Testing Times – the highs and lows of being an MW student

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mow-simple-shield-colourHarshal Shah, grappling with the challenges of preparing for the MW examination, is determined to stay the course and says that he “wouldn’t give it up for anything!”

A few years ago, I embarked on a journey that has led to my having a constant headache and a nagging feeling that “I should be studying!” I entered the Master of Wine programme, an arduous, masochistic pilgrimage leading to what some would regard as the pinnacle of wine qualifications. There are just over 300 of these masochists in the world today and I would hazard the guess that most of them have had to forgo many of life’s pleasures over a period of years simply to gain those two letters after their names. But despite my headache and missing out on numerous great books, films and nights out, I wouldn’t change any of this for the world!

The Master of Wine programme is run by the Institute of Masters of Wine which is modelled on the trade guilds of the 19th and 20th centuries. The qualification was initially offered to the UK wine trade in the early 1950s, with the first Master of Wine examination being held in 1953. Its purpose was – and is – to improve the standard of wine knowledge in the wine trade. Whilst the programme and the syllabus have changed dramatically over the last 60 years, the standards required to enter the programme and to attain the MW remain painfully high. It is now, of course, open to anyone from anywhere in the world who can support their reason for entering the programme by passing a written entrance examination as well as a theoretical tasting exercise. (There are officially three of us in the course from India). Ideally, previous wine qualifications such as the WSET Diploma or winemaking or wine-related degrees should be held by potential candidates. There are usually about 300 candidates in the programme every year. Over the last decade, only eight, on average, have passed the final exams each year.

According to the website of the Institute, all “students” study for a minimum of two years before sitting the Masters of Wine Examination. They follow a self-study programme and are supported by an annual, week-long residential seminar, occasional study days and one-to-one advice from mentors who are Masters of Wine. The study programme does not therefore demand long periods of time away from one’s employment. However, it does require discipline and motivation to keep up with the level of study required. After passing both the Theory and Practical (tasting) parts of the examination, students then research and write a 6,000 to 10,000-word thesis paper on a pre-approved wine-related subject of their choice – a dissertation of sorts.

There is also a cost involved. This year’s fees were about £3,000 or US$5,000. These fees do not include the cost of any travel involved, the cost of any wines purchased for practice tastings, nor indeed the fee to sit the final exam. All in all, the cost can go up to £8,000 to £10,000 per year, with no guarantee of passing the exams.

Master of Wine tutors will often say to you that it is not difficult to pass the examinations. I beg to differ. The examination comprises 12 essays to be written over four days (three essays per day and per area of study, broadly speaking, viticulture, winemaking; the business of wine; contemporary issues). These essays form the theory part of the examination and are written in the afternoons.
Preceding them, on three mornings, one must take the 12 practicals too – wine tasting exams commencing at about 8:30am. Imagine 12 wines put in front of you and your being asked to “comment on the winemaking methods employed in making this wine” or “identify the region of origin as closely as possible”. You have just over two hours to write about 12 wines. So, you have 36 wines to analyse and 12 essays to write over four days. Easy! And then, once you pass these exams, there is the Research Paper to contend with.

Naturally, the MW programme is not for everyone. You really have to want to do it. I know that despite my complaints to my other half and to anyone who asks me, I could not recommend the course highly enough! The opportunity to learn so much is incredible. The body of students is diverse and there is always something to learn from them too. Of course, there are always amazing wines (and some not so amazing) to taste.

Above all, the programme teaches you humility. You realise very early on in the course how little you actually know. The sooner you accept that, the easier the programme becomes. It also teaches you how to understand and appreciate a wine for what it is. Many of my friends in the wine trade tend to turn up their nose at wines like White Zinfandel, the sweet, pink, low alcohol wine produced in California’s Central Valley, or other high volume, mass-market wines. However, these wines achieve incredibly high sales volumes and it becomes important to understand why they are commercially so successful and why it is important that they are produced cleanly and consistently from year to year. This is a lot more than can be said about other, significantly more expensive wines from countries like France and Italy.

A good command of the English language is important. English need not be your first language but, in my opinion, you need to be able to present and defend an argument about a wine-related issue academically and in the preferred language of the Institute. (You can sit the exams in your own language, but then you will have to pay for a translation into English). The examination markers do not look too kindly at journalistic writing styles, or even a style that is too scientific. Essentially, you have to come across authoritatively, without sounding opinionated. And the only way to succeed at the exams is through practice and discipline.

Michael Hill-Smith from Australia, the first non-British Master of Wine, famously took a year out of his career in 1987/88, moved to London and dedicated 12 months to studying for the exam. He passed on his first attempt in 1988. It is said that in the six months leading up to the examination (which is held in June annually), you should be putting in between eight and ten hours a week in study.

But a word of caution: having the letters MW after your name is no guarantee of a career in wine. I know of a handful of MWs who are currently unemployed. I believe the only reason anyone should pursue the Master of Wine qualification is for personal betterment and understanding. Passion, a word that’s thrown around a lot in the world of wine, is very important. There are many in the programme today who have no intention of ever sitting the examination but are simply there to make business contacts. I envisage a tightening up of the rules in the near future regarding people just hanging around the programme without sitting or passing the exam.

Up until the time I entered the Master of Wine programme, it was easy to impress my friends by guessing what was in the glass of wine they set before me. But the Master of Wine programme is about so much more than that. In fact, there are rumours amongst the students that there are a few Masters of Wine in the world who actually passed their practical exams without correctly identifying a single wine on a tasting paper! These rumours are of course unfounded. But they illustrate a point I mentioned earlier – that as long as you can discuss a wine authoritatively, and argue logically using the evidence that you see, smell and taste in the glass of wine in front of you, “you will be ok.” You can be forgiven for identifying a Spanish Garnacha as a Southern French Syrah. Both wines come from warm, Old World origins, are fairly full-bodied and have some similar flavour and tannin profiles.

It is a long journey to become a Master of Wine. There are friends I don’t have the time to see anymore, my teeth always hurt and I often receive feedback on my practice exams that suggests I am a failure in life. But I have chosen this uphill path and I highly recommend it, if you think you’re ready. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything! v

This article appeared in Sommelier India, April-May 2014

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