April seventh. Test day. Three days before my birthday in 2018, I rose early in the stillness of the morning, just before 5 a.m. in time to welcome the first light of day. The valley skies were slate grey and an iconic fog bank had begun its withdrawal over the Napa river outside my hotel balcony. Waking at the stir of my nervous energy, it was unbeknownst to me at the time that this would be the most peaceful moment the entire day and weeks ahead that I would find myself in.
This indulgent pursuit of formal wine knowledge is the first great thing I have elected to do for myself in many years. Because of that, I find myself unreasonably protective of this endeavor. The importance of success in this was as palpable as any major milestone in my life to date, and as I began to driving to the Wine Academy thinking I was as “ready as I’ll ever be”, a shortness of breath and impossible tightness in my chest set in. It gave birth to an inner dialogue of self doubt and questioning which rose within me like an unannounced visitor to my home. Attempts to reason with this uninvited guest were admittedly unsuccessful as the conversation turned to consoling myself, preparing to fail. Even a year of wine study, pouring over countless books, devoting every free weekend to mock exams, deep diving vast wine materials, and drafting hundreds of flashcards could not keep my fear of failure at bay. It was that important to me. Just when I felt small enough to quit, it was time to park the car and walk in the door.
My phone buzzed just as I arrived at the Wine Academy with the most timely words of support and encouragement from family. The kindness of such support and belief of loved ones allowed me to take my place in the room. With a smile on my face, the words of a supportive friend came to mind, and I reminded myself that “champions rise” and that “level 2 was next”. Welcome to your WSET Level 1 Award in Wines classroom course, in the heart of Napa, California. I literally am, and was, living the dream.
We began the day with introductions, wherein each student stated their occupation and motive for attending the course, along with their name. In a room full of wine industry professionals, wine brand employees, winemakers, service and hospitality professionals, executive chefs, students on the master track, students who had already completed the Intro Course with the CMS, I sheepishly introduced myself as a Legal Marketer by day, and a wine enthusiast by night. I was one of only two people present who were outside the wine industry and have never been so relieved to share a classroom with a Certified Public Accountant before that day. Our tables were set lecture style, and after introductions concluded the coursework began from section three of our guides. Right out of the gate just like a working wine professional, there I was in dialogue over the tasting and pairing exercises. We cycled through nine wines with various flavor profiles and were required to note findings on a tasting grid using the WSET Wine-Lexicon to define appearance, nose, palate, quality, aroma and flavor characteristics of each wine. After tasting, we covered proper storage and service, the noble varietals, the winemaking process, the styles and types of wines, and discussion of facts on the various wine regions of the world. After missing ONE question on the practice exam, I began to feel my Level 1 Certification was finally within reach!
We were instructed to remove everything from our tables with the exception of a pencil and some water. We were required to shuffle seating throughout the room arranging seats no less than three feet apart of each other. The Course Administrator opened the packages of our exam booklets right in front of us, read the exam rules, and before passing out the sealed exams to each of us, declared us under “official exam conditions.”
Students were required to remain seated for 15 minutes after completion of our exams, regardless of the time we took to complete the exam. No talking. I eagerly tore the sealed exam booklet open and voraciously read the first question, almost as if I was going to forget the correct answers if I didn’t start with such fervor. And then, question 7 happened just as I had started to fly. Underscoring and moving on, I began to count the number of additional questions wherein I was uncertain of the accuracy of my response. At the end of the exam, when it was my time to rise and leave, I sincerely left thinking had I missed each of the underscored questions, I would be on the very cusp for passing. I knew for a fact there was more than one question I had missed on the exam, and as soon as I buckled my seatbelt in I was already looking up future exam dates should I be forced to retake due to failure. It took me an entire week to shake it off and accept the results, as they came, regardless of outcome.
Results in hand, today I only await receipt of my official certificate and pin, having passed the Level 1 Award in Wines. So sweet were the words:
“Reyna, you may now count yourself amongst an exclusive group of wine professionals that are certified through Napa Valley Wine Academy and The Wine & Spirits Educational Trust in London. Please note, your official WSET Candidate number is . . . .”
You best believe that I cried real, hot, ugly tears of happiness. I am spending the remainder of the spring enjoying not stressing over wine exams, but that begs to ask: what say you for the future of The Client Bar?
I see no option other than scheduling and start preparing for Level 2. You will also see an increase in wine reviews, and maybe some professional branding coming soon. Next destinations for wine exploration will be the regions of the Finger Lakes in New York in June, and Lord willing the Italian wine region of Tuscany in August. The Client Bar will culminate this landmark year with the planning and launching of our first invitation-only wine event this fall for clients here in Dallas, Texas.
When I think back to the holiday of 2016, and the polarizing moments of life in the years before that which steered me here, I am nothing but thankful. It hurts when something breaks. But as it turned out in my case, breaking stagnant patterns of old in order to lay the bricks of wisdom collected over the last several years for a new path has taught me the importance of creating life based on the needs of MY own truth. Even IF it took me 40 years to learn it, its been the most valuable lesson of my life.