Friday, November 11, 2016

Nurse the Hate: Hate the WSET Fortified Wine Test

It’s hard to believe how much has changed in a week.  Hell, a week ago the worst election result of our lifetime was Brexit.  England stood there proudly after shitting their pants and said “Ha!  Top that America!”.  They really thought they had done something.  That’s when the United States said, “Oh yeah?  Here.  Hold my beer for a second and watch this.”  Ta-da!  We always go big or go home, don’t we?  It’s exciting that this generation will have their own Nixon with a little Vince McMahon/Stalin tossed in.  It’s an exciting time to be hurtling towards possible global destruction.  I hear it’s going to be great.  Again.  I’ve already begun “grabbing pussy” and looking for “bad hombres”.  I plan on embracing this New Age and blending in so the J. Crew Secret Police don't toss me in Gitmo.  But I get ahead of myself...

A week ago I was standing in a bar in O’Hare well in the midst of a five (5) hour United Airlines delay and got to watch Cleveland’s Rajai Davis crush a ball into the left field foul porch to tie Game Seven with the Cubs.  I will admit to a perverse joy in then standing on the rail of the bar overflowing with stunned Cubs fans and screaming “Excuse me!  Excuse me!  You all must be VERY disappointed!”.  Though I was expecting a chilly response to this clearly adversarial outburst, the rapid change of mood in the room from despair to fury was a surprise.  I slunk out of the bar over to the gate during the rain delay avoiding the extra inning beating I would have assuredly received (and deserved).  That the Indians lost was immaterial as I got to see the faces of Chicago’s dreams go up in smoke ever so briefly.  It’s the little things.

I have now been delayed in 7 of my last 8 trips to SFO on United.  The plan to arrive in San Francisco and cocoon up in my Jack Kerouac scroll room went up in smoke with the 335am arrival.  With the time change that was 635am according to my body, meaning I had been up a full 24 hours.  This would normally be acceptable if my trip to SF was strictly to buy Golden Gate Bridge snow globes and pose for photos holding jail cell bars at Alcatraz.  Unfortunately I had to take one of two WSET wine exams starting at 945am.  This proved to be a bit more of a challenge.

I slept for what seemed like 22 minutes and walked a mile on the urine drenched San Francisco sidewalks to the spartan Holiday Inn Van Ness ballroom.  One thing I will say about the Bay Area homeless is that they talk to themselves much more than any homeless population I have ever seen, even the New York City homeless during their golden age of 1984-90.  There is a certain skill in keeping your eye on these people while still not making any real eye contact and inviting potential bad craziness and violence into your world.  Your expression must convey "Yes, I see you are talking to a demon right now and are busy.  I respect that but prefer to leave you to your business as I am needed at another area much further from here.  Excuse me."

If you are looking for a hotel stay almost completely devoid of character on your next trip to the Bay Area, may I recommend the Holiday Inn Van Ness.  If I were selling office supplies and needed to stay overnight while typing out quarterly sales projections, it would be my first choice.  If I wanted to have any type of fun, I would steer clear.  It's the Olive Garden of hotels.  When I arrived at the hotel with my trusty pen in hand I saw dozens of stressed faces frantically paging through test review materials.  These people were doomed.  I believe that if you haven't absorbed something like the relatively complex idea of the Spanish solera system of making sherry, you probably won't be able to learn it 14 minutes prior to an exam.  Now is the time to put on your false confidence and strut into the room as if you are The Man even if you don't know shit.  Attitude goes a long way in these things.

I walked in to this exam feeling prepared.  I will admit to being somewhat shellshocked by my earlier failure in passing this test previously.  I falsely believed that my past experience of going on port benders with my Uncle Jack in New York would be some sort of advantage in this exam.  This is to say nothing of my hazy trip to Lisbon where I watched men that looked like James Bond movie villain toadies serve clueless tourists tawny ports in an horribly dated tasting room.  I made the horrible mistake in my last exam of overthinking.  There was no chance I would make that mistake again.  This is not because I learned a valuable lesson so much as I was so fatigued my brain was functioning in an almost shutdown mode.  If I was a baseball player I was in the "see ball, hit ball" mindset.

The exam itself is very serious.  A roomful of nervous people sit at tables spread classroom style in a ballroom.  A sealed envelope is placed in front of you only when you have provided ID that matches your "candidate number".  Three wines are poured from decanters into glasses in front of you.  A proctor reads the printed instructions on front of the envelope and looks at his watch the insure the exam goes off exactly as scheduled.  And begin...

There are three open ended essay questions.  I think I am probably allowed to reveal the questions now, but after all the shit I have talked about the Brits sitting in that WSET office, I hesitate to do so.  I can even now imagine a man named "Mr. Wallace" who has been dispatched by one of the various "Rogers" at the WSET HQ to give my exam "special consideration".  The heavily oaked door of the backroom squeaks open.  "Excuse me love...  Are those the San Francisco exams?  Be a dear and pull candidate number 150544 from the pile.  Roger has instructed Mr. Wallace to grade that one personally...".  Meanwhile I am driving around in a van with Leo in a cowboy hat getting ready to sing a bunch of new songs to a roomful of rowdy drunks in Pittsburgh totally oblivious to the impending doom.

Part of the exam is writing as much as you can about three open ended topics.  Mine was a variation of this...  Detail the fortification process of port wines.  What role does oxidation play in the various styles of sherry.  Discuss the fortified wines of Maury.  I was quite pleased to have a firm grasp on the topics at hand.  The real issue was that my brain was not firing on all cylinders.  Whereas I should have written something like "The aging of these ruby ports in wood for three years creates the characteristic rancio notes of the tawny class of fortified wines.".  Meanwhile my brain is telling me to write "They take that shit out of those big fucking tanks and put that shit in those smaller barrels and mix in some of that crappy white port.  Then they put it in good looking bottles and hope some fuckers in France buy it to slurp down at one of those dumpy cafes.".  While both answers are "correct", I really feel one will play a bit better than the other to Mr. Wallace and Roger.  I will admit to have written the word "dipshit" at one point.  In retrospect, an error...

Where I had fucked up my last exam was in the tasting.  I will go on record as saying I'm a good taster.  I'm not great, but I'm good.  There's always some little Asian woman at every tasting that will remark "there's a note of violet and honeysuckle mixing with the wet stone" whereas my tasting note is written in crayon saying "Greg smell berries".  I have a bit of caveman in my approach.  Still I have that misplaced confidence in at least being in the ballgame.  The real difficulty in tasting has nothing to do with actually being able to smell or taste.  It's really the mind game that you play with yourself.  Allow me to explain.

A red wine is poured.  You smell the obvious rich black currant and plum of a New World Cabernet.  You know this is probably a Napa Valley cab or cab blend.  You use a deductive method in noting what it smells like, mouth feel, etc while looking for character that makes you rule out other potential wines until you get to a small list of potential suspects.  That's when you think to yourself "Why would they pour such an obvious wine at a test?  This is a curve ball.  It must be something more obscure.  I see what they are doing here..."  The next thing you know you are trying to show off all the bullshit trivia that you have absorbed and spout off "That is an aged Nero d'Avola from Sicily!".  No.  No, it's a Napa cab you dumbass.  Walks like a duck, talks like a duck.  It's a duck.

I moved on to the wines.  I smelled all three to get the vibe.  That's an oloroso sherry.  That's a 10 year tawny.  That's a Bual Madeira.  I have been drinking so much fortified you could have poured me anything and I would have nailed it on scent alone.  I tasted through them.  Yes, I know these.  I was so tired that there was no chance of talking my way into anything else.  See ball.  Hit ball.  I buzzed through three tasting notes.  I finished the exam and looked around, the only one finished.  I re-read my answers and actually drank the port.  (It was pretty good)  I handed the exam in and waited outside to see what the feel in the room was on the wines to see if I was confident or stupid.

I will tell you that many people emerged from that exam questioning their future participation in this absurd pursuit.  I spoke with one woman that missed two of the wines badly.  It was like she called a Snickers bar a lollipop.  She looked down at her notes flipping through the pages hoping for confirmation of her now obviously wrong answers.  "I...  I don't know if I can continue... I... I just don't know...".  I spoke with a guy that finished just after I did.  "Yeah... I didn't know anything about those Maury wines.  But I knew the tasting was two Madeiras and a Banyuls."  No fucking way dude.  That first one was a sherry and the middle one was a port.  "No.  I don't think so.  Oh well.  If I don't pass, I'm done though.  This was it."

I walked back in to the classroom now empty.  In the corner of the room was the box that housed the empty bottles of wine from the tasting.  I did the move of leaning while looking out of the door to see if anyone was coming.  Nope.  No one coming.  I looked at the bottles.  Oloroso sherry, 10 year tawny port, Bual Madeira.  Fuck you guys.  I knew it.  I was right on all three.  I walked over to the charmless Holiday Inn Van Ness bar to get a drink to bask in my own glory.  I'll be honest with you.

I ordered a beer.  




At November 11, 2016 at 4:01:00 PM EST , Blogger old man taylor said...


At November 11, 2016 at 4:15:00 PM EST , Blogger Greg Miller said...

Sweet Victory sir. I will not be stopped in my pursuit of the Mighty WSET Wine Scepter.

I was the only one at that test wearing a Roky Erickson t-shirt, I'll tell you that.


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