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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Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary