Back to school

It’s definitely weird, after 10 years or so of actual work, to go back being a student. The perspective of classes, homework, and reading materials seems deliciously youthful. This week, I started the WSET Level 3 course (I took and passed the Level 2 back in 2014) so the studious feeling is very fresh in my mind.

The class is split roughly between two thirds of people from the wine industry (buyers, sales, restaurant) and one third of people like me who would just like to learn more and maybe, one day, God willing, weather allowing, stars aligning and pigs flying, transition to the wine industry. My girlfriend’s reaction when I told her that my classmates worked for certain restaurants in Boston: “Be sure to network, so we get invited to their events.” She is the best.

Most of the class was devoted to introductions and to the tasting approach that will be emphasized. A very structured, systematic approach, that is similar to the one I learned for level 2, but much more detailed. The cheat sheet for the methodology is roughly twice the size than the level 2 one. So is the textbook.

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That seems to be the point overall, Level 3 is supposed to be challenging, it is the first “real” class of the program, and the exam at the end will be significantly tougher. The next part of the class was discussing the exam format. On top of the multiple choice and short answer questions, the exam will include blind tasting of two wines, one red, and one white. Basically we will have to give a structure description of looks, nose, taste of the wines and conclude by guessing the nature of the wine, judging its quality, ageing potential, and estimating its price range.

I’m not going to lie to you, it seems daunting at first. Especially after we did a couple wines as a class, so that the educator could take us through the methodology. I felt that it was going fast, that I didn’t get most of the things other students did. It was scary. Test subjects were a very enjoyable Auslese Riesling from the Mosel, and a meh Chinon from the Loire Valley.

And it immediately got scarier as we concluded the class with a mock exam: 2 wines, 2 tasting sheets and 20 minutes! I was panicking a little bit as I started taking notes, sniffing, checking the color against a white background,… Time seemed to fly as I was debating between passion fruit and pineapple notes, between pale lemon or medium lemon-green color. When the clock ran out I was dejected.

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The teacher then took us through the results. As it turned out, I would have passed. I got a 40 out of 50, 26 being the passing grade. I did well on the quality/price range/ origin conclusion but flunked both color appreciations. I also misjudged some of the acidity/body/intensity/alcohol levels. To me this will always be the tough part “how do you distinguish between medium + and high acidity, or between medium – and medium body? Apart from those “calibrating” issues, I was a bit relieved. It helped that both wines had fairly distinctive profiles, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Rioja Reserva.

Overall, I’m excited to start on this new learning journey, for a couple hours every week I get to be a student again, on a subject that I happen to love. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do.

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Getting schooled

Being French comes with a sizable amount of drawbacks but also a few noticeable advantages. First and foremost, growing up in France, wine was always present at family dinners, functions, events…My family was actually making wine in Burgundy and my grandfather was an agricultural engineer so I picked up some wine knowledge as I was growing up. It’s pretty awesome to have your grandfather casually explain how grafting American vines helped save the French winemaking industry that was dying because of phylloxera (I’ll write about that in another post because that’s a great story).

But picking up bits and pieces of knowledge around the dinner table or the vacation house only gives you just that: bits and pieces. It’s hard to have a global view with those; you need more structure, a more comprehensive approach. That is why I started taking classes, to replace what I knew in perspective, make sure my basics were solid and then expand outward. Furthermore, growing up in France, I had more experience with French wines, I’m taking classes in Boston where I live and where US, Australian or South African wines are more easily available which (hopefully) corrects my French-centered wine education.

The classes are really fun; they mix theoretical knowledge with tasting, trying to establish the basics and illustrating it with relevant wines. There is also a tasting method which has the merit of assuring a systematic approach to the wine. That way, comparisons between wines are easier since you tasted them the same way.

This is by the way my single biggest takeaway from the classes: it is much easier to pick up flavors, intensity, acidity levels, tannins… when tasting 2 or 3 wines in succession. Going back and forth really helps me distinguish wine characteristics; it’s really a case of comparison and contrast. This being said it remains hard to pinpoint aromas with the trained and imperious certainty of the wine expert! Try and recognize an elderberry or gooseberry aroma!

Anyway I’ll take my first exam in a couple weeks then start the next block of classes early next year. I intend to practice a lot in the meantime. And yes, by practice, I mean drink. And yes, by a lot, I mean a lot.