Updated: Oct 28
The Challenge: Medicine vs Wine
By Jerry Kolins, WSET III
I never thought I would find a test more challenging than the gross anatomy series of examinations a first-year medical student needed to complete to enter the clinical years successfully. It was a 750-hour, full-year course, including the dissection of the human body. Today, medical students don’t spend nearly that much time studying gross anatomy and even less time in dissection. That was the most difficult examination in the world for me—until I discovered wine.
If you check the internet, you will learn that the blind tasting of wines to achieve the Master Sommelier title is considered by many the most difficult examination in the world. I passed their Introductory Sommelier Course during the 2020-2021 COVID experience. Currently, I am enrolled in London’s Wine and Spirit Educational Trust (WSET) diploma program.
The WSET program consists of six sections referred to as D1 through D6. D3, “Wines of the World,” is by far the most challenging in that the information one is expected to understand and share in essay format is found in 600 pages of text. The other examinations have text ranging from 80-120 pages.
I recently completed D3, a two-day examination on “Wines of the World.” On Day 1, we were required to write five handwritten essays on how viticulture, winemaking, wine law, and the business of wine influence the style, quality, and price of wine. Day 2 is a three-hour, 12-sample, blind-tasting identification experience.
One of the twelve unknown wines I faced was a Riesling from the Rheinhessen in Germany. I suspected one of the twelve wines would be a Riesling. So, I was on the “lookout” for it. Often, these wines have a pleasant hint of petrol. But I could not detect a hint of petrol in any of the 12 unknown wines. This is where Gregor Mendel enters the picture. This aroma, due to the organic compound 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene (TDN), appears in many Rieslings with bottle aging. Humans inherit the ability to detect these petrol notes. Most of us can pick it out when the concentration reaches 10-12 ug/L. You won’t drink it when the concentration comes around 70 ug/L. I couldn’t detect it. I missed the Riesling on the exam and was waiting for it! Gross anatomy was much easier. I could see every muscle, nerve, and artery. Would practice improve my wine score? My DNA will always limit my olfactory senses.
That wine examination (D3) was given worldwide on May 9 and May 10, 2023. As noted above, the diploma syllabus includes six modules. None of the modules is more rigorous than D3. To pass D3, one must learn and taste over 120 wines from 16 countries. China was recently added to the list. Did you know that more Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in China than elsewhere? In the northern parts of China, in winter, the vines are buried deep into the earth to protect them from frost and death. In spring, you dig out the vines and plan for the next vintage. That seems like a lot of work just to grow grapes.
I take periodic classes from Master Sommelier David Keck. He left the service industry to try his hand at farming. In Vermont, the cold climate does not permit a successful Vitis Vinifera crop. So, his vines grow Frontenac Noir and Frontenac Blanc, the product of a University of Minnesota cross between Vitis Riparia (cold hardy variety) and another hybrid known as Landot 4511. Frontenac can handle Vermont winters. Keck harvests the grapes and sells the fermented wines under the label Stella 14. Stella is Latin for Star; Vermont was the 14th State to join the Union.
Growing grapes in Vermont has got to be an act of love. You must understand Vermont's humor to grow grapes there. I learned this from Kurt Benirschke, a German-American pathologist who trained many physicians in San Diego. He was also the chairman of the pathology Department at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Dr. Benirschke explained to me the concept of New Hampshire-Vermont humor. He told the story of a surveyor who approached the owner of a Vermont farm and explained that his survey showed unequivocally that the farm was not in Vermont. It was located within the borders of New Hampshire. The farmer said, “Thank goodness, I could not tolerate another Vermont winter.” At least David Keck doesn’t need to bury his vines; he planted a cold, hardy hybrid variety.
These efforts to put wine on the table seem extraordinary to a guy like me whose experience has been solely at the consumption end of the market. I now can successfully defend the enologist who claims his trials exceeded those of us who moved from gross anatomy to our hospital clinical rotations.
I passed gross anatomy and scored at the 92nd percentile on the exam given by the National Board of Medical Examiners. I failed D3. Since about half the D3 student body does not pass, I must be hovering at the median. I failed by only one point. This must be the highest failing grade recorded this year. On the blind tasting, I got one of the lowest possible passing grades. Obviously, I shouldn’t quit my day job.
All candidates who sit for the exam have their essays graded in London, the headquarters of WSET. You must select five of the seven questions offered. You complete three of four questions in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, three more questions are revealed, and you answer two. The student gets 2 hours to answer the three morning questions and 80 minutes to address the afternoon challenge. All responses are handwritten—and this is the 21st century.
Once in a while, a student is so surprised by the failing grade that a challenge is issued. You can challenge the final grade by having another independent grader assess your handwritten prose. That will cost you £79.00 ($100 USD) per essay challenged. But having failed by only one point, I gladly paid the money in the hopes of avoiding another 250 hours of study. And that’s just for the D3 portion of the exam. The total study time for all six portions is estimated by WSET at 500 hours. That is more than today’s medical student focuses on gross anatomy.
I got back my challenge to my theory grade a full five months after writing the essays last May 2023. To my delight, I got a passing grade for D3. The last time a written communication brought me this much happiness (and relief) was my letter of acceptance to medical school.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
My teachers from the Capital Wine School in Washington, DC provided the insight and encouragement to face the most difficult wine challenge I have experienced, i.e., Wines of the World (D3). Praises to Jay Youmans, Master of Wine (MW), and Owner of Capital Wine School, Kasia White, DipWSET and WSET Certified Educator, Caroline Hermann, MW, and winemaker for RvD Winery, Joshua Grainer, MW. This qualification, Master of Wine, has been awarded to only 416 MWs in the world as of March 2021. Also, thanks to my informal weekly teacher, Seto Marselian, owner of Bistro Pazzo in La Jolla, California who prepared dinners for me on Mondays while giving me a bottle of Italian wine with a written assignment. My assignment was to enjoy the dinner and submit a written analysis of the wine. He should have charged tuition.