Once and future wine exams

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Mar 16, 2017

Last week we had two of the ‘small’ (as WSET calls them) exams. These were the sparkling wine and spirits units. It would be a miracle if I didn’t have to resit the sparkling wine one. Spirits? Who knows. What happened? Simple – I blanked. I think the sparkling tastings went ok. I was correct on 2 out of 3, but then again, that’s only 2 out of 25 points each. The rest is description and justification. As readers will know by now, however, WSET and I don’t have a very good history of agreeing on wine descriptions and reasoning for what I think about a wine. (I’m coming back to that point – yet again – in a future post.) However, I was quite a bit off on the last one, in a variety of areas. So, whoops. I’m not going to say more on the tasting part of either exam, except to remark that I was 1 for 3 on the spirits, but one of others was, I think, an understandable mistake that others also made.

Let’s talk about the written bit. There were, as always, three questions on each exam, and you had to answer all three. On sparkling wines, it was a question about producers’ marks on Champagne labels, one about the Prosecco DOC and one about the grape Meunier. Prosecco – I think I fairly well. I knew I forgot some stuff, but still included enough that it should be a decent pass. Meunier – I didn’t have much to say about it, but no one I talked to did. So, we’ll see. But Champagne. Ah – I’m still annoyed with myself. I blew that one. If I were grading, I’d give myself perhaps a mercy grade of 7 or so, out of a possible 25. (You need to average 14 to pass.) I just blanked. It was something I had studied, and knew. Then I went into the exam, saw the question, and my brain performed a bulk erase. Without, alas, all of those ‘are you sure’ prompts. It’s theoretically possible I still passed, but I’m not really counting on it.

On to spirits. The three questions this time were on ‘finishing in spirits production,’ ‘Pernod Ricard’ and ‘Tennessee Whiskey.’  I feel fairly confident on the last one. I didn’t remember production figures, but I think I got most other stuff. That one should be a pass. Finishing – well, that’s a huge topic, and who knows what they wanted in an answer you have ten minutes to write. But I think I acquitted myself decently on that one as well. Pernod Ricard – one of the major spirits conglomerates. That one is a toss-up. I didn’t know nearly as much as I would have liked, and most of that was thanks to a friend reviewing it during the break between exams. (Thank you!) But I’m not too annoyed with myself about that. The business stuff just didn’t sink in with me. I find it completely uninteresting. So I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking it over, since I knew the vast majority wouldn’t be remembered. It was a bit of a gamble, and one I lost. Still, it is possible that one went well enough that I eked out a Pass. We’ll know in the usual 12 weeks or so.

I must admit this is getting disheartening. I’m beginning to doubt whether I’ll ever pass these exams, and for how long I continue trying. In terms of research, I’ve learned lots. But having gone through all the stuff, and paid out thousands of pounds for this, it would be nice to also get the Diploma. It did take me a few days to convince myself (at least temporarily) that I shouldn’t give up quite yet. If I manage to do well enough on the written part, it can cancel out the failures on the tasting side. Of course, that depends on me not screwing up the written part, and doing it better than I have been.

But back to the exams. Those two were the past exams of the post title. There’s one last one coming up. (By ‘last,’ of course, I mean for those who manage to pass on the first go.) This one is the big one: Unit 3, what they call ‘light wines,’ but most people might think of as ‘still wine,’ or better yet, just plain ‘wine.’ It’s a big topic, and it’s a big exam. Where the previous ones have been an hour (technically, 65 minutes, but let’s not quibble), this one is five hours. Instead of 3 wines to taste blind, there are multiple flights, and 12 wines in all in two hours (with a half hour break in between). Instead of three mandatory, short questions, there is one mandatory question, and then you have to choose four out of six others to answer.  And these are all longer – about 30 minutes each, plus five minutes or so apiece to plan and panic.  The one saving grace on this exam is that you can pass each half. In other words, you can pass theory and fail the tasting, and then just resit the tasting part. Still – a very intimidating prospect, and one we have about three months to prepare and taste for.

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