I love when I get questions from friends and readers. Greg has pointed out to me that when I get a question and write up an answer, I really should post it, since it's likely that other people have that same question. He makes a good point--so I the sharing starts here.
This first one is for the wine geeks. I've had several people write to me via the blog and the Facebook page asking for tips on how to study for various wine exams. I've taken the Court of Master Sommeliers Intro and Certified Exams. That's a great program, but because I don't work in service, I eventually switched over to the Wine Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and took the Advanced Level. I'm currently in the middle of their Diploma Program. While there are certainly differences in the exams, the Tasting and Theory portion are similar enough that my study techniques are pretty much the same for both. The CMS also includes a service components, which is own beast. Here are tips and experiences.
TastingI'd say putting together a tasting group is key, if at all possible. If you're in a class try getting a group together with some of the other students, if you haven't already. (If you're taking the class online, I might see if you can find a group of wine lovers near you who might find the blind tasting fun--these people exist.) When I'm prepping for an exam, I get together with my tasting group about once a week. We'll pick a relevant theme each time and get together to blind taste and discuss the wines. We either each bring a bottle or someone will buy the bottles and then we divide the costs. The bonus part is that drinking/practicing together usually makes quick friends out of everyone and it ends up being quite fun in addition to being really helpful.
I would practice at home on my own as well. During my first wine class (which was actually for the CMS Certified), I was really starting from zero wine-knowledge and was trying to cover a lot of ground quickly. I developed a good relationship with a couple of the sales guys at a favorite wine store nearby that has a good selection. Eventually, I told the guys what I was studying for and we came up with a system. I gave them a budget range per bottle, and then each week they would pick out a group of applicable wines. They'd even bag them up for me so that I wouldn't know what exactly was in the case. At home, my husband would pour them for me, just in case there were any markings on the neck or cap.
Friends and I have also done similar things at wine bars. Find a wine bar you really like with a good glass program. Try to go in on off-hours when they aren't too busy and ask the bartender to pour you something blind. Eventually, you'll probably develop a good rapport with the bartenders and you can tell them what you're up to. Wine people tend to be really willing to help other wine people.
While I was prepping for my first wine exam, I'd go into a great wine bar here in NYC that does blind flights. The manager was at the higher levels of the CMS program, and since I'd go in when there were fewer people around, he would take a few minutes to really go through with me what I gotten wrong a why. Truly, don't assume you have to do this on your own. Like I said, I find that wine geeks really are happy to help other wine geeks.
The important thing to remember when you're actually taking the exam, especially at the WSET Advanced level, is that how you describe the wine in each category is more important than actually get the wine right at the end. (And of course, remember to memorize the grid.) On the WSET Advanced, you're also given 3 answers to choose from, which is really helpful.
Practice makes perfect: Wines from a Tasting Group sparking wine session.
TheoryI'm pretty old fashioned in my study methods for theory. I basically take whatever book I'm currently studying from and transcribe it's contents onto index cards. (Other people I know do similar things, but might type it out on the computer, or now there are apps that function like index cards.) Then I take a stack of cards with me pretty much anywhere I go. To get out of the house and not feel quite so shut in, I'll go on long walks in the park with the index cards. Bonus, it works in a little exercise.
ServiceThis applies to the Court of Master Sommelier Exams only, as WSET doesn't have this component. (I'll note, that I've only gone through the Certified level.)
What can I say about service? Since I don't work in service this was a tough one for me. I just practiced a lot at home a lot.
There are two scenarios you can get at that level--bubbly or decanting an aged red.
I bought a case of cheap bubble and practiced opening them at home, and would go through the whole decanting process. I bought a tray to practice carrying glasses around the living room and pouring in correct order. (My hubby would act as the customer and give me the scenario.)
I also got a huge boon when a friend put me in touch with a bar owner near me who had gone through the exam process. She allowed me to come by practice with her several times and would critique me and give me pointers.
I would also say it's important to remember that you'll get questions at the table from the examiner. Other students and I would quiz each other with cocktails and dishes to pair to. The biggest thing to remember, is just not to loose you cool in the room. If you don't know something, try not to get too flustered, but say something like "I'm so sorry, I'll need to check with my floor manager for that information."
One last thought to keep in mind for anyone going through one of these programs. Nobody wants to have to retake an exam, but honestly that's the worst thing that can happen. These exams are hard and everyone knows it. Nobody looks down on anyone if they have to retake one.
Check out my earlier posts on wine exams here:
Of Take-Out, Tissues and Index Cards: WSET Advanced Level Exam