Seventy-four hours of classroom instruction, more than 150 tastings, more than 100 hours of reading and studying outside of class. The journey’s over. I passed my test with flying colors. I’m a certified sommelier and I’m simply giddy about the next class, three times as intense as the first, which will start in October.
The final was 100 multiple choice questions, 6 essays and 4 blind tastings. I’ve always been an excellent student, graduating near the top of my law school class. But I found ISG’s Fundamentals of Wine I and II to be very challenging. It’s not that the material is difficult to understand, but we covered, and were held responsible for, a vast array of information, much of it in minute degrees of detail. It would have been easy to feel frustrated that we were required to really remember the minutia except for the fact that I learned enough to understand that in the world of wine, subtle variations in soil, climate and technique have broad impact on the final product. In the world of wine, the answers truly are in the details. I studied hard and pulled an “A” on the multiple choice portion of the test. But even after all the study, this portion of the test was harder than I expected it to be. I was fair, we had covered the content in each and every question and Karla, our teacher, led us through a fantastic review session. But the test was thorough and tested our knowledge well below the surface. As I handed it in, there were thirteen questions that I was not completely sure about. While I graduated from law school in 1988, and would be naïve to think that no cognitive changes have occurred in the intervening years, I rarely finished tests in the past uncertain of more than ten percent of the material, especially when I entered the test room feeling well prepared.
The essay portion was, ironically, both harder and easier than the multiple choice. We took two of the six essays as we finished our study of the wines of France and the wines of Europe. I liked that approach. First, it gave us an opportunity to receive feedback and adjust our work product, as necessary. Second, it relieved some of the pressure to commit huge volumes of information to memory. At least to my way of doing things, writing a good essay requires a stronger grasp of both concepts and salient details than performing well on a multiple choice test. The amount of information that we covered with respect to France, in particular, was immense. It took some pressure off to be able to relax, just a little bit, with respect to France and Europe when preparing for the final exam. We were given broad topic areas ahead of time: New World wines, fortified wines, sparkling wines and beer and spirits. I anticipated the exact questions in advance and felt very well prepared. I’m a little intense academically, and was disappointed that I scored an 85. The grading is very fair, but it’s hard to get an A. ISG allocates fifteen minutes per essay and to earn a 100, you have to include each of ten specific points correctly in your essay. There’s no real way to know which specific ten points are most important and with only fifteen minutes, it’s a struggle to write down everything you know about the topic. Only whole points are awarded, i.e; 9/10 so a “95%” on a single question isn’t possible. I don’t think it’s hard to pass, if you pay your studying dues, but I think it’s hard to get an A.
The blind tasting portion was a huge thrill for me. Anyone that has followed my journey through this course knows that I’ve been insecure about the blind tastings. Throughout the class, my growing insecurity really surprised me. Going into the course, I perceived my ability to discern taste nuance and identify familiar varietals as one of my strengths. What I found, however, is that communicating taste and aroma characteristics is different than recognizing familiar tastes. Additionally, I learned that while my exposure to different wines was fairly broad, that there were too many isolated bottles of international varietals mixed amongst an overwhelming field of Italian Sangiovese, California Cab and Chardonnay, Oregon Pinot and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I was quite facile in recognizing old friends, but it was a real struggle for me to meaningfully describe new ones.
Almost miraculously, my skill set came into its own in the last weeks of class. I found my vocabulary and was able, though the repetitive practice that the class provided, link that vocabulary to smell and taste memories. I correctly identified all four grapes, although I missed three of the regions, earning an 87 on the blind taste test. It’s the first “B” in my life that I’ve ever been proud of.
So now, this phase of my wine adventure is closed. I’m a certified (though low level) sommelier. The next class doesn’t start until October. My goals for the next six months are to retain what I’ve learned, to go ahead and read and outline the materials for the next class so that it will be less overwhelming and join several classmates from my Fundamentals class and form a tasting group. For retention, I know much of what I learned went into short term memory. If I review my outlines twice a month, it will facilitate the shift to long term memory. As to the tasting group, I want to both continue to connect the dots between vocabulary and smell and taste memories and increase my taste experiential repertoire in a regular, consistent way with people who know as much or more about wine that I do. I have absolutely loved the last four months and am excited about these next steps in the plan.
Many thanks to all of you who have shared this experience with me. Until October, I’ll shift my focus a bit and blog about Italy, our vineyard, new wine revelations, food and travel. I hope you’ll enjoy those themes, as well.