The boys go back to school

Tim's Wine Market

I have always said that the wine education of our customers is the foundation of our success. To that end I am constantly encouraging my staff to further develop their wine knowledge. As you know by now the wine business is changing and expanding rapidly and I feel very strongly that if we do not strive to improve we will quickly fall behind. All of my staff in both stores have passed the first level of the Sommelier program and of course I am pursuing my Master of Wine. For the past two years we have also been working through an organization called the Society of Wine Educators and last Thursday four of us sat their top examination, the Certified Wine Educator.

The examination is broken down into four parts. The first is a multiple choice test of 85 questions that covers what I like to call the Trivial Pursuit of wine. This means knowing what percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon is required to be in a bottle of Chilean wine labeled as such or how many Grand Cru vineyards are in Chablis. Personally I don’t put a lot of stock in this type of memorization, which I am sure is surprising to many of you, because I believe that knowledge is easy but understanding is far more difficult.

To that end the CWE exam also includes an essay question which must be answered in thirty minutes. The MW program is all about written essays so I am very comfortable with this format. Thirty minutes does not allow for a complete five paragraph essay like I am used to but it is long enough to make a point. We had the choice of four questions and the one I chose was, “Is the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux still relevant in the world wine market.” Other questions included something about defining the styles of Chenin Blanc produced around the world and I don’t really remember the others. We all felt pretty good about this portion of the exam but each has to be graded by three CWE’s so it takes a while to learn our results.

Parts three and four are where the rubber meets the road, blind tasting. This part is broken into two sections to test for knowledge of varietal and benchmark wine regions and then for identifying flaws. None of us felt the first section, benchmarking, was that hard although none of us achieved a perfect score. A passing score is correctly identifying five out of eight glasses. The high score went to Tim Dwight of The Green Turtle Market who only missed one wine, most of us missed two. I find it interesting that we all missed the same two wines, one of which I believe was neither typical or correct. For this portion George Miliotes also proctored (besides being a Master Sommelier he is also a CWE) and he felt the wine was correct enough for the test. We all protested a little about the wine in question but as Steve quickly pointed out, “none of us have MS after our name so what’s to argue.” We all know we passed so it did seem pointless to make an issue.

The final portion of the exam is by far the hardest and is distinct to the CWE. The faults test is to correctly identify what problems exist in a specific wine. For our test seven glasses of the control wine, which was Beringer Pinot Grigio, was doctored to show problems with excessive levels of sulfur, acetic acid, tartaric acid, alcohol, sweetness and tannin. They also put one glass in the line up that is not faulted and you have to identify that one too. As it turns out three of us passed this portion, with Steve and I guessing all eight glasses correctly. The differences were so subtle that it was really hard. Jason pointed out that what made the exam particularly difficult was that the control wine was overly sweet and alcoholic as well as showing excessive sulfur. This led us to ask the question with the proctor that if the faults are extremely hard to identify are they really faults at all? Though an interesting spin on testing I think this portion of the exam misses the really big faults; corkiness (TCA), reduction (excessive sulfur at the molecular level), Brettanomyces and Sorbic acid (both are bacterial spoilage) which I find far more prevalent than their faults.

In the end this is exam was a good challenge for the staff and myself. After cramming for a week it is good to get my life back and I am sure my team feels the same way. Once two of us pass this examination we can begin proctoring our own exams and we plan on offering the first level, Certified Specialist of Wine, to our customers as part of our own education program. Watch in early 2008 for this addition to our schedule.