Happy New Year and greetings from my “snowbird” vacation to southern FL!
I was recently contacted by Kathleen Lisson, a fellow Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Wine Century Club member. Kathleen has started a blog post about tips and approaches for studying for the challenging CSW exam, and asked me to participate by adding my studying tips.
I’ve written about the CSW and other wine certifications before, but had not really detailed my CSW experience. I nearly botched the approach to the CSW exam completely, so I thought I’d write a post in response to Kathleen’s request, so that any readers out there who are contemplating sitting the CSW exam have an idea of what not to do to pass it…
First, a bit of background: I put off the CSW exam for nearly a year. I had intended to sit the exam in Philadelphia in April, and life “got in the way” as they say. Because the Society of Wine Educators (who oversee the exam and certification) administer the exams throughout the U.S., I needed to wait until they sat another CSW exam close to home. That meant waiting until October to take the exam in D.C.
I never ordered the CSW study materials from the SWE. October was fast approaching, and I’d not studied consistently since April. I was definately setting the stage for being totally screwed on this exam.
At the 11th hour, I got a bit smarter about my approach: as a paid member in good standing of the SWE, I had access to their on-line wine academy, which has excellent information and practice exams for the CSW. I crammed, hitting the on-line wine academy hard, taking every pre- and post-test and the CSW practice exam. I took notes along the way and highlighted the areas that gave me trouble during the practice tests, and revisited those to make sure I was more comfortable with that material prior to the exam.
I had one other decent idea before the big exam day arrived: the weather forecast for D.C. was excellent, so I treated myself to a stay in D.C. (using hotel points). I had dinner at the same restaurant where the CSW (and the more difficult Certified Wine Educator exam) was being held the next day, so I could get familiar with the exam area. So I was able to take a potentially stressful situation and have some fun with it, which dialed down the stress considerably for me.
Come exam day, I felt great, well-fed, and well-rested (being able to sleep just a block or two away at a nice hotel). Unfortunately, the exam started late due to a fire at the SWE building location, but thanks to my low stress level that didn’t phase me too much. When I received my exam results a few weeks later, I was flabbergasted – I did not just pass, but did really well.
I suppose the moral of this story is, if you’re going to sit the CSW:
- Join the SWE (professional membership will run you about $125 per year) and take advantage of the on-line CSW prep. materials – they’re excellent and some of the exam questions were very, very close to the practice exam questions offered on the SWE on-line academy.
- Those without any prior wine certifications should consider ordering the CSW study materials. Because the CSW exam questions are of similar difficulty to the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Advanced exam questions, I had a leg up having already sat the WSET exam. But if I’d not had that prior exam experience, I might not have passed the CSW.
- Just as you would for any difficult test, prepare beforehand and relax the night before. Get a good night’s sleep, and you just might end up looking forward to the test (sort of) the next day!
Happy Holidays to all, and greetings from sunny FL!
A (very) quick update on my last post regarding low-sulfite wines, just to prove I’m not totally biased against all organic / biodynamic wines!
I’ve come across a few other quality wines (featured in body + soul magazine) that I’ve recently learned are either organically or biodynamically made (or both), and that I’ve found to be of good quality…
Thought I’d take a brief moment during my holiday respite to share these wine finds with you. Hope that anyone looking for low-sulfite wines (that don’t also totally suck!) will find this helpful:
- Bonterra Vineyards – Most of their wines are organic, and they make at least one decent wine that’s also biodynamic.
- Fetzer – All organic, with a big focus on recycling during production and distribution.
- Frey – Both organic & biodynamic, and vegan to boot!
- Quintessa – Fully biodynamic since 2005; probably the most fabulous biodynamic wine you’ll find out there, but you’ll pay for it!
My sister (a chemist) recently sent me an e-mail requesting some wine advice:
"I've got a friend at work who has been looking for a sulfite-free wine. Do you know of any that are any good?"
My answer: “Nope.”
Not that a sulfite-free wine might not be any good, it’s just that right now, sulfite-free wines are like governments that don’t tax – they don’t exist!
Why this is has a lot to do with chemistry (lucky for me my sis is a chemist!). Which is one of the many splendid things when it comes to learning about wine – wine exposes you not just to the sensory pleasures of drinking it, but to the art/magic of constructing a good one along with the chemistry, agriculture, geography, and geology that go into making good wine. Lucky for you Dude has already done his homework in these areas (otherwise he’d have failed all those pesky wine certification exams…), so you don’t have to!…
But before we delve into the chemistry, let’s examine a bit of background on the whole wine / sulfite thang:
My sister’s coworker has reason to be concerned about sulfites, if that coworker is allergic to them. That’s because for those people, having exposure to sulfites in drinks and food can cause a severe (and in very rare cases fatal)asthmatic reaction.
But before you start pouring all of your fine wine down the sink drain, you should know that only 0.01% – 01.0% of the U.S. population is estimated to be allergic to sulfites (probably fewer than 1 in 100 people).
If you’re even an occasional wine drinker, chances are that you’ve heard the rumor that sulfites in wine cause headaches. Despite being popular in the rumor mill, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that ‘wine headaches’ are caused by sulfites. In face, if you do get headaches when drinking wine, chances are higher that the headache could be a reaction to any of several esters (flavor compounds) that occur naturally in wine.
Chances are greater still that you simply have a hangover (so drink more water next time, my party-loving friend, or – egads! – drink less wine).
Now back to the chemistry – sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process (so you probably are exposed to them in some beers, soy sauces, and other fermented liquids). The amount produced naturally is pretty small – anywhere from 6 to 40 ppm (parts per million). PPM is roughly equivalent to 1 milligram of something in 1 liter of water. Another way to think about it – 1 ppm is about 4 drops of ink in a 55 gallon barrel of water. Dangerous if you’re talking about arsenic, but not so much when you’re talking sulfites.
U.S. government regulations stipulate that wines containing 10 ppm or more of sulfites need to display a warning on the bottle, in order to alert consumers that are allergic to sulfites. Since more than 10 ppm are created during fermentation, and given that the labels don’t have to specify the amount of sulfites the wine contains, that pretty much means every bottle of wine needs to carry the warning – effectively making the warning a bit useless and confusing consumers that may not be allergic to sulfites but want to buy wine that has minial sulfite content.
Sulfites are also added during the winemaking process, which can up the ppm of the sulfites in your wine (the U.S. government allows up to about 300+ ppm). Why do winemakers do this? They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years – the first historical record of its use in winemaking is from a royal German decree in 1487 – in order to kill bacteria, prevent browning of wine form oxidation, and to help stabilize the finished wine. The 1487 decree specifies use of about 19 ppm of sulfer, which according to wine writer Hugh Johnson (in his Story of Wine)is an “improbably low” amount.
Some winemakers – mostly those making biodynamic / organic wines – deliberately avoid adding any additional sulfities (beyond those naturally produced during fermentation, of course). My personal thoughts on the current low quality of most organic & biodynamic wines aside, there are some quality producers out there who are trying to make great wines biodynamically, which are also ‘lower-sulfite’ wines (usually 100 ppm or less). A fine example is Frog’s Leap – lower on sulfites, big on taste, and good for the environment to boot.
A final word of caution – when shopping for ‘low-sulfite’ wines, don’t expect to find a long list of great-tasting options. So when you find a few that you do like, stick with ’em!
Those looking for a bit more on the topic of sulfites in wine should check out this handy reference from UC Davis.
You may not guess it from the sky-high prices of the top Bordeaux chateaus (some fetching in excess of $1000 USD per bottle – and presumably on allocation to those who can afford their own islands), but the European wine market has been in trouble for a few years.
With labels that many international consumers find confusing, and laws that restrict varietals, winemaking conditions, grape production, and dictate what techniques can be used by winemakers, EU (aka “Old World”) producers have been searching for the magic formula that will allow them to better compete with their “New World” counterparts…
While many producers in the EU have strong ‘brands’ (mostly linked to the most famous of their chateaus), countries like the United States, Australia, Chile, and Canada have stronger marketing, cheaper land, and encourage more innovative vineyard and winemaking practices by having far fewer restrictions on their production. Which is why, in the cheaper wine department, these countries are taking the traditional EU wine countries to the cleaners in the marketplace – and cheaper, everyday wine is, by far, the largest volume of wine produced and sold in the world today. And now EU producers are getting handed their lunch as wine sales of producers in their own countries are falling as the onslaught of New World wine marketing hits their shores.
The stakes are not insignificant – wine has accounted for over 5% of the EU’s agricultural output, employing about 1.5 million people.
So, what can the EU do about it? Presumably, they can argue. EU farm ministers have proposed some progressive steps, but some countries still don’t want to play ball, and are stymieing the process. Which is a shame – those countries may wine the battle, but without some sort of compromise, can the EU hope to wine the wine War?
Updated Dec. 19 – Looks like the answer may be ‘Yes’ – see more details in the news here.