I don’t typically write personal story blogs often, okay never, but it seems that many people have been somewhat interested in the Master of Wine certification journey I have been on since 2013. So here is a comprehensive post describing what the Institute of Master of Wine is all about, what it takes to get through the certification and my own personal journey through the program so far.
The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) is a unique organization that was created in 1955 in London and is composed from members that have passed the extensive Master of Wine exam. Today they are 354 MW in the world in 29 countries. The stated mission of the IMW is one of knowledge and integrity: “Through our members and activities, the IMW promotes excellence, interaction and learning across all sectors of the global wine community.”
The MW journey starts by being accepted into the program. Applicants must hold a wine certification (WSET for example), they must have at least 3 years of wine professional experience, they must provide a reference letter from an existing MW or a senior wine professional and go through a light screening exam. Every year about 70 or so students are admitted into the program worldwide. First year students are required to attend several course days and a weeklong seminar. The first year is dedicated to learning of the pillars of the examination: essay writing and blind tasting the MW way. The MW program is original in that it is a self-study program with very basic directions – although, I have been told we now have an incredible amount of directions compared to a decade ago. The first year culminates with the first-year exam which is made of 2 essay questions picked from previous exam (each lasting 1 hour) and one blind wine tasting paper for 12 wines (135 minutes). Upon passing the first year exam, the successful student is invited into the second year which is basically a preparation to the MW exam. The exam itself is 4 grueling days with essay writing in the morning (2 to 4 essays based on the matter at hand covering about 3 hours total) and three 12 wine blind tasting papers in the afternoon (the last day being a half day with two essay in the morning). Below are a few example of exam questions covering each main topic from the 2016 exam.
Theory paper one: Viticulture
What steps can a viticulturist take to provide and maintain proper vine nutrition?
Theory paper two: Vinification and pre-bottling procedures
Examine the pros and cons of skin contact during the winemaking process.
Theory paper three: Handling of wine
Consider the key issues for storage of wine after packing is complete.
Theory paper Four: The business of wine
What are the most quantifiable signs that a wine brand is strong?
Theory paper Five: Contemporary issues
Do government drinking guidelines make sense?
Practical paper one: White wines (example answers provided)
Wines 1 and 2 come from the same country.
For each wine:
a) Identify the origin as closely as possible. (2×10 marks)
b) Comment on the winemaking. (2×8 marks)
c) Discuss style and quality. (2×7 marks)
Wine 1: Acodo White Rioja, Basilio Izquierdo. 2010. Rioja, Spain (13.5%)
Wine 2: Albariño, Bodegas de Fefinanes. 2014. Rías Baixas, Spain (12.5%)
Practical paper two: Red wines (example answers provided)
Wines 3–5 are not from France and are all made from the same single grape variety.
With reference to all three wines:
a) Identify the grape variety as closely as possible. (15 marks)
For each wine:
b) Identify the origin as closely as possible, with particular reference to the climate. (3×10 marks)
c) Comment on quality and consider key selling points. (3×10 marks)
3. Pinot Noir, Dog Point. 2012. Marlborough, New Zealand (14%)
4. Spätburgunder Blauschiefer, Meyer-Näkel. 2014. Ahr, Germany (13.5%)
5. Pinot Noir, Tyrrell’s Old Winery. 2014. Australia (12.5%)
Practical paper three: Anything goes with focus on sweet, rosé, fortified, sparkling (example answers provided)
Wines 6 and 7 come from the same region and producer.
With reference to both wines:
a) Identify the origin as closely as possible. (20 marks)
b) Discuss the key winemaking techniques used to arrive at these styles. (20 marks)
c) Discuss how the styles of these wines determine their commercial appeal. (10 marks)
6. Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore, Campi Magri, Corte Sant’Alda. 2012. Veneto, Italy (13.5%)
7. Recioto della Valpolicella, Corte Sant’Alda. 2013. Veneto, Italy (14.5%)
The practical exam has to be passed in one sitting, the theory exam allows for one paper reset (so minimum is to pass 4 papers in one sitting). A student can only sit the exam 5 times. There is a third part to the exam: the research paper of 6,000 to 10,000 words on a topic of the student’s choice answering a very specific question in the world of wine.
The cost can be daunting, about $4500/year for the basic tuition to which one can add $3,000 per year for the wine and $1,700 of exam fees adding up to $9,200 per year give or take. Considering that many students are in the program for 5 years, this amount to about $46,000 which is a hefty sum for a wine education program.
I was accepted in the program in 2013, passed the first-year exam in 2014, passed the theory part of the MW exam in 2015 and have failed the practical part in 2015 and 2016 and I’ll be going for my third attempt in 2017.
So why do I put myself and my family through this? First I am a bit of a sucker for studying, I love to learn and perfect my skills at whatever I do – which usually revolves around wine: I have two Masters degrees in winemaking and one MBA. Second, I enjoy the challenge and I want to prove to myself that I can get through the most difficult and well regarded wine certification in the world. Third, I have found that deepening your knowledge about what you do for a living is never a waste of resources – I would not be where I am today without investing in my education; I have already witnessed how positively the program has influenced me to be more global in my thought process and able to understand on a deep level many wine related challenges. Lastly I would love to join the Institute that is made of some of the most talented wine professionals in the world – this is a group of people I would proudly join.
The program is hard and if you are not well prepared, you should consider spending several years deepening your wine knowledge before tackling the Master of Wine. For me, theory knowledge was not hard – it was lot of preparation but my brain is quite comfortable with synthesizing complex topics. The most difficult effort was probably to learn the essay process but once I got it, became second nature. In comparison the tasting part is very hard for me. I have never tasted so broadly and exhaustively and I had to learn how to activate areas of my brain that I had never used. In retrospect, I should have gone through the WSET tasting process prior to the MW but no one told me I should do that ;-). I feel I am now a completely different taster than I was 3 years ago – still not perfect but deadly enough. I have had to work on being accurate in my descriptions of a wine, in fine tuning my perception of key structural elements (alcohol, sugar, tannins), in my note taking and tasting speed, in my ability to articulate what I am tasting. So how do I prepare for the 2017 practical exam that I hope will be the one? First I have at my fingertips all the relevant details regarding all major exam-worthy wines (about 350 flashcards). I also have built lists of tasting descriptors and possible wine questions. I practice four types of exercises for an average of 1.5 hours per day – everyday with rare days off. I review my flashcards, I taste 3-4 wines blind with exam questions, I try 6-8 wines open label thematically grouped (wines that look-alike for example), I practice dry exams (which is a way to practice my writing skills and speed) and I try full exams (12 wines) every other week. I must say that it took me 3 years to get to a point where I do not waste time and I have been able to put a system together that is extremely good for my needs.
So here it is – the Master of Wine program in a nutshell and my personal take on it. I highly recommend the program to anyone wanting to learn more about wine and wanting to take the ultimate challenge. I would be cautious for those that think it will be fun, cheap and fast.