There are masters of everything these days: master gardeners, master electricians, master plumbers, master chefs and, yes, masters of wine. Since its inception in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine in the United Kingdom has bestowed the title of “Master of Wine” on very few people. Currently there are only 279 members from 22 countries. I began my quest for this distinction in 2007, and, last February, I gathered along with 70 or so other candidates in Napa for a one-week session of mock exams, short seminars and workshops that was at once exhilarating and brutal.
Each morning started at 7:30 a.m., pouring and tasting 12 wines blind (the wines are decanted into unlabeled bottles) and then racing, in two hours and 15 minutes, to pen 12-18 pages of answers. There I was in a room with a dozen or so other students and two MW’s sitting at the front. The air was pungent with the aroma of wine and alcohol and nerves. Depending on the exam, 12 glasses-of white or red or a mixed flight that could include any color or style including sparkling, sweets and fortifieds-stare you down.
Question sheets are handed out, and excitement and trepidation build as we turn over the paper to find something like:
1) Wines 1 to 8 are all from the same single-grape variety, from four different countries.
For all 8 wines:
a) Identify the grape variety, drawing evidence from all the wines.
For each wine:
b) Identify the origin as closely as possible.
c) Comment on quality, with specific reference to residual sugar, alcohol and maturity.
d) Consider the commercial potential.
Fidgeting bodies and trickles of sweat begin as the clock starts ticking. Sometimes I like to look at and smell all the wines and take some notes before reading the questions while other times I look first to the questions to find some clues and narrow down the choices before nosing all the wines. Then I go about tasting the wines and answering the questions that seem obvious or are bankers as the Brits like to say. The more difficult wines and questions are put aside for a moment. One must remember you do not need to “get the wine right” to pass. Just as important as identifying the variety or origin correctly is writing well-argued answers. You must use evidence that is in the glass and hit all the markers (color, fruit character, intensity, dryness, alcohol, acid, body, tannin, length, etc.). When writing about things like production methods, quality judgments, state of maturity and commercial position you have ample opportunity to display your understanding and aptitude, even when you are clueless of the “correct” answer. So all is not lost when you are faced with that wine and all you can think of is “What the…!”
Personally, on good days when I finish the exam and write good answers with well-argued notes displaying knowledge, understanding, clarity, agility and thus mastery, which are rare, I feel like a rock star. On really bad days (hopefully also rare), when I am incomplete, don’t write good notes and identify a Burgundy as a Bordeaux I feel as if I have been dragged in a dark alley to be punched, kicked and generally beat up. Mostly though you just feel slapped around.
James Christopher Tracy is the winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, as well as a student candidate for the Institute of Masters of Wine.