PHILLIP ANDERSON CONSIDERS THE IMPACT OF A SOMMFOUNDATION SCHOLARSHIP ON HIS FUTURE.
I was sitting in my car eating lunch when the phone rang. I was shocked and thrilled to find that I had been chosen to receive a David A. Carpenter Masters of Wine Scholarship from SommFoundation. As I sat there in the parking lot, I realized that someone I had never met believed I could pass the test—and that I’d better start believing it too.
The Master of Wine exam is a mentally exhausting experience that takes place annually over four days in locations around the world (except 2020, when they were canceled). You start your morning the first three days with 12 wines that can come from any region: Day one is whites, day two is reds, and on day three, you get a mixed bag that includes sparkling and fortified wines. Each day, you have two hours and 15 minutes to answer questions for the practical portion of the test, in which you how the production techniques differed between three of the wines, where they originated, which grapes were used, or how you would sell them.
After lunch, you’re back to work on the theory section of the exam, writing detailed essays about everything in the wine world, from the soil to the glass. The exact time allotted for completion is, and because the exam isn’t multiple choice and requires lengthy answers, the grading process takes months.
I took the exam in June 2019 and received results in September. I passed theory and failed practical, yet I had never been so ecstatic to pass part of an exam! Now, to advance, I must again endure a mere six hours and 45 minutes of testing. Piece of cake, right? No. Many who pass theory can’t pass the daunting practical section. One reason is that the information you need to pass the former is freely available; some books are worth purchasing, but much of the best information is accessible online. Need to learn about a specific aspect of winemaking? The Australian Wine Institute has an article. Have a question about how a famous winery farms? Email them. It’s fantastic how many viticulturists or winemakers will take the time to send a thoughtful response.
The practical section is different. The MW program hosts trade tastings of Bordeaux and Champagne each year in various cities, but this isn’t enough. You must try a huge variety of wines and, for example, be able to tell that a given expression is not only a Pinot Gris but also that it is from New Zealand, spent six months on the lees, and aged two years in 75% new French oak barrels. Then, you must be able to explain how it differs in quality level and path to market from the Oregon Pinot Gris in the next glass. There may be some savants who can do this after trying the wine once. I’m not one of them. There is also a serious financial commitment involved in buying the wines you must familiarize yourself with in order to pass the test. Students in wine-buying positions may receive a wide variety of free samples, but for many, expense can be a barrier.
Thankfully, SommFoundation made a significant difference in my education by enabling me to purchase wines that I couldn’t have afforded on my own and to stock my library with a wider range of bottlings for use in blind tastings. It leveled the playing field, but more importantly, it has given me much-needed encouragement. There are times when I am tired of the program. I would like to spend more time with my family, and I would love to read a book about something besides wine! But the fact that David and Diane Carpenter and SommFoundation see me as a candidate worth investing in is a powerful motivating force. I get support from my family, but there is something about this scholarship that inspires me far beyond the wines that it purchased. It makes me feel as though achieving my goals is possible.
In my application for the scholarship, I mentioned that I have a desire to pay it forward. I enjoy teaching people about wine and am always willing to work with students who are enrolled in the WSET program or other courses. If I can complete the MW journey, I will make a point of being the best mentor I can possibly be to my peers or anyone who is interested in learning about wine. If you have questions about the program, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.