This blog first appeared on the website of Harpers Wine & Spirit, the trade magazine of the British drinks industry, earlier this week.
Attempting the WSET advanced course in a single week requires a fair amount of single-mindedness and dedication, involving as it does four and a half packed days of classroom study and a recommendation that students spend a further 80 hours of their own time on preparation and revision. It suits a young insomniac with no family, even fewer friends, and a concentration span so monumentally impressive even Ribena is jealous of how concentrated they are.
I am none of those things. I have two young children and an almost complete inability to do any one thing for more than about eight minutes without checking my emails or seeing if the Waitrose wine sale has started yet. But I had invested my own money in course fees and booked a week’s holiday, and I was determined to waste neither. I spent two full days and several snatched hours in libraries before the course began, lifting facts from the textbook and gleefully stuffing them into my brain, like a taxidermist with a bumper bag of cotton wool and a recently deceased squirrel.
Despite this effort, which I must admit fell some way short of the suggested 80 hours, I entered the course with a good chunk of the book unread and a realisation that at least some of the facts that I so recently stuffed into my brain had already fallen out again. The situation might have been rescuable had I been able to spend the entire week in a wine-focused trance, but instead I was racing out of the classroom at 4.30 to pick the kids up from nursery, tucking them up in bed three hours later and then settling down to see how Spurs were getting on in Europe.
Anyone who’s studied a foreign language has probably experienced the feeling of frustration you get when you return to the country where it’s spoken after a long absence, and spend several days blundering about half-wittedly saying nothing more complicated than “deux pains-au-chocolat s’il vous plait”. Eventually, with any luck, it all starts flooding back, but by then nobody at the boulangerie is willing to speak to you at all. So it is with sports journalism, only accelerated. So much as a week of ignorance and you’re basically useless, at least until a week’s worth of other stuff has happened to replace what you missed.
Plus there was the 850-world column about the week’s sport on TV that I had to file a little over 24 hours after the end of the course. I didn’t actually watch much sport on TV that week, preferring a rather scattergun approach to time-shifting, though I did spent quite some time trying to decide precisely which programmes’ times I should shift. All of which further reduced the amount of homework that got done.
The course itself was enjoyable in most part, though a little too focused on the accumulation of facts. Some of them have lodged in my mind, others enjoyed only fleeting visits. A great deal of time was spent telling me what soil types are prevalent in different areas, but however hard I tried I simply couldn’t convince my brain that it was interesting enough to remember. Subconsciously I just couldn’t give a schist.
I got the feeling that a beautiful, rounded, plump, possibly slightly big-bottomed two-week course had been crash-dieted until just skin, bone and five rather uncuddly days remained. For good reason – who’s got a whole fortnight to spend on a wine course, after all – but to its detriment all the same. The new world sped by in a day; New Zealand got a scant half-hour. But spirits, no more than a passing interest for anyone on the course, gets a session of its own, so far as I could tell simply to avoid offending a letter in an acronym.
I enjoyed and learned a lot from the tutored tastings, and was impressed both by the general standard of teaching and the distance people were prepared to travel in order to benefit from it. But I yearn for a course that relaxes and revels in each chosen area even if it means leaving others out entirely, for a week spent (figuratively) in slippers rather than running shoes. The sprint ends on Friday afternoon with an exam – 50 multiple-choice questions, a few longer written answers and a couple of wines tasted blind – by which time we are expected to know, more or less, about the entire world and everything in it.
By the end of the course I have managed to read my entire textbook, but for a few chapters about obscure areas like Bulgaria, Greece and (perhaps more of an oversight, this one) the USA. But I am a jack of all regions and a master of none; as I leave I’m aware that the areas I know most about are still the ones I knew before I arrived, the ones I have learned about in my own way, by drinking and reading and meeting and speaking. It’s not the most efficient way to study, and it’ll take a lot more than five days to finish the course, but this is how my wine education will continue: one glass at a time.