… or How To Study Wine, by Deborah Wickins. 🙂
A few people have asked me how I am preparing for the ISG Sommelier Diploma exams. Because I am a study nerd, and not a little OCD when it comes to process, my approach is likely overcomplicated, but it works for me.
First, I begin by reviewing an old 1994 WSET text by Christopher Fielden, called Exploring Wines and Spirits. I think the last printing of this book was in 2003, so it’s not a current book. But old copies can always be found. This book was mentioned by my Level 2 instructor as being a go-to reference for her, and once I got my copy, I immediately saw its utility. The book is at an introductory level, but covers all the main wine regions. It gives a “snapshot” of each region in a quick-read fashion. It’s somewhat out of date, to be sure, but because it is not partcularly detailed, it’s still helpful. At this stage of the game, I should know everything in this book (I don’t yet – don’t tell anyone! I’m working on it…) The main appeal for me, though, is the FANTASTIC maps it offers. The maps are simplistic but complete. And they are always presented in a proper, North-on-top aspect, so that you can easily look at any other bigger map to place the region within it. I think I am a learner who does better with words than with pictures, so these very simple maps make the most sense to me. This is the main reason why I continue to make use of this book on a regular basis.
Next, I re-read the subject matter in the Level 2 text, The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. I love this book, as it reminds us of all the essentials and many of the quirks of each region. However, the maps are not intuitive to me – they are very, very detailed – which is why I need to start with the old WSET book first. 🙂 This book is so respectful, and celebratory in its tone, describing the best of what each region is doing – it makes you want to visit each and every destination, to experience them for yourself. It’s been interesting for me, going back to this book lately, to pick up on the different “voices” of Hugh and Jancis, after having read other books they have each written (Jancis’s Tweets, in particular, have a particular tone of authority that is unmistakeable). I think the combination of their approaches makes for a very winning product here for the wine student. And the photos are gorgeous and very high quality. I look forward to the day when this book can serve as a simple coffee table, for its sheer beauty, once it’s done serving its current role as a marked up, highlighted and flagged reference text!
My next and least favorite step is to then consult Tom Stevenson’s book, Sothebys Wine Encyclopedia 4th Edition Revised, which is the “official” text for the Level 3 course. I find Tom to be highly opinionated and rather a bully, so I get exasperated when reading him in large doses. But his book assumes the reader’s level of wine knowledge to be at a certain level already – no wimpy review of the basics here! – so it is unique and helpful in that it truly does take the learning to the next level of specificity required for the exam.
Finally, The Damn Flashcards ensure that all the terms and snippets of knowledge taken from all these sources don’t get lost in the flood of info. This is how I learned in high school and university, and it still works for me today. Memorization by sheer force of will, i.e. repeated exposure. Over and over. And over. In this latest round, I am making the most new flashcards out of the Stevenson book, trying to familiarize myself with all the producer and vineyard names I can, just on the off chance of being able to trot them out as a guess as to which producer created the wines on the final tasting exam. Maybe I will get partial points for being in the correct subregion?
At the same time, I am tasting tasting tasting – with the help of other students from this year’s class, good friends who come and pour for me so I can taste blind, and by inflicting myself on Victoria’s server population by asking them to bring me a glass of something without telling me what it is. The taste buds are still not in the shape they were two years ago when I was in the course, so I have catch up to do. Major, major catch up. A dirty – and expensive – job, but one I am happy to undertake.