Tag Archives: MW

Revisiting my Research Paper

When I handed in my MW research paper last June I was more than happy to forget about it for a while. After months of study and endless hours of analysing data and drawing graphs with Excel, it was fantastic to turn that part of my brain off to relax and enjoy the summer. Even once autumn came around and I got the longed-for phone call saying that I had passed, still my research paper spent time metaphorically gathering dust in the depths of my computer memory. But as a bit more time passed I realised that although my paper had achieved its primary goal of making me an MW, it hadn’t actually done any wider good for the industry.

Research papers aren’t automatically published anywhere – and so all the effort I had put in wasn’t actually benefiting anyone. My paper looked at how independent wine merchants use their websites, analysing their e-commerce and/or marketing capabilities – and gave some insights and suggestions for the merchants to look at when updating their websites. I really wanted to pass these learnings on so they could be of some use – and so I could feel that all those months of research had a tangible benefit.

And so the time had come for me to go back to my paper and condense it down into a readable form for an article to be published in The Wine Merchant magazine. After some months of distance from the research I really enjoyed going back to my paper and picking out the key insights. At the time it was all-consuming and so hard to really appreciate, but now I can see just what I got out of it – not only in some interesting and (hopefully) useful research, but also in the new skills I learnt along the way. Sometimes people can assume the third stage of the MW course is the easy bit – well, you’ve got the exams out of the way haven’t you? – but really it is anything but. It requires a very different way of thinking and studying, not to mention being much more lonely as you steadily work your way further and further into your particular subject.

But I would argue that the research paper also gives a huge amount of satisfaction. At the end you have learnt something about wine that perhaps no one knew before – or at least hadn’t done the research to prove that it is so. Being able to pass this new knowledge on to other people in the industry and hopefully help someone somewhere – that is pretty fantastic. And so I was very pleased when my article was published this month and I was finally able to share my findings with the merchants that I researched. I hope that it is of use to them.

If you would like to read the article, you can find it here – just scroll to pages 26-27.


Groundhog day: getting ready to face the MW exams. Again

Possibly the hardest thing about preparing to face my nemesis, the practical exam, is the repetitive emotional roller-coaster of the whole process. It is a ground hog day of early morning study, weekend study, psyche myself up, game face on, 12 wines blind followed by the crushing realisation that, once again, I have got the wines wrong.
As the MW reads out the variety and origin of the wines to a background of fellow candidates hissing ‘yessss’ accompanied by mini fist pumps, the dark clouds gather over my head and a cold feeling of sickness pervades the pit of my stomach. How did I not get that one right?? Again?
Back to my books, back to the endless dry notes, back to the hapless boyfriend/parent/friend pouring me yet another wine blind after a long day at work. Back to climbing out of that dark pit of despondency, analysing my errors, vowing to learn from them and starting that exhausting mental journey back into the sunshine of positive thought.
Last night an MW held a practice tasting for a few of us at his home after work. Deep breath. Here we go again. But last night things were different. Last night I was the one hissing ‘yessss’, certainly not for all of them, but enough for that dark cloud to recede and be replaced by the glimmer of something that at first I struggled to recognise… hope.
I have awoken today to the fledgling feeling of a genuine ‘can do’ attitude. I am not naïve enough to think that this war is won and I know that I am going to be revisited by my dark cloud again many times before I sit the exams in June, but for now I intend to build on this feeling.
And so here we are, days away from the 4 day residential course and the mock exam. And you know what. I am feeling positive.


A Confession

When I started the MW course I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. I knew it would take dedication, time management, determination and hard work and none of these prospects scared me; I have always applied myself to any challenge.  What I didn’t know was that as the course progressed it would reach insidiously into my very core, probing my deepest insecurities and challenging me in ways I have never before been challenged.

It has made me face failure for the first time, not once, but twice and like Damocles sword, the threat of failure again looms large on the horizon. For a perfectionist and a control freak failure doesn’t just mean that you have failed one aspect of a notoriously tough exam, it calls into question your self-worth.  It sounds melodramatic but to fail at the one thing you are ‘supposed to be good at’ is a very difficult mental hurdle to overcome.

My first failure was at my first attempt at the theory and practical exams. I had foregone ‘pleasure’ reading for 9 months and had been getting up at 5am to study every weekday.  I passed theory, but I failed 2 of the 3 practical exams.  I gained no joy in the theory pass, all I could see was the failure.  I persevered, re-enrolled and redoubled my efforts, but deep down I had stopped believing in myself.  When the results came through I had passed 2 of the 3 practical papers, an overall failure.  By this point my marriage had disintegrated into an acrimonious divorce and my father was battling cancer.  I had failed at my studies, I had failed at my marriage and I was worried that in my selfish MW cocoon I was failing as a daughter and a sister as well.

I took a year out and tried running away; I quit my job and moved to the sticks. That didn’t work.  Tormenting ghosts have a habit of following you.  I finally stopped running, both mentally and physically.  I finally began to see that the MW is not about passing or failing, it is about learning and growing.  I had got sucked into an MW bubble where nothing but passing matters and the fear and shame of failure came to dominate everything.  I had forgotten the reason I started this marathon in the first place which was to become a better, more knowledgeable wine professional.

With the help of incredible friends who have trodden the same path as me, albeit at a somewhat quicker pace, and an incredibly talented but more importantly, unbelievably patient mentor I am back in the game and studying to resit in 2016, but for the right reasons. I can now see there is no such thing as failure, I might never be able to put MW after my name, but I will become better at what I love in the process of trying.

This is my confession. My name is Alex.  I have failed. I might fail again.  But failure is subjective and in the end I will succeed.confession

Becoming a Master of Wine

Last Monday was the day I had been waiting for since I handed in my research project back in June – MW results day. After a week of increasingly sleepless nights I awoke early on Monday and waited on tenterhooks for the phone call that would give me the news. Those two hours of waiting and not knowing when the phone would ring were not something I’d like to repeat in a hurry, but in the days of immediate notifications via email it was actually refreshingly special to have to wait for a call.

And then finally the phone did ring and yes, it was Penny, the director of the Institute of Masters of Wine, at the other end. I had been dreading a drawn-out X factor-style wait to hear the results but happily Penny didn’t make me wait any longer and the words “I’m ringing with good news – you passed” were soon ringing in my ears. The rest of the phone call now seems like a bit of a blur. I think there was lots of jumping around the room with an ecstatic grin on my face whilst repeating “thank you, thank you” probably far too many times. It certainly took a while before I realised that (after filling in some paperwork) I could now call myself an MW.

Suddenly the last four years of study, practice tastings, collecting examples, essay writing and research were over. The staying in at weekends to work, not seeing friends and the late-night study sessions were done. Life could return to normal, or whatever normal is when you’re an MW…after some celebrating anyway.

MW results day is always a happy day in the wine trade and twitter is the best place to see the good news roll in – both from students who have passed part of their exams and also from the newly minted MWs. This year was like no other, and I shall never forget it for the constant dinging of my phone as messages poured in – and the excitement of finding out who else had passed. By the end of the day the final number was announced: 19 new MWs – taking the total to 340. A tiny number really – and significantly less than the 536 people who have ever been into space. Yes, we MWs (yes, I can say that now!) are a rarer breed than astronauts.

The past week has flown by in a flurry of congratulatory emails, messages and tweets combined with cracking open some fantastic bottles of wine and generally revelling in it all. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have got in touch to wish me well, as I’m sure have my fellow new MWs.

It is fair to say I don’t think I have stopped smiling since I received the phone call – it has been a good week. And yet, I have to admit to a small amount of sadness that I am not sharing this moment with my fellow monkeys. It perhaps was always a pie-in-the-sky idea that we all might pass together, but it would have been wonderful. Sadly life gets in the way sometimes – but equally I know it won’t be too long before an MW results day gives more happy news for the monkeys. Lenka has to make a few amendments to her research paper before resubmitting in December. And after taking a year out Alex is back in the programme and sitting the tasting paper – with the research paper surely not far behind.

So I know my passing is just the first in what will be a hat-trick of wine monkey MWs. I can’t wait.


For the full list of new MWs:


D-Day approaches

September has arrived and that means just one thing for any MW student – results day is just around the corner. For Lenka and I it is a bigger date than any previously. Next Monday, September 7, we will each get a phone call to let us know whether we have passed the final stage of the course and so if we are able to put those two little letters after our names. MW. So, not just any Monday then.

It is now over two months since we both handed our research papers in – something that no small amount of blood, sweat and tears had gone into. In my case, over 9000 carefully written and re-written words interspersed with any number of tables and graphs was finally deemed ready for submission and with a deep breath ‘send’ was pressed on the email.

The summer since then has been spent trying to forget about it as much as possible, or at least put it to the back of our minds. Being able to read fiction novels again and not have to spend weekends working was certainly a much-appreciated novelty. But now as D-Day looms ever closer I find that my thoughts are inevitably turning to next Monday, and certainly if my dreams are anything to go by then my subconscious is very much aware of what lies ahead.

Of course we have to feel hopeful – we both worked our socks off to get our research papers finished – but that hope is also tempered by no small amount of nerves and worry. Not in the least because we are true guinea pigs – our year is the first year for the new research paper, meaning it was very hard to know with any certainty exactly what the examiners wanted. So whilst we and our mentors were happy with what we submitted, who knows if that meets the markers’ criteria.

And then beyond the worry about not passing and either having to make a load more changes to our papers or (worst case scenario) having to start from scratch is another thought – what happens if we do pass and become MWs? What comes next?

Only time will tell. T minus 6 days and counting…..


The magic of old vines – one for the geeks

I was lucky enough to attend an Old Vine Seminar put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine last week. It was interesting on many levels, the speakers were engaging and the 13 wines spoke volumes about the sort of complexity and intensity that one can expect from old vines. The moderator, Nancy Gilchrist MW, set criteria for inclusion as being wines made from vines 80 years of age or older.  The speakers were from South Africa, Spain, California and Australia and so (with the exception of a Greek Assyrtiko) were the wines.

So, what is it about old vines that makes them produce such high quality wine? According to Rosa Kruger, viticulturist from South Africa, it is their structure rather than their root system (the thick stems and wood provide apt reserves to keep them going) and the fact that the vines produce only the amount of grapes the climate allows them to. Old vines are generally better at preserving acidity and don’t rely on irrigation much, therefore are able to thrive in dry climates such as we can see in the Barossa in Australia. Their leaves don’t wilt as easily, which is better for photosynthesis and the vines stay fresher and greener and also build more disease resistance. Although how disease resistant a vine is depends very much on the variety, also. Australian winemaker Dean Hewitson has a great example of this – his 160 year old Mourvedre is thriving in his Old Garden vineyard whilst neighbouring Shiraz vines of a similar age suffer from eutypa dieback and botrytis.

There is no doubt that old vines are capable of producing serious, dense, mineral wines but, to be honest, the budding MW in me was looking for a counterargument. It never came. The seminar was an ode to old vines. And whilst this is completely on my wavelength and I definitely worship at the altar of old vines, I can’t help but mention some examples of where ‘quality equals old vines’ does not compute. There aren’t many, but some high profile producers have differing opinions. Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most famous winery, famously rip out and replant vines once they’ve reached 60 years. This is because these older vines become more susceptible to disease and produce bad fruit. Equally, the average age of vines that comprise Chateau Lafite is 45 years. Considered a baby by Barossa standards. Much like Vega, Lafite replant vines once they’ve reached 80 years, for similar reasons.  Some of the greatest and most famous wines ever produced were made from young vines. Take the example of the famous 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet which won the Judgement of Paris tasting 1976 and put Californian wine on the map. It was made from 3 year old vines. And, from what I am told, it is still going strong.  I haven’t tried it though we do have the ‘74 in our cellar, which I look forward to trying soon!

Here are some interesting notes and observations I made, some you may know and some you may not:

          The oldest vineyard in the world is in Maribor, Slovenia and the vines are 400 years old

          The oldest vine still living in South Africa was planted in 1781 and produces 20 litres of wine

          Old vines don’t necessarily mean low yields – there are 80 year old Sultana vines in South Africa that yield 40 000 tonnes/hectare

          Old vines don’t respond well to shoot thinning and green harvest so this is often not necessary

          Spain, which has the highest amount of old vine Garnacha in the world, has gone from

189 000 ha in 2000 to 69 000 ha now, thanks to the EU vineyard grub up schemes.

In 1912 there were 44 varieties grown in Rioja, now there are only 7.

The wines shown at the seminar were:

1.       Assyrtiko de Mylos, Domaine Hatzidakis, Santorini 2011 (here the vines are woven into a basket to protect them from the fierce winds). I prefer the 2012 vintage of this wine, sampled recently at Vinoteca with my fellow monkeys, but I do love its saline, nutty, volcanic goodness and chalky texture.

2.       Soldaat Grenache, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (100% whole bunch, completely unoaked and made without additions aside from a small amount of SO2). Very elegant and restrained wine with lovely red fruit expression.

3.       T’Voetpad Field Blend white, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (Semillon, Semillon Gris, Palomino and Chenin, 108 year vineyard). This blew my mind with its aromatic, mineral and chalkboard nose and beautiful juicy mouthfeel with a touch of maltiness and a cantaloupe melon and waxy finish.

4.       Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent Semillon, South Africa 2004 This was quite evolved already with butterscotch and nuts, though still had the waxy lemon and lanolin texture. Probably my least favourite wine though.

5.       El Puno Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain 2009 Made by the flying Scotsman and one of the speakers, Norrel Robertson MW, I liked its sweet spice and strawberry scented fruit, fresh acidity and granular tannins and the anise finish.

6.       Pena El Gato Garnacha, Rioja Alta, Spain 2011 (14 m in large oak) This was cedary and savoury in the mount with a bitter chocolate tone and some fennel on the finish. Food wine for sure.

7.       Flor de Silos, Cillar de Silos, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2005 I am biased as I did vintage here in 2011 but this is made by lovely people and it’s ridiculously complex and young still. There is very little evolution here showing this has miles ahead of it with its finely grained tannins and fresh ,plummy fruit.

8.       Numanthia, Toro, Spain 2009 (recently bought by LVMH) This wasn’t my bag, big with with a dried fruit character, liquorice and a lot of oak evident. Concentrated though very ripe with a fig and date character and high alcohol.

9.       Old Hill Zinfandel, Ravenswood, California 2008 Pleasure in a bottle. Not ashamed of itself and we all loved it for it. Quintessentially American flavours with cherry cola notes , sweet liquorice but this beautiful raspberry chocolate note that carried through to the finish and gave it freshness.

      To Kalon I Block Napa Fume Blanc, Robert Mondavi, California 2010 For someone, who doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc unless it’s oaked, this was a delight with its lemon butter and passion fruit cream flavours  with a little vanilla and subtle grassy overtones.

11.   Elderton Command Shiraz, Barossa, Australia 2009 Made by the lovely people from the Ashmead family from vines planted in 1894. This has vibrant acidity and a spicy, peppery profile with blackberry juice flavours and the sweetness of American oak.

12.   Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, Barossa, Australia 2010 Best vintage of Old Garden I have tasted to date and it’s the vintage we have this to thank for. This is normally very  intense and black-fruited but the 2010 has beautiful, seductive perfume and a red fruit profile with a touch of Chinese five spice.  Gotta put some away!

 Lenka (Evil Monkey)