Monday, June 15, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Hate WSET Level 4?

So I passed my WSET Level 3 wine exam.  I thought I would, but I also harbored the fear that I would predict my success and then be forced to stammer out a series of excuses when I flamed out in the test.  I would have probably gone with a variation of “cultural bias” and suggest that the English exam grader didn’t understand the context of my Americanized language in the essay portions.  “Well, what the hell happened was that whoever graded this test didn’t get the reference that when I said this wine was like watching Richard Hell in CBGBs in 1978 with Catfish Hunter on the mound on a black and white TV behind the bar, I meant “tannic”…”.  I think people would have been gracious in that respect, nodding their heads in understanding until I walked away.  Then they could have felt free to say, "I knew he wouldn't pass that thing.  Fucking blowhard.".  That would have worked out well for everyone. 

In today’s “right the fuck now” world of instant gratification, I couldn’t believe how long I had to wait to get the results.  After eight weeks I felt like a little boy that had sent away for something advertised in the back of a comic book as I would open my mailbox daily filled with expectation.  There aren’t many ways for a middle aged man to feel like an eight year old.  Most are illegal or certainly frowned upon by proper society.  I suppose I should feel thankful that I got to experience the mild disappointment of finding no special package in the mailbox, and then trudge back inside thinking “well… maybe tomorrow” re-filled with new hope.  That I finally got the news via email attachment did not seem like the same experience as ripping open an envelope and skimming the opening cordial remarks to get to the real information.  I still remember getting college application responses standing in my driveway trying to figure out if “provisional acceptance” was good news or not.  (It turned out my parent’s dire warnings of my high school freshman year grades being part of my permanent record were remarkably accurate.)

I passed the multiple choice portion “with merit” and the tasting/essay “with distinction”.  I don’t know what that means exactly, but I feel like “with distinction” is better than “with merit”.  I also have a sense that my decision to largely ignore the wines and viticultural practices of New Zealand and Chile blew up in my face on the multiple choice section.  I spent most of my academic life trying to figure out how to beat the system, and by my junior year of college I was skating by with a combination of underground resources, back alley intelligence, and “work smart, not hard” ethos.  Having been away from that so long and then falling back into this practice was like riding a bike.  “What are the odds they ask me about these obscure New Zealand vineyards?  There’s no way…”  Five of the first eight questions were, of course, about New Zealand.  Sons of bitches.

Now I stand as a moderate expert.  In fact, I can probably pass off to people that don’t know any better that I'm much more knowledgeable than I really am.  The reality of it is that as soon as the surface of this subject is scratched, the brutal realization hits that it is almost impossible to become a bona fide expert on a large scale.  The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, and it is literally impossible to absorb it all.  For example, a particular region might be known for certain characteristics, but within that are tiny sub regions that are considered to be the best within it, and within those are particular producers that are using techniques that are producing the very best wines within that sub region.  However, once you grasp all of that the father that ran that special Domaine just died and now his fuck up son is running the property into the ground.  You mean that you didn’t know that the producer that was held up as the ultimate example of the possibilities of this area is now just making overpriced so-so wines?  Hmmm…. You are no expert sir!  It's a hopeless task to even try to take this wine thing on.

Yet, I clearly need to see if I can pass Level 4.  I made a quick scan of the requirements and they seem absurd.  Separate exams for spirits, fortified wines, and business practices.  There is a wine production exam.  To be clear, it appears I would need to pass a 100 question exam that asks detailed questions about things like pruning, trellis systems, and soil content.  This seems challenging for someone that currently has little success in keeping trees alive at his home despite an automatic sprinkler system and team of hired guns dumping chemicals on a timely basis.  Can I really swagger around as some sort of agricultural expert when I don’t even plant flowers?  The answer is, of course, “yes”.  I have never allowed my lack of actual ability to stand in the way of my confidence in being able to cobble together a way to get it done.  See my entire live musical performance career for backup to this claim.

Maybe the most daunting part of the Level 4 exam is the tasting portion.  Twelve wines, six red and six white, are poured blind and a short paper is required to be written on each wine.  Three fortified wines.  Three sparkling wines.  I have already formed the scenario in my mind where I am sitting in a very sterile classroom with a frowning elderly European proctor staring at me, the only sound in the room the loud ticking of a clock on the wall making me panic in not being able to identify the wines within the time constraint.  I would prefer this proctor to be French as he would already be disapproving of me in being an American which has dared to wade into this French dominated world.  You can’t chuck a rock in Bordeaux without hitting a Frenchman that is pissed at American wine critic Robert Parker, this despite the fact he has made many of them richer than Arab oil sheiks.  How do you think they feel about some wiseass American in a cowboy shirt?

I have started some flimsy effort at becoming a better taster now, requiring all restaurant servers to provide me multiple wines in tiny pours without revealing the identity of the wines.  It's a real pain in the ass.  I have already been the object of pity from twenty two year old servers as I have missed on Malbec as well as a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, their eyes filled with a combination of sadness and confusion.  Why is this poor man trying to do this when he evidently has no real ability at all?  I thought the one girl was going to pat me on the head in a “there, there” fashion.   When I noted my recent failures to my old instructor in the correspondence following my grades arriving, she was quick to point out “Montepulciano d'Abruzzo?  Who the fuck could identify that outside of some Italian wine expert?”.  That made me feel a little better, but she probably just said that to me to be polite.  Well, as polite as you can be while using the word “fuck” in discussing the relative obscurity of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.

I think I will have to go somewhere crazy like London or Macon, France to do this thing.  Making me an outsider makes it even better.  I like to be thought of as "The American Rube" upon arrival, before moving into the "Not As Stupid As We Thought" phase.  Ideally I will finish in the "I Can't Believe That Guy Passed" camp, much as I did in college.  I have no idea how I will get access to the wines I will need to practice with to pass that exam.  I’m certainly not going to spend a small fortune on obscure green fluted Alsace, or sniff out a source for shockingly expensive Red Burgundy.  Maybe I will infiltrate some restaurant industry group of sleeve tattooed hipsters that clip sample bottles from desperate distributors.  There must be some small group spitting out $200 bottles of Bordeaux huddled in a bleak back room of an upscale restaurant somewhere.  Get the word out.  I’m looking for some connected fools with access to wine I can't pay for or source.  Level 4 is just sitting out there waiting to be passed "with merit".  Or "distinction". 

Or just passed...


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