It's been a long time since I filled bubbles with a number 2 pencil. But that is exactly what I was doing at the Wine and Spirits Eduction Trust exam, which was held last month at the Wine Train's headquarters in Napa.
I decided to take the WSET intermediate class because I wanted a certificate that said, “Yes, she knows about wine, at least to an intermediate degree.” WSET issues certificates at the Intermediate, Advanced, and Diploma levels. But there's an even more formidable degree. According to their website the two year Diploma course "is the traditional preparatory course for those who wish to become Master of Wine students." Master of Wine. Sounds like a PhD.
The weekend of classes was somewhat grueling, if that is even possible when you’re drinking wine from 9-5. Most of my classmates were employed in the wine industry - some in corporate environments, some in small operations. I imagine many of them got some help from their employers with the $700 tuition. The intensive nature of the class didn't allow much time for me to get to know anyone except for my lunch buddy Kim, who works for a wine distributor that deals mostly with Costco. She's also a falconer. Yes, a falconer.
I may have trouble with blind tastings but I sure know how to pick a lunch companion.
Our instructors were scary smart. I wish we had more time to spend with them and I think they wished it too. In fact my only criticism of the experience was that it was an awful lot of booze (sorry, wine and spirits) to squeeze into 16 hours.
The guts of the class would have been easier for me if I had known ANYTHING about European wine beyond "Mmm. I like it." The WSET study materials are Eurocentric even on the subject of New World wines. Temperatures are in centegrade, words like "petrol" are common and Coonawarra Australia and South Africa's Stellenbosch regions are considered premium Cabernet regions equal to Napa and Sonoma. The Brits are big on Australia and it shows.
Here's a few gems from the weekend that will give you an idea of what people talk about when they spend $700 and a whole weekend to learn about wine. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Alcohol content: "If you feel it in the back of your neck or if your nose burns it's over 14%. If your eyes burn it's over 15%."
Italy: "The Romans' name for Italy was Land of the Trained Vines"
More Italy: "Valpolicella (I love that word) means valley of many cellars."
Aging: "Pinot can experience non-linear aging. It might be good, then not so good and then better."
Blind tasting tip: "Silver or green rim points toward a cool climate such as a German wine." "Purple all the way to the rim indicates New World."
South Africa: "No one really likes Pinotage, it tastes like burned rubber."
Acidity: "When your mouth waters it indicates high acidity."
Winemaking: "Viognier stabilizes color in Syrah when they are co-fermented together"
Too Much Information: Autolysis is the dead yeast dropping out of wine that changes the chemistry and flavor"