Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nurse the Hate: The WSET Diploma Exam

On Wednesday I took the long awaited WSET Diploma Unit 3 wine exam.  This is "The Big One".  It covers "wine".  That's a broad topic in case you hadn't noticed.  I flew to San Francisco on a Tuesday to “sit the exam”.  As this is an English certification, you don’t “take the test”, you “sit the exam”.  The WSET mandated that this exam be given only on a Wednesday, assumedly so it was inconvenient for everyone possible.  If there was a reason this test wasn’t given on a weekend, or even a Monday/Friday, I didn’t hear it.  Instead it was smack dab in the middle of the week.  Thus I found myself in a bleak airport area hotel on a Tuesday overlooking an industrial park as I attempted to cram in everything on wine into my leaking brain.

The challenge with this exam is twofold.  The first part is a blind tasting of 12 wines.  Served in two groups of six, the student is given ten minutes per wine to provide a complete assessment and identification of the wine.  Sometimes the wines will be presented in a theme, meaning that maybe you will be given three wines from Chianti or Piedmont and then asked questions regarding how they are linked.  Sometimes they will serve a total mixed bag, so the wines could be an Australian shiraz, a Hungarian sweet wine and then a bone dry Riesling from Alsace.  Based on my experiences with blind tasting, let me tell you this.  It ain’t easy.  Even if you had all afternoon to figure the wines out, it would be difficult.  This situation is much more challenging as there are 40 people sitting in a room scraping glasses around on tables while a big clock is projected on the wall ticking down your available time.  It is like playing golf with a shot clock.

I had been tasting very well going into “sitting the exam”.  I would time myself to make sure to keep it as close to “exam conditions” as possible.  I just forgot to have 40 people sitting around me and have the added pressure of “you fucking flew out to some shitty hotel by the airport in San Francisco, so don’t fuck this up” playing in my head.  Almost immediately I got confused on a neutral white wine.  The clock is ticking ticking ticking as I am going through permutations in my head.  “Ok…  OK…  This is Old World.  No doubt about it.  At least I think so…  So what is it?  Pinot Gris?  Maybe it’s Spanish like one of those shitty verdejos…  No…  Gavi?... No…  Soave?  Fuck.  Maybe.  Is it a crappy chardonnay?  How much time do I have?  Holy shit!  Fuck it.  It’s a pinot gris…  That’s wrong!  I know that’s wrong…”

I would describe the first flight of six as going “poorly”.
There was a brief break as we re-filled glasses for the next flight.  I looked around the room and saw some of the same dazed and confused expressions as I had on my face.  It reminded me of a wildly different event from my past.  I remember playing football in school.  This kid Tim Blystone came running around end one time on a reverse.  Now normally the two big defensive ends would have run themselves out of position by the time the fleet footed Blystone would have gotten the ball and the diminutive young man would have run right by.  However, this time the two defensive guys were really hung over from a party the night before and weren’t chasing anyone, certainly not at football practice.  This time when 135 pound Tim Blystone ran as fast as he could with the ball, he found two 235 pound pissed off seniors waiting to hit him with everything they had.  I have seen auto wrecks that went better.  The expression Blystone had on his face when he got up off the ground is what I saw on many of the students in that room.  It was a variation of “what just happened, something really just fucked me up”.

The next flight went better, but I wouldn’t place my confidence level at “high”.  I approached it with a Manny Ramirez mentality of “see ball, hit ball”.  In retrospect, that works very well in baseball because you just need to hit .300 to be a superstar.  In this case you need to hit about .850.  I maybe should have given that more reflection.  I got a couple of the wines correctly, and was in the neighborhood of the others.  Everything slowed down for me on the second flight.  At lunch we discussed the wines amongst ourselves, hoping beyond hope that someone would parrot back to us our tasting notes.  This is an excellent time to begin to freak out as people’s answers are all over the place.  If it was fast food, it would sound like this.  “Yeah man, that first one was a taco!”  A taco?  No.  That was a hamburger.  All three were hamburgers, but with different condiments.  What did you say they were?  “Holy shit!  I thought it was a taco, a burrito, and a corn dog!  They were hamburgers?  They were ALL hamburgers?  Oh my God…  Oh my God…”

After lunch we spent the next three hours answering essay questions on loose sheets of paper.  I can’t tell you the last time I wrote 18 pages in longhand.  My hand started to cramp up as I tried to think of everything I knew about obscure wine regions and grapes.  My favorite part of this portion of the test is that you are never exactly sure of what they want you to respond with for a correct answer.  “Discuss winemaking in Burgundy.”  It’s a bit open ended to say the least. The WSET grading overlords are like having a strict English girlfriend that is always pissed off because you can’t read her mind.  Past grading notes for these questions run the gamut from “The student failed as they did not expand on the subject and write in broad enough a manner” to “The student failed because they failed to focus on the core of the question and instead wrote in too broad a manner”.  Your English girlfriend is going to bust your balls, you just don’t know why until it is actually happening.  I just wrote as much as I could about a topic and tried to avoid saying things like “these fucking Spanish guys used to make shitty wine because no one cleaned up the winemaking areas and the barrels were all filthy, then a bunch of uptight French wine consultants got brought in to get on everyone’s ass and made them step it up”.  That became “after a trend towards modernization and move to temperature controlled stainless steel ferments, quality improved with the help of consultants”.  I tried to present the facade that I was a reasonable man that knew a thing or two.

Ultimately, I have no real idea how I did.  I spoke to a friend of mine that took the spirits exam in Boston on the same day (also conveniently on a Wednesday).  How did you do?  “I have no idea.  You know how it is.”  Yes.  Yes I do.  The grading takes 10 weeks.  This is understandable as someone needs to plow through my 18 pages of scrawled handwriting as I tried to spell foreign words from memory.  By the time I got to page 12 of my answers, it looked like someone had tried to teach an ape to write.  I did know the basic answers to the questions asked.  Did I know it in enough detail?  Shit, I don’t know.  I hope so.  If I can avoid having to try to memorize Austrian wine law or grand cru vineyards of Chablis again, it would be a nice turn of events for me.  I do know that I at least belonged in that room to “sit the exam”.  It was 39 people that all work in the wine industry in different capacities and me.  I'm just a fucking guy, and there I was a complete imposter.  I was proud that I got there to that exam, but I will not stop until I pass that exam.   Statistically it’s not in my favor, as less than one third of the people in that room will pass.  I hope I am in that third.  If I’m not?  I guess I will be out there in a shitty hotel by the airport on a Wednesday in January to try again.  

I will not fail.    


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