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!