Amazing! Incredible! Life changing!
Those were the words I kept hearing from friends about the Michael Fridjhon Wine Judging Academy. I'd always known that I wanted to do this, and finally had the time and, more importantly, the confidence to apply. It would be my birthday treat to myself. And I got in...whoop...relief...whoop...nerves!
As a good little Brownie and Girl Guide, it's only natural that some of the Baden-Powell boy's 'Be Prepared' motto rubbed off on me. But as someone who pretty much lives on the internet, I struggled to find any details. Bugging friends never revealed more than them gushing 'the best experience I've ever had' and 'life changing' and 'don't worry, you'll pass'. And they were right. However, here's a list of less gushy and more useful things that I wish I'd known:
What is it:
The Michael Fridjhon Wine Judging Academy is a three-day masterclass aimed at identifying the quality of wine - they cover both international and local wines. For the last few years it has been held at the Devon Valley Hotel in Stellenbosch. The cost of the masterclass includes accommodation (2.5 days and 2 nights), food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and tea breaks with snacks). And it IS life changing!
Budget for around R12k (this will fluctuate according to inflation). Applications for us opened in November. Once accepted, a deposit of roughly 50% is required to secure your place (spaces are very limited). The balance is due two months later.
When you consider that the price includes very comfortable accommodation and all your meals, you'll realise that the wines are heavily subsidised. You'll be tasting wines that you've only ever dreamt about.
Before the course starts, you may be asked to bring 1-2 interesting wines to share with the group. These wines are consumed over dinner in the evenings...after tasting roughly 100 wines during the day. You and everyone else may have palate fatigue. Old seems to be what many people lean towards. But, the truth is that I don't really know what everyone brought because I was only interested in tasting my wines...and drinking as much water as I could before bed time.
I went with Dry Furmint from a tiny producer in Hungary - a gift from a dear friend that would be interesting to the room as nobody would know of it. I also scouted the online stores and found a local '88 white wine that I instantly found interesting.
My advice: bring a wine that would impress your hosts, Michael Fridjhon and Michael Crossley. Aim as high as you can afford and access, but know that there's a high chance that half the dinner table will order beer. I stuck a cork in my wines at the end of the evening and carted them back home...not the most polite move, but there were other people I wanted to share the wines with, as well as actually taste them in the comfort of my own quiet space.
You'll be given homework before the course starts. Be an adult - do the homework.
Day 1: Registration was at 8:00am. You sign next to your name and help yourself to tea or coffee. Take this time to introduce yourself or catch up with the people that you, inevitably, already know. Or drop off your bags with the hotel reception so that you're ready for check in the late morning.
The glasses are supplied (Riedel) and you'll be given a workbook - don't be a nana like me...use the workbook that's conveniently bound or use your own bound book.
There's a brief introduction and then you're onto your first flight of many. This will continue at an alarming pace for the next 2.5 days. The days are broken into categories with a number of impressive guest speakers. If there was one session I could go back to, it is the lecture on wine faults. Incredible! When else are you presented with a flight of wine faults - it was eye opening and fascinating!
There are 2 x tea breaks with yummy snacks and a 45 minute lunch. The first 2 days are concluded with a social and relaxed dinner. Be aware that, because of the number of wines, dinner may be served fairly late. I annoyed the room with my pretzels and dröewors that kept me sane and sober. It may be wise to organise your own water bottle as you'll find yourself using the bottled water provided for rinsing your glasses.
Day 2: follows a similar pattern.
Day 3: We spent the majority of the day tasting. There was time for the usual tea break followed by more tasting and then lunch. After lunch is the 1 hour exam. Do not stress about it.
Really - do NOT stress about this. You've most likely taken far more intense exams in the past. I'm a shitty taster...I got sooo much wrong...and I passed.
Flight One: consisted of 10 wines tasted over 20 minutes. Our exam asked us to identify the variety or fault. Each wine is worth 4 marks...so, for me, time was the most important consideration. Be it wise or not - I instantly defaulted to the routine I'd been practicing for the previous 2 years because I know I'm quick. But for 4 marks you should be strategic!
Flight Two: consisted of comparing and discussing 2 x pairs of wines (i.e. 4 x wines in total) wines that required far more detail, as well as how you would score the wine. As always, read the question...they tell you what they want from you. Each wine is worth 10 points.
Overall Class Participation: of the 100 mark total, know that 20 marks are based on your participation in the class over the entire 3 day experience.
Volunteer your thoughts while remembering to also give others a chance.
Provide an answer if called upon to do so.
Ask questions and engage with the lecturers.
Show that you are excited and interested...because you will be excited and interested!
Your Exam Results:
WSET has trained me to be patient while waiting for results. Be patient. Our results were emailed to us 17 days after writing the exam. If I can pass - you can pass!
For me, this wasn't a masterclass in how to score wines. If, like me, you've always veered away from scoring, you may want to brush up on the different systems. Familiarise yourself with how wines are scored. Take the time in the very first tea break on the first day to read the first few pages of the workbook provided. BLIC has taught me how to evaluate the quality of wines - but I struggled to assign a numeric value to a wine. It was only later on the first day that myself and my WSET friend (he's a real friend too) stopped to ask for clarity. I wish there was a little more time spent on 'wine judging'.
There is little time to take photos. We now live in the digital age...if you didn't get a photo did it even happen? By the end of each day...by the end of each session there were rows of wines.
In Summary (aka tips):
It is an incredible experience. Whether you pass or fail, you will remember the experience and will have learned so much about real wine (not only wines limited to a textbook)!
The course is better suited to someone with a good amount of wine knowledge and experience. You only get one chance at this course - there are very limited seats (think about how many tasting portions you can get out of a single bottle of 1960-something First Growth!) and there are many people who deserve a chance to experience this course. Only apply when you feel ready to fully appreciate the experience.
As mentioned, if you're not familiar with scoring, it may be useful to brush up on the different scoring systems, as well as how and why wines are scored.
Do NOT stress about the 1 hour exam - you've got the experience to nail this.
Do NOT stress about the 'interesting wine' that you're asked to contribute. Bring something that will impress the Michael's AND that will interest you.
Take notes for YOURSELF! You'll taste some of the most incredible wines ever made...wines that you may never have access to ever again. Bank those memories! You will not be tested on these wines - so write notes that make sense to you.
Take as many photos as you can - perhaps organise your group to take turns photographing and sharing the flights. You will want to remember (and possibly do a little bragging)!
Remember to hydrate. We tasted 225 wines in 2.5 days (excluding the 14 exam wines).
Do the homework. Participate in the class.
Amazing! Incredible! Life changing! Theses words are all true. I'd add interesting, engaging, witty, cheeky, and so very kind. Look out for the little moments that give you a glimpse into who Michael Fridjhon is...he asked after my birthyear and subsequently poured not one, but two wines from this tricky and distant year. And it is this tearjerking kindness, alongside the laughs and once-in-a-lifetime wines that I will forever remember.