I passed my sommelier exam (WSET level 2) without studying from flashcards or drilling text from a study guide. I used ancient techniques used by mental athletes or top performers.
The WSET exam is about learning wine grapes, where they grow around the world, and how their attributes change based on terroir. The study guide is about 200 pages. I have a full-time job and two three-year-old kids, so I don’t have much time to waste. Which is the reason I find the way how to spend a fraction of the time than the rest of the people in my class.
Before I started the course, I went on YouTube and searched for reviews and tips on how to study for the exam. All of the advice that I saw was about creating flashcards and drilling them into your memory, which is a standard way how most people learn.
I have to admit that I started to write down all the information that I thought was important onto flashcards too. After a few days, I realise that it’s no fun and there has to be a better and more efficient way. Then I remembered the book Moonwalking with Einstein.
A few years back, I read a book Moonwalking with Einstein — Joshua Foer’s yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top ‘mental athletes.’ Joshua learns different techniques on how to remember a deck of cards or a series of random numbers that mental athletes use. (spoiler alert) He even starts competing in these events and become a world champion. But he also admits that remembering a deck of cards is not useful in the real world. Maybe except remembering phone numbers or your credit card number.
A couple of years after I finished the book, I took an online course from Jim Kwik. The course is about the way how we learn. One of the learning methods in Jim’s course is also in the Moonwalking book.
In a few steps, he shows you how to remember numbers or your shopping list. When I finished the course, I was hoping that I will be able to use this in real life. So when I was thinking about the way how can I improve my learning for the course, Jim Kwik pop in my mind.
How I studied
First, I went through the study guide to see what are the most relevant information to learn. Then I took main wine varieties and for each one of them, I created a “story”. I assigned an actor/actress to the grape variety. For example, Paul Giamatti is Pinot Noir, and Charlize Theron is Chardonnay. Then I came up with associations that are easy to remember and that represent grape attributes. Full body is represented by whole milk. High acidity by lemons, etc.
What I find out to be the most difficult is to come up with association to locations that are hard to remember or sound similar to me. For example, Macon and Maconnais. My way to solve it was to look for words that sound similar and have a meaning for me. Maconnais sounds to me like mayonnaise. When I had all the associations and locations covered, I then created a simple story that connects these associations.
“Charlize drinks a cappuccino (medium body) and then squeezes a lemon into her eyes (high acidity)….”
The story might sound ridiculous to you. But to remember something it has to stand out, it has to shock. I could write a story like “Charlize is drinking cappuccino then she goes to the shop and buys lemons, and mayonnaise …)” I can say that I would not remember every detail of this story for long.
Once I had these stories, I read them once a day. One story is about less than 2 minutes long, so I would spend less than 15 minutes a day to repeat them. I also recorded the audio version, so when I went for a run, I could listen to them. But I didn’t use it since I remembered the stories pretty well already.
When the exam day came, I was a little bit nervous. I was sure that I remember the stories, but I also run out of the time to create more stories about the “Other black/white grape varieties”. I was also not sure if the format in which I remember all the information would be suitable for the test.
Once I opened the test, I felt relieved. I whizzed through the answers that I learn based my stories. And then based on my experience and what I remembered from the course itself, I filled the rest.
I’m happy to tell you that I passed with merit just one wrong question shy from distinction.
How can you use this for your self?
If you study for literally anything, you can do what I did. It will save you lot’s of time in the long term.
If you are interested in doing a WSET course, I created a short video for Chardonnay.
If you watch it, you will know the main characteristics and how they change based on the location where it’s grown. You will also learn primary regions where the grapes are planted, which covers about 10% of the WSET level 2 course.
PS: I would like to shout out to East London Wine school with whom I took the course and exam. I had a great time, and I will join you for level 3 in the future.