Monday, April 4, 2011

Warning: Uncertified wine writer

Sometimes people ask, "How did you start writing about wine? Were you a sommelier?"

My answer is usually, "I drank a lot." It's meant to be a laugh line, but it's also true. I got the wine bug in 1990, began mentioning specific wines in food and travel articles in 1997, and wrote my first serious wine articles in 2001. So now I've been writing about wine for a decade, but I have never had any official certification.

Last week I decided to change that. I took the Certified Wine Professional exam at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

I'm not sure exactly why I took the test. I'm probably not going to get more writing assignments as a CWP, and in fact, if I were stupid enough to write a blog post announcing that I took it, and then I don't pass (results arrive in three weeks), some editors would probably never give me another assignment.

The 2 1/2 hour test covers literally the whole world of wine. Some of the 120 multiple-choice and true-false questions asked about the primary grape variety in Barossa Valley, what grape makes up Savennieres, and whether most grapevines are irrigated in Washington state.

There were also three wines, a white and two reds, for which we had to identify the grape variety. We were told we would get the majority of our points for our reasoning -- in complete sentences -- so that even if our conclusions were wrong, it's possible (though difficult) to pass the test without getting any of the varieties right.

The CIA teaches a 5-week wine immersion class that leads into the CWP exam, but I didn't take it, nor did I study. I'm very competitive when it comes to tests, and I really wanted to pass. But taking it without preparation came from both curiosity and a point of honor. I have been pitching myself as a wine expert for 10 years. If I couldn't pass this thing, then I guess I have a lot of 'splainin' to do*.

* (Dear editors: This does not mean I will refund any money. All story sales are final.)

I believe that all of the other 25-30 test takers took the course, and everyone I spoke to loved it. More than one praised sommelier Christie Dufault as their favorite instructor, saying she gave great practical tips on everything from buying and storing to "reading a table" and, I love this one, "up-selling." Probably that was the class I should have gone to, because I think I know a lot about wine but when I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle they wouldn't let me pour for public tastings because I have a tendency to leave fingerprints on the glass. (At least you know which one was mine.)

Most students were folks who work in the hospitality industry in some way, although I did have a nice, short pre-test chat with an Oakland housewife who said she had been commuting to St. Helena every day and thought it was totally worth it.

But the first fellow test-taker I met was an exception to the friendly crowd: precisely the kind of guy who makes people hate wine snobs. He was in his 50s and said he's been in the food industry for 25 years. Then he told me how never before the class had he known that in Europe, they make wines that are representative of a place, not a grape variety. "They don't make Sauvignon Blanc, they make Sancerre," said the 5-week-class graduate to the guy who had said he'd been writing about wine for 10 years. He went on to tell how the class tasted some Tuscan wines and Sassicaia was a wine without place. I said, "Yeah, but I love me some Sassicaia," and got a lecture on Sangiovese and terroir and I forget what else. You know what they say about a little knowledge.

I wish I had hung around to chat more with the class; everyone else seemed more like the kind of folks I would want telling me which wine goes with a mushroom tart (on the test I said Pinot Noir.) Their level of confidence differed greatly; some were studying too hard to chat beforehand, but one woman, an ad copywriter, said her husband poured her a blind tasting the previous night and her favorite, a Pinot Noir, "opened with violets, then went into nag champa ..."

I'm feeling pretty good about the 120 question written test. One question I now know that I got wrong was "What kind of wine is Asti?" Two of the options were "an Italian sparkling wine" and "an Italian red wine." I couldn't decide which was being sought: Asti Spumante or Barbera d'Asti. So I guessed the less-likely answer (red), figuring it was a trick question because everybody my age had heard a Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante ad. Fortunately I am allowed to get 30 (!) questions wrong and still pass, so it should be OK, as long as I didn't mess up the one about where the Finger Lakes are. (Lenn Thompson would probably hop on a plane out here just to laugh at me.)

However, as with any multiple-choice test, there were some answers where I had to give what the test wanted, rather than what I believe. Example: What kind of wine goes best with grilled beef? "Red Burgundy" was the first option and is what I had the last time I was at Bern's Steakhouse, but the CIA is in St. Helena so I chose "Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon." Another asked the expected characteristics of Barossa Valley Shiraz, listing "prominent eucalyptus and a full body," if I remember the second part correctly. I know Barossa Valley Shiraz used to have eucalyptus notes, but so many of them are so ripe these days that if "big rippin' fruit" had been an option, I would have missed another question.

And then there's this one: which grape variety produces wines that are commonly described as "jammy"? Two options were Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. I went with the latter, assuming that whoever wrote the test hasn't been to ZAP in 10 years. But seriously, CIA test-creators, there's no B & C option for that?

Or how about this? The very last true-false question asked, "Rose Champagnes are lighter in body than golden Champagnes." Hmm, are we talking usually, or theoretically? Tete de cuvee or non-vintage? Ultimately I decided I wasn't going to get 29 other questions wrong, so it wasn't worth worrying over. I guessed True, and would be prepared to defend it in an essay question, but that wasn't required.

As for the blind-tasted wines, I would stake my life (although I want a decent stake against it; at the very least 4 club-level Giants tickets) that the first was Sauvignon Blanc. I would stake a friend's life (not yours, Glenn) that the second was Pinot Noir. And I told the test administrator that I would stake his life that the third was Syrah. If the test hadn't asked us to "identify the grape variety," I would have spent longer on the peppery, earthy, not-fruit-driven wine; I might have wondered about GSMs or Chateauneufs du Pape (because, you know, in Europe they don't make grape varieties, they make wines of place).

We were told that even after we get our results, we will never know what varieties the wines were. So if that first wine was a really underripe Chardonnay, I won't even know why I failed.

But I'm not gonna fail, right? I mean, it would be colossally stupid to write up this blog post, telling everyone I took this exam, and then ignominiously sink into the shadows later this month.

Yet I felt an obligation, because my readers have a right to know that all of this blather about wine you've been reading has been completely uncertified. Until I get the test results, read at your own risk.


Maciek said...

Great article, as always!;) LOL:]
This test seems to be really strange when it comes to the real knowledge. I mean, to me it's strange to make a test without real feedback on your results, just an information on points...
Anyway, hope you won't lose your writing assignments:]

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

As with any standardized test, understanding the test is sometimes more than half the battle, and the actual content is the remainder. Doing a bit of an experiment, last year I walked in on the CSW test cold, and came up a two points short. The test itself was less expensive than the preparatory course, so I figured, what the heck. While I will probably get back around to it at some point, right now I'm just having fun, and there is no imperative. (i.e. Joe's Going-Pro series )
For extra $, the Society of Wine Educators, offers the option of a post test analysis, which I imagine would be helpful for some...

Wine Harlots said...

Gosh, I hope you pass!
Will you be certified?
Or certifiable?

Lindsay Ronga said...

Good stuff and as I study for the WSET, I run into those same questions, then second guess my damn self. I'm right there with ya, but haven't done the blind tasting yet tho I'm sure I'll be thinking of your story when I do. Best of luck and great recount of your experience.

Daniel Posner said...

The only exam I ever took in wine, was the Spanish Wine Academy one (passed). It, too, had stupid questions that could have more than 1 correct answer.

This industry is quite embarassing!

Much like you, I enjoy skipping the tests. I find them to be a waste of time, much like they were in high school and college!

jo6pac said...

So after you pass The Test will this site be pay for view only;)

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the kind words, folks, and for reading this completely uncertified blog.

Jo6pack: Maybe I'll charge a premium for the Making of This Blog Post videos.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think certification of some sort will end up being the norm soon when it comes to wine, although I can't see it becoming a requirement for most positions. There are a lot of different options for people interested in learning about wine when it comes to schooling and/or certification. It really doesn't make sense to not obtain some type of certification if you're a young person interested in a career in wine.

Tiffany Tompkins said...

The CIA has some really wonderful courses and I encourage people who want to study wine to go there. If you love it, why not study it? It's the test taking that takes the fun out of it.

Anyway, I hope you passed! You have motivated me to study more.

- From one uncertified writer to another.

Patrick said...

As a person who administered multiple-choice tests for years at universities, I know from experience that intelligent people often think more deeply about a question than the person who wrote it, and this could cause them to get some answers "wrong" when in fact they are correct. I think that's what happened to you, Mr Gray.

Anonymous said...

So, your 50 year old wine professional with 25 years experience doesn't know Sancerre is a red & white appellation???? Niiiiiiiiiice.

John M. Kelly said...

So my question becomes: it this drive to certify a Race To The Top? Or No Wine Writer Left Behind? (AKA No Wine Writer Gets Ahead.)

But seriously, if you love wine by all means study and learn as much as satisfies your curiosity.

However I can tell you with absolute sanguinity that possessing one of these pay-to-play certifications will not qualify you for a job on my marketing team, in my tasting room, or even writing my newsletter.

Anatoli Levine said...

Thank you for the great post! As someone who failed Certified Sommelier exam twice (for the CMS), it brought back lots of memories. I could never decide on the grapes for the blind tasting, and writing down all the reasoning didn't help...

Anyway, I hope you will pass ! But even if not, I will continue reading your blog :)

The Corkdork said...

Anxious to see if you passed, Blake. Keep us posted. Christie is awesome and married to an amazing writer, Jordan McKay.

Jessica Fialkovich said...

I also use the line, "Because I drank a lot" as to how I ended up in the business...good luck hope the test goes as planned!

kschlach said...

"So if that first wine was a really underripe Chardonnay, I won't even know why I failed."

So boiling your wine knowledge down to a number without a thorough explanation does not sit with you for certifications, but it does for the 100-pt wine rating system? ;)

I am eagerly awaiting your results so that I can decided whether you're at least a 90-pt wine writer and that I should continue devote time to reading you!

Fun post, btw!

W. Blake Gray said...

John Kelly: Ouch! I'm probably not even qualified to respond to your comment.

Tiffany: I didn't mention how delicious the breakfasts and lunches that CIA students can eat in the teaching kitchen are. Little side benefit, but a nice one.

Corkdork: Yes, Jordan has upsold himself relationship-wise ... or has Christie? Hmm, I'm thinking Jordan ...

CWP: Actually I WANT to be rated on the 100-point scale. In fact I heard Saint Peter has switched to it. And I'm really hoping for grade inflation.

kschlach said...

I'm 97+* on your response!

I'm sure that you'll score even higher on the exam.

Anonymous said...

Hi, just wondering which book is best suited to study for the CWP , thanks

W. Blake Gray said...

Probably Jancis Robinson's "Oxford Companion to Wine." Not a bad reference to own anyway.

Unknown said...

Somehow I'm just seeing this post in 2017, but still funny! Did you pass? I took the darn test and squeaked by, but am still mystified about the "syrah" I wrote on and on about that I suspect wasn't. Wonder why they will never disclose the blind tastings...??? Oh well. I'm still drinking! :)

"pay-to-play certifications", I like that.

W. Blake Gray said...

I probably should have updated this six years ago ... I did pass. Got a certificate and everything. I'm all certified up in here.