Tips for taking the Certified Specialist of Wine exam

csw exam fill in the blankJust two hours ago, I emerged from the Certified Specialist of Wine  or CSW exam, the first level of certification for the Society of Wine Educators. 100 multiple choice questions, one hour, 3 “number 2” pencils and a whole lot of anxiety filling the room. I met a few of the 20 or so people sitting for the exam, mostly industry professionals like wine buyers for retailers and restaurants or wholesaler/distributor reps who sell wine and often must take the test.

I voluntarily endured it to boast three letters following my name and, well, feel good about myself for passing the CSW exam. Although it’s kinda strange to think that after 13 years of food and wine writing a 100 question exam legitimizes my credentials. But, like a true wine geek, I sheepishly admit to enjoying the intensive study for the past month or so. I enriched my brain with newfound appreciation of the depth of grape varietals in Italy, a refresher of the Grand Crus of Burgundy (not on my test, by the way… I went overboard) and the grapes of Greece (on the test).

This is a test that the vast majority of the people who take it — no matter how long you’ve been in the industry — will need to study for. I even heard pre-test, break room chatter about a 50% fail rate. So, for those interested, here are some tips that I hope not to get in trouble for printing:

1) Become a member of the Society of Wine Educators and buy the most up to date exam book – it gives you access to the practice tests that contain many of the actual questions presented on the test. Yes, it’s freakin’ overpriced but suck it up. You won’t regret it.

2) Study the minutia. It’s on there. Even if you think it won’t be.

3) My brain dump on what I was tested on for the CSW exam: pH of wine and its acids, which grapes have the highest tannins, Brix calculations for alcohol level, the wine regions of Australia (one I can remember: which state is Adelaide Hills found in?), grapes used for Amarone, which region is Lombardy found in,  Salice Salentino – which region, where is Taurasi made, serving temperatures for various wines, fining agents, region of New Zealand known for Chardonnay, signature grape of Austria, name of mountains in Washington State, characteristics of Riesling, know the difference in regions in Argentina versus Chile (they totally try to trip you up on that one – I fubar’ed), know the hell out of Sherry and Madeira (soil in Madeira?), Vin Doux Naturel, sweet wine in Greece (and its grape is?), quality levels of all the European countries (know them!), diethelene glycol scandal was where and when, Bordeaux regions and grapes, where was the vine first planted in Australia, synonyms for true Riesling (screwed that one up), levels of quality for Marsala, regional AVAs in California and their counties, know the pests and diseases for the grapevine + nutritional requirements, labeling regulations in the U.S., regions in the Rhône Valley (produce white, red, etc),  DOCG and DOCa wines, carbonic maceration, sturm, Wachau classification (Austria), what is cadastro, ripeness levels in Germany, rivers in Germany (yes, it’s on there), South Africa regions, terra rossa soil, climate in Argentina, different types of botrytis affected wines, largest producing (and most important) region in Argentina, the healthy compounds in wine, which grapes are prone to mutate, labeling threshold for sulfites in wine, the first year vines were planted in various countries, other names for Blaufrankisch (I knew this one, but really? How important is that?), synonyms for tempranillo, most widely planted red grape in Portugal, dates for Prohibition, what is pinot noir called in Germany, photosynthesis, Rueda – what grape, what AVA in the U.S. is formed of non-contiguous vineyards, grapes in Cava, what region produces Frascati, levels of dosage/sweetness for Champagne.

If I think of any more in the middle of the night (during a nightmare), I’ll add them. And if you’ve taken it, feel free to add to the comments.

Although I painstakingly outlined the entire study guide on flash cards, I found this pretty awesome study guide available for free. (They took it down and I didn’t download a copy. Bummer.)

Next up? Certified Wine Educator exam but that’s a longer-term study process. I heard there’s only a 12% pass rate for that one. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at taylor at tayloreason dot com.

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