Passing the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

The Math and Market of Wine . . .

Mr. Erol Senel broadcasts one of my favorite podcasts right now, the “I Digress” podcast.  I listen to new releases on Mondays and find his love for wine is a common sentiment that he and I share, but beyond that we share an affinity for the motivational.  “I Digress” is focused on telling the stories of people who as Erol puts it, “get shit done”.  It was his insightful podcast about Dave Phinney, winemaker at Orin Swift which drew me in and left me wanting more.

In my online wine wanderings, after the podcast finished, I went looking for more on Dave and his somewhat accidental, runaway success that was his creation of  “The Prisoner” blend which he sold in 2010 to Huneeus Vitners.  I was aware of the sale to Huneeus and Dave’s respectable motives behind it, but Huneeus basically treated his creation like a real estate property flipper and sold to Constellation Brands for a whopping price tag.  I found myself suffering a bit of a mixed reaction.

“The move is the latest high-profile acquisition in a buying spree by Constellation. In November, the company purchased San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing for $1 billion, three months after it bought Meiomi from Napa vintner Joe Wagner for $315 million.  As with the Meiomi purchase, the Prisoner Wine Company deal includes only a brand — no vineyards. These staggering brand prices suggest a significant departure from the model that has long dominated the wine industry, in which land carries the greatest capital.  “Our goal is to be a leader in the premium U.S. wine market and to continue to premium-ize our portfolio, and ‘super luxury’ is one of the fastest growing segments in the category,” said Bill Newlands, president of Constellation’s wine and spirits division.”

Link to SF Chronicle article found here.

Bravely, I share that The Constellation Brands model in my opinion is gravely sterilizing our restaurant wine options.  The delivery power of great wine to the masses is very important, and I appreciate that every story has two sides; a pro and con is always to be found.  But my frustration with this model comes from a heavy feeling that I can’t shake – I read the same wine list at so many +four star restaurants and don’t appreciate the lack of small producer representation, thanks to the umbrella brand of companies like Constellation. I treasure the wine programs at family owned dining rooms on Spring Street in Paso Robles, California or learning of tiny new labels while traversing the valley floor in Napa, prompting a pull to the side of a road because of the spotted gem of an unrecognizable vineyard.  It is hard for me to hate what Constellation Brands is doing, but it is easy to see these people aren’t winemakers, but money-making wine pimps from New York who don’t even hold a wine glass by its stem! They are bowl fondling businessman capitalizing our wine passions right to the bank, because those savages know this: there is money in it.  And like any market, the wine market is no different in that people buy for the brand, they don’t always buy to appreciate the creation.  When did a wine label become more valuable than the land the grapes are harvested on?

What pray tell, shall I do now with my concious?  How to … is it right to … enjoy it all?  Most people won’t care, but I have to.

To resolve this, I have reconciled myself to wine education and appreciation of history.  Understand what is family owned from the land to the label, and what is conglomerate owned.  Know what you are buying when you are buying it.  TRUST YOUR SOMMS.  TALK TO YOUR SOMMS.  Are you buying a bottle brand that is simply recognizable but you don’t know the story? Are you surprised that Paso Robles produces world-class Rhone style reds but you don’t see much of the Paso footprint in national wine programs?  Are you like me, constantly missing the taste of Washington wines unless you’re standing in Woodinville?  Please pay attention to the 750s coming out of regions other than the 16 AVAs in Napa or big label brands.  Seek the story, then buy your brand.  With that shift in approach, I suggest dear readers, that your entire wine experience will be in Technicolor.

 

Excerpt from “Secrets of the Sommeliers”

Inspiration

ON: BECOMING A SOMMELIER

“Much like their forebears, few of today’s top U.S. Sommeliers came into the restaurant business planning to do what they are currently doing. But a common factor binds them now: a passion for wine that almost defies description.  Both their professional lives and their personal lives are centered around wine.  Their friends are wine drinkers.  They base meals not around what’s in the refrigerator, but around what they want to drink that night [authors note: guilty of same, nearly 100% of my meal planning time].  They routinely talk with one another about wine and read wine magazines in their spare time.  They travel to wine-growing regions on their vacations and spend their own hard-earned money collecting the very bottles that they open and serve every night.  Thus, the first step toward becoming a sommelier is to identify your passion for wine.  It need not be a lifelong passion, but it must be driving.”

~ Rajat Parr, Master Sommelier, Winemaker, Wine Director for Mina Restaurant Group, Partner/Proprietor, Sandhi and Partner/Proprietor, Domaine de la Côte

I identify so strongly with this writing, and often worry that I bore those around me who don’t draw such joy and obsession from wine as I do.  Call me a nerd, consider my pursuits foolish, fail to understand, maybe judge from your vantage points and wine experience.  Validation exists for me the moment I am moved to do crazy things like write this blog, maintain this site, pursue Sommelier status while not working in the field, cite this work and identify it to my passion.  Consider me, thrilled.

Elegance, Success, and Tears at Table 65

“Your smile is your logo, your personality is your business card, how you leave others feeling after having an experience with you, becomes your trademark.”

I cannot credit those words to any particular person but I wish I knew who first said them.  They are the truth of my personal ethos for success in business.  Fancy dinners, considerate wine choices, expensive gifts emblazoned with corporate logos, flashy buzzwords, [and really] all things aside, authenticity can not be forced.  It is needed from every level of your organization, from every entree on the table, from every soul  and every touchpoint present in the intersection of your dealings.  When it happens, and everyone shows up – the synergy of winning takes flight.    

One look at this table and I thought, where else would I want to spend an evening with my colleagues and precious clients?  Avant Table 65 inside the Rancho Bernardo Inn is set behind glass doors at the entry of the restaurant, so you feel a bit like shiny salt water fish in an aquarium.   Notably, the prized feature is the circular table located inside a professional chefs kitchen. Regardless of how large the private space behind glass walls was, the feel is surprisingly intimate and we quickly forgot for the night that we were fishes being gawked at. Offering personal time with the service team, prix fixe personalized menus, a dining space separate from restaurant floor noise, it was the ideal location to host clients for what turned out to be the most fun business dinner that any of us had ever had.  We hooted, we hollered, we plotted April Fool’s jokes, we lingered over two hours to our delight.  More below, but first, the wine:

A quick survey of my guest preferences at Table 65, and with guidance of the Sommelier onsite at Avant, I was led to select an organic, light bodied red wine against the California fusion fare that Avant specializes in.  I expected all the perfumed aroma, translucent color, ripe fruit, easy body, and cool climate cranberry that I got from my table pleasing bottle of Penner Ash Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley.   The northwest wine region of the United States is characterized by fruit forward wines, and if you associate Cab as King in Napa, you can deduct that Pinot Noir is King to the Willamette Valley.   If you’re ever in position to select wine for a table of people, Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, but a beautiful wine with wide appeal; a safe choice for anyone new or old to the spectrum of red wine.  A number of my guests had fish entrée meal preferences at the table, everybody having wine wanted red, and I had one specific request for organic wine, so the Penner Ash fit the bill nicely.

Generally pleasing, the disposition of Pinot Noir is like your easy-going, no drama best friend, who is reliable and can always be counted upon when meeting new friends for the first time.  The Penner Ash has no stage fright either; the bottle appeared on stage at appetizers through to desert and was a crowd pleaser until the end.  A last-pour, standing ovation came during the encore performance – a vanilla bean salted caramel cheesecake adorned with pumpkin puree.

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Avant Wine Cellar Looking Into Table 65

Now that the technical of wine is aside, I must apologize.  Apologize for having TOO MUCH FUN at dinner so much that I can’t articulate the magic in fairness to you or to the quality of time spent crying tears of laughter at dinner that night.  We ended up staging pranks in the parking lot, traveling the property like a college frat house.  If I ask for time with my clients at dinner, it is time away from their families, it is time away from their regular resting patterns, time that deserves the respect and effort of forging a real bond with them.   Wine and excellent food alone cannot do the trick.  You have to bring YOU to the table, and I think that is the ultimate secret of the best Sommeliers.  The search for business relevance is constantly on my mind when it comes to my professional, non-wine student life.  Finding success in the boardroom is much like finding success at a dinner where your guests are your clients.  You can’t fake your way through a wine list any more than you can fake your way through a sales pitch, or an investigative deep dive into mutual business operations.

Winning at both business, and business dinners, involves the crafting of a client experience that matches their needs, tastes, and preferences, with your talents, your understanding, and a strong individuality of your personal brand.

Take the time.  Master that.  And above all else, have FUN.  Enjoy the souls you share your table with!

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