8 Tips for Creating an Effective Wine Self-study Practice

A Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier offer advice on how to prepare for the big exams

TEXSOM’s “Practical Approaches to More Effective Self Study” event. Photo by Courtney Perry.

Whether you’re studying for the MS or the MW exam, both require intense self-discipline and commitment. The amount of information is daunting, but knowing how to tackle it properly can make all the difference. At the 2018 TEXSOM conference, held August 11–13 in Las Colinas, Texas, Mary Margaret McCamic, MW, and Matthew Citriglia, MS, shared their best practices for successful self-study.

One of the most important things to note, says McCamic, is that studying as an adult is different from studying during high school. As a former high school English teacher, she saw how curriculum was “taught to the test.” When you’re studying as an adult, information must be relevant within the context of your career. There’s also more to manage to achieve a work-life balance, so study sessions need to be short and focused.

“People think these are wine exams,” says Citriglia. “They’re not; they’re sensory exams.” It’s not about regurgitating facts or even correctly blinding a wine. Showing logical thinking about what’s being smelled and tasted matters the most. Because examiners want to see candidates connect the dots, says McCamic, “these are not exams that can be passed in one way.” To be successful, you need a strong foundation of knowledge to build on; the core of self-study is therefore understanding yourself and what techniques work best for you. Here, McCamic and Citriglia share their tips for developing an effective practice.

1. Create a Study Plan

The key to self-study is to outline a strategy. “People are scared to create study plans because it takes a long time,” says McCamic. “They think that if they take the whole weekend to create a plan, they’ve lost time studying. That’s completely false; that’s like trying to drive without a road map.”  

To craft an effective self-guided program, she says, you need to take a long-range view of your schedule and factor in both personal and professional goals. “Think about all the time commitments you have and what you need to learn,” she says. “Personally, I would come up with a very detailed week-by-week checklist of subjects I needed to cover, and specific topics within those subjects.”  

She also notes that it’s important to build review time into your plan so you can digest information rather than constantly gathering data. Progress checks, such as mock exams, can also reveal whether you’re actually absorbing the information and allow you to assess the quality of your methods.

2. Understand the Requirements of the Exam

The MS and MW exams are structured differently, and knowing the core principles underpinning your exam, as well as its format, should guide your study plan. However, there is some overlap in terms of requirements for success, say Citriglia and McCamic. Both exams demand speed, a display of confidence, a systematic approach to thinking, the ability to reach a conclusion through critical assessment, anxiety control, and the capacity to demonstrate an “observation to conclusion” argument of what’s in the wine glass.

Matthew Citriglia, MS
TEXSOM Speaker Matthew Citriglia, MS. Photo by Courtney Perry.

3. Know Not Only Your Weaknesses but Your Strengths

Assessing your strengths and weaknesses, both personally and professionally, will help you create the most effective plan for studying, says McCamic. “Do you get anxious about tests? Do you get nervous around people?” she asks. “You have to go into this with an open mind and open heart and really be honest with yourself about what you have to do to prepare.” She also says that it’s important for people to identify their strengths and weaknesses—and take them into account when drawing up a self-study map. “I had a natural inclination for tasting,” she says, so she allocated more time to theoretical topics in which she didn’t have a strong knowledge base.

4. Employ More Than One Method of Learning

People learn in a multitude of ways—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and so on—so to truly grasp the information, take a multipronged approach to data. Citing pruning as an example, McCamic found that textbooks weren’t able to do the topic justice, but the experience of working a harvest helped give context to the subject and bolstered the information in the books.

5. Identify Your Distractions—and Buy a Squeeze Ball

Does scrolling through Facebook lure you into the black hole of procrastination? Do you cave in when your spouse invites you out to drinks with friends? Identifying your triggers for distraction and finding ways to combat them will contribute to your success. “Squeeze balls are really good for people who are easily distracted,” says Citriglia. “Giving your muscles something to do while you’re reading really keeps you in the moment. You’ll find your mind wanders less. The muscular stimulus allows your brain to focus and absorb the information.”

6. Engage in Positive Self-Talk and Visualization

“Some of you are just way too hard on yourselves,” says McCamic. “Your brain doesn’t know the difference between someone telling you you’re terrible and you telling yourself you’re terrible. It brings you down either way.” Citriglia agrees. “We watch people fail themselves before the exam fails them,” he says. “Visualization is really important. Picturing yourself succeed at service and seeing yourself succeed at a tasting will really help you stay calm.”

7. Create Stressors in Your Studying

“I used to go through the whole process of service standards with my two kids running around the kitchen yelling and screaming,” says Citriglia. Chaos can mimic common scenarios that can take place during service—and situations you may confront during your exam. By learning to adapt while studying, he says, you’ll be able to “think on the fly” during the test.

8. Be Your Own Teacher

Establish an internal student-teacher relationship with yourself. “Create study techniques whereby you learn [the topic] as the student, then you create tools that make you the teacher and you go back and teach yourself again,” says McCamic. In the student role, you research the topic, break it down into digestible bits, and then organize that information in a logical way, such as putting it into a cheat sheet, diagram, or chart.

For example, on the topic of how and why enzymes are used in winemaking, she says, “I would identify the enzymes used, how they work, the ultimate ‘why’ for each, and real-world, global examples—and I would take that data and put it into a table … that could be reviewed again and again closer to exam time.” The enzyme table becomes a tool you can use to teach the material to yourself. “One of the best ways to learn something is to try teaching it. If you struggle, maybe it’s because you don’t know [the material] well enough.”

Citriglia, who practices yoga, draws on the discipline to put the entire experience of studying into context. “In our Western culture,” he says, “we focus on one moment in time: if we pass or if we fail. In yoga, the practice is what you’re doing every single day, and it’s that practice that defines you. Let go of the results of the day and say, ‘I’ve done the work. I’m better than a year ago when I started this journey.’”


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Shana Clarke is a wine, sake, and travel writer, and the author of 150 Vineyards You Need To Visit Before You Die. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Fortune, NPR, Wine Enthusiast, and Hemispheres. She was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer 2020 International Wine Writers’ Awards and ranked one of the “Top 20 U.S. Wine Writers That Wineries Can Work With” by Beverage Trade Network in 2021. She holds a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Sake Sommelier. She will always say yes to a glass of Champagne. Learn more at and follow her @shanaspeakswine.

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