on my final wset diploma exam (unit 3)

when i told the good people of the sampler that i was in london for my final wset diploma exam, they looked at each other, became silent, and in unison, solemnly said, "aahh, the big one..."

they were not kidding, i tell you...  definitely not a walk in the park...  in fact, if anyone thinks that working as a wine judge or a wine buyer is "fun", they should attempt to pass the wset diploma unit 3 exam... any idea that such an occupation is "fun" will quickly and most certainly evaporate...

in fact, the entire diploma certification is designed to test how much one is dedicated to the wine business.  not designed for the amateur, the diploma qualification forms future wine buyers and those who intend to pursue a serious career in the field of wine trading.

the diploma consists of 6 units to be completed within 3 years at most. 5 of those units have rigorous blind tastings and theory exams with the toughest by far being the unit 3 which focus on light wines of the world (the entire world, i must add).

and so, the unit 3 exam is divided in 2 parts: a blind tasting in the morning and a 3-hour theory paper in the after-noon.

the blind tasting is a 2-hour tasting in which 12 wines are grouped into 4 separate flights and are evaluated to answer 4 separate questions:

1) which grape are the wines made of;

2) which regions is the flight of wines from;

3) based on a specific wine region, what are the levels of quality for each wines in the flight;

4) of the 3 last wines in the last flight: where are they from and what grapes are they made of.

each questions requires rigorous analysis as well as sound and logical explanations of choices.

the theory exam requires the candidate to answer thoroughly and exhaustively to 5 questions out of a list of 7.  here, it is expected that enough information will be written to fill up about 2 1/2 pages for each questions and all of it must be relevant and informative.  anything about the wine world is fair game, for example, one year, one question was: "what are the advantages and disadvantages of south africa as a wine producing region?".  now, try to write about this interesting topic non-stop for 30 minutes and fill-up the necessary pages...

in fact, the success rate of the unit 3 exam hovers between 42 and 55% and so it is not everyone who passes - as i said, not a walk in the park...

so what, in my opinion, helps a candidate pass?  i am sure many have their own idea on how to answer this question.  for me, i can think of the following:



- taste, taste, taste, and taste: that is the key;

- understand the structure of tasting and don't only recite bland and cliché-ed tasting notes;

- make the wset systematic approach to tasting (level 4) your most intimate and very best friend, ever;

- most importantly, understand what constitute quality: intensity, complexity, balance, and length and be prepared to explain it succinctly, but thoroughly and completely, so that all component are considered and the answer is sound and logical;

- practise tasting blind as much as possible and practise tannins, acidity, sweetness, and alcohol levels separately;

- spend an inordinate amount of time learning the "theoretical" descriptions (acidity, tannins, aromas and flavours) of each grape varieties and wine regions - there is no point ever to describe a cabernet sauvignon as light in tannins, it is never light in tannins - grapes & wines from oz clarke is a must read for this and perhaps my varieties-profile table can be useful as well;

- spend an incredible amount of time to taste and compare the wines of each regions of the world against each other and understand absolutely clearly the difference between new and old worlds and blends vs not blended wines;

- take an unhealthy interest in wine writers'descriptions and tasting notes in magazines, websites, books, monthly publications and the like;

- most importantly, practise, absolutely and as much as possible, under exam conditions.  one must absolutely not underestimate how much being exam-nervous and being surrounded by 300 other nervous candidates can affect one's concentration to taste an alcoholic beverage at 10h00 in the morning - taste blind, taste often, and taste under the clock.



- read the oxford companion to wine, then re-read it, then re-read it again;

- read jancis's & hugh's wine atlas of wine from cover to cover;

- subscribe to and assiduously read "decanter" magazine from cover to cover every month;

- follow religiously the wset "diploma specification";

- become intimately familiar with the wset annual examinator's report;

- practise answering questions of past exams, closed books and within 30 minutes;

- read, read, read, and read some more about the wine industry every day;

- be interested about every wine regions of the world and be able to describe each one under the following topics: climate & topography, grapes, viticulture, vinification, legal & trade;

- take a particular interest in acronyms, especially: inra, awri, inao, civc, kwv, axr1, and the like;

- think like a wine buyer and how any topic will affect the success of a wine/variety that you intend to import and/or commercialise in your shop/restaurant/bar/wholesale business.

in the end however, one must absolutely not underestimate exam conditions.  i tell you, you will have no time to think.  your arm and hand must write and write non-stop for 2 hours of the tasting and 3 hours of the theory.  you must know your material so that it comes out instinctively and fluently.

even if my lovely maria wished me to at least enjoy some of it, with wine being my so called "passion", believe me, there is nothing to enjoy about that exam, nothing to enjoy the week, and the days before it and nothing to enjoy about this exam during the 2-3 months after it until you get your results.

but if you are passionate about the subject of wine, and if like me, you must call for your results and hear about them at 2 o'clock in morning from teh other side of the world, smack in the middle of a dinner party with friends, believe me that the sweet sound of the simple word "pass" will make all the hardship of long hours studying all the more worthwhile...

"try to enjoy"...