February 2, 2006
The best thing about traveling to the California’s wine country is the direct flight that United offers to San Francisco. The worst thing is the 7:05 departure time. In the age of security lines and baggage screening that means a 4 am wake up time, tough for a guy with a night owl wife.
Rather than disrupt the sleep patterns of my school age children I opt for cab to the airport. The cabbie arrives promptly at 5 am, a chipper guy in his mid-50’s. I compliment his punctuality and professionalism and he quickly hands me a business card. It reads, RELIABILITY GROUP and lists three phone numbers. He is quick to say that it is a loose association between himself and two other drivers who take their jobs seriously. Their specialty is getting you from points A to B on time. We make it to the airport from my Winter Park house in twenty minutes and by 5:45 I am waiting at the gate.
This trip to California is going to be long and challenging, unlike most of my business travel. I am spending six of the nine days attending the North American Residential Seminar for the Institute of Master’s of Wine. The Master’s of Wine, or MW, is a group that formed in the aftermath World War II to bring professionalism to the London wine business. Since those early days the group has grown slowly to encompass all aspects of the wine business, from merchants to writers, winemakers to marketing specialists. For most of its life the MW was exclusively English until the ranks were broken by Olivier Humbrecht, a French winemaker, who passed the exam in 1989. Since then the ranks have grown to around 250 MA’s from around the world.
So why am I embarking on this path now, at 38 with three kids, a growing wine business and more balls in the air than hands to catch them? As most of you know I love a challenge. The first leg of the MW begins with the application. After giving them the vital info like address and credentials you are asked to write six essays about four wines. When I say write, I mean the written word. No laptop, Microsoft Word on this application or any other, penmanship counts. I have joked with more than a few customers that I do have a pen collection but I don’t buy a lot of ink cartridges.
The application took almost one hundred hours for me to complete. I sent a typed version off to Doug Frost, one of the few MW and Master Sommeliers in the world. His reply, “it is probably good enough to get in, it won’t pass the muster of the exam.” I can’t say those were the words I expected but that’s ok. Another good friend warned me that they look for something way beyond casual wine banter. This friend, Gregg Perkins, who is the new president of Wine Warehouse, should know, he as spent years trying to pass the exam. His early advice was to forget writing to customers. The MW exam wants hard details and little else. Flowery prose and prophetic ramblings are good for newsletters and blog pages but the MW’s want topic sentences, structure and intelligent conclusions. Forget my cathartic tale of discovering the meaning of great wine in a damp, dimly lit cellar Burgundy in 1992. What did the wine taste like and why is all they want to know about.
The next nine days will be very interesting. Today I have one appointment with the man who makes Benchmark and Biondi and then tomorrow begins the seminar. I will try to update this page each day to let you know the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.