I set out to complete my second goal of 2015. The real reason I went to France was to pursue a WSET Level 3 certification in wine. As far as I can tell, the WSET is a self-appointed English organization that has attempted to create one language and set of standards for wine and provide measures for how much an individual knows about the subject. It sort of goes like this… In Level One the student learns that wine is made from grapes not peanuts. It's really basic. In Level 2 the student identifies major wine types and sources as in really good pinot is from Burgundy. Barolo makes the best nebbiolo wines. Level 3 is a big step up where you are expected to familiarize yourself with the German wine guild of Verband Deutscher Prädikats-und Qualitätsweingüter and soil compositions of sherry production vineyards outside of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Um, what? While there is currently no practical application for this in my own life, I figured why not challenge myself and see if I could pass this exam? I would possibly be in over my head, and that idea interested me.
I figured that if I was going to go after this type of thing it made no sense to sit in a classroom in Dallas or Chicago. I needed to go to the source, Bordeaux. I found the classes offered in a condensed five day marathon in Bordeaux City Centre in English headed up by a charismatic woman from Newfoundland. I liked what I saw of her online much more than the potential stuffy English dudes that can suck the fun out of anything. It should be noted that there are plenty of wine classes available on this planet run by guys named like “ J. Reginald Spalding M.W.” that seem like they would be as enjoyable as a tax audit. These are the guys that like to keep up the mystique of wine, fill it with exclusionary language, and make it seem impossible to understand.
I can’t tell you the number of people that said to me “Oh, I can’t tell the difference between good wine and bad wine”. Let me clear that up. You can. You have just been led to believe that you need some kind of special training and highly refined palate by the wine elite. Wine is a beverage. If a person can tell the difference between a Sprite and 7-up they can offer an opinion on a 1989 vs. a 1982 Lynch Bages. Do you prefer Burger King or McDonald’s hamburgers? If the taster can spend just an instant of concentration they can easily distinguish the two and decide which they prefer. The same is true with two glasses of chardonnay at a wedding reception. It’s not that big of a deal.
I was the only American in the class which was made up of five Asians, three French people from the area, and a Hungarian expat. The Chinese are suddenly flush with cash after nudging towards capitalism. This has led the super elite of China to ask themselves, “What do rich people spend their money on that will impress other rich people and identify me as a bastion of taste?”. The answer is all of the classic luxury brands like Armani, Prada, Mont Blanc, Rolex, and First Growth Bordeaux. Fifteen years ago a bottle of Mouton Rothschild could be had for $150. Now it is $2500 in great vintages strictly from market pressures from Asia. These guys are like rappers knocking back Cristal in the VIP area of a club in South Beach. They aren’t exactly sure why this drink is supposed to be good, but they are knocking it back very publicly. “Check me out Boy! 1959 Lafite on the rocks motherfucker!”
This China thing has been an unbelievable gold rush for the top Bordeaux properties. Imagine if you will that you owned Lafite Rothschild. You used to make 20,000 cases annually of your first wine that you sold in an off vintage for $65 a bottle wholesale. $65 X 12 per case X 20,000 cases= $15.6 million. Not a bad little profit on a few fields of grapes. Now try it at 2015 prices. $200 X 12 X 20,000= $48 million. Triple revenues in 15-20 years? Thank you China!
All of these Chinese students are here to be certified to allow them to receive better pay at their jobs at home as wine professionals. It’s all about commerce and luxury brands. It is interesting to watch them. They aren’t terribly interested in anything but the headline makers of Burgundy and Bordeaux. One guy literally slept on the table hungover while the instructor went over the Loire Valley, a place that has great value but low profile reds and whites. The Chinese can taste a wine that they don’t care for, have the bag removed to reveal the identity, and when discovering it is actually classified growth Bordeaux scramble for a photo of the bottle and remaining liquid. It is like walking into a party with a weird looking suit. Someone says, “Hey man, that looks like shit.” When you tell them “It’s Prada…” they immediately reverse course and tell you how incredibly nice it is. I only spent a few days with the Chinese students, but it appeared to me that they sort of missed the whole idea of each wine having the opportunity to be a beautiful snapshot of where it was made no matter what the perceived level of value. Wine is, at least in some respect, art. To them it seemed like the right designer tag on a brand of jeans or a really good watch. There appears to be a cultural disconnect on everything but the status level.
So here I am in this room in France. The class is in English. For everyone else it is their second or third language. This fact only reconfirms that I am a dope and a slacker. We go over in depth viticulture like pruning systems, sun exposures, root diseases. Most of it glazes over me. I make the occasional wisecrack that no one understands except the instructor who always keeps a straight face. I think everyone looks at me as The American Douche. On the first day at the end we do a blind tasting on a couple of reds. As luck would have it, one tastes familiar to me. The class carefully extends guesses as to what the wine might be, the Asians petrified about being publicly wrong. The two French guys, David and Francois, think it is Bordeaux. I know what it is, a Cote du Rhone specifically from St. Joseph. How do I know this? I don’t know, maybe just a taste memory from a trip to Avignon. It’s the specific white peppery finish. It indeed turns out to be a St. Joseph and I win a modicum of respect from the French. “He may be a douche, but he did know the wine. Hmmm…” The book is still out on me.
The amount of material is mind numbing. It is so far beyond what I thought it would be in regards to the depth of information. Methods of port production. The white wines of the Coteaux du Layon. Southeast facing slate vineyards in the Mosel. Grosse lage auslese Rieslings. Permitted grapes in the Languedoc. Over 800 grapes in Italy. Hungarian and Uruguay wines. Challenges of high wind in Greek vineyards. Chilean irrigation systems. Carbonic maceration. Up and coming New Zealand pinot noir regions. Comparing and contrasting four methods of sparkling wine production. Portugese vs. Spanish vineyard management. Grape yield caps. The more you understand, the more you realize you don’t know. It is peeling back an onion that never ends. I have no idea how the instructor has managed to remember it all. She’s really impressive. The only person that knows more facts is the Japanese kid that has somehow managed to memorize the entire text book and can regurgitate the information seemingly at will. “Tracey! I believe that the permitted percentage of non-Napa grapes in these wines is 85%, not 80%!”. There is no doubt he is right. He is always right. He is like a near sighted Google.
The key to the whole class is learning the WSET tasting method. This is meant to create a common language on how to communicate what a wine is all about. So often wine press reads like “A flamboyant announcement of boysenberry confidently rides a crest of confident fruit that regales the taster with the wine’s lineage”. I have no idea what the fuck that means and neither did the guy that wrote it. The method we were taught is all about being able to taste for key attributes like fruit, oak flavors, acidity, tannin, and the various levels of each. If the taste buds can get dialed in, it becomes logical to be able to figure out a wine’s identity. For example, if a wine is noted to be a clear white wine with high acidity and medium plus nose of green fruits with a herbaceous edge like cut grass and a ripe fruit body, it is reasonable to assume that it is from the New World (more ripeness than Europe). It is unoaked as there are no cedar, toast or leathery aromas. There is high acidity and a herbaceous edge, so it is probably sauvignon blanc. New World sauvignon blanc with that flavor profile? Probably a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, maybe California.
This little parlor game seems easy until your mind starts to play with you. That smells like cherries. Or does it? Maybe that’s strawberries. Wait... Is that blueberry? Does that oak have enough vanilla in the nose to be American oak? It must be a shiraz. We just talked about Australia. Or maybe they are screwing with me. Maybe it is a merlot or cab. Maybe it’s something crazy like carignane? Is this a Bandol? A Minervois? No, there’s not enough tannin… Or is that acidity really tannin? It is the very definition of Man vs Self. I have found that I have the remarkable ability to talk myself into almost anything. “That’s a grand cru white Burgundy from Puligny-Montrachet!” Umm… No, that’s a glass of port. “Oh”.
At various times I had convinced myself I knew absolutely nothing, getting wine after wine wrong. I was regressing into a deep dark pool of doubt. Meanwhile this little Japanese woman at another table would routinely pop her head up and quietly say things like, “Tracey… On the nose there is a little nutmeg right underneath the violet and minerals, don’t you think?”. Meanwhile I’m saying things like “I smell apples.”. On some days I was almost like a Cro-Magnon man sitting with his hairy hands wrapped around a wine glass grunting tasting notes. “Uh! Taste like blackberry! Gunga like! Pour more for Gunga!” The whole thing can be maddening.
The entire massive cram of information is all leading up to a test. There are 50 multiple choice questions, a bunch of short answer questions, and finally a red and a white wine poured blind that you are expected to identify after making complete tasting notes. The sheer amount of information is overwhelming. You cannot possibly memorize it all, unless you are that Japanese kid that showed up with the text completely absorbed. I found myself falling back to my old slacker college habits. I figure the key will be to have Bordeaux and Burgundy down as those are the epicenters of fine wine. I literally knew almost nothing about the Loire and Italy before coming in, so I will cram those really hard. I spent a couple of days in Champagne knocking back various offerings from Veuve Cliquot and Pommery while on their tours, so some of that must have sunk in. I’m not going to worry about New Zealand, Australia, and South America. I will take a quick glance at sherry, port, and fortified wines. Germany and their complex web of labeling laws is an impossible task. I will take my lumps there. I think I have a solid game plan…
I sit for the test and it is really formal, like an SAT. I was expecting something much more loosey goosey. I might be in over my head. I sign all kinds of documents. The proctor counter signs. I don’t even know for certain what I signed. I might have joined the French Foreign Legion. I can’t be sure. I break open the seal of the test as the clock signals I have one hour and 45 minutes. My pre-test plan immediately seems flawed. Eight of the first ten questions are about New Zealand, Australia, and German wine law. A thought passes through my head. “Oh fuck. I’m fucking fucked.” I’m flaming out. I will return back to America a failure. Wrapped in the blanket of my shame. Having to change the subject of this Bordeaux fiasco forever whenever someone is curious enough to ask. This is not what I planned. I press on.
I may or may not have righted the ship on multiple choice. The short answer questions are very English. They ask me about Pinotage from South Africa, a wine no one likes, even the guys that make it in South Africa. It is the sort of wine that needs a good advertising slogan like “Pinotage: Slightly Better Than A Hyena Bite” or “Pinotage: When You Are Out Of What You Really Like To Drink”. By sheer chance, Tracey our instructor had poured us what was allegedly a good pinotage from a very recent trip she made to South Africa, and we discussed it at much greater length than anyone has reason too. This may be the last time I ever willingly have pinotage unless of course I find occasion to travel to South Africa with Tracey, in which case I will buy her any pinotage she desires to even up this score.
The rest of the short answers are a blur. I know they want the answers to be very WSET jargon heavy as in “this New World chardonnay has been in new oak barrel and undergone maloactic fermentation to help add flavor on the medium plus finish and to help balance the medium acidity” whereas I want to write “all these California chards used to be buttery oak bombs because it tasted like that Kendall Jackson shit that sold 50 billion cases, but that fell out of fashion now so all these hippie winemaker dudes backed off on that crap and are now trumpeting non-oaked like it's a new idea”. It’s not easy to stay on point, but I try my best. I really have no idea how I fared. It might be OK. It might not. I haven’t taken a test like that in 20 years.
Then came the tasting. Generally you do the white first as the tannins in the red can throw you off. I smell it. I give it a taste. I’m thinking, “That’s a torrontes from Argentina”. I’m also thinking “there’s no fucking way they pour me an obscure white second class grape like torrontes as the only white wine in a test”. They gotta pour me a burgundy, right? An Alsatian white or German riesling at worst. But this? Two weeks before coming out to France I read an article about Argentine wine. In it there was one lonely paragraph in all the malbec talk that said something about this white grape variety called torrontes that they made a lot of that “had a particular taste”. I make an effort, found three different bottles and taste them all. Two weeks ago. I know this wine. Son of a bitch, that’s a torrontes! For better or worse, that’s what I went with… The red? I sniffed the glass and immediately knew it was a red burgundy. No problem. I either did really well or flamed out in spectacular fashion.
The test was sealed up and sent to London to be graded. I like to picture a guy in a three piece suit and a pocket watch hunched over one of those desks Bob Cratchit used in “A Christmas Story” grading it as he clips me point by point for my relaxed language. Ironically the Chinese, who speak English as probably a fourth or fifth language, will have everything worded perfectly. It is supposed to take eight weeks to get the results. If I pass, I will make a big deal out of it and begin to ruin wine for any of you that I come into contact with as I comfortably nestle into some high ground of inflated authority. If I fail, I will let this slip from your memory and maybe take the test again quietly in a Chicago strip plaza some summer evening. If I pass that, I will trumpet my success, leaving out the fact of my initial failure and also not mentioning the re-test. This really points to my extensive character flaws, but I am honest and own up to these so that must count for something.
I was done. I then proceeded to have one of the best nights I have had in probably a decade, starting by crashing Bordeaux En Premuer events and drinking down lots of free Bordeaux samples with the Asians. The stars were in alignment my friends. I was in the right place at the right time, if just for one day. I felt very much like myself. I find it intellectually engaging, and I like the other people that are drawn to this wine world. I hope I can carve out a little place for myself there. I really found the whole experience to be one of the better ways I have spent time in my life, but I think I got lucky with a good group of people in the class and a really talented instructor that was well suited to put up with my nonsense. I chose wisely.
Now I quietly wait for the results with a chilled glass of torrontes in hand. If I pass, maybe I will try Level 4. I might have to cheat off that Japanese kid though. I wonder if he has the book memorized yet?