Monday, March 21, 2016

And the Teacher Becomes the Student—Taking the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam

            I’m a geek.  No, really.  I am.  I love knowledge.  It is probably one of the main reasons I have been a teacher for 18 years—I love to learn. 
            Studying in college was hard, especially because I had children when I completed my undergraduate degree, yet I truly enjoyed the work.
            I went on to get a master’s degree.  Again, the workload was difficult, mostly because I was a full-time teacher with a family while doing this.
            Then I found wine.  The newest field of study was wide open to me…and what a wide world it was.  The more I learned about wine, the more I knew there was to learn about wine.  The vast amount of information to know was unreal; it still boggles my mind a little.
            However, I am proud to announce that I did reach one milestone in my wine education:  I passed the Certified Specialist of Wine exam.  Since I am a total nerd, I decided to share my study process.  Not that I am an expert in wine just yet—because again, I know how much more there is to learn—but I do consider myself an expert on education.  I hope to help someone else become a complete wine geek.

            Step one:  determining the right road.  There are multiple avenues to take for wine education.  The first step is to decide which one of the avenues to take.  I chose the Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators.  There were several reasons for this.  I live in a very remote part of the country—the Black Hills of Wyoming—in a town with just over 3,000 people, so options were limited.  The SWE had an online class option which I took this fall and found the “classroom” atmosphere very helpful. However, I still did several months of self-study after the class, as well as having studied different regions of the world on my own over the years.
            In addition to the option to have class companions, SWE also allowed the test to be proctored at any Pearson Vue testing center. Again, this was incredibly important for me.  Instead of having to find a class and test date that I may have had to take off work or travel thousands of miles to attend, I could study on my own and test nearby.  This ultimately gave me the flexibility to squeeze this coursework in my crazy, busy schedule as a mom, teacher, city council member, and part-time wine educator. 
            The Certified Specialist of Wine may not be the route others should take, though.  The Court of Master Sommeliers (which I did pass the intro level in 2013) is a great option for people already in the business or interested in restaurant service. The blind tasting and service portions of the exam are rigorous, and unless one is in the industry, it might be difficult to practice.  Also, exams are given only at certain times and in certain locations, not always fitting some schedules.  The Wine and Spirits Education Trust has multiple levels of education, as well.  But again, classes are only in specific places on specific dates, so for some, this is a difficult task.  I would have loved either of these options, as well, if they would have worked in my schedule.
            I also want to give a shout out to where I started my formal wine education:  the International Wine and Spirits Guild of Denver, Colorado.  I spent nine days straight, eight hours a day, prepping for a written and service test.  It was a wonderful first step and did earn me a sommelier certification.  I always equated this certification to the CFL (Canadian Football League), while The Court would be the NFL (National Football League). I learned the same information, it just wasn’t as prestigious a title.  However, IWSG now has classes in other parts of the country, giving some flexibility if one lives in the right area.  These classes can be taken on their own or used as a study program to prepare for other certifications, as well.
            Step two:  finding how to study. For many adults, studying is hard, mostly because it has been many years since they have had to do this on a serious level and because they hold full-time jobs with many other responsibilities, like families, homes, bills, etc.   Ultimately, good learning takes time, so creating time is the first step in studying.
            One reason it takes so much time is repetition is incredibly important.  First, get the study materials for whichever test chosen.  This usually includes some sort of text book or study guide.  Read.  Read every page of every chapter.  But have a purpose for reading.  First, read any chapter objectives that might be provided.  Then read actively by taking notes while reading.  Pause frequently to summarize.  My favorite method is on sticky notes placed in the book.  However, handwritten notes on notebook paper or typed notes also work.  (Using this technique, you just went through the information twice.)
            After active reading and note taking while reading, review the materials.  This can be done by rewriting/retyping the notes, creating a study guide, and/or responding to the information.  (Now you’ve had the information at least three times.)
            Next, create study materials for deep study, such as flash cards or sample tests.  I prefered flash cards because these can be taken anywhere, allowing for study on the couch, at the doctor’s office, or in the car.  My favorite place to study my flash cards was actually on the treadmill while walking/jogging.  No personal trainer is going to say this is okay, but you aren’t focused on getting in shape right now, you are focused on wine study!  Also, there is a lot educational research that says movement while memorization actually helps the entire process.  (Now you’ve reviewed the information four times, five times…a hundred times!)

            For deep study, I chose a country or concept every week (wine production one week, southern hemisphere the next) and skipped material I felt I already knew (like service since I already passed an actual service exam).  Then the final week, I purchased the workbook that accompanied the CSW text.  This was perhaps the most important step.  Every day I focused on one section each evening, working through the exercises and answering the quizzes.  This helped me do a final focus of concepts I may have overlooked.  The workbook also gave me an idea of what the SWE thought was most important. 

            Step three:  taking the test.  On to the way to the testing center, I actually tried to relax and listen to some of my favorite music.  (Keep in mind, my trip to the testing center was a “mere” two and a half hours—I mentioned the remote area in which I live, right?)  I did study a few ideas I thought may be helpful for one last look, like a review of all the French info, just because there was so darn much! 
Then I checked in for the test.  This included presenting two forms of photo id, scanning both my palms three different times, removing all jewelry except my wedding ring, and turning out my pockets to prove nothing was in them.  I was giving one laminated piece of paper and a wet-erase marker before entering my cubicle.  The noise-canceling headphones actually proved helpful, and after taking my time with the instructions, the hour-long test started. 
I worked through all the questions, flagging any about which I wasn’t 100 percent sure. After this, I went back to each flagged question; there were 17. After rereading and contemplating the answers, most were good, educated guesses.  However, there were nine about which I still wasn’t sure.  I had ample time left, so I went back and read all the other questions again, taking my full hour allotted for the exam.   There was no need to rush.

Step four:  getting the results.  Another benefit of this exam was the instant feedback.  After checking out of the testing room with my photo id and a palm scan, I presented my identification to receive my score:  92 percent!  I found it pretty ironic that it was basically the score that I had predicted based on the answers I did not know.  Several of the questions with which I struggled dealt specifically with geography; I knew this was one of my weaknesses and an area which I should have studied more…if only there had been more time!

My geekiness paid off, yet again, as I applied my teacher tendencies to myself instead of to my day job.  The study skills I preached to students were not only useful, they were absolutely necessary to pass the Certified Specialist of Wine exam, a test that covers the breadth of the wine world in depth.  I was quite proud of my score, but then I instantly wished I would have studied even more and missed fewer. Yep, such a nerd.  
I hope this helps any other wine lovers become a certified nerd too. Happy studying! 

Monday, March 14, 2016

More March Madness--Oregon Wineries

            It’s that time of year again.  The time when people go a little crazy.

On Sunday, sports fans everywhere waited with baited breath as they watched ESPN to fuel their craziness.  Instantly, they began planning their brackets, deciding who would win, who would lose, who would be the Cinderella team, and who would go all the way.

While everyone around me is going crazy with March Madness and the NCAA tourney that starts later this week, I am nursing a sickness, too.   My illness is just as serious, but comes in a different form. 

Hello, my name is Kara, and I have spring fever.  Bad.

How do I feed my fever?  No, I don’t look up win-loss records.  I don’t investigate shooting percentages.  Rebound records mean nothing to me.

My spring fever is only remedied by travel…wine travel.  

This time last year I was busy researching my upcoming summer stay in Sonoma by choosing the elite eightwineries of northern California that I wanted to visit.

The initial list was incredibly long, and whittling it down to just eight seemed almost impossible.  I made the final cuts after having quite strict criteria:  I would spread my choices between Napa and Sonoma, visit both historic and newer producers, choose producers who used diverse grapes, and taste only labels which I never had. 

My list was fantastic, and it led me on an incredible voyage of tasting.  I still hate to admit I never made it to all eight. Not because I didn’t try…but just because there were wineries everywhere, and others—many others—were added to my list. 

This year’s spring fever is being cured with a trip to Oregon, one of my favorite regions that just happens to produce large quantities of my favorite grape:  pinot noir.

My trip is much shorter, just a week.  The area to cover is large, over 150 miles long and 60 miles wide.  My criteria this year is a little more relaxed:  I am going to visit both north and south Willamette Valley and stop at early Oregon producers.  However, diversity in grapes is not a concern…bring on the pinot noir!  Finally, producers that I have tasted before are not only allowed, they are encouraged.  Winemakers whose wines I know well are actually top on my list.  New wines I have longed to try will be part of my eight, but that is not a must this time around.

Ponzi Vineyards—Ponzi qualifies as both an historic producer and one I have been dying to try.  Oregon pioneers Dick and Sandy moved to Oregon in the late 1960s and planted vines in 1970.  Wines can be tasted at the new facility which opened in 2008 or at the historic, original vineyard.  No matter, I look forward to stopping at this elite winery, though I haven’t decided which location I will be visiting just yet—I want to stop at both!

Domaine Drouhin—“French soul with Oregon soil” was the premise for the Drouhin family, long-time Burgundy winemakers, to search for the perfect New World location to make great pinot noir.  Several tasting options are available at the state-of-the-art gravity flow facility.  However, the comparative tasting between Drouhin wines from both Burgundy and Oregon seems an intriguing way to get to know this producer. 

 Penner-Ash—Lynn Penner-Ash studied at UC Davis and trained in Napa Valley, creating a very prestigious resume.  She then moved with her husband Ron to become the first female winemaker hired in Oregon.  In 1998, Lynn and Ron took the risk to open their own winery, Penner-Ash.  Though the focus here is on pinot noir, other wines are made from syrah, riesling, and viognier.  There is an absolutely beautiful view from the winery, but a hike through the vineyards is also a tasting option I may want to try. 

Sokol Blosser—Susan Sokol and Bill Blosser also graduated from a respected California university—Stanford—and then left the state to start fresh in Oregon in the 1960s.  By 1977, they were making their own wine from estate vineyards and raising a family on site.  Today their wines set the bar high for Oregon producers.  Farming is still in the Sokol-Blosser blood, shown in their demonstration vineyard for customers to see firsthand how vines grow each season.  Unique tasting options abound here with a vineyard hike and an ATV tour in the summer. 

Erath—Dick Erath started making wine in his garage in 1965.  From there he planted 23 varieties of grapes in the Dundee Hills.  Pinot flourished in Oregon, as did his eventual winery.  Erath and subsequent winemakers have created the quintessential Oregon pinot noir:  delicate, complex, fruit-forward, and earthy.  Though the winery is no longer family owned, it is definitely a must-taste experience, and even though many Erath wines are widely available, I am ecstatic to experience the winery and the pinot noirs not available to the masses. 

Firesteed Cellars—Firesteed is a much smaller and lesser-known winery than many on my list, but it shouldn’t be.  This is perhaps the one I am most excited about visiting.  I have developed quite a fun social-media relationship with Shellie Croft--wife of winemaker Bryan.  For over a year now I have watched the vineyard and cellar work at Firesteed, as well as gotten familiar with the Croft family.  Their riesling and pinot noir are available in my tiny state of Wyoming, but I can’t wait to meet the dedicated producers of these wonderful wines…and make a real-life social media connection. 

King Estate—The southern Willamette Valley also has wineries to visit, most notably, King Estate.  Just south of Eugene lies one of Oregon’s largest producers, as well as the largest organic vineyard…not just in the state, but in the world.  The on-site restaurant is known for using products from the surrounding area and organic produce from the estate gardens.  Of course, the wine is stellar and worth drinking in the beautiful tasting room with sweeping views of vines.  A reason, in and of itself, to go further south.

Sweet Cheeks Winery—To top off my eight wineries on my Oregon list is Sweet Cheeks Winery, another southern Willamette destination.  After growing grapes for other winemakers for over three decades, the producers decided to make some of their own wines.  Sweet Cheeks is known for its fantastic staff, beautiful views, and tasty wines.  Picnics are encouraged when the weather permits, and on Friday nights, live music adds to the entertainment provided here.  This also happens to be one of my Oregon friend's favorites, so I must see what she loves about Sweet Cheeks—other than the name that just makes me smile.
I have been bitten by the bug.  I have spring fever…and it’s a bad case.  While others cure what ails them with their basketball brackets and hours spent contemplating who will be successful in the NCAA tournament, I spend my time reading travel books and planning winery visits. 

To each his—or her—own, but travel is the one remedy for me, and this year, Oregon is the prescription.  I’ll take one trip and call the doctor in the morning.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

Cocktail Culture—Cocktail Tour of Downtown Rapid City

Behind the bar, two gentlemen are muddling, mixing, shaking, and stirring.  Ice chunks fly as citrus fruits are sliced into rounds and infused vodkas are splashed in to pretty glasses.  The flurry behind the bar isn’t some angry rage being witnessed…it is a frenzy, though…a frenzy of fun cocktails waiting to be appreciated! 

This is exactly what my girlfriends and I did on a recent weekend in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota:  we frolicked in the fun of unique cocktails.  Luckily for us, there are great places to get these libations, all within walking distance of great hotels, creating the perfect trifecta for cocktail enjoyment.

Vertex Sky Bar at the top of the Hotel Alex Johnson is the perfect place to start for tasty cocktails.  The interior of the bar is vintage art deco, a perfect throw back to the 1920s.  The gorgeous late afternoon sun reflects off the outdoor fire pits as the sky deck warms patrons’ bodies and the cocktails warm their hearts.

Any fan of the Moscow Mule knows that it is a great first drink for the night.  The light, refreshing citrus and ginger actually act as a palate cleanser prepping for the rest of the evening’s tastings.  Mules are also great drinks for the spring as days and nights begin to heat up for the season.

The next cocktail of interest is the Pineapple Upside Down.  Again, a drink that screams sunshine, the vanilla vodka, Malibu coconut rum, pineapple juice, and Grenadine create perfect sweetness for sipping, as well as create a fabulous-looking drink.

 The Blind Lion is a spot I always feel as if I should keep secret, yet it is such an entertaining environment that I want others to share in the absolute excitement of this hidden gem.  The ambiance of the speakeasy is taken very seriously; nearly every aspect is meant to catapult customers back to the days of prohibition:  phones are discouraged, conversation is stimulated, and drinks are authentic.  Do not come here when in a rush; each of the drinks is meant to sipped and enjoyed at a leisurely pace while reflecting on life’s pleasures. 

The Pear Side Car mixes pear brandy, orange sour, and house-made brown sugar simple syrup with a brown sugar rim to create a beautiful drink.  It is then poured into a martini glass, topped with an orange round, and sprinkled with dried rose petals, creating an absolutely decadent beverage.

My personal favorite is the Lavender Star.  It could be because it is served in a champagne flute, but it could also be because it has vodka and fresh-squeezed lime juice.  No, the best part of this drink is the house-made lavender simple syrup that smells and tastes like spring in a glass.
Kol, on the corner of Main Street and Mount Rushmore Road, is one of the hippest places to sip cocktails in downtown Rapid.  Modern and upscale d├ęcor prepares customers for the modern and upscale drinks available.  These truly distinctive cocktails are anything but the norm found in the average bar.  They are fun, and yes, maybe a little frivolous—which, frankly, is why they are so enjoyable to drink!

The White Cosmo is truly a beautiful cocktail.  The show piece of this creation is the orchid frozen in a large ball of ice in the center of the martini glass.  Poured over the top of the most beautiful ice ever is a concoction of vodka, elderflower liqueur, lime juice, and white cranberry juice.  

The Red Hot Sangria is an interesting twist on the traditional Spanish wine cocktail.  The base of malbec wine, vanilla vodka, cranberry syrup, and sparkling wine are just the beginning.  The special ingredient is the brandied cranberries, created by macerating the fruit in brandy, Grand Marnier, orange zest, sugar, and cinnamon sticks.

The flurry to make a gorgeous cocktail is intense, but so is the wonderful creation that can result from this unique art form.  Downtown Rapid City has wonderful establishments at which to enjoy many creative libations.  Take a cocktail tour soon and get to know the culture of Rapid. Book a hotel or plan for a ride at the end of the night, then enjoy getting familiar with the bartenders chopping, slicing, mixing, and pouring the coolest drinks in town.