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Master of Wine student on the power of group study and breaking down blind tasting

If I said that the days leading up to doomsday (or the day I got the results of my Master of Wine exam) weren’t filled with blistering anxiety about this column, it would be one of the larger untruths I’ve attempted. As the day approached, my ego amused itself with fantasies of writing my column on another subject entirely (rootstocks or something), slipping “oh, and I didn’t pass” into the last sentence and hoping nobody noticed.

One of the risks of the increased access to our lives we are all somehow willing to afford each other is that when we suddenly decline to share, our silence rings painfully loud. To relieve the crushing suspense, I passed (although I suspect that since many of my readers are also my Facebook friends, you probably already know).

Fortunately, while I was agonising over how to infuse my own Facebook announcement with the appropriate levels of humility and gratitude, my pal Debra Meiburg sent out the message to her gajillion followers and so it became a moot point. Phew. Double fortunately, I’m feeling almost irrepressibly chirpy, with an elation largely unmarred by the fact that I’m not quite an MW yet and that the only real status change is that instead of a “Stage 2” student, I’m now “Stage 3”. As many people anywhere along the MW path will concur, the worst is past.

The question I’ve been fielding from people familiar with the exam and its brutality is what I think was different this year. Although two is obviously a pretty poor sample size for any sort of scientific inquiry, I feel strongly that it boils down to a few factors:

I’m still kicking myself for not acknowledging earlier the powers of group study. I had passed my entire academic existence prior to this year believing study groups were just something that happened to other people. My need/tolerance for human contact is illustrated by the fact that I spend much of my working day alone in a sealed room with only occasional visits from our dog, Kevin. Yet somehow, to my lasting amazement, the pressure and support of regular practice tastings with a group of four to eight like-minded people did me immeasurable good. Who knew?

I owe something to the brilliance of chess and jiu-jitsu champion Josh Waitzkin, a man able to dominate multiple fields once he relinquished the notion of being “talented”, and Tim Ferriss of The 4-hour Workweek fame, whose books helped me break down the beast that is blind tasting into imminently manageable chunks. Accepting that, even if tasting is something for which you don’t necessarily have innate talent, you could still get there by decoding and then toiling relentlessly at specific elements of it, helped immeasurably with step three.

Which was to relax, basically. Of course, this advice sounds as helpful and implementable as telling an awkward teenage boy to “just be yourself”. And yet, armed with Josh and Tim, I experienced exam week as an exquisite expanse of calm (bar my one panic). Copious meditation, ancient history reading (nothing gives you perspective like reading about the decimation of entire civilisations) and hugs helped.

And now for the humility (or at least gratitude) saved up from my abandoned Facebook post: to my helper and husband, blind tasting organisers extraordinaire (and the latter especially for his generosity with the aforementioned hugs); my parents for their support in all forms (even my dad’s incessant questions about whether various implausible wines – Ruchè for example – might appear on the exams, to which the answer is still “hope not”); my brilliant study group, the unspeakably generous worldwide wine community who have lent their wisdom and insights, and the inimitable Debra Meiburg, whose brilliance and curiosity made me aspire to be an MW in the first place.

Finally: congratulations! To fellow Hongkongers Francesca Martin and Mabel Lai for passing theory and practical respectively on their first attempts, and Tim Triptree, also a recently anointed Stage 3, plus Mark Pygott and Fongyee Walker who have just added their names to the roster of Asia’s MWs. Huzzah for you all!

And now, onward and upward – a research paper on China’s online wine market glowers at me from my laptop, and I must return to it.