Best Study Practices

A very special and heartfelt thanks goes out to Leslie Rudd!  It was my great honor to be selected as one of the MS to participate in the Rudd Roundtable last weekend in Napa Valley where the some of the best and brightest talent in our industry gathered together to study and share some great information about preparing ourselves and each other for the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination and for excellence in the roles we have in our industry.  For those that don't know the Roundtable is sponsored by The Leslie Rudd Educational Foundation's  generous and gracious donation to the Guild of Master Sommeliers for the purposes of the advancement of students of The Court of Master Sommeliers of the Americas.

The highest scoring Advanced Exam passes of the past year and a few handpicked Master Candidates have the amazing experience to spend a couple days one on one  with several MS that dedicate their time and attention to these bright professionals.  Over the course of the event there were several "best study practices" identified to assist anybody interested in advancing in the industry.  I was delighted to work with the team to deliver some structured classes and also some very free form panel discussions about preparing ourselves for the future. I would like to begin an ongoing dialog here focused on the study habits an best tips we can come up with as a community to help us al to embrace the rapidly changing world of wines and spirits and share the best ways to be educated, enlightened and at the top of our game as the top beverage professionals we are.

There have been several very good forums written recently about sources for pronunciation and translation, etc.. as this blog progresses we will also address those as well. It is my hope that this blog becomes the ongoing location for up to date and most recent study practices that work. So, Please add on whenever you can, when you find great information, when you do something that really works- share it!!

Ok gang, here we go. Lets talk about theory first here. While as a Master Sommelier there isn't really a way to help candidates with theory.  It is all in the books, on websites and wikis and you must ferret out that information and somehow memorize it. We are all aware that there are lists of questions that we have shared and used to create our flash cards and while studying on flashcards is needed, there are more enhanced ways to weave a tapestry of information for yourself.  If you were asked a question you have studied you are stoked, if it is one you don't know , you are bummed. And in an examination setting , especially a verbal exam, you may be so nervous you forget the simplest bit of information you have known for years!  And remember at the Master Level we are expecting you to be able to know the information intimately, to be able to teach this info with confidence and mastery, not just struggle to answer a single question....So, I strongly suggest that you do not just ask and answer the thousand questions you have on cards... but create a web, a tapestry of data for your mind to be able to follow any of many strands of thought to remember. 

Some of the best tools for this are:

  • Begin with the basics, don't get so esoteric with your study information that you forget the basics of wine making!
  • Study regions in their entirety, read books about those regions for the in depth history
  • create your own questions about it - don't just rely upon the list of questions that somebody gives you after they sit an exam - we are not supposed to be doing that , but we all know its done. You will be bummed when you don't get asked ANY of those questions!
  • Visualize and draw maps of the regions, and then fill in the districts, subs, where each different grapes are, styles and important winemakers, etc. 
  • Create lists from north to south or east to west - whatever works for you.
  • When you study your flash cards, ask and answer your question and then expand on everything you know about that topic, for example you ask what the three soil types of a place are, then you go on to "teach" that area, what grapes, made in what style, by who, and what are the classifications, aging reqs., etc... then go off... where else in the world are those grapes grown, how are the wines similar or different, etc.... you are weaving fibers together, so when stressed you can draw from several angles to recall that info.  Not  just one question and one answer.
  • Create tapes or Cd's of your questions with a pause before the answer. Listen in the car, while jogging, etc.. make use of all time.
  • Go on line to sites that offer quizzes and questions to see a very different style of questions than you probably have in your seven boxes of flashcards.
  • Practice with a study group partner. Ask each other questions... and more questions about a topic until you have exhausted it. Be complete.
  • Write essays about a region or a topic that you really struggle with. There is something about writing it on paper that helps you set into your brain.
  • Study the hardest areas to you first, then reward yourself with the ares you favor or have more fun with.
  • Don't forget to review those boxes of questions you have sorted into the ones you "know" every now and then, I can guarantee you won't remember them all.... so be vigilant.
  • Do not EVER stop studying.  Do not take the fatal "break" after sitting a exam, and try to pick it up again in a few months. You have to live and breathe this stuff gang, you must be completely obsessed, I don't believe at this level there is any other way. 

I hope you can all add a few items here... lets talk more about theory and I will go onto tasting and service each in the days to come , but lets be focused and leave no stones unturned here... ( what kind of stone...? wet river rock, slate, granite?... just kidding)

My best wishes to you all!

  • This is so incredibly timeless. So happy Guildsomm keeps these types of topics alive to revisit. Thank you MJ for helping me 9 years ago before I ever was interested in wine!

  • I liked Michael Engleman's suggestion of reading wine lists and I do it regularly myself. It's a great way to see how others are thinking and different formats can often be inspiring. Of course, it also helps to read the menu too to get a feel for the food. Before I went into service for Advanced I wrote down from memory a mini wine list with 3 examples of every type of wine I could imagine recommending. That way if they threw out two I'd have another. If i didn't have three producers in my pocket I wouldn't go to that wine. There's no need to have the most clever unusual pairing, just a good solid wine that works and strong reasoning behind it.

    I'm a big fan of regional pairings which I also think plays into the tapestry approach of studying. If you think of the types of foods from a region it's easy to come up with a native pairing and it's harder for the Masters to reject a classic pairing (not that they wouldn't do it anyway but at least you can defend it better). At TopSomm, my N. Italy selection was booted so I used geography to suggest Styrian and Slovenian alternatives that brought the same things to bear as my original recommendation.

  • Did a BYOB dinner at my restaurant in the private room for David Castleberry practicing for the Advanced exam in April.  It was a set 4 course menu (this way, I could at least guarantee that the average check wouldn't be hurt by the BYOB with no corkage).  On the back of the menu I had a bunch of questions such as a cocktails, serving temeratures, intructions for guests to ask for a wine pairing and say they didn't like the grape or produer, etc.  Each customer would ask the questions at some point through their dinner which was part of the fun, they knew this when they made the reservation.  I would also take their bottles and rename some of them.  i.e rather than the Fluer de Cap (I labeled it with a neck lable, Palmer 01 and had the table order Palmer 01).  David decanted every bottle that evening.   In the end I think he decanted at least 15 bottles, some of which were really old, and opened about 5 champagne bottles, one of which was a mag.  We'll probably do another one, it was fun and good for the restaurant too.

  • I meant the '75 Sur Winston Churchill only in Magnum.

  • I didn't pass the service this past test but it at least helped me to identify my weaknesses to prepare for next time. I'm lucky I work at a place where I have full control so I can use the restaurant to help me.  Cocktails are my weakness, and that's at least 3 points on the service exam.   I'm going to change my late night happy hour program.  Rather than doing the typical late night happy hour and offering $3 cocktails and the list being the typical stuff.  I will make a 10 drink cocktail list of "classics" that I'm not familiar with.  They will all be cheaper price to attract guest as well as entice them to order that as opposed to a regular vodka martini.  I'll be the bartender during those last 2 hours of service so I can make the drinks over and over and hopefully remember them.  This will also force me to buy a lot of the liquors I don't currently carry and therefore I will have them to blind taste (we did get to taste them at the exam).  

    For the Champagnes, I am making a theoretical list of many tete cuvees.  I think seeing it as a wine list makes it easier to remember.  I broke it up by category; MV, Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir, Grower, Single Vineyard, Late Disgorge.  There is a discription of the house and the tete cuvee highligting the special points about that Champagne; i.e. Noble Cuvee became the blanc de blanc in 1995 where before it was CH and PN about 50%; or La Grande Dame is Typically 62% PN in honor of its first vintage in 1962 with the exception of 90 and 96.   Then under that it has the vintages made back to the 60's.  This will help you keep track of what vintages were made, and also if there is both NV and Vintage such as Cuvee Rare or Grand Siecle.  I put a 2 time mark up on them just to see a comparitive price, this helps you to remember special things about that particular wine was such as the 79 Dom Ruinart because of it's awards at the Millenium tasting or the Dom 90 because it was Geoffroy's first vintage, or Sir Winston Churchill only being available in Magnum.