If I were to set wine exams, I'd ask some rather different questions

If I were to set wine exams, I think I’d ask some rather different questions. Let’s think of a few.

1. Tell me about a wine that you once fell in love with?
Now this is a vague question that isn’t particularly well defined. But we’re good with that, because we want people to give an answer that is personal. What does it mean to ‘fall in love’, and how can this concept be applied to wine? Is it an intellectual state? (Not really.) Is it something that can be planned? (Not really.) Is it something that happens to us unexpectedly? (For many people, I suspect yes.) Is it something instantaneous, or something that grows on us? (I would guess the latter.) Is it something transformative? (Yes, for sure.) Can wine grow on us, and over what timescale? (One sip, one glass, half a bottle?) Do we need repeated experiences with the same wine in order to fall for it? And what role does the context in which the wine drink alter the likelihood of falling in love with it? We like this question because if you have never fallen in love with a wine you shall not pass this exam.

2. How is it that (wine region X or vineyard Y) is expressed in a glass of wine?
A wine is of a place. This question is an attempt to see whether you can make a good case for how a particular place is expressed in a wine. We want you to explore this ill-defined and yet vitally important aspect of wine. Because a wine cannot be good or great in and of itself, divorced from this concept. You can’t state that an unidentified glass of wine in front of you is great unless you know where it comes from. It can be tasty; it can be mesmerizing; it can be complex. But a vital aspect of the wine – its place – is absent until it is known. Let me try to illusrate this confusing-sounding statement. Yesterday I drank a superb Cornas from Vincent Paris. I was served it blind and guessed it to be from the northern Rhone, because it captured what I thought to be northern Rhone-ness so well. So while I tasted it blind, it was a very tasty wine; once its origin was confirmed, it was a great wine. So in this question we want you to make suggestions as to how the somewhereness of the place in question is expressed in the glass. It is a profound question and, of course, quite impossible to answer exactly, but it’s the essence of the flawed answer you give (for every answer will surely be flawed) that tells us more about you and enables us to see whether you should pass this exam.

As an aside: we are all flawed. It comes with being human. So strive for perfection if you will, and make yourself (and, no doubt) the people around you unhappy. Of accept your flawed condition, be gracious with yourself and your flawed fellow journeyers (for, in this respect, we are all alike), and he happy to be the best ‘you’ that you can manage. You will likely find that quitting this doomed quest for perfection gives you the breathing space to make some real progress in being the better you. So, a general principal: in setting our exam we are not looking for the right answers, but really good flawed answers.

Back to the question. There is also the sense that the vine is connected to a place very intimately, through roots, which weave through the soil and rocks and soil microlife, and interrogate them. Wine scientists hate the term minerality, but it is such a lovely concept (even if it is picture language; please don’t steal our minerality from us, mean geologists) because it captures this idea that wine comes from grapes that come from the soil and the sky of a specific location, and as long as no one messes around too much in the winery, we have this spirit of a place in a glass.

3. Can you discuss time as it relates to wine?
Just as wine is of a place, it is of a time. There are many ways that time relates to wine. First of all, the obvious one: vintage. You drink a wine that was birthed in a growing season, often many years ago. And then there’s the way that a wine changes with time. The gestation period in the vineyard; the birth in the winery; the childhood in the cellar. Then, the turbulent adolescence of bottling, and the coming to maturity. Finally, the slow decline, followed by death. It teaches us something of what it is to be human. Our egos can’t easily handle the thought of the universe without us, but for a very long time we weren’t here, and soon we will be gone. While we are here, we join in with the circle of life, we pass on the baton to the next generation, then we bow out. That’s how it is, and there is beauty and profundity in this process. In western egoic societies we just can’t handle this. Instead, we fear growing old, we worship youth, and we marginalize the elderly. It’s quite wrong, but it seems so normal to us.

Wine also changes in the glass or decanter, we change with time as we approach the same wine, and wines taste different on different days (is that us, or the wine, or both?) So with this question, we want to see evidence that students have thought a little more deeply about wine and life for them to pass the exam.

For now, that’s all. I will try to think of some more questions. I think I would set the same questions every year. If they are good, why change them? After all, you can’t swot up to get the ‘right’ answers in advance. It is the nature of the answer you give that tells us about you, and there is an authentic answer for each person. You can’t learn to answer the sort of questions we will ask. And if you are the sort of person that will pass our exam, you will be thinking about these questions all the time anyway.

3 comments to If I were to set wine exams, I’d ask some rather different questions

  • Paul Starr

    I disagree, so much, with the orthodoxy built into that second question. Why do we think wine can only be great when it ‘expresses place’? So many great old wines are like each other, more than they still reference the place they came from. Great Australian fortifieds, stretching from Rutherglen to Seppeltsfield, I’d argue are more about people, technique and time than they are of place. A similar argument could be made for sparkling wines. Greatness, recognisable, without knowing the vineyard or place of origin.

  • Richard Jones

    Surely an exam should test knowledge rather than vague, amorphous feelings that can easily be faked by someone well versed in pretentious waffle?

  • Jamie, nice coincidence of timing here in that I’ve spent the last couple weeks dwelling on my thoughts around question 2. Hope your travels are going well!

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