MW tasting skills

Helping MW students to improve their tasting skills

Background: personal reflection 1

I entered the MW programme as a non-trade student in 2013, though I had five years of wine writing on and the WSET Diploma to show for my serious engagement with wine.  I had had a career as an educator and senior adviser in vocational adult, university-accredited, learning.  By the time I had sat Stage 2 for the first time I had begun a new job as a researcher and writer of student materials for the WSET, working on the new Diploma materials published in July 2019. I passed MW Theory at the first time of asking and have just completed my fifth and probably final attempt at Practical. My last two attempts were close to passing but not ultimately successful.  I am deeply grateful to the MW programme for enormously deepening my understanding of the world of wine, for an amazing range of experiences and visits, and for all the professional contacts and friends I have made.


My experience is limited to six years in the programme and to the perspective of a student.  There are many things I simply do not know about – examples include how the Institute works, what are the values that inform its day-to-day life, and how exams are marked. Due to the lack of feedback on exam performance, I don’t even know why some of my Practical papers were deemed to be better than others. 

The presenting problem

The Institute’s official position is that it wants to enable all suitable gifted and conscientious students to pass the exams and become MWs. However, despite this stance, the pass level for Theory and Practical are markedly different, perhaps typically one third for Theory and between 10–15 per cent for Practical.  This low pass rate has proved stubbornly low despite improved support for Practical.  The marked discrepancy between the two parts of Stage 2 has to be a major concern.

The ethos of the Institute

The Institute rightly aims for excellence; the pursuit of excellence is its reason for existence. The small number of its members is a matter of pride (it is often said that ‘there are only X MWs in the world’), as its ‘unsurpassed international reputation’.

This reminds me strongly of the academic elitism (not intended pejoratively) of Oxford colleges. As an undergraduate and postgraduate student in Oxford in the 1970s and 1980s the attitude towards Arts students was that you would cut it if your were good enough — and if enough of the dons’ brilliance wore off on you.  It was up to you to make it happen. This is what I call the virtuoso model – the task of the educational environment is provide a setting in which the innate genius or extraordinary talent of the gifted can emerge. Contact time was minimal if highly personal and variable. Formal tuition such as lectures was a sort of optional extra, a still controversial introduction of formal teaching. Does this ring any bells with the MW programme? 

The declared ethos of the MW student programme

The Institute is entirely clear that what is on offer is ‘a self-directed study programme’, rather than a structured course. At the same time, formal and informal elements of the programme have developed significantly in recent years:

  • it is compulsory to attend the week-long annual seminar
  • four course days per year are provided as part of what is offered in the package that attracts the fees for the student
  • the Institute offers study visits to important wine regions and, through its sponsors, a range of prizes that mainly take the form of visits to wine regions. (I was a massive beneficiary of these and deeply grateful for them but obviously not all students can take part and the number of prize winners is limited.)
  • there has been a rapid expansion in recent years of additional, optional, paid-for training events, mostly for the Practical exam. Many students take two or three of these in an academic year, adding 6–9 days of training to the experience.  this has become part of the normal experience of MW students – and a source of income from some MWs.
  • The Theory Assignment Marking Scheme, Practical Assignment Marking Scheme (PAMS) and Research proposal feedback are now a part of the structure of the programme.
  • Termly feedback on PAMS by video link is now offered by the Institute. (There may be similar offerings on the Theory side of which I am not aware.)
  • Students are encouraged to form study groups for tasting and for theory
  • The mentorship scheme appears to be taken up and implemented in such a huge range of ways (from nothing to an enormous amounts of help) that it is difficult to know what weight to put on it in terms of the programme of learning
  • Support for the Research Project (RP) has improved substantially with the result that many students pass the RP at the first time of asking, in stark contrast to student experience in the days of the dissertation.  Overall, pass rates appear to be very high compared to the other parts of the programme.  Appropriate support in the RP phase appears to make a big difference. 

In summary, while the programme is still ‘self-directed’ it is now genuinely a programme of learning events with considerable variety addressing many of the skills needed to succeed.

The nature of preparation for MW Practical

Given the low pass rate for the Practical exam, it is worth examining the nature of the formal preparation offered for MW Practical.

The official offering for Practical is the four course days per year, the one-week seminar, PAMS and the video feedback on PAMS.  The four course days are typically given over to practice exams or parts of exams with feedback on the day.  This is also an important part of the seminar, complemented by themed tastings either led by an MW or in a walk-around format.  Most additional paid-for training days are similarly devoted to full scale practice exams with feedback.  From an educational point of view the contact time is dominated by practising formal assessment.  It would be a bit like going to school only to take some exams and to get some feedback on them. By contrast, we normally expect to go to school to learn in the first place. The learning is subsequently assessed by exams and/or course work. 

Personal reflection 2

I found most course days and exam practice sessions at the seminars helpful.  Mostly they had well chosen wines, were good for practicing tasting and writing under time pressure and judging one’s progress or lack of it.  But I came to realise that the actual amount of learning was minimal.  Every time I attended one, I would learn one new thing, for example, an argument for a grape variety or a place.  This increasingly seemed an incredibly inefficient method of learning and a lavish use of precious resources (time, my money). 

In the last couple of years I noticed a small shift in emphasis.  Most strikingly, Marina Gayan’s sessions were not simply exam practice with feedback. They had clearly been planned with an educational aim. They aimed at providing students with an approach to gathering evidence from the glass, allied with having a clear strategy for how to turn that evidence into a convincing argument.  This was revolutionary stuff! Both in terms of how course days were used and how effective it was for me.  My marks went up a whole grade after I internalised and practised this approach.  I also noticed that other MWs began to use at least a part of the time to focus on breaking down the task and giving more focused feedback. 

The current approach seems to assume that students do their learning either on their own (the virtuoso model reminiscent of Oxbridge) or in student-run tasting groups.  Both of these can be hugely important for MW students and given the constraints of the Institute (the volunteer work force of MWs, geographical spread of students) absolutely unavoidable.   But the virtuoso model assumes that students can learn effectively on their own, a model that will suit only a handful of students (cf. the pass rate). Similarly, student groups are great for practising assessment but difficult to learn from.  My experience was that students don’t want to or are not able to reflect on why they came to the tasting decisions they did come to and there is no-one detached enough to help them reflect on what they did.  Simple repetition of practice does not lead to mastery. Students are as likely to merely practice their errors as learn something. Even the popular ‘10,000 hours of practice to master a skill’ theory has recently been shown to be incorrect and simplistic.   

‘I can’t teach you to taste’

I began to think about this whole side of the MW student experience when several MWs said at various times, ‘I can’t teach you to taste’. In the context of a day of a practice exam with feedback that is entirely understandable. But given the centrality of tasting to Practical it is strange that this is a common attitude among MWs (who in this instance are the educational resource that the Institute offers). 

Analytical tasting is obviously a key requirement for success in assessing a wine’s probable origin, grape variety or quality.  It is the foundational skill for success in the MW exam. The most help the formal programme gives students on this front is to urge them to pay as much attention to a wine’s structural elements (acidity, alcohol level, body, tannins) as to its aromas and flavours. But in my six years as a student I never came across a single class which was aimed to improve tasting accuracy or to talk through how one might improve as an analytical taster. 

Of course all MW students have a certain level of competence, either as a diploma graduate or professional qualification or experience deemed equivalent to it.  But that does not mean that students don’t need help to improve their analytical tasting.  Perhaps this is an important reason why the failure rate is so high in Practical? Perhaps tasting ability and a student’s ability to improve on their own are the unarticulated key requirements that separates those who become MWs and those who don’t?

Doing it exclusively our way?

From the scientific literature and from published research we are beginning to understand the

mechanisms that lie behind the human ability to taste. In his academic book, Gordon Sheppard even has a digression to give practical advice on how to improve your tasting – there’s a rarity! (see p. 47) Vicente Ferreira’s pioneering work on how the aromatic compounds in wine interact to become what we call the smell of wine illustrates how complex this is in itself and gives a theoretical base as to why one wine smells different to another. I came across these studies in my work for the new WSET Diploma study materials but they are not inaccessible pieces of academic research; Ferreira’s work is widely available through the summary of it in the second edition of Jamie Goode’s Wine Science

From a more practical approach, the wine industry has training programmes in place to allow professionals to be trained to assess the levels and range of aromas in wine and to detect faults.  I think that the world of perfumes has rigorous training for future professionals Thus, we can see that there is a body of knowledge and professional practice in the area of tasting/perceiving aromas.  I find it strange that there appears not to have been any attempt to draw on these resources.  We take if for granted that MW Theory draws on both scientifically-based knowledge and on professional practice in viticulture, vinification, finishing wine and business but we don’t do the same for tasting. MWs appear to model tasting exclusively in the way they were formed as MWs.   

Personal reflection 3

For may last two attempts at Practical I had learnt an approach on how to gather evidence and how to marshal it into a convincing argument (see above).  As I have already said, my marks moved up a whole grade. As I was aware I needed help to improve my analytical tasting I searched for it but did not find anything that looked promising.  I looked into doing the Wine Tasting course at Plumpton but didn’t do it as it concentrated mainly on wine faults, understandably for future wine makers.

In summary

There appears to be two areas to explore to help MW students improve their tasting skills:

  • can the Institute offer the sort of help – which has become commonplace for other parts of the programme – in the specific area of improving tasting skills, instead of only offering repeated mock exams?
  • could professional laboratory-based wine tasting (or training in similar professional fields) be tapped into as resources to enable MW students to improve their tasting skills? 

There are of course no simple solutions but these might be important avenues to explore. 


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