Post MW-exam distress disorder?

Post MW-exam distress disorder?

PMW-EDD is, of course, nothing like PTSD … but here are a few immediate reflections on my 2017-18 study for the Institute of Masters of Wine tasting exams and the exams themselves.  I am amazed how wrung out I feel having on the face of it only done three exams this week.  

I am deliberately writing this piece between doing the exams and not even knowing what the wines were in the exams, nevermind the results. So all I have to go on is how I feel it went.  I pretty much avoided all those ‘what did you think wines 6-8 were?’ conversations with my fellow sufferers.  

MW exams – take #1

First, a quick recap of the past five years. After two years of hugely intense part-time study I sat the full MW Theory and Practical exams in 2015, eight exams in four consecutive days. I had the luxury of having just been made redundant and as a result had seven weeks of full-time revision before the exam.  After the exams I had no idea how well or badly I had done. In fact I had nearly not entered for the exams at all as I was so sure that I wasn’t ready. 

I was therefore thrilled to learn in the September that I had passed all five Theory papers. Those seven weeks of revision were the hardest thing I have faced in terms of study in my life – and I have two Batchelor degrees and an Oxford doctorate from the dim and distant past.  I spent the entire time boiling down the knowledge and insight I had accumulated over the previous two years and internalizing it. As a result in the exams I wrote essays about things I knew about in some depth, things I knew a little about (compulsory question on vine trunk diseases which I had to pass!) and things I apparently knew nothing about (strategy for running the wine side of a restaurant successfully – well I have eaten in a few, does that count?) But by the time I sat, I knew at least in a broad way, something about a huge range of topics, and I could organise my thoughts and write convincingly.  

MW exams – takes #2 and #3

Although I passed Theory, I failed Practical in 2015. However, it was a huge relief and reduction of pressure to be able to bank my Theory pass and to focus solely on tasting.  My tasting improved significantly in the next year but I got a worse result in the 2016 exam when I re-sat Practical.  (I reflected on that experience here.) ‘Worse’ is an interesting term here because my marks were in the range that would pass most university exams in the UK with ease. But the MW exam is elitist in a good sense. John Hoskins MW, chief examiner, states baldly: ‘The Institute of Masters of Wine stands above all for excellence …’ and on this occasion this is not hype.  In the Practical you have to average 65% across three papers which have 12 wines on each.  Only between 10 and 15 percent of people pass Practical each year – from a pool of students who are pretty much top professionals in their work and a good number of students who have done the exam several times.  It’s tough; many good tasters never pass. 

My 2017 exam was in the shadow of having an emergency operation to remove a dead gall bladder in Italy two months earlier.  I did OK in a mock a month before the exam and so gave it a shot but got the same result as in 2016, despite identifying far more wines correctly on the white wines paper than in previous years. That was deeply puzzling but I had a good excuse: I was not as fully recovered as I thought I was.   

And so finally to 2017-18.  

Student year 2017-18

First of all, I organised myself.  I am a bit self-conscious about this but I wrote a goal for the year and set myself SMART targets. I had a checklist of things to do for each week and, most importantly, used it for the first two-thirds of the year.  (I am so much better at writing plans than sticking to them!) Here is an example of a weekly checklist:

A year as an MW Practical-only student in numbers

If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count is an adage which is widely followed today. MW students can play this game too. 

I got off to a good start. I was surprised and really upset to do as badly in my 2017 exams as in previous years, despite having made progress outside of the exam setting.  I used that energy to tackle the new year and to organise myself as I have explained.  My mentor Anne McHale MW was great in bolstering that positive outlook  in my first meeting with her at the beginning of the year. 

This last year I have:

  • stocked and at times restocked my 300-strong library of MW exam-style wines so that I can taste at home. Do I need to retaste Bourgogne AC v. a Burgundy village v. Burgundy premier cru v. Burgundy grand cru side by side?  No problem!  This is almost certainly the best way to improve your tasting skill and understand – in the glass – what the differences are, for example, between Ruby Port, Banyuls and Recioto della Valpolicella, three sweet red wines. The Coravin is a huge bonus to MW students – and our purchasing of replacement argon cartridges a huge bonus to Coravin!  Half bottles with screwcaps can be used to store opened bottles for a couple of months if you fill them right to the top.  
  • attended the standard nine days of study that the Institute offers Practical only students: four course days, five days residential seminar – plus three days for the exam of course.
  • paid for and attended six additional study days offered by MWs including former examiners, led by Marina Gayan MW, who deserves a mention for excellent and innovative help to MW students and Phil Readman MW for a very good weekend. I also attended Michael Schuster’s fine wine course to improve my tasting vocabulary and tastes some fantastic mature wines.
  • been to the Marche region of Italy on a three-day MW student trip.
  • done a short blind-tasting exercise perhaps every other week with my closest MW student colleagues from the WSET and nearby Corney & Barrow and the occasional Saturday morning one-paper mock with fellow students.
  • taken three full mock exams, nine days in all – in Verona with the excellent Yiannis Karakasis MW and the fantastic group of Italian MW students (ciao ragazzi!); in Paris with Rod Smith MW and Jeremy Cukierman MW, who get the prize for the most detailed and helpful written feedback on mock exams; and in London with the insightful Natasha Hughes MW. 
  • taken five other one-paper mock exams with particular thanks to the enormous generosity of Martin Hudson MW in setting up four of these for a small group of students. Thanks also to Caroline Hermann MW for critique of a mock paper and especially encouragement in the last few weeks.
  • refined and extended my study notes on the Quizlet app. (Thanks to Sara Hobday for tipping me off about this app.) I now have 95 sets of notes on everything from wine snapshots (Aglianico to Zweigelt) to the categorisation of markets.
  • had an hour’s consultation via Skype with sports psychologist and performance guru, Andy Barton of The Sporting Mind: he helped me make the distinction between (a) being relaxed and taking time to let the unconscious kick in, allowing the wine to speak to you when tasting, even in the exam situation and (b) switching to ultra-fast and efficient for writing answers.
  • probably most important of all, in attempting to write at least one full wine answer per day (see target above), written 60,000 words of practice answers. In addition, I exchanged notes with fellow student Anastasia Roncoletta for helpful critique … and a spur to keep practising! 
  • spent in excess of £11,000 on all this. The year of study costs £4,452, the exams £1,704 and the rest is made up of paying for additional study days, mock exams, travel and wines for practice. The figure is probably on the low side but it is roughly right.  This year was a bit more expensive than previous years. I chose to do fewer 12-wine exam-type tastings (e.g. Saturday morning tastings with other students) but more paid-for mocks with MWs, especially ex-examiners. There is nothing like getting feedback from those who have been examiners.

In addition, not counted in the total below, with my work at the WSET I have been hugely fortunate to visit the winemaking regions of Campania and Basilicata (four days), Trentino-Alto Adige (three days), the Western Cape of South Africa (10 days) and Alsace (three days). There is nothing like being in the region to understand its wines in-depth.

And of course, I have run or been part of various north Hampshire tasting groups – Andover Wine Friends, BBC and TWITS – which have provided depth of experience, companionship, amusement and, most of all, encouragement along the way. Especially thanks are due to Rob Rushmer DipWSET for setting mock papers and steering the tasting groups to focus on MW-type tasks.  

So on this reckoning, I have devoted and mostly enjoyed 35 full days in this academic year to MW study. This plus many hours on my two-hour a day commute and at weekends. I owe a debt to the WSET for supporting me on the formal study days above. Even more, as always, I owe my biggest debt to Janet for her practical and thoughtful help, for example in creating blind tasting flights and in challenging my habit of jumping to conclusions.  More broadly she has found creative ways for us as a couple to make real positives out of this obsession of mine and has lived with remarkable grace with the downsides too.    

Having catalogued, indeed enumerated, the year, I now understand why I feel exhausted after the exams. Perhaps there is indeed a PMW-EDD syndrome?

If you are still reading, thanks for being here – and you too might have the determination to do the MW!  

MW exams 2018: how did they go?  

Perhaps the most important things that I had acted on this year was the understanding that over 50% of the marks in the exams are awarded for questions other than the only ones wine geeks are really interested in – where the wines come from and what the variety/ies are.  To put that more simply: there are many, many marks for, judging from the glass alone, answering how the wine was made, what quality it is, how it might be sold, and where it sits in the market.  In fact, the examiners seem to have completely lost interest in the last two questions this year, but that is their prerogative.  However, the main point remains: half the marks at least are for things other than knowing what the wine is and where it came from.  

I think I was vastly better prepared and certainly, I was in much better health this year.  I went into the exams with a mixture of increased confidence and remaining trepidation about the size of the challenge.  I did have a cold but it wasn’t too bad and I just had to ignore it.  I slept badly the night before the exam, but that is to be expected. 

Day 1 – The three days were very different.  I messed up my timing on day one, the white wines day.  One essential rule is to allow yourself 10 minutes per wine and stick to that completely rigidly. I think it is much easier to get marks one to seven out of every 10 than the remaining three marks so you must write something substantial in every box for every wine.

If you are going to taste all 12 wines first and then write about them and the wines come in flights of between one and six wines, you have to calculate where you should be by the end of each flight. I did that, tasted the wines, lost confidence on the finer points of the first flight and so started writing about flight 2 onwards. This meant that my worked-out timings were useless and inevitably I spent too long on the six-wine second flight. Consequently, I was in a mad rush for wines one to four which I had left to last.  This was so annoying and shows that succeeding is as much about mental agility and time management, as about tasting and arguing a case.  Low point of the week and slept badly.  

Day 2 – was like the perfect day in terms of time management: 10-11 minutes per wine, intense but sensible pace, wrote a substantial paragraph on all sub-sections of all the wines, had a pretty good level of confidence about what the wines were.  High point of the week and slept badly!  

Day 3 – a really challenging set of questions as there were so many categories of wine and six wines asking about a vintage. Historically Paper 3 is where you get a mixed bag of sparkling wines, sweet wines, rosés and fortified wines, as well as some ordinary whites and reds.  This year we did have a huge range – two sparkling wines, two sweet wines, two fortifieds all in pairs, then three normal white wines and three normal reds.  There was not a drop of the old MW favourites, Sherry or Madeira! The challenge was that the first six, the three pairs, all had vintage questions worth quite a lot of marks attached to them. Having done my homework, I had learnt vintages for red and white Burgundy and Bordeaux and red Rioja (none of which came up) and for Champagne and for Port. I hadn’t done them for Sauternes, nor for Riesling which wasn’t here – but I still found this really challenging.  

The standard advice is to think carefully about tasting order. It is sensible to taste dry before sweet, lower-alcohol wine before higher alcohol and perhaps sparkling wines before others. But, on the back of day 1, I just answered them in the order set, happily (?) jumping from sparking to sweet to fortified to dry. My timing was pretty much bang on. So, again, this exam tests whether you can jettison one really good piece of advice in favour of something else which on the day is even more important.  End of day 3: totally exhausted.  Had two pints of beer with lunch, fell asleep twice in the afternoon for 30-40 minutes each and then still slept like the dead for 10 hours!  

Postscript June 2019 

I did much better in the 2018 exams than in previous attempts but still not pass. I even got two C+ grades (60-64) which is the grade just below the line for passing.  As a result, I found myself with another year of study/tasting/refining my exam technique, much helped by a new mentor, Richard Hemming MW.  His biggest contribution was rapidly commenting in detail on answers I had prepared which was exactly what I needed.  

Here are my immediate reflections on the exams, again before I know what the wines were and long before the results arrive.  This is what I said to friends and supporters: 

Last week I was sitting the MW Practical exam, i.e. three 2 hour and 15 minute papers of 12 wines each, all tasted blind. I am pleased to say that it went pretty well.  

The exam is taken under huge time pressure. Basically you have two minutes per wine to taste and nine minutes per wine to write a page long justification as to why it is what it is: grape variety, region, how it was made, the quality level, how it might be sold.  My aim was to write 12 substantial answers on each paper and to finish with a few minutes to spare for basic checking. Papers 1 and 2 went very much to plan. On Paper 3 I could feel that I was working less quickly but I did finish even if it was a bit of a mad scramble for the final wine. Overall, I certainly felt more in control than in previous years.  Of course, I don’t know if I have passed or not. 

What happens next?  There is a long wait until September for the results.  If I am successful I have to do the third (and final!) part of the assessment, a 10,000-word research project that can take 1-2 years. I will probably do a version of the research project even if I don’t pass as I will choose a topic which is of interest to me whether or not I am successful.  I am really looking forward to this part of the process.  

Thank you to all who have supported me whether by organising or attending tastings or with your good wishes. I have really valued your support and been touched by it. 

Being an MW student has been a great adventure for me and I have learnt and enjoyed (most of) it so much!  The reason I did it was because doing the MW was the way I could learn most about wine while being based here in England and while being in a non-wine job, as I was then.  In these terms, it has been a huge success, plus all the other wonderful things along the way, whatever the exam result.

I then dismantled my exam wines collection and am looking forward to enjoying the summer. 

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