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Wine Writer Certification Test Cheat Sheet

Enobytes coughed up a hairball when writer Pamela Heiligenthal started a conversation about a certification process for wine writers.

As it happens, a wine writer certification test has been in development at the WSET for more than a year. The $850 class is designed to “improve the professionalism and knowledge of wine writers and give the reading public information to help them choose which wine writer to trust.” The class will debut this summer and the first test will be given at 2,100 locations around the world just before Thanksgiving. According to the WSET business plan, the initial pilot program will produce between 25,000 and 30,000 high-quality wine writers who have earned their Écrivain du Vin certification, along with a pin and certificate suitable for framing.

A leaked copy of some of the test questions made it into my email box, courtesy of a Master of Wine who is involved in the development of the test, but who needed my help to understand some of the non-wine-related words (e.g., “ethics”). The multiple-choice questions cover a broad range of topics: wine knowledge, grammar, journalistic norms and the law. A selection follows.

When interviewing a winemaker, it is best to:

  1. Prepare questions ahead of time
  2. Compliment the winemaker’s wine at every opportunity
  3. Offer to sexually gratify the winemaker if he or she will invite you to a barrel tasting

To properly assess the quality of a wine for a review, you will need:

  1. A well lit and odor-free tasting space
  2. An ISO 9000 standard tasting glass
  3. A couple of extra cases, shipped to the house

A wine importer invites you on a tasting tour of Tuscany. It’s a great opportunity to learn about Italian wine-making close-up, but you can only participate under certain conditions. Most importantly:

  1. You insist on paying your own travel costs in order to maintain your objectivity
  2. You ask if it would be possible to stay a couple of extra days at your own expense
  3. You make damned sure they don’t try to stick you back in coach

You’re writing on deadline and running short of taste descriptors for Chilean Cabernet. You:

  1. Level with your readers and admit that the wines taste basically the same
  2. Get over your aversion to repeating the same descriptors over and over and over again
  3. Detect things in the wine that aren’t really there but make you sound discerning, like “forest floor”

“Adverb” is:

  1. A word that modifies the character of a verb
  2. An action-word used to increase the impact of an advertisement
  3. What you do when a contracted article is running short and you’re being paid by the word

Great wine is uniquely tied to its terroir, and great wine writing gives a similar sense of place. The best way to bring a place to life in print is:

  1. Before visiting, do research on the geography, history and culture of a wine region so when you’re there you can focus on what’s really important
  2. Skip a couple of the 10-course dinners at elite wineries to get out and spend time with the locals
  3. Crib a few lines from the winery’s web site

You’re invited to a tasting hosted by a multistate wine distributor. The tasting is held in the ballroom of a glamorous downtown hotel, and hundreds of people are going to be there. Your strategy:

  1. Before the tasting, read through the list of wines being offered, planning ahead which wines to taste to maximize the number of articles you can write that will be of interest to your readers
  2. Focus on wines being poured by really attractive members of the opposite sex
  3. On the way in, pick up the nametag of someone representing a large retail chain so no one will know you’re just a blogger

The best way to build credibility in wine writing is to:

  1. Check all of your facts carefully
  2. Cite historic quotes to give the piece perspective
  3. Mention that Andy Beckstoffer bought you dinner last night

When it comes down to it, wine is:

  1. A surprisingly deep and vivid artifact that illuminates our culture and history
  2. A fun but ultimately meaningless diversion
  3. The only thing I’m even remotely interested in

When quoting a source:

  1. It is polite and permissible to clean-up minor enunciation and grammar errors as long as you read the quote back to the person to make sure you haven’t changed their intended meaning
  2. If the person you interview doesn’t say anything that supports the premise of your article, feel free to add to your notes what you think they should have said
  3. What are notes?

When it comes to punctuation:

  1. I use it as little as possible, because I prefer a Hemingway-esque starkness of language that allows readers to choose their own reading rhythm
  2. Commas…periods…that’s about it for me
  3. Exclamation points are what make my writing interesting

“Actual malice” is:

  1. The legal principle balancing First Amendment freedoms with a writer’s responsibility to tell the truth
  2. A proprietary blend from Oren Swift
  3. A movie starring Glenn Close, or maybe that other actress who looks kind of like her

According to my source, the test is multiple-choice because the WSET didn’t think it reasonable to expect wine writers to answer essay questions.


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