Updated: Oct 31
Procrastination is almost inevitable when studying for a wine certification, particularly when there is no one to prompt you. Wine study groups can help for early certifications but as one progresses, individual study becomes the norm, despite advantages groups have in obtaining and paying for wines to taste. In this article I will relate my experience when studying for a specialty certification that has no tasting component on the examination, namely, the Wine Scholar Guild Alsace Master Level Certification program, in the hope that it will help motivate others to persevere.
2019-07-28: Having landed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for vacation I sat by the pool and read the Preface and History of Alsace chapter in the Alsace Study Manual for the first time. I remember that the region passed between Germany and France several times due to many wars, creating commerce issues, and that hybrids were replaced after World War II to improve quality. When I revisit the chapter I'll create flashcards with details.
2019-08-04: After a week break I read the Geology chapter and struggled to find a way to organize the 13 major soil types so I would be able to remember which grapes prefer each. Riesling likes hard and sandy soils best. Gewurztraminer prefers marly soils and limestone. Pinot Noir prefers limestone, just like in Bourgogne and Champagne. Alluvial soils are planted to Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois to make sparkling wine. I found no common theme for Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner. The most common soils are marly-limstone and scree; the least common soils are sandy-limestone and graywacke (volcanic-sedimentary soil). A few weeks later I found that classifying the soil types by whether they are located in mountain, hill, or plain locations helped me make sense of them and the varieties that prefer each soil type as well (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Blanc prefer mountain, hill, and plain soils respectively while Pinot Gris prefers 2 soils from each category).
2019-08-06: I watched the webinar on Alsace Terroirs and my key takeaway was how impressive the presenter was. Not only is Olivier Humbrecht a 12th generation winegrower, owner and winemaker at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht with his wife Margaret, he is also a Master of Wine. Sadly, the only thing I remember as I write this is that the Vosges mountains are highest in the south where soils are harder and less subject to erosion.
First half 2020: My guess is that procrastination has a lot to do with interest in the subject at hand. I have to admit that I've never been a fan of Alsacian wine, partially due to difficulty finding a reasonable assortment of these wines locally and partially due to my dispassionate view on its noble grape varieties, namely, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat (Muscat à Petits Grains and Muscat Ottonel). Can't say I've had many notable wines produced from Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois de Laquenexy, Klevener de Heiligenstein, or Chasselas either. When you don't have passion for a subject, education becomes an exercise in frustration rather than learning. It's time to change my mindset.
As 2020 progressed, three notable events led to further procrastination. First, I fractured my fifth metatarsal riding an exercise bike, resulting in a permanent metal plate in my right foot and physical therapy. Not wanting to succumb to my natural tendency to do nothing my wife and I flew to Lima expecting to tour South America for 5 weeks on crutches. Second, our plans were cut short by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and we were back home in Santa Clara county ("Silicon Valley") after just a few days. You'd think that the subsequent lock-down would mean I'd have plenty of time to study wine and continue blogging but I simply lost motivation during the concomitant economic downturn. Third, police misconduct resulted in racially-charged protests throughout the country, Some people used these protests as an opportunity to riot, loot, erase or rewrite our history, and further their agendas while the rest of us were either passively indoctrinated or effectively became political activists.
In this time of activism each of us decide what sources are relaying facts or confirm what we already believe. Most of us are reluctant to search for, much less seriously contemplate, opinions that contradict our own world view. Many use the term "science" to justify their view yet few seek to modify their view when real world observations disprove it. Such is the sorry state of current affairs.
On the bright side, many positive outcomes result from even the worst crises. The wine industry reflected upon why all races are not represented in proportion to the general population. Tom Wark articulated the case why the wine industry is not structurally racist but posited causes and potential remedies to racial underrepresentation in the industry. John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter further the call for reflection in rooting out all snobbery.
During April I returned to my study of Alsacian wine and slowly began to appreciate its wine and food culture intellectually, though not as viscerally as visiting Alsace would afford.
A few fascinating aspects about Alsace wine:
There are seven types of Alsace AOC wine that my be blends of multiple varieties: Edelzwicker, Gentil, Pinot d'Alsace, Muscat d'Alsace, Pinot Blanc (which allows Auxerrois), wines labeled without a varietal designation, and field blends.
The fallback strategy for still wines is quite extensive. For example, a producer of a Riesling Grand Cru Sélection de Grains Nobles may choose to label it as Reisling Grand Cru Vendanges Tardives, Reisling Grand Cru, Alsace Riesling SGN, Alsace Riesling VT, Alsace Riesling, or Alsace Edelzwicker. Lieu-dit and communal mentions are optional but lieu-dit cannot be declassified as communal (referred to as "Dénominations géographiques complémentaires" in the regulations).
Alsace wine is a favorite in France. It represents about a third of the domestic AOC quality wine market for both still white and sparkling wine (not counting champagne).
Alsace wine pairs well with traditional Alsace food: Riesling: Fresh-water fish, sauerkraut (choucroute), casserole (Baeckeoffre) Gewurtztraminer: Munster cheese, bundt cake (Kugelhopf) Pinot Gris: Fresh-water fish, fruit tarts, Kugelhopf, snails Muscat: Asparagus Sylvaner: Charcuterie, fruit tarts, tarte flambee (Flammerkueche)
Alsace wine pairs well with ethinic foods: Mexican/Indian: Ripe Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Muscat Mediterranean/Middle Eastern: Round Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner Japanese/Thai: Riesling VT, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner, Crémant
Alsace growers have been considering more granular quality levels since 2014-03-20. Although change is slow (balancing the needs of many stakeholders) it appears likely that village and premier cru levels will be inserted between the regional Alsace AOC level (73% by volume) and the Alsace Grand Cru level (4%). Crémant d'Alsace is 23%.
Alsace wine also has two particularly daunting aspects:
There are 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace, each with terroirs that influence the wine. Locating them will be difficult for those that don't speak German, particularly when learning using one map while being tested using another.
Identifying specific vintages as being difficult, classic, good, great, or exceptional is problematic. Sommeliers should be familiar with vintages offered by their restaurant so they can advise consumers what to expect from unknown wineries and terroirs, but for other purposes a reference chart is more reasonable. Since average ratings could mean heterogeneous quality or homogeneous average quality, vintage charts for dry and sweet wines by variety, and ideally per Grand Cru, are more useful.
By the end of May I was test-ready. I had spent several hours every day for two months repeatedly viewing webinars, studying the manual, and creating and reviewing flashcards. Unfortunately scheduling a test proctor during the worldwide pandemic was problematic as was my waning interest in the subject during this time.
2020-07-03: I took the exam at 08:00 am this morning after waiting 46 days since May 18 to secure an exam schedule. I found the test to be the most difficult of all the Wine Scholar Guild Master Level programs. I honestly don't know if I'll pass but then again my wife reminds me that I've said the same thing for every other exam.
2021-10-26: Turns out I didn't pass back in July of last year because I couldn't locate the grand crus using the map format used in the exam. I decided on a very slow exam preparation schedule by locating a few grand crus for no more than a few minutes each week. After procrastinating for more than a year I was test ready again. In the meantime, I passed the Chemistry for Winemaker's class at UC Davis and the Certified Specialist of Spirits certification as a way to change my focus a bit. I retook the Alsace Master Level exam after wiating 35 days for a time slot. This time I maintained my interest level in the subject during the intervening period and passed the exam.
After two years of procrastination I've learned to appreciate Alsace wine. I am reminded of the change of heart my wife had after visiting Champagne when she initially thought all sparkling wine was the same. She now enjoys Champagne or other sparkling wine almost every night. Now that I'm more comfortable with the wine language of Alsace and know what to expect from each variety, terroir, and style, I am eager to enjoy the offerings of specific producers and find my favorite wines from Alsace to pair with my favorite food!