Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nurse the Hate: WSET Level Four Fortified Wine Test Epic Failure

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 it on.

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 did.

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 it then!”

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. 


At June 28, 2016 at 7:51:00 AM EDT , Blogger AZ said...

It will be aced.

At July 7, 2016 at 5:31:00 PM EDT , Blogger AZ said...

Despite this set back, can us novices still get your recommended wine choices? I have explained my lack of wine etiquette, and admiring of your increasing education, of growing up Hunky and only experiencing Rieslings for the most part from Eastern Europe or Hungarian styles like Tokaji and Egri Bikaver. This is why I drink so much beer and booze. So, at what point can I contact you for recommendations or at least let me know if am making Greg Miller approved choices like the other day when I had Root 1 from Chile with my New York Strip?

At July 9, 2016 at 9:36:00 AM EDT , Blogger Greg Miller said...

You should join the Facebook group Lucha Libre Wine Appreciation Society, a group dedicated to good wine and swift bursts of violence.


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