The Price of Curiosity: Studying for the Master of Wine Exam
A journalist and second stage Masters of Wine candidate shares her journey in wine education and exploration.
I never expected I’d be in school another decade after college, and yet here I am, typing this missive as I anticipate results from sitting the Master of Wine examination in June. If you’re not familiar with the British-based institute, it offers a four-day blind tasting and theory exam once a year in a handful of locations around the world. It’s a rigorous endurance exercise that taps the furthest and deepest limits of wine tasting, knowledge and its tangential institutions.
What measurable benefit do I get by shooting for the apex of wine education? The coveted “MW” initials earned by only 370 candidates in the world? That’s a good question; one I ask myself each time I fork over another four-figure sum to an educational body that doesn’t offer a single day of syllabus-related coursework. In addition to cost, it’s an immense emotional and time commitment that has fractured families and friendships, and has led to a loss of work/income opportunities during the months in preparation for the test.
There are several answers embodied in a cost-benefit analysis of continued education, though those answers become more nebulous as it pertains to the MW.
The first question to ask, however, is why we pursue higher education in the first place. It could be to fulfill a requirement of a current or future employer. It could be for greater financial gain through acquiring expertise in a niche area or to hone a competitive advantage. But at our most base, fundamental selves, education is driven by curiosity. Curiosity is the key to science, medicine, the humanities. Curiosity drives progress.
Driving in Upstate New York last week, I listened to a TED talk on measuring human progress. The premise of the hour-long compilation of thought leaders argued that despite the negative spin of contemporary news cycles, the world was doing alright. Crime has dropped. Fewer wars are fought. Progress — fewer people in poverty, more people employed — is up. And what pushes progress? Human inquisitiveness.
One speaker proffered the example of our ancestors launching small wooden crafts into a vast unknown sea, eventually alighting on the islands known today as Hawaii. To jump into a boat with finite food and water, at great physical risk, without surety of what awaits on the other side, he argued, derived from the human need to know “what’s over there” or “could there be something better or different.”
I’m not going to conflate the consequences of an analog ocean voyage with the pursuit of the MW, but there are similarities. Both take preparation, fortitude and willingness to leap into a void without guarantee of the result: you may quit from frustration, run out of money, get sick or pregnant and have to suspend the ride, but you go because of an oft irrational need to discover that compels you.
We educate ourselves for practical reasons, but we seek higher education, sometimes beyond pragmatic use, because we’re creatures full of wonder. Of course, what we choose to study is entirely individual. Where I find intrigue in the process of farming grapes to make, sell and evaluate the resulting wine, you may marvel at aquaculture or aerodynamics.
But curiosity is not enough to pass the Master of Wine exam. It’s a holistic ambition requiring dedication, experience, organization and networking skills.
Starting with dedication, the Master of Wine program is unique in that there’s really no program, per se. I play the roles of pupil and teacher. At the start of the year, which commences in the fall, candidates receive a laughably broad syllabus that essentially demands studying — and memorizing — the entire scope of wine, from grape vine diseases, trends in packaging and oxygen transmission rates, to international regulatory practices. Such an endeavor would be daunting with textbooks and classroom lectures. And yet, none of those luxuries come with tuition. Without guidance, it’s easy to get lost in the galaxy; too many stars not yet mapped into constellations.
But you can’t grasp how to farm grapes or make wine by studying the teachings of others solely. Or fully perceive why Pinot Noir from California tastes sunny and Pinot from Burgundy evokes wet leaves without experiencing the climate. You’ve got to get out into the world.
I worked a harvest in South Africa to understand the mechanics of a cellar. I travel half the year as the contributing travel editor at Wine Enthusiast to taste wines from different regions in situ. It’s impossible to know Tuscany — the contours of its hills, its iterations of Sangiovese and the way sunlight warms the vineyards during summer — without standing between the vines on a hot day in July. You must sift through your fingers the clay-like galestro soil of Chianti Classico to later recall its impact on the wine. Certainly, there are worse study assignments.
Preparing for the MW also requires incredible organizational skill. Your task: to effectively write a textbook for yourself by accumulating knowledge from multiples sources over several years. Starting with reference materials covering viticulture, winemaking and the business of wine. You’ll keep abreast of current issues and developments with subscriptions to Harper’s, Wines & Vines and Decanter. You’ll make lists of the most important public and privately owned wine companies, track down heads of departments for interviews, extract the key points and record them in spreadsheets. You’ll master Excel and Google Docs, while paper documents for old-fashioned three-ring binders will usurp every spare inch of your home until properly marked and filed away. And that’s before we get to the wines. Boxes upon boxes of samples will fill your floor, piled high to the ceiling, every bottle catalogued for tasting with a Coravin. Your neighbors will think you’ve got dependency issues but be thankful for the leftovers.
Given the magnitude and minutiae of knowledge expected from candidates, the program is akin to earning a PhD. You might assume it an undertaking for studious introverts. Yet, networking is a critical skill for passing – meeting vineyard managers and winemakers and posing the hard questions, while asking for help from fellow students and experienced professionals. This is the only way you’re going to get close to the finish line. And even then… the unofficial pass rate hovers around 10%.
But wine doesn’t have an ending. Nor does education. Ultimately, the Master of Wine exam isn’t really about earning initials, it’s about your development along the way. Are you a better, well-rounded wine professional who can help advance the interests of the industry? Bring progress to the world of wine yet still delight in the nuance and history and stories behind and between bottles? Whether you’re a wine lover taking a few courses at ICE, thinking about a career change, a sommelier who needs to fine tune her knowledge, or you aspire to conquer the hardest wine exam in the world, let the power of curiosity compel you.
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