Wine & Spirits Exams: Not for Every Palate

Studying can be a greedy master. It devoured much of my time this spring, but the outcome was worth it: I passed my CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) exam, and the experience got me thinking about exams in general.

I hate them. When I’m not cramming for my next wine or spirits test, I feel a bit adrift. I love the studying part. But when it comes to the exam itself, no matter how well I know the material, I’m anxious and confused.

 

 

                         [From left: Three levels of Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) pins; Certified
                  Specialist of Wine (CSW) pin; Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) pin; CSS “pass letter”]

Each path to wine or spirits certification, whether you pursue credentials from the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers, Institute of Masters of Wine, or college-based Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance (VESTA), has its own strategy. One school might emphasize technicalities – soil types and grape varieties, winemaking styles, wine laws across the globe – while others focus on vintages and subtleties of restaurant service.

Their exams are just as diverse. The WSET Level 3/Advanced exam, for instance, is mostly about wine, divided into three segments: First up is a set of multiple-choice questions, followed by an “essay” portion (some questions are brief sentence completions, while others require lengthy answers, such as discussing wines from various regions of Italy – and you dare not leave out any important details or terms). The last part of the exam is a blind wine tasting, which isn’t nearly as scary as you would think. You’re given two wine pours, a red and a white, and when I took the test we were required to list 26 separate attributes of each wine – appearance, four aromas, five tastes, alcohol level, tannin level, acidity, and so on, ending with the wine’s grape and region. Fortunately, my instructor, Marianne Frantz of American Wine School, was mercifully generous with those tastes, because after nearly three hours of testing we were ready for alcohol.

The CSW and CSS exams from the Society of Wine Educators are multiple-choice, which implies they would be easier to pass. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: every question from the exams is drawn from the textbooks. The bad news: there’s a pool of about 5,000 randomly selected questions for each exam, so each candidate gets a different set of questions to answer. Your only hope of passing is to memorize the book.

For the spirits certification, you might be asked, which scotch-producing region delivers the highest-quality whisky? How long is bourbon required to age? Which country is best known for distilling barley to make vodka? What is the Lincoln County Process? Who was “Old Forester”? Which cocktails are typically made by shaking, rolling or stirring? Which types of stills are used for which spirits? What’s the difference between a doubler and a thumper? What are the aging requirements and bottled alcohol levels – both in the U.S. and Europe, because they’re different – of whiskey, vodka and gin? And you’d better know every detail about Prohibition and Repeal Day.

The most punishing is the Masters of Wine exam – which is why, at this writing, only 370 individuals in 28 countries (125 of whom are women) are MWs. Candidates write papers on such topics as the effects of a worldwide labor shortage on vineyards, or the role of enzymes in winemaking. But far more terrifying is the blind tasting: three flights of 12 wines each. Grapes, regions, characteristics, every detail a true expert would be expected to know. Lastly, MW candidates must submit a report of original research, up to 10,000 words long.

Like any academic pursuit, sitting for wine and spirits exams can be grueling. Is it worth the trouble? That depends on your personal goals, how hard you want to study, and frankly, how much money you want to spend. I spent several thousand dollars; by the time you become a Master of Wine or French Wine Scholar, you could spend a small fortune. For me, it definitely has paid off – but now I might be finished studying. Stay tuned.

Liquor Lingo of the Day: Angel’s Share = the whiskey that evaporates as it ages in the barrel. Wood is porous, so the angels get a sweet allowance – up to 4 percent every year. A smaller amount is sacrificed to the Devil’s Cut, the liquor that seeps into the wood and is absorbed by the barrel itself.

LVOV new

Liquor ‘View: Eating your veggies is one thing, but drinking them is a party! I couldn’t wait to try LVOV Vodka (80 proof, under $20), a Polish import distilled from beets. I wasn’t disappointed; you won’t detect any beet flavor (though I love beets, so I wouldn’t have minded a hint of beet) or color. Sipped on the rocks, the mouthfeel is satiny and creamy, reminding me of a sweet whipped cream. It had no aroma and little taste except a hint of wheat, so I expected it would be a versatile cocktail vodka. It was fine in Bloody Marys, but really shone in summery drinks. I mixed citrus coolers and later some boozy watermelon slushies, and the bottle emptied – always a good outcome!

[A bottle of LVOV Vodka was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

 

Cheers,

Mary

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My Top 10 Wines & Spirits in 2017

As you might guess, I enjoy an adult beverage (or two) pretty much every day. That adds up to a lot of different wines and spirits. Selecting 10 favorites was a challenge – but holy Zinfandel, was the research fun!

These bottles range in price from super-affordable to impress-the-boss splurge, but none are ridiculously pricey. Any would make superb holiday gifts.

In no particular order, these are my 2017 picks:

 

 

  • When I served Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (40 proof, $38) to a few friends, none of them knew they were sipping rum – they thought it tasted like brandy or a honey-infused bourbon. That’s not too far-fetched, since this Venezuelan beauty is aged for up to 12 years in bourbon barrels. Long aging bestows elegance on a fine rum; this one carries notes of fennel, caramel, oak and corn. I wouldn’t mix Diplomatico – savor it neat or cool it with one ice cube.
  • If you haven’t tried reds from northern Italy, the 2016 Colterenzio St. Magdalener, DOC Alto Adige (12.5 percent alcohol, $14) is a good introduction. Its vegetable tone is delicious, tinged with parsley and, as it rests, tea and black cherries. It’s a bit stony, and the ashy aroma continues into the taste with milk chocolate and smoke in the finish. If you don’t like tannins, you’ll love this wine, but keep it for a year or two before you crack the bottle.
  • I drank my 2014 Yarden Malbec (14.5 percent alcohol, $32.99) while I munched on olives, cheese and pepperoni – a typical lazy supper for moi – and it held up beautifully. This Israeli wine, produced in the Golan Heights in Galilee, is a real Big Sexy Red – plums and smoke aroma, followed by bacon, blackberries and a bit of dark raisin tastes. It reminded me of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered shortbread stars, but with heat.
  • Whenever I see Zweigelt, I buy it because it’s not that common in the U.S., but I had never tried a Zweigelt rosé. Earlier this year, a friend gave me a bottle of 2015 Josef & Philipp Bründlmayer Grafenegg Rosé vom Zweigelt (12 percent alcohol, $50) and I’m on a mission to find more. Although Zweigelt is a relatively obscure grape in the U.S. it’s actually the most-planted red in Austria. The soft salmon-colored wine is a high-acid gem – “almost fizzy,” my friend said – but creamy and earthy at the same time.

 

 

 

  •  Pinot Noir isn’t always a big-bold red, but the 2013 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir       Carneros (13.5 percent alcohol, $27) is almost chewy, and dark like a California tan. I got an aroma of dark grapes, blackberries and a bit of turkey sausage (and I mean that in a good way). Add black pepper, raspberries, plums, bell peppers and pomegranate on the palate – a well-ordered structure with smoke and mocha on the finish.
  • I discovered Hanson of Sonoma Small Batch Cucumber Flavored Vodka (80 proof, $26) on a trip to Sonoma last spring and when I returned in November, I brought home two bottles. Don’t let the “flavored” deter you; these certified organic artisan distillers infuse their grape-based vodkas with real produce, and you won’t be drinking a cucumber salad – that taste is barely a kiss. It’s only distributed on the West Coast, but I found it online at MissionLiquor.com. Shipping cost for one bottle is exorbitant, but if you buy three or more it gets reasonable.
  •  One of the hottest wine regions these days is Eastern Europe, and 2015 Patricius Tokaj Dry Furmint (12 percent alcohol, $15) is a great example of the quality wines produced there. Tokaj in Hungary is the world’s first designated wine appellation, and Furmint, one of its most abundant white grapes, is used for making both sweet and dry wines. This one is as dry as wine gets – zesty, fresh, with strong minerality and stone fruit flavors, along with a touch of pineapple and banana.

 

 

 

  • I haven’t tasted every rye in the world, but Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (90 proof, $49.99) is the best I’ve tried. Developed by Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell, it’s one smooth drink. The tastes are a delicious blend of toffee, rye, pecan and cinnamon – and don’t you dare mix it; this is a fine sipping rye. Just make sure it’s labeled “6 Year Old,” because the regular Russell’s Reserve Rye is 104 proof and not nearly as refined-tasting.
  • Casal Thaulero’s 2009 Thalé Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (14 percent alcohol, $40) is that special-occasion bottle you set aside – but just for a short while, because it’s at its peak now. After aromas of red fruit and vanilla, expect a big, bold mouthfeel and tastes of maple, pumpkin spice and dry leaves – perfect for fall and winter drinking.
  • It’s probably not fair for me to include this bottle because a friend bought it in Italy, but Limoncello is my favorite digestivo and always makes a great gift. It’s traditionally made with Sorrento lemons in southern Italy, but I’ve come across some terrific limoncello produced here in the U.S., too. Get recommendations from your liquor merchant; the best limoncello is sweet enough that you know you’re drinking liqueur, but not cloying; and tart but not bitter. Like any fine liquor, it should be smooth and balanced. You can find quality limoncello for less than $40.

Bonus picks – Three choice drinks didn’t make the list: Ferrari Grappa Segnana Solera, omitted only because it’s not distributed in the U.S. (but worth ordering online if you can find it); OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve, distributed only in eight states but also available online; and Maker’s 46, a great option when you want a not-ordinary bourbon to sip by the fire. All three are in my cabinet…So many bottles, so little time!

Next up – uncommon, last-minute wine gifts for any wine lover – or treat yourself!

Cheers,

Mary

LeBron, This Wine’s For You!

Pardon me if I sound a little giddy today, but I live in Cleveland (a.k.a. Believeland), and the town is wacko-nuts this week after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Championship for the first time in franchise history. And by wacko-nuts, I mean an estimated 1.3 million fans  – more than three times the city’s population – left their air conditioning in 90° temps for a glimpse of King James on parade.

King James

In case you’ve been living in Uzbekistan, LeBron “I’m-just-a-kid-from-Akron-Ohio” James is the pivotal reason (pun intended) why Cleveland brought home its first championship trophy in any pro sport since 1964. LeBron, a 4-time MVP, is more than a basketball player; he’s an orchestrator, a natural leader, and from all indications a gentleman and attentive dad. Sure it takes a team to bring home the trophy, but it was LeBron’s mastery, more than any other single factor, that left the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland’s rear-view mirror. He grounded the Cavs in an almost supernatural way, and we mortals had never witnessed such extraordinary leadership on one of our teams. We were all in.

James started training for this moment when he was still a kid playing for Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, skipping college after he graduated to join the Cavaliers’ roster. But the move didn’t diminish his respect for education: since then, he’s picked up the tab for dozens of inner-city kids, spending millions of his own money for their schooling.

Ohio’s favorite son is ambidextrous, a lefty who usually shoots with his right hand. During the parade, it looked as if all the Cavs were using their right hands to swig their Moët Nectar Impérial Rosé, a pale-coral Champagne that will sell for $5,000 per jewel-trimmed bottle in Cleveland nightclubs.

We don’t have any $5,000 Champagne handy, but we did celebrate with a wicked Rosé discovery – Blackbird Vineyards Arriviste Rosé 2012.

Arriviste

That dark-salmon color on your screen is real, and the aroma and taste are just as striking – like a dry cherry soda mixed with a shot of excellent vodka. In fact, the wine tastes stronger than its 12.9 percent alcohol. In another year, I expect the berry and booze to smooth together a bit more. But that’s not a flaw; this wine, produced by the saignée method of “bleeding” free-run juice, is ready for summer. It’s on the pricey side at $25/split, but the city’s first championship trophy in 52 years is worth a splurge.

And if LeBron James wants to reinvent himself as the country’s newest celebrity winemaker, I am all in.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Maceration =  steeping the juice of red grapes with their skins, a process that gives Rosé its pink color. A winemaker can choose to macerate for a few hours or a few days, depending on the color desired; in general, the longer the maceration period, the deeper the color.

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 [Big thanks to Emily Straffen for permission to use her photo of LeBron James, taken at the Cavaliers celebration parade.]

Now for the World Series…

Mary