Skipping School

A few days ago I woke up with a single, glowing thought: I’m done. Enough is enough. Time to move on.

In 2010 I prepared to switch careers from teaching high school to the amorphous, mysterious job of “something in wine.” I had told myself for several years that when my daughters graduated – they attended the school where I taught – I would, too. The older girl was leaving, the other had one year to go. Time for me to exit stage left, and follow my ever-growing passion for wine.

Making the move into wine, a third career after public relations and teaching, required, I thought, some street cred, some proof that I knew what I was doing. So, that year, with the encouragement of one of my wine mentors, I jumped into the WSET program. WSET stands for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, a program based in London that, since its founding in 1969, has become one of the world’s leading providers of wine education. After years of learning, i.e., drinking, I felt competent enough to jump in at Level III and pursue the Advanced Certificate. Or credential, or feathery cap, or whatever the British call their educational degrees. I managed to get through that course quickly and in a year had my feather. Maybe gaining credibility wouldn’t be such a challenge.ABCs

Around this time I started working at my friend’s fine wine shop and within a year was also working at a small but well-regarded winery in Napa. I was moving deeper into the wine world, earning my stripes as I went, but I believed that I still needed more. I then began to chase down what was at the time the highest WSET credential, the Level IV Diploma. You can never have too much of a good thing, right? Next, I started writing articles on wine and doing winery reviews for a number of small print and online publications. I attended the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers three years in a row. That was a pay-to-play event but a heady crowd to be a part of. The following year I had just the right combination of freelance clips to earn one of the Symposium’s first fellowships. Just filling my credibility baskets merrily merrily merrily.

The Diploma course can take anywhere from two years to infinity and after a while, due to family calendars and sundry obligations, it began to look like I was on target for infinity. It’s a demanding curriculum covering seven facets of the wine profession: global commerce, viticulture/viniculture, light (dry) wines of the world, sparkling wines, spirits, and fortified wines (ports, madeiras, and such). The examinations, hand-written, are rigorous and wide-ranging. These are not pop quizzes filled with trivia where basic knowledge suffices.

Dunce1Well, as of today, I’ve passed six and one half of the seven assessments, with a few merits and distinctions sprinkled here and there. All I have left is the theory half of the light wines unit. The test is three hours long and offers seven questions. One question is mandatory and students chose four more. The range of topics never fails to solicit a chorus of groans and nervous laughter. I’ve taken it twice and the most recent attempt left me a whisker shy. Painfully close. I know that because I paid to have the test regraded and so I could read the grader’s comments. In my defense, or not, I spent half my time erasing and rewriting portions of the exam. Rant: when I sat for the comprehensive exam for my master’s degree in 1994 I wrote my essays on a computer. Why the WSET still insists on handwritten responses in the year 2017 simply baffles me. It certainly doesn’t help me and others afflicted with similarly inferior penmanship. Rant over.

There are many people I’ve come to know in the wine world who I admire deeply who have earned the WSET Diploma. There are many people I’ve come to know in the wine world who I admire deeply who have not earned the WSET Diploma. What matters to me, I now realize, is that I get to spend my days working in the same field with them, diploma or no. Truly a privilege, and most days a humbling one.

Back when I was a student of another sort, earning that master’s degree in literature, with a focus, mostly, on 19th century American lit, I spent quite a bit of time with Emerson and Thoreau. One of my favorite bits from Thoreau comes from the Conclusion chapter in Walden: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”Sobriety Test

Five months ago I had a bit of a personal health scare and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my perspective on many things. I don’t go through my days thinking I’m going to drop dead or contract some fatal disease but the notion of chasing goals that have diminishing interest or value has little appeal for me. It never did, actually. I’ve always marched to my own drummer, as my pal Henry encouraged, and so rarely pursue goals simply for the sake of completion.

Which brings me back to waking up the other day. In the past two weeks I’ve had three or four vivid stress dreams, all related to academic obligations. Because I finished grad school in 1994 the schooling the dreams hint at can be only one thing: the diploma exam. At this age I need more stress like another hole in the head. Well, the most recent dream offered more of the same images. But with one difference. In one scene I was driving through a tunnel at high speed and all of a sudden in front of me was a barrier blocking my lane. Fear! Sweat! Confusion! At just the last second, I squeezed into the lane next to me, barely in front of another speeding car, and went around the barrier unharmed. When I woke up things had changed. For me there would be no more barriers, no more impediments. Time to move on down the road. No more spending time on something I really don’t need. From now on, I’m going to learn those things about wine that I want to learn, those things that will help me write better stories or reviews. And I’ll do it when I want, not when others tell me to.

Anybody want to buy a WSET Unit 3 Review Guide? It’s unused.

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