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!

  • I want to start by thanking everyone for their incredible generosity, knowledge and suggestions given at the Rudd Roundtable 2 weekends ago. It was such an amazing experience and certainly a great honor to be part of such an event. I am grateful to everyone there and to all that was shared; thank you so much to all involved, Leslie Rudd, Blakesley Chappellet, the Masters, as well as all the Masters candidates for making it all possible.

    Since passing my Advanced exam I have been uncertain in regards to my approach in preparing for the Masters, but all that has been shared (thank you so much Michael for creating this blog) has steered me and I'm sure many others, in a much stronger and solidified direction. The notes I found particularly helpful and universal were as follows:

    The thought of weaving a tapestry or web, and creating a story about regions and their various attributes, rather then simply regurgitating a memorized list of answers and questions somehow makes learning and retaining such extensive knowledge less daunting. Creating ones own questions will in effect deepen your knowledge, as these questions will spur further questions and ultimately round out ones own mastery of theory greatly.

    Mentorship is one of the core values of the Court and not only is it inspirational to be exposed to the great knowledge of the Masters, but the importance of teaching what knowledge you have yourself is invaluable. The ability to explain oneself in a thorough and educational way not only helps others, but solidifies and deepens ones own knowledge.

    Everyone has their own personal strategies that work best when applied to studying; flashcards have always worked best for me (an hour of cardio has never gone by faster or been more interesting), but I now look forward to broadening my approach to include voice recordings, map tracing and truly intertwining the notion of a tapestry. Every angle helps, particularly when preparing for and getting comfortable with the verbal theory portion. I would also add to this that I have come to have an entirely new appreciation for acronyms and find them an amazing tool for easier memorization and retention! Texting pop questions back and forth to a fellow candidate can be fun as well!

    And ultimately, taste, explore and expose yourself to as much as possible. Tastings, wine stores and wine lists are all key, and allow one to more readily dissect and analyze varying approaches and formats. I also think it helps to go out to eat, and observe service from a different angle all together.

    Lastly, as was repeated on several occasions as well, make your weaknesses your strengths.

    I apologize if any of this seems redundant from previous posts, however the more I think through it all the more important I see all these notes. I am thankful for the creation of this blog and believe it will be a fundamental core for not only my future studies, but many others.

  • I am a self admitted poor test taker. I have a hard time managing my stress levels. To help with this I try to put myself in testing environment as often as possible. I passed my Advanced last year and it could be well over a year before I get a seat at the Masters.  So to help with my test taking phobias I am working through the Diploma program from WSET, I will be sitting exams every quarter at this rate. I also use maps; I have laminated then and use a dry erase marker to fill in regions, geography and varietal info. I have all of my flashcards in my phone so I can take advantage of all of the down time that I spend waiting for things in life. When composing a question for my flashcards I try to ask the question from several different angles so I don't just memorize one aspect and hope that I get asked that specific question. I was having a difficult time wrapping my brain around Germany and I found success with learning the producers and working my way backwards from there.

    One thing that no one has mentioned that I found was the tipping point for me was when I got up the nerve to ask for help from others that have been down this path. I put aside my pride and asked if people would help me.  I would do all the work and put in the time but I needed to be pushed, challenged and nervous, just like in a test. In turn I pay this forward by mentoring others that have chosen this path.

  • Ok, I know you are out there.... give us some love here.  

    What do YOU do to prepare your self?

    Did we miss something?  

    What are the tools that those of you that don't "test well" use?  Some of us are much better in an examination setting, others of us get more stressed out, how do you recall information when your knees are shaking?  

    Some of us dinosaurs (like myself sat these exams many (many, many) years after college.. (so long ago - they didn't use calculators in school back then).  We had to regain a system of study and recall long after we had not needed or used that sort of discipline. (Not to mention the passing away of numerous brain cells over the years- may they rest in peace...) So, what are some methods of this type of recall that work for you?  

    Let's discuss...  

  • I forgot to say something, find whatever works best for you! But I truly think that the tapestry method is the best specially after hearing all the Masters saying so.

    I'd like to add a couple of other points:

    -make sure to know every facts back and forward. For example: it is one thing to know every wards from Stellenbosch but it is another story when you've been asked where Devon Valley is. You might remember that it is in South Africa, great, but where exactly?

    -make sure that you understood the question properly! Give the right answer to the right question and don't hesitate to have them repeat it or spell it for you if needed! I had the case last week where I knew the answer to 4-5 questions but didn't understand the question/word or pronunciation... I was lucky enough that it wasn't a real exam because at this level you can't miss 4-5 points stupidly.


  • Very well said Gentlemen,

    In addition I would like to say it was an absolute honor to be apart of the round table this year. I would like to thank all of the Masters for taking the time to share their knowledge with the next generation of knowledge thirsty sommeliers. I have already integrated many of these tips into my study habits. This past weekend was incredibly inspirational and it was an absolute blessing to be able to take part. Thanks again to everyone who helped put this together including Leslie Rudd, Blakesley Chappellet and all the Masters!!!!  Not to forget to thank Mr. Johnston,  who donated dozens of incredible bottles to the guild cellar.....I can still taste the Dal Forno Romano 94!!! Also, congratulations  to Michael Engelman for winning the Johnston Medall!!!!

    The one study tip I stress for others beginning to really hit the books is to trace maps. This opens up the mind like nothing else I have ever done.

    - Go purchase tracing paper from an arts and crafts store like Michaels (Strathmore 300 Series Tracing Paper 11" by 14" is what I use)

    -Lay a  map underneath the tracing paper of a country you are about to study.  (Make sure it is as current as possible with all detailed wine regions broken down.)

    -  With a pencil, trace every detail and border of the map. Then retrace each subregion with a different color of marker over the pencil.

    -Find all bodies of water and use a blue color to define them. I then give a letter to each region  on the map and have a letter reference code on the side of the paper where "A" refers to a region.

    -Once you are done understanding each regions location, subregions,  bodies of water etc.  then crack Sothebys, wiki's, websites etc and make flashcards of every relevant piece of information about the country and its regions.

    The information you then study about the country  will mean much more after you have spent 45 minutes tracing. After this  you should be able to fill in a blank map of a country with its regions, rivers and relevant grapes.

    Good Luck. Hope this helps. Create your own tapestry however you can!!