In August I went for hike in Liguria and got lost—several times. Luckily, I was able to ask for directions in Italian. I had learned Italian during a year abroad, which was thanks to a college scholarship.The college scholarship was possible because I had received financial aid for high school.
Educational scholarships have been the great gifts of my life, and they all came from people who began as absolute strangers. Some I had the chance to meet, some not. Several were anonymous. Some of their names I know: John Motley Morehead of North Carolina; Richard J. Franke of Chicago; Jane Oliensis of New York and Assisi.This spring, just before my Master of Wine practical exams, a charitable foundation previously unknown to me came to my aid and changed my attitude toward my wine studies.
“Wine studies” sounds oxymoronic to anyone who hasn’t pursued them.Wine is pleasurable, delicious, and intoxicating, while study is arduous.The field of knowledge is vast and constantly changing. Mastering it can also be expensive. Courses, wine, and study trips can quickly deplete a bank account or exceed a credit card limit. Some students are supported in part by their employers, but all of us invest more than we can easily afford in the pursuit of learning about the world of wine.
We also invest our time: hours of class, of blind-tasting practice, of essay writing, of tests. And we invest ourselves.We commit to a qualification and may fail many times before we achieve it. Some of us may never succeed. Friends and family members can find it difficult to understand the purpose of the journey.The response I hear most often to the news that I’m pursuing the Master of Wine qualification is,“What will you do with it?” I will keep doing exactly what I’m already doing, I reply: teaching about wine, writing about wine, enjoying wine, and sharing my knowledge.
I try to explain that most students who attempt to earn the MW title don’t ever achieve it. The pass rate for the exams is so notoriously—and outrageously—low that I sometimes say it’s like the Olympics. Not everyone gets a medal, but I’m proud to compete. That may be my game face, but the reality is much more complicated, with ups and downs, thrilling moments of discovery, and many more of self-doubt. When I first began my formal wine studies in a Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 class at the International Wine Center in New York, I felt comfortable right up until the exam . . . and then I panicked. The course had covered more material than seemed possible to master, but I passed. I was hooked. I continued with the WSET Advanced and Diploma classes even after my family and I moved to France.There I found a fine band of fellow Diploma students, who constituted my first and best study group. We drove from our various homes— Marie-Josée on the Rhône, Fabien in the Languedoc, Regis and Olivier from Switzerland—and met in Mâcon at “Esprits de Vins,” a WSET school run by the wonderful Hélène Touras. During the weekend-long courses, we would study and eat together, laugh, learn, make mistakes, and encourage each other. That community of like-minded people made the process a pleasure. Many of us traveled to London to celebrate together as we collected our Diplomas at the grand Guildhall ceremony. My subsequent Master of Wine journey, though, has often been lonely. It’s a self-study program, which means the bulk of the work is meant to be completed alone rather than with classes and tutors. We do form study groups, and I’ve been lucky to work with some exceptionally gifted and lovely people, but the program itself doesn’t seem to foster the same kind of camaraderie I enjoyed during my Diploma years. It can feel competitive at times, which doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to get discouraged.
So I was thrilled when, last May, I was awarded the inaugural David A. Carpenter Masters of Wine scholarship through SommFoundation, an organization that assists wine and spirits professionals to “achieve the highest level of proficiency and accreditation.”The scholarship came with a cash award that generously covered my exam fees, flight, room and board during the exam—but even more valuable was the vote of confidence. I’d never met David and Diane Carpenter, but they were on my side. When I walked to the exam site each of the three mornings, I felt less alone. I didn’t pass the MW practical exam this year, disappointingly, but because of the Carpenters and SommFoundation, I’m not giving up yet. If you’re also on the winding road of wine study, I hope we cross paths sometime. I know how difficult it is—but with a little help from each other, we’ll get much further than we ever could alone.