I recently received an email from the Alumni Association of my university which opened with a rhetorical question on whether my education had helped me achieve something great. I am not sure about “achievement” as such but one great thing it did help me with was being accepted on the Masters of Wine programme.
The Institute of Masters of Wine was formed in 1955 to “promote professional excellence and knowledge of the art, science and business of wine” (www.mastersofwine.org). Although originally set up in London, the organisation is now international with events and workshops taking place all over the world and members from more than 28 different countries.
The Masters of Wine Examination is and has always been notoriously difficult. The knowledge required to pass is both broad and in-depth and covers areas such as viticulture, wine production, the handling and business of wine, and contemporary issues. At the first Masters of Wine Examination set up in 1953 by the Vintners’s Company and the Wine and Spirit Association to improve the standard of knowledge of those in the wine trade, twenty-one candidates presented themselves and only six passed. Sixty-three years later, there are still only three hundred and fifty-four members who have been successful at the Examination. The programme is self-study but includes study days and residential seminars. The Institute also organises regular seminars in London, North America and Australia. Every student receives support from a Master of Wine who acts as mentor. At the end of the first year, in June, there is a practical and theoretical assessment. Passing both parts of the Stage 1 Assessment is necessary to move on the second year which concludes with a four day long practical (blind wine-tasting) and theory exam. The third and final stage is the submission of a research paper.
The course kicked off mid-October in London with a two day workshop on tasting and theory. Tension was tangible amongst the students in the room as we waited for the Master of Wine to begin her presentation. By the end of the introduction we were all reeling at the scope of what we had to learn and the sheer volume of work we were letting ourselves in for. Our first blind tasting session of twelve wines was quite a challenge and made it clear to us that we had a lot to practice but more to the point that we needed to taste in a different and more analytical way. Critical thinking is the name of the game. A skill we need to apply to tasting, learning and to managing ourselves through our studies.
Our workshop gave us a good insight into how to approach our studies, but I was keen to get some advice from current and past students of the programme and hear what they had to say about their experience as a student.
There are currently three Swedish Masters of Wine and a handful of MW students in Sweden on the programme. I spoke to Pontus Jennerholm, a trained sommelier and WSET educator, who is now teaching at the Vinkällan Wine Academy in Stockholm after lecturing for seven years at Örebro University’s Grythyttan. Pontus is in his fifth year as a Master of Wine student.
SJ. Congratulations Pontus I hear that you passed the theory part of the Masters of Wine Examination. What strategy did you apply for your studies?
Pontus Jennerholm -The amount of work required is overwhelming. You need to put in the time and you have to study so much to be able to deliver at the exams. For the theory part you need in depth technical knowledge. For the practical, you have to be able to answer quickly as in the exam you only get a little over 11 minutes to work out each wine and answer the attached two to three questions. You have to practice writing answers in exam conditions so that you do not get into a panic and blank out.-
When and how much do you study?
-I try to study five days a week for one hour in the morning before work and a couple of hours in the evening. I make sure that I also get one full day of studying in the week.-
How do you organise your tasting notes, do you have note books or are they all electronic?
-I have both. I have large excel files and I have mind maps and notes. I usually end up writing my notes out twice.-
What tips can you give me?
-I have found Coravin, the wine closure, really useful for tasting classic and vintage wines. The other thing is to make a list of wines that you know you mix up. For me, for example, it was Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. If you start getting confused during an exam you end up stressed out and are at risk of failing the paper. All you need is one bad day to jeopardise the outcome of the entire practical exam…-
I also spoke to Louise Sydbeck MW who is Swedish but based in Antibes where she runs her own yachting agency, Riviera Wine. Her studies ended in 2014 and she was the 100th woman to have graduated as Master of Wine. She was awarded the Bollinger Medal for her outstanding tasting paper.
SJ. What made you embark on the Master of Wine programme?
Louise Sydbeck -This was something that I did for myself. I am passionate about wine and I simply wanted to know more about it. I don’t think you can pursue these studies for the sake of it being good for your career. You need a deeper drive to see you through.-
How did you plan your studies? Did you go on many trips?
-At home in France there were no student tasting groups so I travelled to London quite a lot to go to tastings and to attend “tasting boot camps”. I also went to all the big trade fairs such as Prowein, London Wine Fair etc… I took a bag that left my hands free to hold two wine glasses so that I could go around the various stalls and taste and compare wines, such as Grüner Veltliner and Albariño for example. I focused on wines that I mixed up. For the theory you need to work on writing in a structured and concise way.-
How long did it take you to complete your studies?
-It took me seven years including a whole year off that I took for the dissertation.-
How did you fit studying into your life?
-I worked every morning between 5 am and 7 am throughout my studies with a break during the summer months, after the June exam session.-
Are you relieved that it’s over?
-Now I am super busy at work and I would not be able to find time to study. But I miss being a student and it was the best journey of my life…-