and then fail to come to the obvious conclusion. When you do this and look back, you realise that your evidence points strongly to, for example, Syrah, but for some reason you have argued for Cabernet. 

More generally, I am not sure I have the temperament to rise to the occasion of an exam and really perform at my very best in it.  Although I have a long track record of learning, I was never that good at exams. I think I protected myself psychologically from the challenge by easing off study and revision in the weeks before the exam. I did not exactly coast through the exams themselves but I not sure I have enough of a competitive instinct to rise to the occasion. If I was a runner, I think my best time would be about a month before the finals, not during them.

No need to weigh the balance of positives and negatives

It is now exactly five months since I sat the exams and two months since I got the results.  As you can see, I learnt a huge amount – about wine and about myself – had a wonderful time, improved my skills and got a job that I love. At an age when many people are looking to stop working and take it easy, I am really lucky to have a whole new lease of life. There are just so many old and new things in the world of wine that I would like to explore further and find out more about. What greater gift could there be from a programme of study? And this huge effort has led to a whole new chapter in my wine life (the clue is ‘chapter’) … but that will be the subject of another post.  

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