Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Quest For Higher Wine Education...

As most of you can see, I have not been blogging much lately. I decided to devote my time to my quest for higher wine knowledge. The past few months have been frightening, enlightening and empowering. Why did I decide to do this?

It all started in the Fall of 1999. We all crammed into this tiny wine and cigar shop hoping to sample free wine and spirits at a pre-holiday wine tasting. Me, I knew nothing. I was along for the ride. I was a Tanqueray and Tonic girl. Maybe I would sample the wine. Maybe I wouldn't. My sister's friend who was working for a distributor said, "Here Grace. Try this Shiraz from Australia." I took a sip. I wanted to die. My mouth could not comprehend the ugliness that had just happened. Cotton balls. I had a mouth full of cotton balls. The scary look on my face probably said it all. And thus, completely by accident, began my wine education...

Fast forward a year. It was a fierce snowstorm during the dead of winter. Nothing was stopping me from attending my first Bordeaux class at the local wine shop. So there I was, just me and four older gentlemen. Some nice Bordeaux wines and a wheel of Maytag blue cheese.  One of the gentlemen poured me some Chateau Carbonnieux, a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend and "PING!!!" There went my head. Something just exploded. Something I couldn't grasp. It was a defining moment for me. I knew I would eventually do something wine-related as a profession. I just didn't know what it was. Yet…

It's been 13 years since that day I sampled my first Shiraz. Wine has brought me a vast new world of pleasure, happiness and success. The interim has been full of wine adventures: attending classes at local wine shops, attending wine tastings, purchasing and reading a massive library of books and magazines on wine and anything remotely related, amassing list after list of notes,  trips to Napa Valley and Sonoma and even a short-lived in-home wine tasting business. (I finally gave that up when I tired of showing up at the host's homes and their guests were already drunk!) With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, my so-called wine life became larger than life when I diligently networked and became friends with many important people in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. These on line friends are now my close friends, in real life. There are some that I even consider family and if it weren't for wine, we never would have met. Social media has brought me into a sort of spotlight and I have been able to experience some great things! In 2009, I won a "Bloggership" through the North American Wine Blogger's Conference and in 2010, I won the "WBC or Bust" contest through the Washington State Wine Commission.  As far as my wine education is concerned, there is nothing better than hands on experience and I have been able to meet winemakers and follow them around during harvest and crush and watch them actually make wine. I've toured vineyards, tasted some of the best wines California and the Pacific Northwest has to offer, and rubbed elbows with the best of the best at many Napa Valley and Sonoma County events. 

All this is great but what do I really have to show for all of it? Short of some great photo albums on Facebook,  nothing. I didn't go to college to do this. I did go to college but not for wine. I don't have a degree from UC Davis or any other school that offers courses in winemaking, enology and wine business. Do I want to go back to college? Not really but I do have a huge desire to learn and prove what I'm worth and then some. So what now???

A few years ago, I met a national rep for Kings Estate, a winery located in Oregon. She handed me her card and there was a title next to her name… CSW. I asked her what that meant. She said, “Certified Specialist of Wine”. Hmmm…Really…So I delved further, doing some online searches and I found The Society of Wine Educators, based in Washington D.C. I put off doing anything about it for a long time and just concentrated on what I knew best. But it was eating me up inside. Having all this knowledge and experience and not having anything on paper to show for it. I did look into every aspect. Would I want to become a certified Sommelier? Not really. The restaurant business is not my thing. I love to go to restaurants but I don’t want to be there all the time. Then there was the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) certifications. Very pricey. Not in my budget. I know a lot of people who have taken the test at different levels and passed. In my opinion, The Society of Wine Educators offers the most cost effective way to get certified for wine education. And you can study at your own pace, a key point that I loved considering I work full time.

So at the end of May 2012, I purchased my study guide and signed up for my test. The study guide and the scheduling of my test together was a package deal for $450. A savings of $50. I had a year to commit to a test date and thankfully, there was a date scheduled in my home town at one of the distributor’s offices on September 14th. Now it became real. I did not spend the extra money to join Society of Wine Educators and gain access to their online library of materials (though I may do that when I move to the next level. The CWE) nor did I purchase the  CSW workbook. I was just using the study guide alone. (I was told there would not be anything on the test that wasn’t in the study guide.)

At first I committed myself to reading a couple chapters a day. The study guide is quite large (250 or so pages)and I would fall asleep reading it. I was really worried about being able to retain the info. But I found a great website called and it helped me tremendously. There were other people’s flashcards on there. I also found a website called That site (which is full of practice tests and helpful hints) was instrumental in motivating me to get where I needed to be. Once I had read the material, I practiced those tests every day (knowing full well that possibly none of those questions would even be on my actual test. I was wrong. A lot of them were. Thankfully…) I even took the CWE practice test in error and scored an 83 the first time. I was pretty excited! The more I “practiced” with those tests, the more I started to retain these tiny facts. All this wine knowledge. It made me feel powerful!

Here’s what you are going to need to know: The chemistry of wine, viticulture, winemaking 101 (whites, reds, sparkling, fortified), wine faults, wine etiquette, everything wine related to France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, all their wine laws, regions, maps etc etc etc…It’s a lot. Foreign words, definitions, you gotta know it all! And you have to know your geography. No question is beyond choosing… I missed at least 8 questions on this exam, one of them I don’t even remember reading about.  It was about Rainwater Madeira—something I will probably never drink in my entire life. I went back and looked and sure enough it was the tiniest fact listed.

I walked into the testing room on September 14th and much to my surprise some of the local wine reps here in town were taking the test too. One guy made a joke about “carbonic maceration” and he pointed at me and laughed. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even know what that meant. He had taught us that at a wine club meeting years ago. I laughed too. Some of them were joking around about not studying much and I thought they were crazy. You have to study. Even with years of wine knowledge, one can’t possibly know everything! To my relief, I was able to answer about 90% of the questions with confidence. The other 10%, not so much. Some were disappointing and insignificant facts I will probably never need to use. They are probably the questions I’m sure I missed since I had to take a wild guess on the answer. 

Now the hard part comes. The waiting. The waiting. The waiting. It’s been a week already. They say 2-4 weeks for results. In order to pass and receive your certification, you have to score at least 75% or better. I am confident I did at least that. In the meantime, I have begun the next step. I want to take the CWE (Certiified Wine Educator) exam in Napa Valley in September 2013. By then, I will be a Napa Valley resident as I am taking my dream one step further and moving there next year. I will need a good job in the industry to afford to live there so everything I do now I consider an investment in my future and in my dream.

Should you decide to do this too, I would strongly recommend it. If anything, my quest for higher wine education has given me a whole new appreciation for the wines of the world and on my next visit to wine country, I will be able to have even stronger conversations with winemakers and industry folk. It’s making me better. And that’s what’s important. Good luck to all of you who decide to educate yourselves further. It’s completely worth it! 

For more information on the Society Of Wine Educators, please go their website:

"You Saw It Here First!" This post was created solely for "Cellarmistress' Cellar Talk." Cellarmistress is an Italian-born, American-bred wine blogger/educator with a passion for wine and all it emcompasses..."