Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Few people who know me in the wine industry are aware that, in Hong Kong, my main activity is to export bicycle accessories from China and that wine is for me a passion.  One that I have certainly carried forward to the extreme in the last few years.  Today, I believe that the qualities that helped me establish my company at the age of 25 and persevere with it for more than 20 years were perhaps what kept me going in the Master of Wine program until now. I also believe that those qualities were perhaps what kept me from passing the exam twice already.

Two years ago, when Jeannie Cho Lee MW became my mentor, she insisted at the outset that I present her with a “SWOT” analysis.  She believed, not wrongly I realized overtime, that it was the most important tool to guide my studies and help me prepare for this incredibly tough exam.  As I am now considering whether to attempt it for a 3rd time, I see this analysis as being more relevant than ever.

However, after more than 5 years on the program, after countless hours of tastings and study, after a great deal of investment, both financial and emotional, I now see myself analyzing more than my strengths and weaknesses.  I see myself digging deep inside my soul to confront the brutal truth: do I have the personality to pass this exam and if so, am I still willing to focus on what needs to be focused on to achieve this goal?  More brutal still, why should I do so?  

When I registered, it was no secret that this self-study program was one of the toughest in the wine industry and had a notoriously low passing rate. At the time, I dismissed those issues with a wave of the hand and with my usual “if-one-can-do-it-I-certainly-can-do-it-too” attitude.  I remember that my 1st yearly seminar in Napa Valley went by relatively smoothly and that I came back to Hong Kong with a sense “that I could do this thing”. I subsequently submitted a few essays, received relatively good marks, passed the First Year Assessment and went on to the 2nd year. All the while devising my own ways of doing things, consulting others little, and thinking that if I could demonstrate the “brilliance of my knowledge”, I would pass.

Then came my second 5-day seminar, this time in Bordeaux... Bam!  A total disaster.  Not only a pothole in the road, but a mine field altogether. Each day realizing that my concepts were not working, that I had no idea of what I got myself into and that I was far from “knowing how to pass”.  For the first time in my life, I had failed at exams.  For the first time in my life, I was confronted with my worst nightmare: that I might not be able to succeed at what I had set out to achieve...

That year, out of misguided fear I now realize, I decided to defer the exam. I also started to procrastinate with all kinds of good reasons: if I could teach about wine just a few more classes, it would help me master the subject.  If I could taste just a few more wines, it would strengthen my tasting skills.  And, if I could travel just a little farther, going to New Zealand and Australia, Argentina, and Chile, I would find the silver bullet that would help me answer exam questions with “my eyes closed”.  All the while, avoiding to consolidate my notes, to practice essay writing skills, and to taste under exam conditions. All the while, racking my brain to “figure out what “they” wanted”.

When my third seminar came, I was sure I had a pretty good idea.  I had a system, a formula, a method.  I had taught more wine classes with success, bought and read more books, downloaded and filed more articles from the internet, and, certainly, tasted more wines... Then, Bam! Again...

This time though, I would not let that come in the way.  I would go to the exam and “pass this thing”.  I dug my heels, ground my teeth, and worked like a dog.  Then came “my d-day” and the worst summer of my life.  Here I was, a 45 years old middle-aged man with a 12 employees company in 3 offices in China, waiting for the results that “would define who I am”. All the while, feeling more hopeless than I had ever felt, even during the darkest days of starting my business in Hong Kong with just enough to live for 3 months…

The inevitable came. I did not pass.  I became overtaken with deep doubts and thought that deferring another year and “working harder” by teaching more classes, reading more books, creating more summary tables, and tasting more wines, surely my determination would have its rewards!

Rather, it turned out to be stubbornness. Until 4 months before the exam last June, I had refused to see the Master of Wine program in a different way.  I had closed my mind to the realities that my approach might have been wrong.  I had been obstinately ploughing through by pilling on more knowledge, identifying more wines blind, and refusing to see what today I think is obvious.  That the Master of Wine exam is about showing mastery by convincingly arguing a position with the use of evidences to back it up. That mastery, under such severe exam conditions, is not about showing off all of one’s knowledge on a topic related to wine but it is about demonstrating why the key issues of that topic apply in a situation and not in another via the use of real life examples from around the world.

In retrospect, I believe that a deep understanding of any subject with a broad culture of how and why things are done globally should naturally help one build an argument strong enough to convince an interlocutor, at the very least generate a fruitful debate.  However, to be able to achieve this level of convincing for each paper of the exam, practical and/or theory, 4 days in a row under rigorous time pressure, one must not only have a deep collection of evidences but must also have an ability to select the most important issues related to a question and write an argument in the most time efficient manner. For this, it has finally become evident, essay writing skills are critical.

This might seem obvious to some, especially for those who have graduated with an English major.  However, being an international business major, it was not obvious to me at the outset.  Even though I received many signals from various sources at various times of my studies, I stubbornly believed that it was brilliance of knowledge in the theory and of tasting skills in the practical that would help me pass. Until it was too late, I realize today that the first issue that came in the way of succeeding was that I never really understood how to write essays and argue a position under exam conditions and that I left it for too long before starting to work on these skills.

The second issue that I did not clearly understand until too late was the use of evidence, or in MW parlance, “examples”.  In fact, I felt for most of it that the emphasis on examples “cramped my style”. It is when I traveled to Argentina last February that I finally had a flash.  To carry my books was impractical and therefore I printed academic research papers to read on the way.  Quickly, I became fascinated how all kinds concepts related to wine, concepts I thought were “evident”, had actually been deeply studied and backed up with hard data to demonstrate their validity.  Silly me, I had finally realized that the “examples” needed for the exams were similar to the hard data used in research papers.  That they were, in fact, the most fundamental aspect of my studies.  That if I could not demonstrate a concept with an evidence, wether in the theory or the practical, then the concept was not yet established as being valid and remained “unproven”.  Last February, I finally woke up to the fact that this exam is about explaining the whys of the theory through examples of it being applied in various conditions around the world and how the whys change according to changing conditions.

Back to Hong Kong, I completely changed the way I had consolidated my notes until then.  I focused on a radically different approach to each questions and started to work with a different purpose.  The closer the exam came, the clearer everything became.  

The only problem for the theory was that selecting and consolidating strong examples 4 months before d-day became a challenge.  Especially for paper 1 (Viticulture) and paper 2 (Vinification). Countless hours were spent poring over the sketchy notes I took during winery visits, digging deep into books, searching the internet, and sniffing out magazine articles. Even though I had travelled to many wine regions around the world and met dozens of wine makers with whom I remained in good contact, I was embarrassed to write them emails with what I thought was admitting weakness so close to the exam. And so, I built a list of examples as best as I could and worked on it really very hard. During the exam however, it became clear that a few of them would not be strong enough to support my arguments on some essays.  My marks show this as I scored unsatisfactorily on 2 papers but still achieved an A on 2 others. Clearly, my strengths are business and contemporary issues and my weakness is viticulture.

For the practical, a similar situation occurred.  To convince the examiner, one must not rely on blind tasting skills alone. As we saw last June, appearances can be deceptive to say the least.  The key is to use evidence in the glass and build a strong argument.  Again, obvious to some, but not so easy when one insists, as I did, that the exam is to precisely identify the wines “and going for it”.  As the exam consist of 36 wines and the time pressure is extreme, without absolute focus on the essential and distinctive features of each of them, it is very difficult to finish the paper and pass.   For this, a strict writing discipline and razor sharp tasting skills are required.  I believe to have the tasting skills but, even though I had practiced writing extensively and had a good technique before the exam, discipline failed me as I evidently achieved marks below passing grade even though the first time I did the exam, I had achieved better results, even getting an A in paper 3.  Most likely because I had practiced little under exam conditions, during it, I reverted to old formulations and tried to identify the wines instead of arguing them. Unfortunately, identification is often victim of “shoe-horning” when a single piece of evidence in the glass takes a disproportionate level of importance and completely mislead.  Argumentation on the other hand requires discipline and focus to reach a logical conclusion, one that can be valid even if the exact identification is wrong.  A subtle but fundamental difference that I believe is the reason I failed to pass the practical paper.

Today, a few days before the deadline to register (or not) for a 3rd attempt, I see myself seriously questioning whether I should continue with the program.  In light of this analysis, I feel that I now understand what is required to pass. However, not because I understand how to that I am automatically ready to. Already 5 years were invested on this program and my family has sacrificed as much if not more than I have. I have also postponed several projects which I would like to work on and many different dreams I have yearned to pursue. That I have not passed already is my full responsibility for having stubbornly stuck to my way of thinking for too long.  However, I doubt that my knowledge of wine and tasting skills will increase much if I continue. However, it will undoubtedly help solidify this knowledge and tasting abilities to an even higher level than I already possess. Still, after 5 years of hard work and sacrifices, I must ask myself: will focusing on obtaining the MW title for 2 to 3 more years change the deep passion I have for wine and the burning desire to share about it? Will adding the 2 letters besides my name make me a more effective storyteller? 

For sure, there will be a price to pay no matter what I choose.  Should I decide to continue, more sacrifices will be required and projects will be delayed. Should I decide not to continue, the title will no longer be a possibility.

Ask any entrepreneur, they will confirm that hard work, determination, and stubbornness are essential qualities required to establish and build the first stage of a company in some of the hardest of conditions. But, the same qualities can be distracting when the same company has reached a certain level and a professional management approach becomes required. I believe that this is what happened with my studies.  After 5 years in the program and much investment of time and efforts, I seriously question whether channelling more of it into it will make a difference to the success of other wine related projects I want to work on and other dreams I want to pursue...