Advice, Tips and Tricks for Visual Learners - How to Study for and Pass the CSW, The Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Wine exam
By Kathleen Lisson, CSW
Though I grew up in Concord, CA, just an hour from Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, I didn’t really catch the ‘wine bug’ until moving to New York and going on a few day trips to Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley wineries. I read Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course and watched the accompanying DVD and got ‘hooked’ on learning about wine.
If you are ‘hooked’ on learning about wine, you are a good candidate for the CSW. If I did it, you can do it, too! I have no formal or professional background in wine and I passed the Certified Specialist of Wine exam in 2007 with a score of 95 after studying for eight months while working full time in an unrelated industry.
Here are a dozen tips that helped me pass the Certified Specialist of Wine exam:
Read, Read, Read. – I spent my spare time before I applied to take the test reading wine courses and books about different wine regions. This gave me the knowledge to dive right into the 200 + page Certified Specialist of Wine text. Look for more than just a study guide, prior reading is essential to your success in the CSW exam. The most important books I read were texts from the public library on French wines, grape growing, wine making and wine courses. I would have also benefited from a book of Italian Wines and German Wines.
Become a ‘Professional’ Member of the Society of Wine Educators – Professional members have access to the online learning modules for the CSW exam. While the modules were not a study guide, I studied for this test on my own, so the ability to switch between reading the exam text and learning interactively through the online course was essential.
Buy the Text Without Scheduling Your Test Date – I strongly advise purchasing the text, getting about a month into studying, and then honestly evaluating your progress and setting a reasonable date for taking your test. The Society of Wine Educators offers tests monthly across the US, pick the date that is the most convenient for you. I planned to take the test in the summer in New York City, but midway through studying I had to take two weeks off for a death in the family. Since I had not yet scheduled an exam date with the Society of Wine Educators, I was able to postpone my test date to October.
Be Scared – Let me be perfectly clear, the text and the exam are not easy. You will be responsible for an astounding amount of information. When you pass, you will have a full and comprehensive basic understanding of the wine industry. If you are a wine professional, you cannot skimp on studying just because you have On the Job Training. The Certified Specialist of Wine exam is not about being able to perform well at a blind tasting or recommend a nice bottle of wine, it’s about knowing complex wine law and the practices and skills of grape growing and winemaking.
Don’t be Scared – The German wine laws were the most challenging chapter for me. I remember sitting on my boyfriend’s bed in Columbus, Georgia absolutely convinced that I would never master the complicated wine laws of Germany. If you are a good learner and give yourself adequate time to study and absorb the information, you will eventually understand the entire text.
Study Every Day – Yes, that’s right, I studied German wine law while I was visiting my boyfriend at Fort Benning. Build an understanding of the text by studying at least a little bit every day, even on vacation.
Use Flash Cards – The easiest way for me to review the text I had read was by using flash cards. I would review flash cards as I was walking to and from work, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They were my mini study guide. I kept them in my purse and flipped through them any time I was waiting in line or delayed. I worked with about 30 cards at a time, storing them in a box after I had mastered them and moved on to the next chapter. A month before my test date, I took out that box and started a slow review of all my flash cards.
Use the Maps CD – When you just can’t read another word, switch to looking over the maps of different wine regions. I can remember at least three questions on the exam that a map would have definitely answered.
Use the Mini-Test at the End of Each Chapter – If you are unfamiliar with any of the questions, go back and read the chapter again.
Read the Entire Text at Least Twice – Even after reading slowly the first time, making flash cards and answering the questions at the end of each chapter, I still picked up new information when I went back and read the text cover to cover a second time. I finished my first reading about a month before the text and then read ten pages of the text every night for the next month as a review.
Read Wine Spectator and Go on Wine Shop Field Trips – I used the tasting notes in the back of issues of Wine Spectator to quiz and familiarize myself on wine regions, particularly Australian wine regions. I went to my local wine shop and looked at the different wine labels from around the world, particularly for Germany. The wines from those countries were unfamiliar to me, so the hands-on experience with labels and tasting notes helped me to learn geography and wine laws.
Practice your wine identification skills - have a partner read tasting notes from the Wine Spectator or another source and try to guess the Varietal and Country of origin. Try this online quiz from Wine Spectator here: http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Wine_Basics/Tasting_Game/0,1189,,00.html
I received my letter and certificate in October 2007, about ten days after taking my test at Johnson and Wales in Providence, RI. Since obtaining my CSW, I have been studying teaching books in preparation for teaching a class on Wine and Food Pairing in Albany, NY. I also write a blog on wine and food pairing at http://kathleenlisson.blogspot.com
The knowledge I received as a result of studying for the CSW has given me the confidence to pursue my dream of helping others learn more about wine. Good Luck!
Fellow CSWs – Add your hints and tips in the comment section below!
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