Friday, 15 June 2012

The WSET Diploma Exams - A Sherlock Holmes Approach

A curious sort of Zen falls over me when I enter an exam hall. It is the result of nerves stretched so taut that they've finally snapped, and a brain deprived of oxygen due to hyperventilation. In this dreamlike, surreal state, everything comes into crystal clear focus, including the minute actions of other candidates. The blonde girl beside me sits with balled fists resting on her lap, knuckles white with exertion. A slight rustle of papers as the person behind me adjusts his sheets. The air is thick with tension. "Five minutes till we begin," says the blue-shirted invigilator.

I am in London, sitting for one of the exams required to complete the WSET Diploma. The past few months have seen a near caveman-like isolation, surrounded by arcane treatises on vino-related matters. I've explored the Caribbean, peered over the shoulders of 19th century monks and engaged in tax rebellions in Scotland. And as a diversion in-between studies, I delved into the life of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Four minutes. A Nirvana-esque revelation that there is a striking symmetry in the methods of the world's greatest detective and how one should approach a wine exam. Firstly, abstaining from food. Sherlock extols the virtue of starvation in The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone. "The faculties become refined when you starve them... you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider." Sharpened by hunger, I am aware of the myriad scents wafting around me. Fear and anxiety have scents too.

Secondly, the importance of facts. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock advises that "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." This is a common error when tasting wines, one that is highlighted repeatedly by the examiners. A candidate forms a conclusion about what the wine is before evaluating all its components. Inaccurate data is then entered to justify the false inference. As the tasting samples make their way around the room, I focus only on what I see.

Three minutes left, and a third lesson. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Sherlock solves the case by noticing that the murderer's footprints pointed to a lame person. "You know my method," he says. "It is founded upon the observation of trifles." Many a candidate has been led astray by rashly reading through the exam questions. A case in point is the unfortunate soul who misread Austria as Australia and proceeded to submit a lengthy essay almost entirely opposite to what was required.

Two minutes. "Everything in this world is relative, my dear Watson." Tasting blind is very much like solving a mystery. Follow the clues without bias. Build upon the evidence, looking for the threads that link them. A singular piece of data, viewed in isolation, can be misleading. "It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different." Is high acidity the result of a cool climate, varietal character, or manipulative winemaking? Without taking into account the other elements of a wine, all are reasonable conclusions.

As the final minute ticks down, I am acutely aware that I am more Watson than Sherlock. Jet lag gnaws at the edges of my senses and I struggle to recall facts memorised just a day before. Yet it is a comforting thought that these exams are based on a foundation of logic and systematic assessment. The ghost of Sherlock imparts a final guidance before he leaves me to my trials. "You know my methods. Apply them."

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