12 Glasses and Karate (Part 3)

In some ways it has been such a fast year from getting accepted into the prestigious Masters of Wine (MW) program to now, just 9 days before the first year exam on June 6. In other ways, an incredible amount has happened. It’s been an intriguing mix of euphoria, frustration, fascination, angst, and gratification. One of the program’s side benefits was explained to us on Day 1 at our Introductory Seminar which is the amazing people you meet in the process. That has definitely proven true. From the wide range of diverse new friends I now have to the many winemakers, vineyard managers, and wine industry leaders we have been introduced to, these are contacts that can’t be made elsewhere. And similarly to any bonds formed in challenging situations, some of these will last a lifetime.

We also saw beautiful new places and vineyards through the unique eyes of those that know the land and grapes best. From the historical grandeur of Bordeaux to the gravity-defying terraces of Portugal, there is no better teacher than travel to absorb the nuances of a place. These too were opportunities that would be hard to come by without being in a learning program like this.

Education wise, I know I’ve learned a ton but in some ways I feel like I know less than ever. I told this to a friend of mine who is a philosophy professor. He said “ah you’re being torpified”. When I inquired what this was, he said that this is a theory posed by Plato (through his “mouthpiece” Socrates) about how, in order to gain knowledge, one’s current opinion or set of opinions must be broken down or disassembled in order to clear the way for genuine knowledge. A visual analogy of this comes from The Karate Kid in the “Wax on, Wax off” scene where Ralph Macchio is taught higher level karate steps through “sanding the floor” and other household chores by his wise teacher (Pat Morita).


This process is definitely true with the writing style required by MW on essays. The general format of an MW essay sounds simple but is harder to do in practice. It’s basically:

  • Intro with road map of the essay
  • Paragraphs with this structure:
  • Topic sentence
  • Explain that sentence
  • Explain further and add a global example
  • Give your own view which shows critical analysis and evidence of analytical thinking
  • Final sentence should tie back to the topic sentence and the initial question
  • Summary and conclusion

The trick is that the topic can be literally anything related to wine and that the time limit imposed is challenging. For our first year exam, we only have two essays with an hour to do each. We also have a flight of 12 blind wines including white, red, rosé, sparkling, sweet, Port, Sherry, and Madeira with a time limit of 2:15. It does seem that the more wines you taste and the broader your option pool gets, the more difficult it is to nail these wines. So I’ve also learned the concept of torpification along the way.

A lot of people have asked me what the test will be like. First off, we need to bring our 12 glasses, our own spittoons (colored plastic cups for me), black pens if we’re writing, and paper for notes and outlines. Other preparation tips involve being careful of fragrant shampoos or anything with a noticeable smell. A spritz of perfume or cologne would send your peers into a tizzy as these things heavily interfere with smelling and tasting wine.

One of my friends said another student got annoyed with the way his pen clicked so you can see the level of stress and potential annoyances. I saw one guy in a course day wearing headphones attached to nothing to block out sound so everyone has their own game day prep. Come to think of it I’ve done that myself on planes but that’s a different story.

There are some foods known to coat (therefore deaden) the palate such as eggs and peanut butter so those are things to avoid as well. One other consideration is coffee which for some, like me, can skew tasting. Since we have limited ability and time to go to the bathroom that’s a good thing to skip anyway.

We’ve been told to taste a neutral white wine before coming to the test so that the first wine we taste is not in the exam. Mornings are best to taste because your palate is clean and alive. The downside of this is when you taste a wine in the morning it can taste much harsher or more acidic than it really is thus skewing your view on what the wine may be.

We need to arrive about 45 minutes early to pour our wines and set up our computers. This is the first year that computers will be allowed in order to take the test. The pros of this are that many of us have terrible handwriting after years of using computers and that most people can type faster than write which is crucial during a timed test.

The con is that 12 glasses of wine in a tight space with a computer is a potential disaster (spillage) as well as the fact that since it’s the first time, you never know how a computer will behave. What you don’t want is some technical issue half-way through causing you to lose your work and then not having enough time to hand-write it out again. Big bags/backpacks are lethal in these rooms as they tend to wipe things out without the wearer realizing it. But hopefully all will go well for us.

Someone asked me why we pour our own wines. I have never actually asked that question but I suspect it is so that we each bear accountability for getting the correct wine in the correct glass. The wines are in plain green bottles or foil wrapped bags with numbers on each. You can tag your glasses or write numbers on them but the main thing is to know which wine is which however you choose to do it. You also need to pour enough of a sample to get a good feel for its color, viscosity, and obviously taste.

After the tasting portion, we’ll have about 90 minutes to regroup our brains then head back for the two essays. Once the exam is over we’ll get notified by mid-July if we passed, didn’t pass but can re-take Stage One again, or failed badly enough to have to leave the program for a few years. I don’t know what the pass rate is for the first year exam but it seems lower than I initially thought based on the folks I’ve talked to around the world.

In any event, it’s been a thrilling ride and an incredible year. I’m excited to keep learning about wine and to see how the journey unfolds. For now though, I have to get back to “sanding the floor”.  Please wish us luck!

Note: Please see the first post on the “12 Glasses” topic if you missed it. This will be a periodic and ongoing blog about what it’s like to be a student in the Institute of Masters of Wine Programme.





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