Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Mastering Wine

What does it take to become a certified sommelier or a Master of Wine? On this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, we talk to three professionals who pursued an education in wine.
Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

Becoming a master of wine can be a grueling process. On the newest episodes of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, we chat with three standout individuals who’ve pursued the path of wine education and come through with flying colors.

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The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Read the full transcript of “Mastering Wine”:

Lauren Buzzeo: From Wine Enthusiast Magazine, this is the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I’m Managing Editor and Tasting Director, Lauren Buzzeo.’

Coming up, summer may be here, but we’re heading back to school with a show we’re calling, “Mastering Wine.” So, what does it take to become a certified sommelier, or a Master of Wine? We’ll get tips from some pros.

Chris Harris: When you are looking at…you know, or trying to figure out where to start studying, if you don’t have some type of direction it is a very daunting thing.

Mollie Battenhouse: That always does involve a lot of giving up of your time, and a lot of studying and tasting wine. It’s pretty grueling, but I think it’s pretty worth it.

LB: And speaking of grueling, it’s no secret that the Master of Wine exam is notoriously difficult. We’ll hear from one MW who wasn’t sure she passed the test.

Anne Krebiehl: If you’re a diligent person, if you’re conscientious, and you fail despite having done a lot of work, that does weird things to your mind.

LB: It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

Doctors. Lawyers. Sommeliers, and Masters of Wine.

In a way, all of these titles have a lot in common. After all, calling yourself any one of them requires countless hours of hitting the books, grueling exams, you basically have to live and breathe whatever it is you’re studying, and of course, in the case of somms and Masters of Wine, you have to taste it, too.

On today’s show, we’ll meet three standout individuals who’ve pursued the path of wine education, every twist and turn, high and low, and come through with flying colors. We’ll begin with Molly Battenhouse. Molly is a wine educator, and the national director of wine education for Jackson Family Wines.

Among those who have studied under Molly is Wine Enthusiast Tasting Coordinator Carrie Dykes. Molly recently sat down with her former student and began the conversation by explaining the esteemed MW in her official title.

Mollie Battenhouse: MW is a Master of Wine, so that’s what it stands for, and Masters of Wines are…I mean, we come from all over the wine industry. So, all types of people become MWs: journalists, winemakers, grape growers, and it is a pretty grueling process. I think everybody arrives to it sort of their own way, but it always does involve a lot of giving up of your time, and a lot of studying, and tasting wine. It’s pretty grueling, but I think it’s pretty worth it.

Carrie Dykes: So, what exactly is involved in the program once you’re accepted?

MB: Before getting accepted, actually, is doing sort of a mini exam. So, you have to write a paper, and do some tasting notes, and have a Master of Wine recommend you to the program, and then you would either get accepted or not.

Once you get accepted it’s sort of a three stage process, I guess. So, stage one is sort of the entry into the program, if you will, which can be one to two years in length, basically. After the first year you’re given a first year assessment, and then you are either asked to repeat the first phase, or you may go on to the second phase. I think some people, at that point, if they’re not doing well, may be asked to sit out for a few years and come back when they have gained more experience.

So, assuming you pass stage one and get to stage two, and then stage two you’re basically ready to sit the exam, and you can be in this stage from anywhere from one year to six years, because you get about five tries, I think, overall to sit through the exam. At the stage two point you would also be thinking about your research paper, and getting ready to submit basically synopsis, or an idea, for your paper before sitting the exam.

So, now assuming you’ve gone through stage two, that assessment is the exam. So, assuming you pass then through the theory and practical, and I think you get at the most five chances to sit through that, then you have to submit a research paper that’s anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 words and have that accepted by a jury of MWs.

CD: How long were you in the program before you became an MW?

MB: I guess, it took me 12 years in all. I do know that I sat out of the program for a couple of years, sort of took a year off, so I guess, all in all, it was around nine years.

CD: Cool, and what are some ways that you geared up for it?

MB: Now, the first year I don’t know how much gearing up I did. It was sort of like an “Oh, my God, this is huge,” and I sat out a year and studied and prepared to go back. So, there was that, and it can be very overwhelming. I think a lot of people at the first stage are just like, “Whoa.”

So, it takes a little time to get used to it, and then, jumping back in, just putting in several hours a day studying, working on practice theory questions, so I sort of went back through old exams, and picked out questions, and reworded them, and put them in other areas of the world just to sort of flex my brain a little bit and find holes in my knowledge. And then for tasting we did, at least once a week, did 12 wines blind, timed, and then really leading up to the exam I would do that about twice a week.

CD: And how many wines do you have to taste blind for the exam?

MB: For the exam, total, it’s 36 wines. So, it’s 12 wines each day for three days, and then each of those three days you have a couple hours of theory papers in the afternoon, and then the fourth day of the exam is all theoretical work. So, yeah, there’s 36 wines and five theory papers.

CD: So, can you tell us a little bit about the systematic approach to tasting, which…is that what you use for tasting for the MW, or do you go a different route?

MB: It pretty much is the systematic approach to tasting, so that’s what we learn in the WSET program, and it’s really a regimented way about going through wine and assessing each phase of the tasting, if you will. So, the sight, the color, what the wine looks like, if there are any other observations, the nose, you know, is it youthful, is it old, is it very primary, does it have secondary wine making aromatics, has tertiary aromatics, is it aging, what are those aromas? And then, on the palette, once confirming all of those flavors, and talking about wine making, and also what the wine tastes like, and then coming to a conclusion.

So, for each wine there are these certain steps that you do have to follow, and it’s…the MW exam is maybe not as…not that it’s more open, you just build on that approach a little bit more into how you formulate your conclusions.

CD: Okay, so you can kind of just use your knowledge and kind of go with whatever is more comfortable for you.

MB: Pretty much, there is a way that they like it to be answered, and there usually are some other questions. There’s some sort of format around the wines, so you might have a flight of three wines that are all made from the same grape, but all come from three different countries, and so there may be some questions, you know, about the different wine making styles in the different areas, or the saleability of each wine, the applications…the commercial applications, like where would you sell it?

So, it’s not just a tasting note, just a lot of practical knowledge in there as well as okay, yeah, this is a Chablis from France, okay, great, so what does that mean? So, not just what it means in terms of what it is, but what do we do with it? How do we sell it? Where does it fit in the marketplace?

CD: That’s interesting. That’s a good way to connect, because obviously, it is, you know, connected in the wine business. Were you always really good at dissecting the tastes and aromas of things, or did you really hone in on that after you got into wine and food? Because your background is art, right?

MB: It’s art, it is, it’s fine arts, painting, and sculpture, and with business management, but while I was in art school I started working in restaurants, which led me down the whole slippery slope. So, but working in restaurants, and I studied cooking, so I did start developing my palette and learning about tasting in terms of food, and smelling, so, starting to build that vocabulary.
But, I think it took me a long time to get more proficient at really picking out different things, and listening to other people taste and trying to figure out, well, they called that X, I usually call it Y, what is it they’re smelling? Is there something I’m missing? You know, just trying to fine tune it. So, it is a work in progress.

CD: What are some of the challenges in wine education that you faced in your own education, and also as a professor?

MB: I think one of the biggest challenges with wine education in general is that a lot of people don’t understand the degrees and things that we have, because it’s a little nontraditional education, and I think our worlds are a little nontraditional. Explaining that, and how that sort of fits in with the “Oh, so you’re not a PhD, but you’re a master, so your master’s in business? No, no, it’s Master of Wine.”

And then, personally, I mean my own challenges, sometimes it was just myself, getting myself through hurdles of feeling, you know, not confident, or just not feeling like studying, having to push myself to do that. So, you know, I think those were probably my biggest challenges, or not understanding what it is that somebody wants from me. So, I think, you know, the more information we get, and with the MW program in particular, they are now giving you more information to let you know what they want, so I think it’s a clearer path.

CD: So, well, thank you so much for talking to me today. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MB: Get out there and take a wine class, for anybody that’s listening. Doesn’t have to be too formal, it can be a really fun one, like a one time course, but I think you’ll gain a greater appreciation for wine.

Lauren Buzzeo: Molly Battenhouse is certified by the Institute of Masters of Wine. To learn more about Molly and the institute, visit our website, winemag.com/podcast.

Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editor Anne Krebiehl became a Master of Wine a few years back, and Anne will tell you, as she pursued her certification, she struggled with some rather specific personal challenges, and received some rather unconventional help. Wine Enthusiast Tasting Manager Alexander Peartree spoke with Anne about her path to becoming a Master of Wine.

Anne Krebiehl: I applied in late 2009, in October 2009, and I got accepted onto the program, and we had our induction week in January 2010, and then I sat my last exam in June 2014, and found out that I’d passed in September 2014. So, it took me… Well, it’s 2010 until 2014, that’s a total of five years, and they were really rather long and hard.

I was just still finishing my WSET diploma when I applied, so I was already in study mode, if you like, and everything I’d learned about wine was up to date. So, you know, my WSET qualification was totally up to date and I just figured, okay, there’s no time like the present.

But I must say, in hindsight, that it was probably a good thing that I didn’t know that much about the MW, because I had known what I was letting myself in for I probably would not have done it. So, in hindsight it’s lucky that I was really rather naïve when I signed up.

I had done my undergraduate degree in the evenings at Birkbeck College in London, so…while I worked full time, and so I figured, hm, I did my WSET after work, I did my entire undergraduate degree, which was in English literature, after work and in weekends, et cetera, et cetera, surely I can do the MW, too. But little did I know how much work it was going to be.

Being a really rather academic person, being…I mean, I work as a journalist, I find out information and I reproduce it in a coherent fashion. So, I did really well in theory and I passed it immediately, but in my tasting I just panicked, and of course I beat myself up very, very, very much, because I had gone to so many blind tastings, I had practiced so much with my friends.

I am very, very lucky that I live in London, where you can taste every wine under the sun, and where there are enough students so you can have tasting groups, and there’s a real little cottage industry that caters to MW students, setting up blind and mock tastings for them, and I did lots of that, and I just lacked the confidence.

I did not grow up in the wine industry. I did not have a huge experience of tasting the wines of the world, and I think that is what made me lack confidence.

But, sadly, it took me a long time to find out what I was lacking, because, as I just said, I always felt I wasn’t good enough. And some of us…for some of us it is really easy to feel that, that we are not good enough, that if only we worked harder, and, you know, it’s kind of what your personality type and your upbringing is, and I am very, very good at beating myself up.

And I went and had cognitive behavioral training to help me with the stress, because by that time I found out that I actually… You know, I… It wasn’t like I wasn’t working enough, no, I had perfected writing dry notes. I had a little index box full of perfect answers. I could write fast. I could tell you so many things about the wines, about the aging between reserve and gran reserve and the weirdest grape varieties that go into Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I’d learned all that.

But I really found that my tasting, the actual sitting there and dealing with the wines was difficult under exam pressure, because very often in mock exams I did well. When I was relaxed, and when I was… You know, when there was nothing at stake I was fine. And so, I thought, okay, fine, let’s do some cognitive behavioral training.

And I did that, and what did I do in the exam? I panicked tremendously. I had such a panic attack, and I think I put an awful lot of pressure on myself, because sitting the exam is expensive. And I also felt so bad of having failed before because for my personality type, if you’re a diligent person, if you’re conscientious, and you fail despite having done a lot of work, that does weird things to your mind.

And so, when I sat the exam for the fourth time, it was another MW student who had passed the year previously who had had very, very similar problems like me, and he put me on to a sports psychologist, and this is a man who usually helps people, like, you know, top athletes, top soccer players, to perform under pressure, and that’s really what I needed to do, perform under pressure. I was a little bit like that soccer player who hits the penalty every time in training and screws it up during the world cup, that was me.

And what I actually found was that it really was a confidence problem. That I labored under this misapprehension that I only had to stick my nose into a glass and know what it is, and in a thousand people there are probably only two who can do that. The rest of us have to work just very clinically, and once I’d realized that everything became possible.

You know, I never… I stopped beating myself up for sticking my nose in a wine and thinking, “Okay, this could be several things, I don’t know, but so let’s think.” And what I learned from there, and with the help of that sports psychologist, is that it was about having a very different approach, and the approach made use of my brain and my knowledge, and left my feelings well alone.

One of the most interesting things that the sports psychologist, Andy Barton is his name, Andy said to me is that, “Well, and what do you think of when you’re in the exam?” And I said, “Well, I think that I am going to fail, and I am so scared.” And he says, “Well, you can spend the entire time after the exam thinking about that, while you’re in the exam you need to think about the wines that are in front of you.”

So, he really sort of tuned into what was wrong with me and helped me just have a very clinical, unemotional, and detached approach, and see, I did it, and I passed.

Lauren Buzzeo: To check out some videos featuring Sports Psychologist Andy Barton, visit our website, winemag.com/podcast.

Have you ever used learning from a different field to support your pursuits in wine? If so, we want to hear your story. Send an email to podcast@winemag.com.

Time for a break, but when we come back…

Chris Harris: Lo and behold, here I was, a young fledgling floor sommelier at, you know, what’s one of the best restaurants in the city.

LB: An up and coming sommelier dishes about his recent educational pursuits. It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

Welcome back to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, I’m Lauren Buzzeo.

Christopher Harris is the wine and service director for Entente, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. Christopher is part of a new generation of sommeliers, a generation he says isn’t nearly as buttoned up as somms of days past. Wine Enthusiast Senior Editor Layla Schlack recently sat down with Christopher and asked him how he got into the business.

Chris Harris: Like many people who say they get their start in the restaurant industry, I started working while I was in college because, you know, desperately needed a job, and I said that this would be something I would do for six months or until I found something better. 11 years later, just celebrated in March, was like, you know, if you asked me then what would I be doing now, you know, would I still be doing this, I probably would have looked at you and been like, “Uh, absolutely not.”

I found that I had a knack for the service hospitality side of things, made my way through a few different restaurants in Chicago. I started really studying…you know, studying wine and the beverage side of it, because I was tired of being intimidated by that side of things.

Throughout that time of studying there and, like, beginning interacting with guests it kind of seemed like a natural thing, you know, a natural progression to make, and lo and behold, here I was, a young fledgling floor sommelier at, you know, what’s one of the best restaurants in the city.

Layla Schlack: And so you also took a wine fundamentals class with the International Sommelier Guild, which sounds like it really kind of opened your eyes. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Some of the epiphanies you had, some of the revelations, and some of the differences, also, between learning on the floor versus learning in the classroom?

CH: That was a huge part of me being able to grasp things, because I feel like when you are looking at, you know, or trying to figure out where to start studying, if you don’t have some type of direction it is a very daunting thing, and the approach that that class took was perfect for me at the time.

And then, when I started going through the Court of Sommeliers, it definitely is a slightly different approach. It’s a little more of that self-led, self-study, but they give you a guideline and a structure about how to approach your studies when you’re prepping for, you know, the next level, when you are prepping for a certified exam.

LS: So, you’ve referred to yourself as a baby somm, and felt that you had to prove extra hard to prove that…your expertise, and that you knew what you were talking about as someone so young. Can you talk a bit about that?

CH: At the time I was…there was more of a feeling that if this person is trusting me to be on the floor representing not only them but the restaurant and then a lot of the wines, it’s easy to kind of think that you can get away with short selling, or not knowing all the information and, you know, say something that you think sounds cool, or sounds right about the wine, but be completely wrong.

And you never know who is really at your table, you know? It could be a master sommelier, it could be an avid collector. I have to make sure that, you know, I know what I’m saying backwards and forwards, I know that this information is correct, because if they find out that, oh, like, that one piece was wrong then they’ll question you, and you…that’s not a good feeling.

LS: Do you ever still feel that way? Do you ever still feel like you’re young for the world that you’re in and you have something to prove?

CH: On occasion, I…you know, I think that that does come across, but I feel like that is something that doesn’t necessarily go away. If there is one thing that I have learned, you know, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

LS: So, now that you’re a certified sommelier, do you…would you say you have a personal philosophy? Is there a specific approach you take? How do you encourage your patrons to look at wine

CH: I do my best to try to break down and get rid of the intimidation factor. There are so many different things that are available on the market, and you see a lot of different varietals that people don’t necessarily know. I mean, I had a rep the other day bring me a varietal and I was like, dude, I have never heard of this, awesome, I’m going to add this into my study, because I need to know about this.

And so, if you’re going to have something like that. If you’re going to have these wines that are slightly off the beaten path, you have to be able to get down to what…at the end of the day, what people are looking for. And so, you know, sometimes it’s not necessarily talking about the wine, but it’s engaging the guests and, you know, getting them to talk about the beverage, or the wine that they want, in a way that is comfortable for them.

LS: Let’s say there’s someone listening to this right now who has dreams of one day being a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant, do you have any advice to offer them?

CH: Yo, don’t give up. You know, there’s… Know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I would say there is a lot of sacrifice that you have to put in to it, time, effort, and money, but there is…there is definitely that, as I’ve said, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Find a network of people that you trust, and that you look up to, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them for any type of advice, or tips, techniques, and whatnot. And we like to pay it forward, that’s one thing that I’ve taken from all of my interactions with people that I looked up to.

You know, at the end of the day, you should be having fun. If you are not having fun drinking, you know, exploring wine and you’re reading about a region, then you’re doing something wrong. I… You know, I jokingly say, the most important thing is that the wine makes me dance. You know, if I find something like that, that’s super fun, I want to share that with somebody, because I want them to have that moment as well.

Lauren Buzzeo: To learn more about Christopher’s restaurant, Entente Chicago, visit our website, winemag.com/podcast.

That’s it for today’s Wine Enthusiast Podcast. We heard from Tasting Coordinator Carrie Dykes, Tasting Manager Alexander Peartree, and Senior Editor Layla Schlack. You can subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please write us a review. We’d love to hear what you think.

We’d also love to stay in touch. Use the hashtag WEPodcast and follow Wine Enthusiast Magazine on Facebook and Twitter. You can also send us an email, our address is podcast@winemag.com.

The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Sheir and Shim, LLC.

Published on May 16, 2018
Topics: Podcast



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