What do you get when you cross a very laid back personality with an intense desire to acquire as much knowledge as possible about all things booze? You get Joey Casco, aka The WineStalker. Joey and I “met” on twitter quite some time ago. I have no idea how our paths crossed. Well, duh, I know it was wine related, but I don’t know who found who or who re-tweeted who first. What I do know, is that as soon as we started following each other, it was obvious we would be friends. Not just twitter friends, but real friends [if we actually ever met in real life]. Joey has a great sense of humor that is just on the borderline of being crude. Ok, he is crude, but that is one of the things I love about his humor/sarcasm. There are few things on social media that make me laugh as hard or as often as Joey’s memes do. I also love how he is straight forward. He doesn’t hold anything back. It is obvious if he likes or doesn’t like something and he somehow makes you laugh either way.
When Joey reached out to me a few months back and asked if I would be interested in writing a guest post for him, there was no thinking needed. I knew I wanted to write it. I was honored that he thought of me. When deciding what to write, the only thing I knew was that I had to come up with something on the sarcastic side. [not that I have difficulty being sarcastic]. Enter “Why Being a Winemaker is Great… Or Not.” The other reason why I jumped so quickly was that I figured I could then twist him arm to write a guest post for me. So please enjoy the post below. I think his personality comes through and I’m sure if you aren’t familiar with him, you will become a huge fan, just like I did. You can subscribe to his blog posts and follow him on twitter.
Daddy Needs To Study… And Blog About Booze by Joey Casco
After aggressively studying six nights a week for seven months to become a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, why did I sign up for the Certified Specialist of Spirits? I don’t even really like distilled spirits all that much! But I continued my studying for another year to earn it.
From September of 2013, when I started studying for the CSW, to July of 2015, when I passed the CSS, I fell so far behind in pop culture, video games, movies, television shows, and sports that I pretty much have no connection to the average person my age. You know I still haven’t seen any of the Avenger movies or their satellite films except for the first Iron Man? I haven’t played EA Sports NHL in forever! I MUST BE CRAZY.
Let me take just a minute to quickly explain just how insane it is to hold a normal life together, be an obsessive studier, and maintain a popular blog at the same time. Hint: it’s not fun.
What separates the Society of Wine Educators from other adult beverage education programs is that it’s pretty much entirely up to you. There’s no weekly classes and there’s no tier system that breaks things down one level at a time. You have one year to practically memorize an entire 300 page book. So you need to be pretty good at time management and understanding how you learn. That’s not really the best way to educate somebody, but it does mean that somebody with a CSW or CSS is pretty driven. However, there’s no tasting portion and it’s all academic. So in my opinion it’s the perfect certification route for those in retail, where as the others are for sommeliers and the restaurant industry.
There’s the CSW for Certified Specialist of Wine and CSS for Certified Specialist of Spirits. Both tests are one hour, one hundred questions and you need to get at least seventy-five right. The CSW has a passing rate of less than 50%. Taking it way up to another level there’s also CWE for Certified Wine Educator and CSE for Certified Spirits Educator and those are insanely difficult, taking an average of five years of hardcore studying to earn.
The CSS was an entirely different situation than the CSW for me. With the CSW I had just quit three part-time jobs to spend time with my daughter, who had gone from being born to three years old overnight… and I missed it. With the loss of income from those jobs, we struggled financially for awhile but it was worth the time with her. At night, after she was asleep, I started studying for the CSW and even created The Wine Stalker as a Facebook page to follow my studies.
My full time position was, and still is, a retail Wine Manager so I already knew about wine when I started with the CSW, but I knew absolutely jack friggin squat about spirits when I started studying for the CSS. Nothing. And just to add to the workload, The Wine Stalker became an all-out wine blog immediately after I passed the CSW. It required, ya know, actual writing and time investment of its own.
Starting from knowing ZERO about a topic with the goal of becoming a SPECIALIST on it within a year is a tall order. Especially when you’re trying to juggle being a daddy, being a husband, working 40+ hours a week, getting sleep, and maintaining your own happiness. Also, being stubborn, I refused to put the blog on hold. I worked hard to get that blog going, so you can add cranking out articles and reviews to that list.
The hardest part about being so overloaded with things that “need” to get done but really don’t “need” to get done is the husband part. Aren’t I supposed to spend time with my wife after the kid is asleep? Am I supposed to be studying about liquor four nights a week at the kitchen table until 3 am? And when that’s not happening am I supposed to be on the computer drinking wine and writing about it two to three nights a week? I mean, almost everything I do has to do with alcohol because that’s the field I’m in, and she doesn’t even drink. But I tell ya what… she’s been supportive of my studies and the blog, even if we don’t get to curl up and snuggle as much as we should.
But the time management problem is entirely my fault. The blog is manageable on its own and there’s plenty of time for other things at night, but when you throw something in like the CSS it gets crazy… because I’m crazy. When I go for something, especially when it’s a notch in the belt or letters after my name, I go at it hardcore. There is no way I’ll allow myself to blow an opportunity that will benefit me for the rest of my life. Also, that test costs $600 to take! I will not be throwing away $600 any time soon, even if my employer is paying for it!
Most importantly, I’m not the kind of person that just wants to pass a test. I want to ace it. I want to know everything about the topic and earn that title of being a “Specialist” with what I know.
For the most part I studied Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights. Wednesday and Saturday nights I wrote for the blog. I’d be up until 2 to 3am most nights, and then be up at 6am. I WAS TIRED, AMERICA! Thank goodness for Sunday. That was Boardwalk Empire / The Walking Dead / Game of Thrones / Early To Bed night.
Because I knew nothing about spirits to start, I read Whiskey and Spirits for Dummies before I did anything else. That Dummies book gave me a good understanding of spirits and did a great job at prepping me for the CSS Study Guide.
I’ve got ADD, man. It’s hard to concentrate and retain information. But I’ve found that when I obsess on organization and learning in tiers, it’s GAME ON. And I’ve found a guaranteed way of making these tests my bitch.
You should see my notes. They’re so organized it’s absolutely ridiculous. I pretty much write down the entire book on the first read. While I’m doing that I highlight the basic things with yellow, and make flash cards highlighted with yellow. I think my plan for the CSS was 10 pages a night, and for the CSW it was 40 (the CSS Study Guide is a quarter of the size of the CSW one). YouTube was a great friend on the first read. Starting on, say, Cognac? Watch some Cognac videos. They really do help.
Once I’ve got that info down I use the online course/quiz and highlight in orange, in the actual study book and on flashcards, the things that I needed to know on the quizzes that I didn’t know. Going through this took a week for the CSS and two for the CSW. Then I read the book again and highlight the other, more in-depth things that I can handle now with blue and, again, on flashcards.
Then it’s studying maps, continually going over flashcards, watching YouTube videos, and using other books and articles to learn about it. I don’t take this stuff as a joke at all. Like I said, I do everything in my power not to blow such a great opportunity.
It was almost one whole year of going all-out every night on SOMETHING, whether it was the CSS or the blog, and it was actually worth it. The blog was just named #60 on the Top 100 Most Influential Wine Blogs of 2015. I’ve got one of the top wine accounts on Twitter and my Instagram is getting about 100 followers a day. It’s pretty cool. That stuff wouldn’t have happened if I took a break.
That and it only took me just 23 minutes to take the CSS test and pass with a 91. Things have slowed down. I’m watching television and movies again. There’s balance again. It paid off.
So, going back to my initial question, why would I put myself through becoming a Certified Specialist of Spirits when I didn’t have to? The answer may not be what you think… it’s because I enjoy getting better at my job. There’s really no worse feeling to me than answering a customer’s question with “I’m not sure. I’m the wine guy. Let me go get the liquor guy.” It feels good to be able to answer something on your own when you fought so hard for that knowledge. Helping people is rewarding to me, and having them come back because of that is just one of the best feelings in the world.
For that same reason I plan on taking an online beer course in January. It doesn’t even touch the time and effort that the CSW and CSS does, but I do need to acquire a basic understanding of beer and its styles. And then I’m returning right back home to wine education.
Albert Einstein said “Once you stop learning, you start dying” and I couldn’t agree more. – ~Joey Casco CSW/CSS TheWineStalker.net