Meet Catriona Felstead, Berrys’ newest Master of Wine
Author: Catriona Felstead MW
We were absolutely delighted to learn recently that Catriona Felstead, our Marketing Manager, was successful in passing her Master of Wine exam, making her the sixth MW to work at Berrys! Feeling that it was only fair to quiz her about such an achievement, we asked you on Facebook and Twitter to come up with some questions, and the answers are below…
Q: How crucial is progressing through the WSET qualifications? Particularly the Diploma?
A: Not crucial… but I would say that it is very important to have achieved a wine qualification of a high standard before attempting the MW programme. It is not as much about attaining the right level of basic knowledge before deepening your theoretical understanding of the wine industry but more, I would say, about having a structured approach to tasting. For that reason, the Institute recommends that prospective applicants hold the WSET Diploma or equivalent wine qualification. Funnily enough, once you start the MW programme, you learn to taste and write descriptors in a completely different way to the WSET Diploma – but the WSET approach to tasting is the firm foundation for all of that. I think most people would struggle with the course if they didn’t have that sort of background.
Q: What is the truth around the blind tasting? How difficult and how much practice?
A: I’m not going to lie – it is very hard! The exam involves three 12-wine blind tasting papers on consecutive mornings (with theory papers in the afternoon as well). The first paper comprises white wines, the second, reds, and the third is commonly referred to as the ‘mixed bag’; you could have sparkling and fortifieds in there but, equally, you could have nine Pinot Noirs or Rieslings from around the world mixed in. One of the keys to passing is timing; you only have 2 ¼ hours to answer at least three in-depth questions for each of the 12 wines – so essentially, you have ten minutes per wine to taste and evaluate it (2 ½ mins), and write top-notch answers to the three or four questions (2 ½ mins max per answer), leaving 15 minutes spare to (in theory) check your answers or (in reality) catch up. Most people (including me) end up bullet-pointing the last answer. You have to be accurate and quick – and the pressure is extremely intense. You are exhausted at the end of it – and then you realise you have to do it all again for the next two mornings! As with any tasting, it is all about practise, practise, practise – as much as working out a logical method of answering questions as in actually identifying what you are tasting. In fact, despite a widespread belief to the contrary, you do not have to identify everything 100% correctly to pass – but you need to be close enough to gain marks e.g. if you mistook one aromatic white for another, it wouldn’t be the end of the world – but if you thought a Chardonnay was a Sauvignon Blanc, you’d be unlikely to get any points.
Q: What made you choose your dissertation topic, the sweetness on the labels of Alsace wines?
A: I had read in the press that levels of residual sugar in non-dessert wines from Alsace (i.e. not Vendange Tardive or Selection de Grains Nobles styles) was an issue of increasing importance in the region. I love Alsace wines (although I didn’t have a particularly in-depth knowledge of them beforehand) and it seemed to me be an area that would be interesting to investigate, whilst also being a learning experience for me. To pass the dissertation, you also need a fairly niche subject that hasn’t been researched before, so it suited on that level too. With hindsight, I am really glad that I chose that topic, as I came to understand that it was an issue that was very important to the growers, and I hope that my research might actually be beneficial to them in some way too.
Q: If you had known how much blood, sweat and tears were involved, would you have done it anyway?
A: Yes! I cannot tell you how much I have learnt over the past four years – and the fantastic people I met along the way have made it all worth it. I went into the programme with my eyes open; we had five MWs already at Berry Bros. at the point, so I was able to get some good advice. Having said that, ‘blood, sweat and tears’ is a very good way of describing it – the course is full of highs and lows; you doubt all the time that you can get there and, I must admit, when you finally do, it is very surreal! I still keep pinching myself now. The MW is not for the faint-hearted but, if you can dedicate the time and energy to the programme, it is incredibly rewarding.
Congratulations again to Catriona, and many thanks to Charlotte Keenan, Emily Monsell and Gavin Keaveney for their questions.