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How it Started...How it's Going

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

CMS - Des Moines, IA October 2016

Awwwww. I look so damn proud. The weekend of classes leading up to my Introductory Sommelier exam with the Guild of Master Sommeliers felt like home. I was soothed by the organization of the "the grid." All I had to do was follow the perfectly prescribed instructions and the answer was there for me in the glass. I took my CMS with Matt Stamp, Jesse Becker and Nick Hetzel. I remember feeling so humbled by their brilliance, I'm mean, they could have been astrophysicists, surgeons, litigators for Fortune 500 companies, but they decided to devote their lives to Wineology. The appeal of this pursuit became clear. One of the many light bulbs that went off in my head that day was that wines had "styles." One little tidbit of knowledge I still repeat to all my Wine 101 students today was given to me by Nick Hetzel, “Pinot Grigio…smells like nothing and tastes like nothing.” It was the first time I realized that all wine, prestigious or not, did not happen by accident and in fact, every single thing that is done in the vineyard and in the winery has a purpose. The pieces of this industry felt very fragmented but I had never been more motivated to fit them together in a way that made sense to me.

When I passed the exam the next day, that feeling of victory was that rush of endorphins I had been craving and, in short, I became addicted. As the years progressed and the certifications became more challenging, the sense of euphoria became heightened with each passing grade. So maybe that’s why I keep doing this…I’m just an addict after all. 😭

WSET 2 - Des Moines, IA, Spring 2018

As all you working for wholesalers and suppliers are aware, the WSET 2 is the educational standard. Employers pay for all their employees to take it, the classwork is done online and the exam is multiple choice and then you’re out there. I breezed through the level 2 exam, however, I find a lot of wine professionals turn their noses up to exam prep. My best advice for anyone considering their WSET 2 or actively preparing for it…the WSET does expect that you've read and understood their text and the exam will reflect that. You might be a seasoned wine professional with years, even decades of experience, but the WSET does things their way and it’s been my experience that adapting to their system can be the most challenging part of their program. Set your ego aside…at least crack the book!

Italian Wine Professional (IWP), Des Moines, IA, November 2018

When I interviewed for my position at Ardesia in April of 2012, the owner, Mandy Oser, asked me if there were any major gaps in my wine knowledge. “Italian wine,” I told her, “I don’t understand it.” Having just admitted to a professional weakness, I set out to try and wrap my brain around the world of Italian wine. Fast forward to summer 2018, my employer asked me if I wanted to take the Italian Wine Professional certification with the Napa Valley Wine Academy and I immediately jumped in head first. Although I loved the program, completion of this

certification was no small feat, requiring the memorization of 100+ denominations and their locations and maybe the hardest part, perfect spelling. To help store this information in my brain, I went to Copy Works and printed off life size maps of Italy and drew in every denomination for red, white, sparkling and dessert wines. I'd love to take credit for this stroke of brilliance...but it was really a study technique I picked up from Ian Caublie in the 2013 documentary, Somm. For what it's worth, Ian, it worked! I suppose the thank you is long overdue! 😂

Certified Sommelier Exam, NYC, March 2019

Okay guys…this exam was a defining moment in my wine career. I prepared for this exam in 5 months, which, spoiler alert, is not enough time. Advanced wine studies are at a stage of infancy in Des Moines, IA, so I had very few resources when it came to exam prep, however, because of my connections in NYC and the appeal of free lodging, I decided to take my exam at the New York Culinary Institute (ICE) and spend some time with friends afterwards. In hindsight, I did not think this all the way through. New York is the most competitive wine market in the USA and home to some of the best in brightest wine minds. Aspiring sommeliers are able to take courses at ICE preparing them for their Certified exam and I was flying in after spending 5 months on my couch with my cat attempting to memorize "The World Atlas of Wine." I think you can see where this is going.

My blind tasting was pretty straight forward, as they always are at that level. I struggled through my

theory exam, having missed the memo about the beverage management math questions. Then the service exam…lord help me! The service exam begins with a hypothetical restaurant situation. You will have a sparkling wine service, followed by miscellaneous beverage questions. When I entered the room, I was directed to Table 1 and when I saw who was sitting there, I almost ran in the other direction. Sitting at my table was Scott Carney, ICE’s Dean of Wine Studies and most intimidatingly, Mia Van de Water, who I had been fangirling for months. If you don’t know, due to the widely publicized cheating scandal at the 2018 Master Sommelier exam, Mia was one of the six individuals to pass their MS TWICE that year. Passing that exam once in a lifetime is enough of an achievement but two times…I’d say you’ve earned your crown. I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened in that service exam except that I choked in the most epic way and I’m still processing the trauma in therapy. 😭

So I’m guessing you’ve figured out the ending to this story. I failed my first (of many) wine exams that day. The debilitating anxiety that overcame me would be a sign of things to come. When I returned home to Iowa, I did some significant reflection on how I envisioned my place in this industry and what I wanted that to look like. The exam in NYC was humbling and I certainly learned a lot from that experience, however, I had no desire to return to the restaurant floor. I decided to re-calibrate my path and determined a return to the WSET was a more pragmatic path for me, since my work in the wholesaler sector necessitated a more analytical approach. I think everyone experiences moments in their career that resemble a fork in the road. The CS was one of those moments for me.

VinItaly Academy (VIA), NYC, June 2019

In mid-May of that year, I was doing a regular check of my LinkedIn account and saw a message from Stevie Kim. She told me that VIA was coming to NYC in June and wanted to know if I would be interested in applying for the course. Although my boss didn’t love the idea of me taking more time off for another exam, especially at the end of a critical month for supplier fiscals, I insisted I had to take advantage of this opportunity. VIA is a 3 day intensive of all things Italian wine. The exam involves a blind tasting of Italian wine, 2 theory questions and 100 multiple choice questions, all to be completed in about 2 ½ hours. Since I only had a month to prepare, I realized the chances of me returning from NYC as an Italian Wine Ambassador were not particularly favorable, however, my week with VIA is still one of the most positive experiences I'd had in all my years of wine education. This course was my first significant exposure to high level wine studies, tasting through 215 Italian

wines in 3 days and extensive lectures including the genetic links between indigenous Italian varietals and the role of organic and biodynamic farming in modern day Italian viticulture. Although it was a huge learning curve, VIA made it clear to me how large the gap was between my working knowledge of wine and the top echelon of the wine industry. When I came home, I decided I was going to give myself the rest of the summer off from studying, however, as soon Labor Day came, I decided I would need to start the next WSET 3.

WSET 3, Minneapolis, November 2019

While I have lots of respect for my fellow wine professionals currently pursing the path to become Master Sommeliers, the biggest advantage the WSET has over the Guild of Master Sommeliers is their structure...which I desperately needed after 9 months of trying to develop a photographic memory just reading suggested reading material. The virtual classroom of WSET Global makes it incredibly easy to follow a syllabus, maximizing your study time and increasing your chances of success. I would structure my weekly tastings around the reading material being covered every week, ensuring my understanding of the theory behind every wine. When I finished the coursework, I began blind tasting. When I incorrectly identified a wine, I would return to the text, re-read the chapter and re-taste the wines. Repetition, repetition, repetition!

When it was time to go to Minneapolis for my exam, I was still anxious as hell...but I knew I was ready. I studied hard and I didn't cut corners. Although I was the only person in my professional circle taking this exam and still didn't have a local mentor, I realized that despite my lack of resources, I was a damn good self teacher. I passed this exam with flying colors, passing with Merit. After 2 major exam fails that year, I finally found a method of studying I knew would work for me.

Although I had planned to begin my WSET Diploma studies in the spring of the following year, I had a rough start to 2020, and well, by March, the world turned upside down in a way, the only thing I felt like accomplishing was a diamond puzzle. It would be a full two years before I felt ready to take the next major step in my wine studies. I will be doing a more in depth review of my WSET Diploma journey in the coming weeks. I hope to see you all back here next week for more Wine Story Wednesday!


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