Last week I took my WSET Level 4 spirits and fortified
tests. I feel a bit dazed as to
what happened. Thank goodness I
was in San Francisco at the time so I was able to walk around mumbling to
myself amidst America’s most robust homeless population repeating under my
breath “…I don’t know what happened…
It just got away from me…
I… I…” Frankly, I would
have blended right in if I would have had the commitment to urinate
myself. What they don't tell you about San Francisco is that most of it smells like urine. This is because an army of urine drenched men walk around all day pissing everywhere. That's a little something for you that Trip Advisor won't share. I was really bummed out after this test. I went to the bar next to City Lights Bookstore, a safe haven if there ever was one. After I knocked back 546
beers at Vesuvio, watched the Giants and stumbled back to my terrifying hotel to sleep in my own
filth was I was able to place it into some context.
I had choked.
I could try to toss out how I had completely over committed
myself during this time period.
Work had become a largely unmanageable cesspool of greed. I had been working on the final details
of the new Daredevils release (which is going to be called “The Good Fight” by
the way) and also played two gigs right before these exams. I discovered that most people that took
these exams did the following for two solid weeks prior: got together with very organized study
groups, did blind tasting, and drilled the material. Here’s what I did.
Spend 9 consecutive nights not sleeping more than 5 hours per
night. Went to NBA Finals
Game. Worked. Played Detroit. Slept 4 hours. Drove back to Ohio to go to a music
festival. Then drove to
Pittsburgh. Played a gig. Drove home that night. Slept four hours. Tried to study. Brain misfiring. Worked a full day. Flew to San Francisco. Got in a 10p (or 1am EST). Couldn’t sleep. Walked around San Francisco. Bought expensive pen from a guy that
thought I was cheap because I wouldn’t spend $2350 on a Mont Blanc pen. Got fueled up on espresso. Took exam. Went down whirlpool.
I had hit that weird area of fatigue where everything is
smooshy and dreamy. I felt like I
was on a tape delay as it took me a couple seconds for any question directed my
way to sink in. “Sir! Sir! Do you want a cab?”
Ahhhh…. What’s that? No
man… I will just walk. Can you
tell me the general direction?
There is that dull ache behind the eyes that sets in. On the peripheral vision it always
seems like a squirrel is darting around.
I sat in a room filled with wine professionals in my Vice Tricks t-shirt
and Chucks. The exam was delivered
just like the SAT. Sealed booklets
and stern directions. I should
have known something was wrong when I couldn’t seem to understand the basic
directions of how to fill out your name.
What's my last name? Oh well. Here I am so bring
There is a great deal of secrecy surrounding the exams. I think if I even whisper the questions
out loud some out of work British Special Forces guy will come to my house and
saw my head off my neck with a bowie knife. At this point I welcome death so let me allow you into this
exam. The basic concept is that
you have to know all of these meandering topics regarding fortified wines. This includes but is not limited to
agriculture techniques, grape types, climates, production methods, differences
in styles, maturation, bottling, aging, sales pipeline and major
producers. It’s sort of
overwhelming. After you soak in all this information, they ask you three little things form it. It could be anything, so in theory you need to know all of it. I, of course, had a method. As the English are
oddly preoccupied with sherry, I knew there would be a question on the
absurdly complicated sherry production methods. There was. I
just somehow fucked it up. Even
now as I type this I am not sure why I didn’t slip into some rote memorization
playback and discuss the voluminous information I have stored in my head about
how to make a wine that no one actually drinks. It just didn’t really come out clearly.
I thought at first that this was some sort of “test freeze
up”, which I have heard about but never really experienced. Unlike everyone else in this room, if I
fail this exam it doesn’t really matter.
I will have injured my pride (which is, as you know, over inflated) but
there are no real repercussions.
I should be "loose as a goose". Then I thought that maybe my decades of abusing intoxicants had all
funneled into this one moment as a cosmic payback. What sort of God curses a man with alcohol after effects the
very moment when he takes an alcohol exam? “What a cruel and vengeful God!”, I wailed at the top of my
lungs while holding my moderately expensive pen. (Note, I didn’t really do that but considered it.) Actually the problem was quite
simple. I was just on such an extended
sleepless jag that my brain wasn’t really functioning correctly.
I worked my way through a Rutherglen question, which I had
predicted those tricky fuckers would ask.
I answered that pretty well despite only having had one Rutherglen and
been met with blank stares at all wine shops where I had inquired about
purchasing some additional bottlings.
I will put forth a challenge to find anyone in the continental United
States that does not work in the wine or restaurant business that has actually
had a Rutherglen wine. It might as
well be unicorn milk. Fear
not. I remembered how to milk the
unicorn though so I did all right.
Then came a real doozy. Discuss Madeira Shippers. Umm… What’s that?
I had never even considered there would be an essay answer requested
about a consolidated market for a niche product on a shitty little island. I looked down at it for a minute
thinking I had read it wrong.
Surely they would want to know about how to make this unique wine… Most certainly the question would be
about the varieties or methods of aging?
No. Discuss Madeira
Shippers. This is where the wheels
really came off. My answer was
something along these lines…
Madeira shippers ship Madeira from ships that are based mostly in
Madeira. These Madeira ships take
the Madeira from Madeira and ship it elsewhere.
It sort of resembled my doomed essay from my college
microeconomics final, but in that case I had opted not to study the material
and instead engaged in deviant sexual escapades in a bunk bed with a woman
where we did things that I do not believe even now have terms affixed to
them. I take full responsibility
for that failure and I take full responsibility for this one as well though I
have no escapades as fond memories.
The good people at WSET can ask you anything they want on these topics,
and (smiles grimly) they asked me about Madeira shippers. I am pretty sure they were laughing it
up on Plymouth gin, smoking pipes, and nailing up pictures of The Queen when
they came up with that one.
England 1 Miller 0.
Then you do a blind tasting of three wines. By sight when they poured them I said,
that’s a row of ports. Looks like
the one on the end is a vintage port and the middle one a tawny. I’m sure there is a good psychological
study that can explain why I talked myself into these being extremely rare
French VDNs and not ports despite the obvious evidence otherwise. I could
probably meet with trained mental health professionals who could ask me
questions about my mother, preoccupation with death, and why I think every
Rorschach ink blot answer is “vagina”, but it still wouldn’t completely explain
this. For those of you with only a
casual interest in wine (which is most of you), imagine if you drove me out to
a field of zebras out on the Serengeti.
I said “Wow! Look at those
zebras!”. Then when you asked me
to write about the zebras I wrote “These are a collection of striped elk, which
have obviously had the stripes painted on by a government syndicate or
organized crime scam. They are
clearly not zebras.”. This is what
I limped out of the exam. I knew the material.
I swear to you. I just
choked. This was like when Greg
Norman flamed out in the Masters.
It was the Yankees losing that ALCS to the Red Sox. There has to be another sports
metaphor… It was
embarrassing. I considered taking
off all my clothes and walking out of the Holiday Inn ballroom in full view of
the others. A single bell would be
struck. “Shame! (clang) Shame!
(clang) Shame!” The others would looked on in embarrassed silence with perhaps a few of them smirking. There should be penance for what I did. I might get the Sandeman port logo
tattooed on my wrists like a stigmata.
It will be weeks until I receive this confirmation, but
that’s all it is at this point, a confirmation. I think I did poorly enough that a special emissary might be
sent from the London office, a smartly dressed man in a three-piece suit and
pocket watch. He will knock on my
door and enter my home after a painfully polite exchange. I will then be stripped of my previous
WSET Level 3 lapel pin and told never to return, even to the online
campus. “I’m sorry sir, it’s for
the best. Now, if it’s not too
much trouble could you warm me up a spot of tea before the lorry gets
here?”. I will then sit silently
staring at him as he sips his tea, the clock ticking loudly, as he checks and
re-checks his watch. He will then
pick up his umbrella and leave when the cab arrives. “Well… That’s
I will have an opportunity to re-take this exam in
November. This means I will spend
another 4 months drinking high alcohol, high sugar, heavy wines deep, deep in
the funk of failure. Look for
me. I will be the man at the end
of the bar with the Sandeman tattoos, horribly drunk on
Rutherglen. If you manage to wake
me, I will be sure and tell you in excruciating detail all about Madeira
shippers… fucking Madeira shippers.