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WSET Diploma, Step One - Wine Production. A Personal Story.

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely seen the 2013 documentary, “Somm,” by Jason Wise. The documentary follows several aspiring Master Sommeliers, including Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson and Ian Cauble, as they study their hearts out until the big exam. Spoiler Alert!! Brian and Dustin make it through but Ian does not, requiring him to take his tasting exam again the following year. At the end of the documentary, Brian talks about his friend, Ian, and what is required of him to be successful in pursuit of his MS. Brian’s words struck a chord with me back in 2013, but I would have an acute and profound understanding of them 9 years later.

“Whatever issues you have in your life, whatever you hold inside you that’s not good, it will be drawn out by this exam. It happens by attrition. If you don’t face those things, you’re gonna have a very, very difficult time passing this exam. If Ian faces those demons, he will be successful.”

I signed up for my WSET Diploma wine studies Christmas Day, 2021. Although I was still recovering from the pandemic haze only just settling over the restaurant industry, I knew somewhere within me that I needed to return to some semblance of normalcy. For years, wine education had been the most regimented part of my life and I was craving the discipline. During the height of the pandemic era, the wholesale wine business was like the Wild West. We might as well have been on Wine Mars for as much as we knew about the months and years to come. All previous history was erased and we were rebuilding from ground zero with no framework for what the future might bring. I had hundreds of accounts, strewn all over the state of Iowa, servicing bars and restaurants I was never going to visit. Wine sales were part educated guessing and part therapy, talking to complete strangers in tears over the phone. We were flying blind too. It was a bazaar for a couple of years. No one needs to be reminded!

When I began my WSET Diploma in January, 2022, I began with Wine Production, as all candidates are required to do. Much like every other person on this planet, I was strung out by the years of uncertainty we all endured and admittedly, not in my best state of mind to begin such an undertaking. I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was a small child and developed severe and debilitating panic attacks early in my adulthood. The magnitude of the WSET Diploma program was already weighing heavily on me and the scientifically detailed nature of the Wine Production content was making my mind numb. To be honest, I’ve never successfully cared for a plant in my life. If Wine Production wasn’t the framework for every other course of the Diploma program, I would have stopped reading at the Introduction. I mean, I do sales! I tell stories! Features and benefits all day long! The root stocks that are ideal for limestone soils…next please! I literally had to ask my older sister, the gardening enthusiast of the family, to explain the life cycle of the vine to me and I’m not proud to admit that.

I did, however, recognize that THIS was the time to put in the work. And that I did, obsessively, for months. I began to feel like I was losing balance between adult obligations and my studies. Impostor Syndrome was setting in big time. I live in West Des Moines, IA and have to travel to Chicago for every exam. Airfare, hotels, it’s a real expense, and as much as I love the WSET, they are all too happy to take your money, making the threat of failure stressful and potentially costly.

I’ve never been a good test taker. Anxiety has a way of hijacking my brain, numbing the prefrontal cortex and flooding it with stress hormones. I have fallen victim to this phenomenon more times than I care to admit, the primary reason my studying had reached such a point of obsession. I always felt that if I got enough reps in that even if I lost my ability to problem solve during exams, my mental muscle memory would be strong enough to override that. This technique had produced slightly above average results, but it was the only defense I had against my crippling anxiety.

The WSET Diploma exams for D1 and D2 usually consist of 3-4 essay open ended theory questions written in 90 minutes. They are not only intended to test your fact based knowledge of the subject matter, but also the reasoning behind it. There isn’t any getting around it in these exams, you really do need use of your prefrontal cortex… memorization and repetitions alone won’t cut it at this level. The first two questions of my exam were easily answered by the amount of repetitions I’d done during studying, however, my third question caused sheer panic when I realized that those 20 pages I’d stubbornly refused to memorize about Closures were coming back to haunt me. I wrote down what I knew, knowing that if I didn’t ace the first two questions, I wouldn’t get enough points to pass.

I got home from Chicago the following day, strung out and sleep deprived. I went to bed early and fell into a deep sleep, getting tortured by a particularly intense exam related stress dream. I don’t know about you, but when I wake up quickly from a nightmare, it sometimes feels like I’m being spat through a wormhole, back into my bed and landing hard into reality. That night, as I left my dream

and into the “wormhole,” my conscious mind began feeling an intense sensation of pressure in my chest. When I opened my eyes, I was literally gasping for air, my body tingly with adrenaline and fear. I suddenly realized I was waking up, in the MIDDLE, of a panic attack. My first thought was, “I did not consent to this,” as I tried to swing my legs over the side of my bed. In tears and unable to breath, I stumbled into my bathroom, ravaging my medicine cabinet for an expired Xanex. Luckily, behind my nail polish remover and underneath a bunch of cotton balls, I found the faded label of the medicine vile. Relief ensued...advantages of medicine cabinet disorganization! Silver linings!

But in all seriousness…it was really, really not my finest moment.

This was not how I wanted this process to go. I wanted to return to a normal sense of career advancement, not destroy my medicine cabinet and turn my bathroom inside out at 3am on a Monday. I did not want to give up on my Diploma. I wanted to finish what I’d started, but I also knew I would not be able to continue forward in the current mental state I was in. In many ways, that night was decades in the making. It was the start of another journey I hadn’t wanted to go on, but if I ever wanted to become the kind of professional…the kind of woman I wanted to be, I needed to start making my mental health a priority. The month following, I began an anxiety medication regime and sought out long term therapeutic services. Beginning that process felt clunky and scary but a year and a half later, I thank that version of myself everyday that was brave enough to take the first step.

I’m by no means a healed person! Everyone is recovering from something and no one is immune from personal struggle, however, I’ve perfected a variety of coping skills to better manage my anxiety. I’m a much more reflective person that feels empowered to say, “I need help.” I can better communicate to my close friends and family when I’m having a particularly hard day and articulate the reason for it. I’m much more capable of multitasking, even during peak study times. Don’t get me wrong, exams are still hard…but they are so much more manageable.

In closing, for me, Brian was completely right. Even if your larger goals in life have nothing to do with strenuous wine certifications, everyone has their own roadblocks to their success. In order to reach your full potential, it has been my experience, you will, at some point, have to stare the ugliness in the face and prove to yourself you ARE strong enough to slay the demon. So, in the immortal words of my father… yes you can. As always, I want to hear your comments and especially, your Wineology stories, the good, the bad and the ugly!

See you all next week for the next leg of my WSET Diploma journey on Wine Story Wednesday!

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