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An Exam is Looming
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I got an email this morning from the Master of Wine people, saying that my registration for the Stage 1 Assessment (S1A) is go, go, go. It reminded me me of all the things I need to do and adhere to to make sure that I get to have a crack at the exam on the day.
I thought this week then that I’d give you a quick run down of what is involved in the S1A, because, I have spent quite a bit of time double checking and re-reading it.
I’m prepping the fact that I know pretty much what’s going to happen in advance.
A Train Journey
The Stage 1 Assessment can be taken in London, Napa USA or Adelaide in Australia. As I’m based in Norwich UK, I’ve obviously opted for the London assessment.
If you’re not within a two hour train journey of those places, you’d have to pre-plan international, or long-haul domestic travel, to make sure you arrive in the city or country with a couple of days to get yourself acclimatised.
Some may even say that you need a day or two to get used to London if you live in the UK. I need to be at the registration table in the correct hotel lobby at 9am, so I’m staying down on the evening before. My plan is a quiet night in a hotel I’ve stayed in before*.
I’m planning to stay as close as possible, without staying in the place we’re sitting the exam.
According to the Institute (IMW), once the registration is open, I’ve got until 9.40am to sort that out and find my seat. The exam doesn’t start until 10am, so I’ve got 20 minutes to fill, at least, with worry and fretting, and spilling my water and doodling on my scrap paper, putting my ruler in just the exact right place, and staring at the big digital clock, waiting for the seconds to tick over.
I have to take my own wine glasses. Luckily I won’t get told off for writing all over these ones. I’ll number them in advance with a bright blue sharpie, from 1 to 12. Some people fiddle about with water based chalk markers, others use sticky notes and elaborate numbering systems.
I like to write in something pretty permanent, right on the glasses. Some, if you can believe it, leave them totally blank, and rely on remembering which wine is which based purely on the order they’re in on the table. What if you pick up two, what if you move them around.
Removing the potential for problems is super important. To that end I’ve also bought a whole box of just the right pen that I like to write with. You don’t have to hand-write it, but Ive found over the last few months that I’m considerably quicker, and genuinely able to comfortably complete the answers for 12 wines, if I write it by hand.
The Practical Exam
This is the one that you sit first. 2hrs and 15 minutes to taste, asses and answer questions on 12 wines. That’s 10 minutes per wine, with a few minutes left to double check everything. In reality, that’s 12 minutes for 10 wines and a crazed panic for the last 2.
The S1A Practical exam is a mixed bag, it can include fizz, white, rose, orange, red, fortified and sweet wines in any combination.
My process** is to spend 25 minutes tasting and writing comprehensive notes to all 12 wines. I’ll start with the aromatics, then taste the wines in a sensible order from lightest, to heaviest, to anything that’s obviously sweet. Fizz first, then white, red and anything potentially fortified or sweet.
That is all taking into account the setting of the question. If they’re in groups three or four or five, then I’ll factor in tasting to the question, based on the same broad approach.
Then I’ll spend the rest of the time, ideally without tasting anything again, answering the question ticking off my notes as I go, to make sure all the notes I’ve taken are used in the answers***.
12 wines, 2 hours with 165 marks from 300 required for a Stage 1 pass. Fingers crossed.
I’ll try not to speak to anyone, or mull over the wines, or fret too much about how it went.
I’ll spend the hour re-reading concise theory prep notes, on topics that have come up before, and then double checking topics that I’m not brilliant at, then if I get time, I’ll skim through notes on the bits I’m hopeful might come up****.
The exam is to answer two essay format questions from an choice of three, with one of them mandatory. These are taken from the Stage 2 Exam, across four of the five theory papers.
Worst case scenario is that I know literally nothing about the mandatory question, and that I’m required to spend an hour scraping together as much as I can on something I’m not confident about.
If I can I’ll answer questions on Viticulture (Paper 1) and Business (Paper 4), as that’s where I think I’m the most confident.
The Theory Exam
Two hours, two questions. The plan here is to spend 20 minutes brainstorming and planning the first, mandatory question. Then 20 minutes doing the same for the question I’m most confident about from the other two options.
Then I’ve got 30 minutes per question to write up the essay. 900 words, 30 words per minute. Average typing speed is about 40 by all accounts. I’ll use my laptop for this exam.
Then that should give me 10 minutes for each essay for fixing typos, double checking the facts and fixing any obvious errors.
Then I’m done.
The Institute says this about the S1A:
“The aim of the assessment is to determine your understanding of the requirements of the MW exam and how well you can deliver them.
The S1A allows the IMW to see if you are ready for stage two studies.
Ultimately, markers of the S1A papers look for depth and breadth of knowledge, critical analysis in selecting the relevant points, understanding, a multidisciplinary and global approach and an ability to communicate clearly and convincingly.”
I’ll just do my best, and get out of there, time for a beer. Then I’m going to switch off for the whole of August.
* You better believe I’m going for a Franco Manca, taking a book on something that isn’t wine related and ignoring as many people as possible.
** Honestly, it’s literally just mine, every student has their own process.
*** If you haven’t had a look at previous MW style, practical papers, they’re all free to read
**** I’d have already prepped for those!
An angle from someone who’s actually had a go, Matthew Hayes, written for JancisRobinson.com
Indeed, in my S1A paper I felt my Rivesaltes Tuilé was a fairly decent effort at what turned out to be a 5-year-old Marsala (of which I have now tasted a life total of one); an inspired choice, but wrong. Hopefully, the logic will be justified.
If the pizza place I mentioned sounded interesting, here’s why I’m heading there.
Since opening our first pizzeria in Brixton Market in 2008, we’ve championed slow-rising sourdough pizza and properly sourced, small supplier, seasonal ingredients.
When you eat at Franco Manca, you support people working close to the land. Small farms = Big taste