Life as an MW Student


Having successfully completed and taken the WSET Diploma exams several years ago, I’d thought my formal wine studying days were over. A more relaxed, but still professional, approach to wine beckoned- and with no more blind tasting exams! But after a few years I realised that I missed the intellectual rigour of such study and so embarked on the Master of Wine study programme. This is the toughest wine industry qualification, culminating in a marathon of 3 tasting exams (just over 2 hrs each) and 4 written papers (each 3hrs) packed over 4 consecutive days. Now, just over a year into the programme I recently attended a week-long seminar in the Napa Valley, preceded by a few days visiting several wineries. Apart from the curious (and not unpleasant) sensation of studying in warm sunny climes having left London under snow, it was a fascinating, hectic 10 days.

I was joined by a group of fellow European students for the winery visits, which included three that Berrys deals with: Ridge, Ramey and Frog’s Leap. We were lucky enough to be taken round the stunning 2000m altitude Monte Bello estate and winery at Ridge by Paul Draper himself and his winemaker, who between them were happy to shed light on a number of things for us. This included why the site is so good- a geologists dream apparently – formed in such a way that their winery withstood a minor earthquake a few years previously; and the attention to detail in their winemaking, right down to the unpleasant task of checking the corks they buy for TCA (something Mr Draper is happy to leave to others in his team!) – thousands have been sent back to suppliers.

David Ramey has only just acquired vineyards, so buys in grapes from growers he’s known for years, keeping a very close eye on what and how they do things. Even so, tasting with him was fascinating, as much for his views on the wine industry in general as well as the wines themselves.  Frog’s Leap was our last visit just before the seminar began. This organic/sustainable winery is again beautifully situated and showed how it is possible to produce quality, affordable wines in California that aren’t monstrously alcoholic (or sweet) and without resorting to masses of chemicals.

The seminar itself was a pretty packed programme of workshops around the various papers that candidates take – viticulture, viniculture, wine business and ethical/social issues – lectures and mock papers. But the sessions which always cause MW students the most anxiety are the blind tastings.  Each day commenced at 8am with a mock 12-wine tasting paper, followed by a sometimes humbling group feedback session. These not only test your grape recognition abilities but also your winemaking knowledge and the wines’ origin.  This is not always easy with the cross-fertilisation between countries of techniques and styles. An interesting part of doing the MW is meeting and learning from people working in different parts of the wine trade- winemakers, exporters, sommeliers, buyers, importers, journalists etc. – from all over the world.  In summary, a great learning experience during the long haul that is the MW.