Green Pin Manifesto
The Five (make that Six) Highlighter System
Print all of GuildSomm study guides out on a laser-jet printer. Ink jet copies do not take kindly to coffee, tea, wine and highlighters. Using one color highlighter is a waste of time. It will only cut down the amount of text you have to re-read in half. Utilizing multiple color highlighters increases your concentration and makes it easier to scan your guides for important information.
Once you have coded a guide with the six different colors, transfer the information into a hand written outline. The process of reorganizing the information from narrative form into bullet points is a crucial exercise in retention, thus condensing and re-contextualizing information in your brain.
As you are doing this transfer, have a detailed map (I used the World Atlas of Wine) open as a reference. Make sure to identify and even highlight important places on the map that are mentioned in the study guides. This will create visual geographic context for the written text. When I am asked a theory question, I can visualize the map and know the important information in multiple versions.
Yellow – Proper Nouns: Appellations, Estates, People, Climats etc.
Only highlight the term, underline or box off the definition separately, this will make it easier to scan later.
Blue – Important information: highlight important information that does not have a specific term associated with it.
For example: Bordeaux was less impacted by the change in inheritance laws with the Napoleonic Code. Its distance from Paris and commercial ownership of land insulated it from the impact of the French Revolution. Burgundy on the other hand was impacted much more directly from the transition from primogeniture to partible inheritance, thus leading to the fracturing of vineyard holdings and the rise of negociants.
Then margin note: Bordeaux – far from Paris, less fragmentation. Burgundy – significant division, rise of negociants.
Put the text in your own words, it is crucial to comprehension and retention.
Green – Varietals: a major part of the Advanced exam is knowing the principal varietals of each region.
Orange – Terroir/Law: Soil, Winds (potentially purple), aging requirements.
Pink – Terms: foreign language terms or any word that you are not familiar with. Examples: Autochthonous, teinturier, cartouche or any French word that ends in “-age”. Margin note the definition.
*NEW* Purple – Influencing Bodies: Essentially proper nouns that are not appellations. Examples: Lago d’Iseo, Humboldt Current, Vosges Mountains etc. (formerly orange or yellow)
Identifying your weaknesses:
Don’t waste time reviewing material that is already locked into your muscle memory. Spend that time improving on regions that you don’t deal with on a regular basis.
Shaquille O’neal broke two backboards during his nineteen-year career in the NBA, but missed 5,317 freethrows. His time at practice was much better served practicing shots from the charity stripe rather than two handed slam-dunks.
Burgundy is a slam-dunk for me. Greece, Chile and South Africa were my Achilles heels. In the lead up to the exam, I studied what I call the “Outer Boroughs” five or six times each. I didn’t have to practice Burgundy because I was busy selling it everyday on the floor. Don’t let the fact that certain regions are not featured on your wine list be a mental crutch or an excuse for you not to know them.
The easiest way to identify weakness is to take all of the practice exams on the Guild site and keep track of your scores. This will create a power ranking of the sections that need your greatest attention.
Recognize when you have gone too far down the rabbit hole. The study guides provide a great compass to keep you on the course of your studies. I didn’t waste time learning how to convert the Pradikat from Öchsle into KMW. Memorizing the Grosse Lages of the Mittelmosel is a much better use of your time.
On the subject of flashcards:
They happened. I read the Wine Bible cover to cover on my iPhone and made tons of flashcards with that process. It was lightweight, highly mobile, easy. I made flashcards for all the quiz questions that I got wrong. I would keep stacks of cards that I knew segregated from the ones I needed to study. I would run through sets on Quizlet while I was stuck in traffic or on a train. I stopped using them after a while. They weren’t multi-dimensional enough.
The virtues of the podcast and audiobooks:
I used to live 25 miles from my restaurant, so I basically had at least an hour and half to listen to podcasts every workday. On my days off when I was doing laundry, going at the gym, and running errands I was listening to podcasts. Podcasts and audiobooks allowed me to learn while I didn’t necessarily have time to sit down and hit the books. I have listened to all of GuildSomm podcasts, many of them two or three times over. I am a huge fan of Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That”. His podcasts are great resources for hearing regions and varietals pronounced in their native vernacular. Other podcasts that have helped: “In the Drink”, “SommTalks”, “Grape Radio” and “Wine for Sophisticated Homies,” which is essentially a satire with theory weaved in and out.
Great audiobooks available on iTunes:
The Juice, In Vinus Veritas by Jay McInerney
The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter
Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup
While all of these books may not be as theory centric as other resources, listening to an audiobook can provide a break from more intensive study.
The following is an edited version of the study tips I shared with the high school students who I tutored in Advanced Placement History:
Do’s and Don’ts
Polish off some bottles:
One of the best ways to learn a new wine list or back bar of spirits is to offer to clean or count it. As a barback and an assistant sommelier I was tasked with a “Karate Kid” style training program that involved me counting or cleaning every bottle in the collection. If you run across something you’re less than familiar with, open the bottle, smell it, taste it. In my Advanced theory exam there was a flight of liqueurs and aperitifs. Repeatedly polishing the flamboyantly shaped Galliano bottle and making the occasional Harvey Wallbanger made identifying the oddly yellow-green colored, anisy liqueur effortless.
Don't be a wine bigot:
We are all inclined to our own preferences. Some people don’t care for cilantro, blue cheese, or raw onions. Similarly some people don’t care for Torrontes, Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot. But for some reason there are certain wine professionals I have known to make Trumpian declarations about entire regions, varietals, or “Proletarian” categories. They proclaim that certain wines like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, California Chardonnay or Argentinian Malbec are some how beneath them, like a repugnant underbelly beneath their Ivory Tower of a palate. Don't ever be too good for a wine. Keep an open mind. Don’t build walls. Not every NZSB has glaring jalapeno aromas. Not all French red wines have brettanomyces. Taste everything that the rep has in the bag. You might actually like something, and the likelihood that you encounter a wine or an appellation that you never knew of is high.
I missed Pinot Grigio in my Advanced Exam Tasting because I had been a wine bigot. I’m sorry PG, it was me not you.
“I never lose. I either win or learn.”
– Nelson Mandella
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
Every wine has something to teach you. Every person who takes time pour a blind for you offers a lesson to take with you. Every wine missed is an opportunity to learn.
Since I returned from the Advanced Course in Dallas a year prior to my exam, I have had tasting sessions with or received pointers from a who’s who of sommeliers:
Geoff Kruth MS, Fred Dame MS, Alan Murray MS, Brian McClintock MS, Greg Harrington MS, Bobby Conroy, Chris Gaither, Rebecca Fineman MS, Lauren Kemp, Randy Nakagawa, Stevie Stacionis, Josiah Baldivino, Max Coane, Kelly Evans, David Castleberry, Hadley Kemp, Michael Baldinado, Thatcher Baker Briggs, Indy Singh, Cara Patricia Higgins, Kim Kitabata, Michael Ireland, Stacy Ladenburger, Rachel Ryan, Mark Bright, Careen Jackson, Simi Grewal, Taylor Smith, Idoia De Eguia Luna, Melissa Boeardman, Keith Hansen, Martin Sheehan Stross, Steve Izzo, Daniel Fish, Kassandra McPherson, Claude Isambert, Marissa Payne, Sean Palmer, Petra Polakovicova and countless others.
I can remember with vivid clarity the most poignant tasting notes from each of the sessions, whether they were “timed sixes” or impromptu blinds. Here are some key lessons I learned.
Order in the Court:
In the six weeks prior to the exam I changed the way I was going through flights almost completely. I was starting with reds first because they “spoke” the loudest to me. The first serious timed six I ran through in the lead up to the exam, I lost tons of time trying to work through the first two neutral whites.
I remember Rebecca Fineman (now an MS!) asking me why I did it that way. I claimed that it allowed me to build up momentum. She pointed out that it was messing up my structure calls. She was apprehensive to tell me to change my strategy so close to the exam. A week before the exam Fred Dame was not so understanding. He told me that the wines were placed in an order for a reason. The day I took the exam was the first time in six months that I worked through the flight from left to right.
Rebooting the Grid:
During same tasting with Rebecca I correctly identified Rioja but basically only called dried fig, date, prune, bruised walnut, and leather. She pointed out that while I got the wine correctly, I missed all sorts of points on the nose and palate. Sweet and Sour, Curry, Hoisin, Blood/Sanguine, Molasses. I wasn’t checking for condiments!
Then on my way back from work that night I had an epiphany. The standard grid has a non-fruit category, earth organic and inorganic, but there was an opportunity to create multiple sub categories. I wrote down every descriptor for every wine scoring grid that I had, looked at the Court’s varietal profiles, went through the Wine Folly book and wrote down as many tasting notes from the flavor wheels and put them into my own order.
Fruits, Flowers, Herbs, Vegetables, Animal, Nuts, Dairy, Bread, Condiments, Gas/Fire, Earth, Rocks, Wood, Vinification.
It completely revolutionized my tasting prowess. It forced me to check for things like pyrazine, volatility, brettanomyces, oxidation, lees, TDN, stem inclusion, carbonic maceration, and sotolon, all while describing these features with real-world descriptors.
Sweet and Sour
The tasting portion of the exam does not require an otherworldly palate or some Rainman shit. You have to know how to play the game.
Sight: Ten boxes thirty seconds. Don't get too cute. Color, Clarity, Concentration, Brightness, Hues, Rim Variation, Gas, Sediment, Viscosity, Stains.
Nose and Palate:
Memorize my Rebooting the Grid matrix. Go through the nose. Make sure to identify condition of fruit. I got knocked during feedback for only talking about the color of fruit. I would say yellow fruits: grapefruit, Meyer lemon, star fruit, yellow peach, but I forgot to say the condition of the fruit.
Double your money:
You double your score by announcing the palate and repeating everything you said on the nose. I have seen tons of people in my tasting groups get too cute trying to extrapolate the nuances of the nose versus the palate. It is a very masturbatory waste of time. It doesn’t earn any extra points. Repeat the palate immediately after the nose while it is fresh in your mind.
I always remembered structure as STAAB. Sweetness, Tannin, Alcohol, Acidity, Body. Consequently, I regularly forget to evaluate Balance or quantify Complexity and Finish.
Help them help you:
People are human; so are the Masters adjudicating your exam. If you go through the grid in a consistent and logical progression rather than a schizophrenic, grab at straws, shotgun method, the likelihood that you stay on course and that they know what you are talking about increases exponentially.
Say what you mean:
Announce each portion of your tasting. You do not get straddle points for being ambiguous. You make your money by stating what you are doing.
Announce when you are transitioning to the following:
You know what they say when you assume things:
Identify the omission:
Initial Conclusion: Old World, Cool Climate. Potential Varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino. Potential Countries of Origin: France, Spain, Austria. Age range: 1-3 years.
Final Conclusion: Old world, Cool Climate, France, Loire Valley, Central Vineyards, Sancerre, 2014 vintage.
Omission: Varietal in the final conclusion. Everyone knows what you’re after. You just didn’t say Sauvignon Blanc. You do not get the benefit of the doubt, or pass go, or collect two hundred dollars.
Geico for your money: The Tripartite Initial, Handcuffs and the Nested Final
In the Advanced blind tasting exam, points are weighted more heavily in the initial rather than final conclusion; this switches at the Masters level. Having a list of three varietals in the initial conclusion initial is highly advisable.
Make sure to include two other potential lateral varietals in the Initial Conclusion. If you think the wine is a Gewürztraminer, include other terpenic varietals like Viognier and Muscat in the Initial.
An over-confident and concise initial conclusion can spell disaster if your instincts are off. Laterals are the insurance policy for your initial conclusion.
Make sure announce the varietals and countries of origin separately. Some blind-tasters have the habit of handcuffing varietals to specific countries in the initial conclusion.
Example of Handcuffing:
Potential Varietals: Shiraz from Australia, Malbec from Argentina and Zinfandel from the United States.
Age Range: 1-3 Years
Less specific and higher point-scoring alternative:
Potential Varietals: Syrah, Malbec, Zinfandel
Potential Countries of Origin: Australia, Argentina, United States
In the event that the wine in the example above was a Paso Robles Syrah, the extra specificity of coupling the country with varietal could eliminate elasticity in the scoring of the Initial Conclusion.
Additionally I have also heard people handcuff sub-regions with varietals in the initial conclusion:
Pinot Gris from Alsace, Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and Riesling from the Mosel.
Remember that the Initial Conclusion is asking for countries of origin, not sub-regions!
Here is an alternative way to phrase the initial:
Potential Varietals: Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chenin Blanc
Potential Countries of Origin: France, Germany and Austria
If the wine in question were actually Alsatian Riesling you would score points for having both the country of origin and varietal correct in the initial conclusion. Conversely, the handcuffed example would less likely receive full credit in the initial conclusion. For this reason I recommend listing potential varietals and countries of origin separately, and refraining from including sub-regions in the initial conclusion.
Speaking of sub-regions, I also recommend nesting the appellations in your final conclusion. Think Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls.
South Australia, Barossa Zone, Barossa Valley GI
High Quality Langton’s Classified Estate
If the Shiraz in the example above was from Eden Valley rather than the Barossa Valley, additional partial credit could be scored in the final conclusion, as Eden Valley is nested within the Barossa Zone.
If you think a pinot noir is from the Russian River Valley, make sure to say United States, California, and Sonoma Coast prior to RRV in your final conclusion. In the event that the wine is from Fort Ross-Seaview, you still score sub-region points for Sonoma Coast.
Know people who know what’s up:
Guys walks into a wine bar. He asks for three classic single varietal, testable wines. Bartender pours Swiss Chasselas, Galician Godello and Ribolla Gialla from Friuli. Joke is on him. Beware of the hipsters and pontiffs.
Certain wine shop proprietors are familiar with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and what it considers classic. Some are familiar with the “classics” in other fields such as OG Hip-Hop, Stussy T-shirts, and French cheeses.
Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino of Bay Grape in Adams Point, Oakland are familiar with “D – All of the above”. During my “home stretch” I went to Bay Grape every Monday afternoon, when they put up a flight of six genuinely classic wines for a measly twenty dollars. I went with enough frequency that my iPhone started to let me know how long it would take me to get to Bay Grape every Monday.
While I didn’t put myself on the clock for every flight, I did become accustomed to making final conclusions on many classic wines. I eventually learned to identify several classic wines off the nose alone.
Money in the bank:
There are several classics that I became extremely familiar with, to the point that I gave tasting group members a hard time for bringing “softballs” to the blind sessions. While certain glaringly obvious wines may have been too easy to identify, having a lights out set of descriptors at the ready in the event that they appeared in a blind is a time saving and point scoring god send.
Ripe Red Apple, Ripe Peach Skin, Juicy Pineapple, Daffodil, Vanilla, Cinnamon, Bay Laurel, Hazelnut, Cream, Panna Cotta, Pizza Dough, Butterscotch, Brown Sugar, Straw, Chalk
Tart Golden Apple, Asian Pear, Meyer Lemon Pith, White Peach/Hard Apricot, Pineapple Core, White Flowers, Citrus Blossom, Hay, Bay Laurel, Blanched Hazelnut, Marcona Almond, Cheese Rind, Brie/Brillat Savarin, Parmesan, Toast, Salt (Chablis), Sea Spray (Chablis), Butterscotch (Beaune), White button mushroom, straw, LeBron pre-game (Chalk), reduction.
Russian River Pinot Noir:
Ripe Red Cherry, Ripe Strawberry, Ripe Raspberry, Fresh Red Carnation, Hibiscus, Black Tea, Crimson Beets, Rhubarb, Cola, Sassafras, Graphite, Pencil Shavings
Tart Cranberry, Under-ripe Raspberry, Tart Cherry, Black Tea, Hay, Mushroom, Raw red beets, Suede leather, toast, graphite, forest floor
Black Currant, Blackberry, Plum, Fennel, Leather, Tobacco, Horse, Cedar, Cigar Box, Roasted Bell Pepper, Iron, Gravel
Tart Cranberry, Tart Raspberry, Alba Strawberry, Dried Roses, Dried Violets, Potpourri, Rosemary, Thyme, Leather, Walnut shell, Balsamic, Tar
Blackberry, Cassis, Violets, Sage, Clove, Green Bell Pepper, Tobacco, Leather, Coffee, Vanilla, Chocolate, Toasted Nuts
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc:
Grapefruit, Passion fruit, Gooseberry, Citrus Blossom, Jalapeno, Fresh cut grass, chalk, saline, cat pee
Complete the same exercise for “bankable” classics such as: Sancerre, Malbec, Northern Rhone Syrah, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rioja, Chilean Carmeniere, Condrieu, Aussie Riesling
Theory and Tasting Appointments
I usually bring my laptop with a copy of the World Atlas of Wine to my tasting appointments so I can have a precise understanding of vineyard location. This is a way to add to your theory outside of textbooks, while highlighting points on the map that you would otherwise let go unnoticed. Also, consider tasting appointments as practical theory exercises. I’ve had reps give a varietal breakdown on a certain Italian wine and I was puzzled when the blend didn’t match up with the DOC regulations I had studied in the compendium. Sales representatives obviously have tons of wines and tons of accounts to visit and know, and they understandably mix one blend up for another on occasion. Considers it an opportunity to keep your knowledge sharp and practice tact. Remember that the service exam will involve you handling a misinformed guest and not coming off as a jerk or a know-it-all. Remember its not what you say, its how you say it. Moreover, if you act like a jerk to your wine rep, those multi-case pricing breaks might not be as favorable as they could be be.
I asked Greg Harrinton MS once, what is your best piece of advice for sommeliers training for the Certified exam. He said learn how to carry a tray of Champagne. Ultimately I think the service exam is basically an exercise in grace under fire. The Maitre D’ is basically there just to make you feel flustered. One table will be a bunch of dicks. You have to smile, be confident without being condescending and your motor functions essentially need to be muscle memory. You should not have to think about where to place glassware as you are being quizzed on the specific vintages in Bolgheri. If you are not working in a restaurant setting on a weekly basis, you should have several peers run you through a service examination
Eye on the prize
There are some tall tales of famous MS’s that have failed service because they took their eyes off the decanter to answer questions while decanting. Don’t look up!
Don’t be a douche
Hostpitality and humility is the name of the game. Here’s an example:
“My guest loves Armagnac, what Armagnac do you have from Hennessy?”
This is test not only of your knowledge of French brandies, but also to see if you come across as a condescending oaf. Which of the following responses sounds best:
“I’m not sure if Hennessey makes Armagnac, let me go check with the bartender.”
“Hennessey doesn’t make Armagnac, would you like some of their Cognac? We have the Privilége V.S.O.P and their XO.”
“I’m afraid we do not have any Armagnac from Hennessy. We have some outstanding Armagnacs from Marie Duffau, and some of Hennessy’s Cognacs, do you have a preference for either?”
The Tacit Responsibility
Karma bitch. Pay it forward. The Court doesn’t talk about it enough, but helping other CMS candidates achieve success is part and parcel to your own growth as teacher. Teaching is the ultimate level of mastery.
Know Thine Vintages
Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Napa, Oregon…
Have a backup plan
Have another recommendation, and another, and another.
Mastery is learned under the tutelage of other masters. Find your Hattori Hanzo. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to help.
Its like this and like that and like this an uh?
- Pinot Grigio, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner
- Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo
- Malbec, Merlot, Napa Cabernet, Zinfandel
- Beaujolais, Syrah, Burgundy
- Alsace v Alsace v Alsace
- Viognier, Muscat, Torrontes
- All four testable examples of Sauvignon Blanc
- Chianti v Brunello v Barbaresco v Barolo
- Austrian v Australian v German v Alsatian Riesling
- Chenin v Chenin v Chenin
Bjornholm’s Twelve Areas of Study for a Wine Region
1) Geography and Climate (country, area of country, major natural features such as mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, where it is in relation to other regions, etc)
2) Grapes Allowed (all of them, not just the obvious ones)
3) Viticultural Techniques (ripeness levels at harvest, vine training, harvest dates, irrigation allowances, etc.)
4) Vinification Techniques (fermentation, percentages of blends, acidification/must enrichment, etc.)
5) Aging Laws (Oak/No Oak, Length of time in Wood and Bottle, release dates)
7) Official Regional Classification (Vin de Table vs. AOP, State vs. Region in Australia, etc.)
8) Sub-Regional Classifications (vineyards, villages, producers)
9) Major Producers (at least 5 for each region and what makes them unique, particularly signature cuvées) and some Historical Lore (the big stories, the romance)
10)Vintage Knowledge (Poor/Fair/Good/Excellent and Why)
11)Proper Terminology for Laws (Gran Reserva vs. Crianza in Rioja)
12)Specific Terminology related to that Region (Sforzato, Aszu Essencia vs. Essencia, Hanepoot)
What state is the Yarra Valley located in?
What is the least planted grape in Alsace Grand Cru?
Who makes Clos St. Urban?
What First Growth no longer participates in En Premieur offerings?
Second Label of Lafite-Rothchild?
Second label of Cheval Blanc?
What is the grape of Hunter Valley Riesling?
Name three red grapes other than Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre allowed in CDP
Name two other sweet wine appellations in Graves other than Sauternes and Barsac
Where is Clos du Papillon?
Where is La Grand Cote?
What is the minimum lees aging for Cremant de Borgogne?
Where is the Awatere Valley?
What is the grape of Vin Jaune in l’Etoile?
What is poinente?
What is saca?
What is biological aging?
What is the method for production in Bugey Cerdon and Galliac Mousseaux Methode Galliacoise?
What State is Orange located in?
What is the principal grape of Margaret River?
What classic region does Walker Bay most closely resemble?
What is the river of the Clesse, Chenas and Solutre?
Name top vineyard of Erden?
Name top vineyard of Keidrich?
What style does Blue Moon most closely resemble?
What region houses Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG? Who was instrumental to the elevation of the appellation to designation?
What is the difference in oak aging requirements for Barolo Riserva and Barbaresco Riserva?
Which of the two regions is under greater influence of the Tanaro river?
Which AOC contains the following lieu-dits: Le Bressards, L’Hommes, Les Murets?
What does metayage mean?
What are tries successives?
What style of wine would most likely involve this process?
What is the largest premier cru of the left bank of Chablis?
What direction do the left bank premier crus of Chablis face?
Name two soils of Cote du Py?
What does Alte Reben mean?
What does Sonnenheur mean?
What are the grapes of Nuits-Saint-Georges?
Three subregions of the Duoro? The one with the poorest reputation for wine production?
Three sub regions of Rioja? What is the hottest region? Soil type there?
Maximum yield of Bonnezeaux?
What is Cantiero? Minimum aging? Aging process?
What is the main soil type for Manzanilla?
Where are you most likely to find limestone in Champagne?
What is the principal style of wine produced in England?
Where is Villany?
Where does “Hermine d’Or” appear on labels? What does it indicate?
In the Entre Cordilleras region, what feature mitigates the influence of the Humboldt Current?
What style of wine is San Antonio, Chile most known for?
What is the name of the wind that influences Cuyo?
What state is the Van Duzer corridor located in?
Between 2007 and 2012, what was the rainiest year in Napa Valley?
On a scale of 1-5, how does the 2012 Vintage rank in Napa?
Name two producers of Scharzhofberg vineyard.
What is the warmest anbaugebiet in Germany?
List in order of KMW: Kamptal Reserve, Zweiget, Strohwein, Smaragd?
Identify the which of the following is a highly regarded Austrian Ried:
Emerich Knoll, Wachau, Lamm, Gruner Veltliner
What Greek wine is known as “acid black”?
What process of aging is Josko Gravner known for?
What was the original estate founded on Cape Peninsula?
What is the boiling point of ethanol?
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Thank you for all the time and effort you put into this. It was very helpful.