It was 2008–just when the recession was really beginning to hit home for many. I was home for the summer from grad school trying to find anyone willing to hire for temporary work. Dejected upon realizing even a local Indian restaurant was uninterested, I did what any self-respecting individual would do and walked into the nearest liquor store to find something to drown my sorrows. From the outside, it seemed like the kind of place that wouldn’t judge my ignorance. Just your average corner convenient shop*.
What I found inside were a couple of older guys and a middle-aged woman. They were putting on a tasting and reeled me in to take a sample. I was self-conscious. This woman was to the moon for Malbec, and I let her tell me more. It wasn’t my favorite grape–I didn’t know much at the time, but I was learning the darker they were, the pickier my palate. But I could have had a whole bottle after listening to her that day. It was clearly her passion.
Not much to lose, I asked if they were hiring. Voilà, my first wine gig.
That summer, I began to learn all about wine. I took home a different wine after each shift and began pairing them at home with my meals. I bought Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, and I would study each label for clues to who they were inside. I would devour any wine book I could and was fortunate to stumble upon Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked followed by Jancis Robinson’s Tasting Pleasure. These two in addition to Eric Asimov’s NY Times column made the biggest impression on me.
Nighttime at the shop, when customers would slow down, my colleague John would walk me through the store–one lesson at a time. One night, I found him sitting in the back room on an upturned painting bucket. He seemed lost in a sniff, eyes closed… just thinking. “God damn people,” he would bark (he was such a curmudgeon), “This isn’t corked. It’s gorgeous.” I wanted a sniff myself. It was a 2005 Les Allees de Cantemerle Haut Medoc. He explained one bank from the next. One vintage from the other. I was hooked. No return.
I began to give wine the same focus as I did my graduate degree in English Lit. I was switching career paths and academia was my road map in life. I completed the CSW through the Society of Wine Educators, got my certification as a sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and began to work towards my WSET Diploma, as I knew the Master of Wine was my dream. Jancis was my motivation. No one had ever made such a strong impression on me as she did at the very start of this all. Her intellect and wide lens view was admirable–her passion was palpable. Pursuing the degree she held was, to me, well… seemingly impossible! But such a worthy goal.
When I got accepted into the Master of Wine program, I was shocked, quite frankly. And when I went to the first year course days that took place in San Francisco back in 2015, I had never been more nervous and exposed. Everyone around me seemed so confident and controlled. They had lofty ambitions and impressive resumes. I laid low and scurried back to my hotel room each night to study like mad–as if it would help at that point. There were a lot of tears that week. I didn’t feel I fit. I was completely out of my comfort zone. But I wasn’t going to let go of my dream just yet.
The summer of 2015, I learned I passed the first stage. I was in the Languedoc, refreshing my email every minute… for about 5 hours, as I waited for the news. I was shocked–again! Shaking, tearing up… I was ecstatic. It had been such a grueling year, a steep learning curve. But I had made it to the big leagues. I was permitted to sit the true MW exam the following year.
For those unfamiliar, the MW exam takes place over four days in June at three locations around the world. Over a hundred students pilgrimage to these centers after years of intense self-study. The first three mornings consist of 12-wine blind tastings. In just over two hours, students are asked to identify the wines through a series of questions regarding origin, variety, methods of production, commercial placement, quality and style. The afternoons of all four days consist of five theory exams on viticulture, vinification, processing/handling of wine post-fermentation, business of wine and current topics. It is truly a holistic degree.
The year that followed first stage was unforgettably intense. My partner and I (I had a few, but one in particular) were obsessed with theory preparation. He would work on certain theory questions, I would work on mine. We would exchange, discuss, troubleshoot, complicate…REPEAT. Again and again, each week we would do this. We would call one another and force each other to answer a question in 15 minutes.
The tastings were equally grueling and really the focus for me, as I felt it was my strength overall. I practiced daily in some capacity, though leading up the exam, there were many weekends where I would do 3 days in a row of 36 wines for a true mock scenario.
I sat that exam last June of 2016 and waited for the results come Labor Day. I was losing my mind over the summer, overanalyzing every last wine on the exam. Had I really called that Austrian Riesling a Gruner?? (–wince–). I was so focused on passing tasting (‘Practical’ exam as it is called), I hadn’t given much thought to how I did on theory, assuming I likely needed to study another year for that one.
The night before results came through, I woke up at least ten times. Each time falling back to sleep to a nightmare that my email said I failed both. I would wake up again realizing I still hadn’t looked. By 5am (early afternoon in the U.K.), I had a feeling the email was available. I looked. It was there. I couldn’t open it. I laid there for over two hours, imaging what it said.
I finally walked downstairs and went outside. Sat down. Opened up the mail. I had passed tasting… and theory. I was shocked.
This past year, I have been collecting and consuming bookshelves full of research and writing my paper–the final stage in this process. Though I realized like all aspects of the MW this would be difficult, I thought having a masters in English would make it just a little more enjoyable. I was wrong. Like every other stage, the MW pushed me to my limit. I have never in my life worked so hard on any paper. Not my masters Thesis, not anything. My mentor forced me to break away from my writing style again and again. She worked so hard to guide me, and I appreciated it so much. One of my closest friends spent hours (days, really) over the course of a couple months editing my work and helping me get it to the place it needed to be, for which I am ever grateful (and indebted!).
And so, I handed my research in on June 30th. The past eight weeks has been nothing short of illuminating. I haven’t had a free weekend in years. Now I have several. I am getting to know myself again. I am stopping to sit in the park more often, read Virginia Woolf and consider getting back into rock climbing. But it hasn’t all been relaxing. The silence can be unsettling, when you put so much of yourself into a goal for so many years. I realize now, the MW process has transformed me.
Throughout my life, I have laid low, quiet, insecure– like the person I was that first year in the program. Growing up, I rarely raised my hand, even when I thought I was right, for fear I was not. I would keep a list of questions I had to research later in the privacy of my own home. The MW program taught me to ask questions–out loud. I began to ask what seemed the most inane questions at wineries (Why do you ferment in oak? Is there a reason you chose to get Demeter certification? What was your most challenging vintage and how did you handle that? Are you reacting to climate change in any way? Which market do you feel is more receptive to your brand? Why?). I thought the answers would be straightforward. What I learned was that everyone had a different response. I became obsessed with asking questions–every kind I could. And my understanding of the decisions growers, winemakers, distributors, importers and retailers make became deliciously complex! I have always been a curious individual, but now I understand (and am unafraid) to access it. And that is one of the most beautiful gifts I received from this process.
I would love to be shocked just once more on Monday. To close this chapter and see what’s next. But I know if not now, it’s around the corner. The MW has taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons. I had always worked on degrees in solitude. But the MW made that impossible. Collaboration was key. No one can do this alone. Mentors, students, the wine industry, family and friends were essential to passing each stage so far. And it made the process so much more meaningful, really. The people I met made the experience. I look forward to the day when I can give back to future students and maintain the sense of community this program has instilled.
Wish me luck! 😉
*(I would go on to manage Little’s Wine & Spirits for a few years–it still has a delightful, smart selection. You should check out if in Denver.)