I will never forget the day I told my parents that I was leaving my job as a high school English teacher to move up to New York City and pursue a full-time career in wine. They were surprised and a little confused. Looking back, I suppose I can understand their response. It was early 2008, and I had been a teacher for less than a year. The year prior, I earned a master’s degree in teaching. My rationale was impossible for them to understand at the time, but anyone who has ever been bitten by the wine bug understands. Wine became an obsession, and I could not imagine a life without being completely immersed in it. Wine encompasses everything, after all. It is a subject where history meets biology, chemistry, geography, business, sociology, and so much more. My hunger for knowledge was insatiable.
I moved to New York City and started working as a cellar rat at Balthazar while waiting tables at Tribeca Grill. I also began taking WSET courses at the International Wine Center. Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, was one of my first teachers. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and I admired how she spoke intelligently about wine so effortlessly, as if her knowledge was innate. With diligent study, I passed Level 2 (Intermediate) and Level 3 (Advanced) within a year, and began studying for the WSET Diploma in late 2009. In 2011, I earned the WSET Diploma.
Though proud of my studies, my parents were still skeptical. I tried to explain to them that plenty of people make a living by way of the wine industry, and that the credentials I earned were more than mere certificates of participation—they reflected a high level of knowledge. I told them they were prerequisites for something called the Master of Wine program, which at the time only had some 300 members globally (there are now 369 MWs around the world, with 45 in the US). When I moved out to California in 2013 and took a job with North Berkeley Imports to specialize in wines from Burgundy, my parents realized that this was becoming more than a young-life crisis. Skepticism transformed into ardent support in my endeavor, even though they weren’t entirely sure what a Master of Wine really was or what it meant to achieve.
In truth, I only understood what the Master of Wine credential really meant when I became one. I passed all parts of the exam on the first attempt, and upon completing my research paper in 2016, I became one of only 16 women to achieve the Master of Wine title in the US. I was the highest overall scorer on all parts of the exam and was awarded the Bollinger Medal for the highest tasting score in my class. (My parents still beam with pride.) I guess that means I learned an awful lot about wine, but I can honestly say that the adage that “the more you learn, the less you know” has never held more meaning in my life. For me, becoming a Master of Wine was so much more than collecting information and successful blind tasting. It taught me how to think critically about the global wine industry. It opened doors to questions I never knew existed. It allowed me to think bigger than I ever thought I could about a subject that has infinite possibilities—and happens to be a whole lot of fun to drink. None of this stopped when I become a Master of Wine. There will always more to learn and know.
For me, the journey to become a Master of Wine started out as one thing and became another. For a while, I was driven by a desire to be the “best” at something. I was a competitive swimmer for most of my life, and I closed out my career in 2006 after four years on the varsity team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Perhaps I was disappointed in my last race, and the pursuit to become an MW was a quest to climb the wine world’s version of Mount Everest. But that desire morphed into something very different as I worked my way through the MW program, met some of the world’s most talented wine professionals, and was exposed to many new ideas. The journey became one of personal discovery and fulfillment. I wanted to become a Master of Wine because I loved how the process expanded my mind.
Though successful on paper, the road to the MW was paved with my own failures. I missed countless wines before I finally got them right. I routinely confused Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and I once misidentified a Sancerre that was in the portfolio of wines that, at the time, I represented and sold for a living. I struggled to understand concepts in viticulture that seemed second nature to some of my fellow students. Wine exams like the MW push you to your limit both emotionally and intellectually. Funnily enough, I found refuge in studying. I used my failures as fuel to go back and work harder. Whether you pass on the first, second, or sixth attempt, know that part of success is learning from your mistakes and using them to better yourself the next time.
The first few months of being a Master of Wine student come with their own special types of anxieties. Students are given a general syllabus and a mentor, and there are a few course days, but overall, the MW is a self-study program with no single formula for success. I was unsure of how to tackle everything. I stressed over which tasting glasses to use, and how to transport all 12 at a time for mock exams. A residential seminar loomed in the months ahead. Terrifying rumors about the seminar ran wild among new students. Blind tasting notes could be broadcasted on projectors for the world to see as they were graded by all-knowing MWs. Essays submitted with superficial examples that anyone could glean from a basic wine book would be deemed insufficient. I realized early on that getting into the program did not mean I was anywhere close to becoming a Master of Wine.
Fortunately, the residential seminar was not as scary as I expected. Masters of Wine are very encouraging, and students can learn a lot if they are willing to acknowledge personal strengths and weaknesses. Too often, people in wine are afraid to ask questions because it reveals that they might not know something. The reality is that if you don’t ask questions, you’ll never actually know the answers. No book can replace the expertise of an individual who has experience with a region, wine, or vintage firsthand.
This became one of my biggest takeaways from the first-year seminar: I needed to know a whole lot more about wine, and not just facts. l felt like I knew next to nothing, and I wondered how I could possibly write full-length essays on global wine subjects that demonstrated true mastery. I had to learn how to think differently; MW essays are about more than facts alone. They must be carefully thought-out arguments that answer big, internationally relevant questions with painstakingly specific firsthand knowledge of the subject. It’s the difference between memorizing and reciting Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” versus writing an essay analyzing its underlying meaning, historical context, and greater impact on poets of his time. Luckily for me, I find the latter far more interesting.
Right from the start, I realized that I had to study effectively. I can thank Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, MW, for her session at the seminar on “studying smarter, not harder” for this revelation. She focused on maximizing study time, studying more actively, and setting measurable goals. The presentation made me realize something I knew as a former teacher but forgot as a new student: I had to organize the information that I learned in a meaningful way so that I could teach it to myself again. I remember reading an entire chapter on enzymes and not retaining any of it. Reading about a concept in September was of no use at the exam in June if I had not found a way to commit the concept to memory. Reading is not studying. Reading is reading. I had to do more than that to learn the information. I started creating charts in Word documents that addressed basic facts and uses for key topics, like yeasts, the rationale behind the uses, and then real-world examples of these uses. I collected information from books, publications, and experts in the field. I did this for every subject that could be on the exam because it helped me see the bigger picture, and answer the ultimate question: “So what?”
The tasting portion of the MW exam presents a different set of challenges. It spans three days, and candidates blind taste 36 wines in total, including 12 whites, 12 reds, and 12 of anything deemed relevant within the categories of fortified, sparkling, rosé, and dessert wines. There have been verticals of Saint-Estèphe on the exam for students to discover. MW candidates can’t only know classics, either, because the MW exam covers everything from White Zinfandel to Grand Cru Burgundy. For those of us in the industry who rarely drink commercial wines, it’s a reality check. On the same exam, candidates could be asked to analyze a mass-market Moscato, an amphora-fermented Rkatsiteli, and a textbook Meursault. All deserve a place in this big wide world of wine.
For me, preparing for this kind of exam allowed me to appreciate the wine industry from top to bottom. The MW exam requires that students, in addition to identifying the wines in a flight, write detailed production notes, or winemaking notes, to explain how each wine was made based on evidence in the glass. It therefore became just as important for me to be able to write a confident production note about a wine I thought was a commercial, off-dry California red blend for $8 as it was to write a production note for an ageworthy example of Barolo costing $100. Since my background in wine focused on sales and marketing, not in a vineyard or winery, I had to find ways to fully understand how wines were made, beyond what I could read in books. This meant talking to winemakers personally about their techniques and philosophies. It also meant that I had to train my nose and palate to differentiate between these nuances in a much more specific way. Saying that a wine has been aged in new French oak is all well and good, but specifying that it has been aged in 50% new French oak for 12 months is more precise. Likewise, I couldn’t just assert that a Pinot Noir was cold soaked; I had to pull aspects from the glass, like its depth of color and buoyant, red berry aromatics, to prove it.
This translated to tasting constantly and comparing my assessments to reality. Study partners lined up wines of various sweetness levels next to each other, mimicking an exam question. We would taste them without knowing anything in the flight and try to nail the grams of residual sugar. A lineup might include Sauternes, Tokaji 6 Puttonyos, Canadian icewine, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, and Vin Santo. Hopefully, the presence of botrytis (or not), alcohol levels, and oxidative notes (or not) will lead you down the right path, but if you go back to taste again too many times, you’ve just got a mouthful of sugar. The perception of sweetness also changes if the wines are tasted in the wrong order. I had to train myself to taste accurately and quickly.
I also learned to surround myself with people who were equally driven. I tasted every weekend with a group of other talented candidates, some of whom are now Masters of Wine, and some of whom we hope to see with the initials MW after their names very soon. We put together 12-wine mock exams each Sunday, but blind tasting alone was not enough. We discovered that if we only ever tasted blind, we could commit to memory false associations. We also found that it was useful to taste open-label in between blind tasting sessions. As a group, we put together semi-blind sessions that focused on one region or quality. These people became my friends, not just tasting partners, and we provided moral support for each other at seminars, course days, and during the exam.
Enter the next challenge with tasting: confidence. Without confidence, you question your instincts, which slows you down and can impede accuracy. To pass the MW exam, I knew I had to be able to blind taste and identify 12 wines in 2 hours and 15 minutes. This might seem like an eternity, but it means that you have about 11 minutes per wine, and you must write about the wine in enormous detail. It took me 8 to 9 minutes to write these answers, depending on the wine. Your notes must be clearly organized, and you typically have to justify the grape variety, specific origin, quality level, production method, commercial appeal, and ageability with specific evidence from the glass. Ultimately, I determined that I only had about 2 minutes to decide what a wine was to finish the exam completely.
This was a lesson hard learned. At the second-year seminar in January of 2015, after months of strong tasting and positive feedback, I had a terrible mock exam. I missed 4 out of 12 wines completely, and barely wrote notes on the Burgundies in the lineup because I ran out of time. I was embarrassed to have my paper graded by an MW. I had lost confidence in my calls, wasted time panicking, and bombed. With six months to the exam, I needed to find a way to make sure that the same thing did not happen when it mattered.
I decided to start blind tasting out loud in a manner similar to how I’d seen students study for CMS exams. All the wine exams I’d taken were written, and there is a safety in blind tasting when answers are written and turned in under an anonymous student ID number. Saying my tasting notes verbally, in front of people, made me accountable for every word. It was out there for the world to hear if I called a Barossa Shiraz a Mendoza Malbec or a basic Chablis a Grand Cru. Over the next six months, I added verbal blind tasting to my study plan, forcing myself to make identifications out loud in two minutes or less. My speed improved dramatically. So did my confidence. I stopped wasting time by questioning myself, and my notes were stronger. By June, I was ready for anything.
I contend that the greatest lesson I learned from the Master of Wine program, aside from how to think critically about wine, was the power of resolute self-belief. Without it, no amount of preparation matters. I used to have a swim coach who said that on game day, 90% of success is mental. I think that is true of the world’s toughest wine exams, too. You will never succeed without training, but you must also trust that you can become what you set out to be.
Many MWs touted the power of self-belief when I was a student. Their stories of mental preparation included everything from posting inspirational quotes around the house to wearing a nametag that already had the initials “MW” after their name while studying. On the night before the MW exam, I posted signs all over my hotel room that read, “You are already a Master of Wine. Just fill out the paperwork.” I believed it was true. The next day I strolled in with my headphones on, blasting “Eye of the Tiger,” started my timer, and let the rest flow.
There were plenty of times throughout my journey when I doubted myself, or felt out of place as a young woman trying to make my voice heard in a room full of more seasoned professionals. There were times that others questioned the value of the MW credential, or the value of wine credentials in general. I clung to the people who supported me, learned from my fellow students, put my head down, and did the work, all the way through to the end when I completed the third and final stage, the research paper. The reward was worth every struggle.
I say this with sincerity to all wine students reading this: if you truly believe in yourself, exhibit the humility to learn from others, and put in the necessary work, you can achieve whatever goals you set for yourself. I hope to see you on the other side.
Incredible achievement to pass MW on first attempt! Massive props!
The advice contained in your article should essential reading for any and every potential MW candidate. Especially the paragraph on the first year residential seminar.
Really valuable insights.