2 cents from a Master Sommelier on study methods

I often receive the question “what’s the best way to study?” from candidates climbing their way up the CMS or WSET ladder. It’s an absolute valid concern, as one faces the daunting task of managing the sheer volume of knowledge, the demanding time commitment, the expense of sourcing and tasting wine, and the focus requirements needed to see success. Each of theses resources is required in escalating intensity one rises up the certification tiers.

 

There are many great methods to tackle a thorough study plan, and each person’s best-practices is intensely personal. While there is no silver bullet, and what works for one likely won’t work for others, here I will dive into what worked for me – or rather, works for me as this is my framework for lifelong learning.

 

The key to discovering what works best for you is experimentation with an open mind. Before we dive into the various methods, the single best piece of advice that I can give you is this – get as close as possible to maintaining balance in your life throughout your study plan. In order to achieve balance, you need to be able to continue doing not only the necessary things like work, family etc. but also making sure to keep doing the things that you love – cycling, playing guitar, videogames or whatever makes you happy. This requires a long-term approach that becomes part of your daily routine. In order to stay sharp in this profession, you need to continue to study every day, even after you do pass, because things change so fast. And that’s great! That’s what keeps it interesting and exciting and enjoyable. Do not treat the journey like it’s just preparation for a test, a single endpoint, but rather commit to a lifestyle that is rich in experience and deep in understanding, and will be with you until you retire or change careers.

 

Now let’s look at a few study practices. I’ll discuss the ones that ended up working well for me and why, but please weigh in with any different approaches. I found that mixing it up during the week kept my thought process focused, and as a result my recall skills improved. You need to develop the mental dexterity to be talking about grower Champagne one minute, great Port vintages in the next, and then on to COGS for your glass pour program with complete ease. I ended up utilizing the following eight approaches regularly.

 

Also, a quick word about timelines, specifically the importance of establishing a realistic timeline to meet your study goals before an exam. Do not think that 6 months to prepare for Advanced is going to be enough or a year for Masters. Cultivating breadth and depth, with good retention and the ability to draw substantive connections and comparisons requires time and commitment. Treat your studies with the seriousness that befits our beloved subject. It just simply isn’t unless your name is Raymond and you live at 10962 Beachcrest St. in Cincinatti, but even then you’re not building context or depth for the information that you do commit to memory. More on that later.

 

 

Flashcards
No surprise here I assume. This is probably the most common method used and for good reason. It provides a great starting point and a way to break-up a complex subject into easily digestible chunks. Some prefer to write them out on trusty 3x5 cards, or type them and store them on a cloud – either way works as it’s just about the act of creating them more than anything. There are plenty of accessible flash cards on the internet, and these can be useful in showing you a new perspective on how to write them; however, I find much greater value in those that I wrote out myself. I recommend making them digital so that you have a backup and so you can review them on your phone. Lugging around a duffel bag of flashcards can be done, but why? I’ve also find it extremely helpful for other people to use your cards to quiz you, rather than just practicing yourself. This forces you to speak the information out loud, and helps build confidence and recall. A perfect exercise with our significant other on a road trip while you are driving.

 

 

A blank legal pad and pen
Sit down and write everything you know about a region/appellation from memory. Include wine law, soils, climate, producers, vintages etc., anything and everything. How did you do? What is missing? Go and research those things and do it again Then do it again. Then again until you can thoroughly write about a region and navigate your way from memory. Be sure to include cause and effect when utilizing this method as it will help to cement the information in your brain and you can also start to recognize parallels with other regions, which will help in a number of surprising ways.

 

Recording of oneself
This is a similar approach to the legal pad but utilizing an audible approach rather than a written one. Find a recording app on your phone and a quiet place to essentially record your own personal podcast on a region or subject. Again do this from memory and then listen to it (FYI you may freak out at the sound of your own voice J ) What did you miss? What did you explain poorly? Take notes so that you know what to fix. When you produce a decent version you can then listen to it on your commute to work, at the gym or wherever to further reinforce your recall. You will get to the point where you can talk along and increase your confidence level just like with the flashcard exercise. It is always incredibly more difficult to say things aloud then to just think them silently to yourself.

 

Map drawing or manipulation

Visuals are especially effective for some, and I found them supremely helpful. Maps are a great way to orient yourself to geography, but also in understanding the relation of one vineyard/appellation to another, and may be enhanced by also depicting features such as soil types and geographic features. If you can fold in topography, there is the added benefit of visualizing aspect and microclimate

 

Essentially, there are two approaches to map studies –freehand drawing, and study using online resources such as Google Earth. I utilized both and found that they complemented one another quite well. These days a lot of the hard work has already been done for you by the talented Fernando Beteta, MS, of Tenzing in Chicago. Check out his site at http://fernandobeteta.com You would also be well served by checking out Jill Zimorski on social media to see her approach for good old fashioned manual drawings – also incredible. Map work takes a good deal of patience and practice, but such visual practices can yield good depth of knowledge and give all of that book work some context.

 

Develop a PowerPoint presentation and then present it to your peers/staff This process is not only a powerful study tool, but also a tangible finished product for the training of your staff or the mentorship of your peers. Assembling a lesson plan forces one to consider the most pertinent information, and to present it in a clear, organized, engaging manner – the end result can really grow your confidence when discussing a region. Can you imagine having these in your repertoire for when you start a new job? Invaluable!

 

Form a dedicated study group
Find 2-3 (max as bigger groups lose focus) other similarly dedicated individuals with the same goal, and meet once a week, every week. Develop a calendar of study subjects and deadlines, with individual assignments spelled out, and be sure to divide up the areas of focus each week so that your group can realistically tackle each section thoroughly. I found that 2-3 regions per week was about right, and we would break up challenging areas to avoid confusion. For example, don’t lump all of Germany into one week. For one, it’s too large of a region to get through. Secondly, with a language that we found challenging, it becomes very easy to mix up names and places. Separating Pfalz from Ahr from Mosel and pairing them with a completely different country/region will help avoid confusing them.

 

At weekly study session, each member should come prepared with questions to verbally quiz one another in a round table format. Questions should be fair and challenging, and in order to be effective you must not be afraid to call someone out for not preparing. Hold each other responsible and you will thank one another later. Lastly, build a cloud-based bank of these questions to allow both individual and group review, and to ensure that you are coming with fresh content once you start repeating your schedule.

 

Read wine news daily
As I mentioned before, the world of wine is constantly growing and evolving. In addition to growing a strong foundation in classical knowledge, it is vital to stay engaged in the current news and discussion. This is a simple task that can fit into any small timeframe of your day – think about how frequently we generally check in with social media and general news feeds throughout a day. Set up RSS feed, sign up for blogs and new alerts – make wine part of your daily news consumption.

 

Drink wine!
It can be easy to get too wrapped up in the study regimen. Don’t forget what got you interested in taking this path in the first place. Drink great bottles regularly, and share them with friends and colleagues - some bottles you will remember for the rest of your life. The experience of engaging with the juice will have a much greater impact than a flashcard, and without maintaining enjoyment this whole study endeavor will lose its luster.

 

Lastly
Don’t fall into the seemingly all-too-easy trap of rote memorization – this will get you nowhere, especially in the long term. A bucket full of strictly memorized facts will have very little retention or recall if you do not understand context, connection, history, geography… you cannot memorize complex, deep understanding. With every nugget of knowledge ask yourself “why?” The answers may not always be immediately obvious, but it is through deep thought and detailed research that you will truly begin to understand a region.

 

Happy studying and please chime in with what works for you. I hope you find some of the above useful for you.

 

Cheers!

  • I am also using Geoff Kruth's tour guide approach. If you have 3 days to visit an area, what are the "must-see"s. Also, where else can I go within an hour's drive? #SherryShivvers
  • Thank you, Master Tanghe! Truly insightful and helpful.

    A couple concepts that I feel have helped me in my growth I'd like to add:

    Practice harder than you play. Many, many times I've seen when we practice in bits, we don't have the endurance come game time. You don't train for a marathon by running 5 miles a day. Tasting 1 or 2 wines at a time is great and the most affordable and time-effective way to go about blinding. It needs to be mixed up, however. Doing full flights keeps you from gassing out on wine number 3 or 4 and struggling to finish. I've done this many times and seen so many others. We have to build the strength and the fortitude to keep going. Same thing on Theory. If you only do 10-20 questions, when you're hit with 80+, your brain starts to struggle 30 minutes in. Don't forget to work with others and go the whole distance on a regular basis. Developing cohesive flights and writing full practice exams really makes you think about what is important and relevant and helps you immensely. Pay it forward and do it for your friends and chances are the will return the favor and help you with developing your endurance as well.

    Filtering. A couple months ago I was trying to research a DOC to put it in context and stop forgetting it. I found that less than 0.5 ha were planted and it had been over a decade since a bottle had been produced. Wasn't the best use of my time and probably not something I'm going to deal with as a Sommelier in the real world. (Of course, now I'll never forget it...) Whenever I'm using the Compendium I look at the general topic where the production levels are shown rather than just clicking through the sub-topics. This really helps me to see what's important and really out there on shelves and on lists. Of course, you should probably know something about Romanée-Conti even if there aren't that many bottles out there, but you get the idea. Methods for filtering seem to change for every region, but it helps me and my pea-brain as there is just too much information out there to know everything. To paraphrase Shayn Bjornolm, MS from a Guildsomm podcast years ago: The question asks you what, but the answer is the why. Look at everything in context and demonstrate mastery over what you know so you can learn more.

    Thank you, again. The journey is the reason and we get to have the best job in the world.

    Sincerely,
    Paul

  • Paul,

    Great point regarding stamina and the marathon analogy is excellent. Filtering can also be done during your weekly study group - hold each other accountable for bringing relevant and useful questions. It's not about stumping the chump with obscura but creating connections and seeing if you are putting in enough work.

    Thanks for your feedback!
  • Master Tanghe,

    Thank you for this post. It is a great guideline that I will keep in mind. I just passed Advanced and will take some time to adjust to having much more free time but once I get back to it, I will use these points to help me on my journey. I sincerely appreciate it.

    -Brandon
  • Thank you  for linking this in today’s webinar, definitely a helpful follow-up.

  • No problem Emerson. Thanks for joining us today!

  • Thank you very much Chris, these guidelines are always so helpful to read