Friday, August 4, 2017

Stage 1 Master of Wine Exam: Done

Before pouring the wines for a mock Practical exam
Since being accepted as a student of the Institute of the Masters of Wine last September (see my previous post from nearly a year ago), I had been head-down studying for the Stage 1 Master of Wine exam. I sat the exam in early June this year, which consisted of a 12 wine blind Practical paper and Theory papers drawing from any topic pertaining to the wine world.


What is the Stage 1 Master of Wine exam?
The Stage 1 exam is the first of three major milestones towards achieving the title of Master of Wine. (Actually, I consider there to be a “Stage 0”: application to and acceptance by the Institute’s Study Programme, which is not known for high acceptance rates.) The Stage 1 exam tests candidates to see if they have the mettle and promise to take on the multi-day Stage 2 exam, the “official” and full Master of Wine exam. If felt exhausted after the Stage 1 exam, the next stage requires several days in a row of the same demanding conditions each day. If you make it past that exam you then reach Stage 3, the Research Paper (essentially, a dissertation).   


My goal for Stage 1 was to finish the exam. There’s nothing worse than feeling like I’m running out of time while there are still more questions to address. While this was not an issue for me at the WSET Diploma level, finishing Practical blind tasting papers and Theory essays at the caliber of a Master of Wine exam has been -- and is -- a real challenge. Thank goodness I met that goal when I sat the exam this past June. A challenging time limit has forced me to better focus, prioritize, and cut unnecessary thinking and writing. I’m still learning how to do this more effectively.  


Happily, I found out that I passed the Stage 1 exam! My studying since last September has paid off. I am so relieved.


Up Next: The Stage 2 “Full” Master of Wine Exam
I’ve been asked what’s next for me in the Study Programme. In a nutshell: nearly a week’s worth of exam-taking next June. The mornings will consist of a Practical Paper, followed by Theory Papers in the afternoon.


After timed tasting practice writing notes only, at home
The Practical Paper: You are given 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete each paper, consisting of 12 wines and accompanying questions.
  • Paper 1 (Still White)
  • Paper 2 (Still Red)
  • Paper 3 (Mixed Bag - anything goes - sparkling, still, sweet, fortified, any style)


The Theory Paper: You are given 1 to 1.5 hours, depending on the paper, for each essay, of which you write 2-3 per Paper on any topic within a certain area of the wine industry.
  • Paper 1 - Viticulture
  • Paper 2 - Vinification and Pre-Bottling Procedures
  • Paper 3 - Handling of Wine (this means QA/QC, packaging, supply chain logistics, bottling, etc.)
  • Paper 4 - The Business of Wine (financial, commercial, marketing aspects)
  • Paper 5 - Contemporary Issues (candidates need to know what’s going on in the wine world, what’s at stake for all parties involved, and be able to take a stance if asked)


Time is already running out as I study for the Stage 2 full Master of Wine exam next June. I now need to focus and prioritize like I never have before. My studies since last September have greatly (re)shaped my knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the wine world, but that was just the start of my journey. There are many gaps in my knowledge that I need to address before I can even begin to demonstrate the “mastery” needed to pass Stage 2.   


Demonstrating “Mastery”
Through the Study Programme, I’m learning that the ability to demonstrate “mastery” of a subject is about *all* of the following:
  1. Having breadth and depth of knowledge
  2. The ability to synthesize the disparate aspects of that knowledge and understand how they impact each other
  3. The ability to apply this knowledge to any area of the wine industry and beyond


What does this mean for the exam?
Practical Papers: You can get every wine on the Practical (blind tasting) exam correct and completely fail it because you didn’t back up your case like a lawyer - you must prove that the wine is what you say it is in a cogent and logical manner, based on what is in the glass. The Masters of Wine who mark the exams know when you’re making stuff up. Conversely, even if you don’t get every wine correct, you can still rack up enough points to pass if you made a really sound argument, again based solely on evidence in the glass. The caveat: you’ll still fail a Practical Paper if you miss truly “classic” wines like Burgundy or Bordeaux.


Theory Papers: You will fail if you simply regurgitate everything you know about a particular subject (e.g. pH, oxygen, water management, bulk wine supply chain logistics, etc.). You have to define your parameters, state your definitions, lay out why the subject at hand matters and when it matters, when it doesn’t matter and for whom, with varied, global, and specific examples for each aspect you write about. You have to be able to organize your essay, write it, and tie it up neatly in a bow within 1 hour or 1.5 hours, depending on the paper topic.


Yes, I did celebrate after passing the Stage 1 exam!
I’m still struggling greatly with this, my biggest problem being knowledge gaps. I can’t write about what I don’t know! I’d rather have the reverse problem of having too much to write about, and being forced to define parameters for the essay to best answer the question. I have my work cut out for me.  


The Long View
Statistically speaking, virtually no one passes both components of the Stage 2 exam on the first try. We’re talking about really focused, intelligent, driven individuals, too. I’m trying not to let this get to me, and I am working on re-structuring my study plan so that I stay focused on the learning process. I need to hone my ability to take what I learn and connect the dots between them, and to be able to write and speak cogently and logically about all these engrossing topics.  

That, after all, is the reason I am continuing to step up my wine studies. I have already gained so much from Stage 1 of the program, and no matter the stress and frustration I have yet to encounter in this next leg of the journey, I know I am meeting my goals. I also take comfort in knowing that in the process, there will always be the ineffable fascination and joy of greater understanding.

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