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Not long ago I stumbled across the Khan Academy. If not familiar, Khanacademy.com is an online school that offers free instruction on a wide range of subjects, from math (up to and including Calculus) to science to the arts including classical music. The school is the brainchild of Salman Khan, a former Silicon Valley V.C. Khan’s idea for an online school evolved from an experience close to home. His niece Nadia had failed her sixth grade math placement test and was completely devastated. Khan sensed that her poor exam performance might have negative long term consequences as in a permanent end to math studies for her. He thought she was far too bright for that to happen and was also curious as to why she had shown so poorly in math when she excelled far above her age and grade in every other subject.

Sal took it upon himself to tutor her on math via the phone. He quickly discovered that the phone was far from the optimum medium to teach anyone anything and more importantly, that Nadia had gaping holes in her basic math skills. Khan set about to fill those gaps and in doing so developed a series of short video/audio modules that covered math basics in sequential order of increasing difficulty. Though technologically crude, the videos were effective and in a short time Nadia retook and aced the placement exam. But the story didn’t end there. In working with Nadia, Sal went on to tutor other kids who were in his extended family. The project grew into a bare bones free online school focusing on math and science, using the same philosophy of short videos that broke down the given subject incrementally. Through virtual word of mouth Khan woke up one day to discover over 10,000 people using his videos. The rest is history with the Khan academy now considered one of the top online learning resources of its kind.

After looking at the site I signed up and went through several modules of grammar and classical music. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the information and how it was presented, so much so that I ordered and read Khan’s book, “The World School House, Education Imagined.” I recommend it highly for anyone teaching in any capacity. The book is filled with Khan’s ideas about education, teaching, and testing derived from his developing the online academy. One concept that really hit home was called, “Swiss Cheese Learning.” In it Khan lays out the idea that students—even some of the best—often get to calculus or organic chemistry and hit the wall. He attributes this phenomenon to what he calls “Swiss cheese learning,” or as he puts it, a “shaky understanding early on which will lead to complete bewilderment later.” He further writes that, “Concepts build on one another. Algebra requires arithmetic. Trigonometry flows from geometry. Calculus and physics call on all of the above.”

The cause of Swiss cheese learning, writes Khan, is that students never truly master basic information before going on to the next level. That’s because schools and teachers alike are bound to class and testing schedules that don’t acknowledge the fact that each student learns at a different rate. The pressure to stay on track in terms of a semester or quarterly schedule is also unrelenting. Thus a 75% mark—a “C” by most standards–is good enough to move the student on regardless of the fact that they missed 25% of the information on the test.

Khan likens this to trying to drive a car with just three wheels. He then puts forth one of the major pillars of his education philosophy, “Mastery Learning.” In short, Khan would have that student who got the 75% score not only go back and learn everything missed on the exam, but then retake the exam and continue the process until a perfect score on the exam was achieved. Why go through all the trouble? Wouldn’t 85% or even 90% be adequate? Khan believes not and points again to “Swiss cheese learning,” in that incomplete learning of the basic building blocks of any subject will eventually lead to massive failure when the student is faced with more advanced concepts in the future.



Hubble Telescope
Applying the Khan Philosophy to the MS Theory Curriculum

As I read Khan’s book I wondered if his philosophy could be applied to studying the MS theory curriculum. Further, could his concepts of “Swiss cheese learning” and “Mastery” apply to candidates studying for MS theory exams? And if they do, how could the concepts be applied in a practical and easy to format way?

For those not on the MS exam track, the nature of the MS theory curriculum is at its very essence a model of simplicity: what could a guest at the table ask the sommelier about anything depicted on a wine label much less anything on a wine and/or beverage list? The good news is that there are relatively few “pull-down” menus in regards to the kinds of information that need to be known. The bad news is that the breadth of information—in multiple languages—is monumentally, frighteningly wide. Add to that the fact that the Master’s theory exam is oral and you have an epically difficult challenge especially for those students who don’t have an upper-level academic background (as in college). The challenges are many: not only does a great deal of information has to be memorized and “held” internally but a myriad of connections have to be made between grapes, wines styles, terms for growing grapes and making wines, producers, and vintages from disparate parts of the globe. Again, an epic challenge for anyone.

But here is where two tenets of Sal Khan’s philosophy of learning and education, “mastery” and “Swiss cheese learning,” come into play–especially the second. In chunking down the various wine types or regions in manageable bits the student is able to input the necessary information in an expedient way sans stress with the added benefit of moving it easily into long term memory. In other words, one is able to “master” the information and use it practically.

Tiered Learning

Here I’m using the term tiered as it applies to incrementally breaking down the MS theory curriculum. To do so, I’ll set up the major “pull down menus” or buckets of information categories. As mentioned above, the good news is that there really aren’t that many “kinds” of information the sommelier must know. Here are those major categories:

  1. Geography: country, region, sub-region, appellation, and ultimately single vineyards.
  2. Geographic features, climate, soils
  3. Grape varieties – styles of wine
  4. Viticulture and vinification
  5. Laws
  6. Producers
  7. Vintages
  8. History and lore

Here are thoughts on each of the pull-down menus:

Geography: all MS theory knowledge begins and ends with being able to find a place on the map, be it a country or region, and even a vineyard. From there being able to identify important cities or towns in a region is also necessary.

Important note: geography will need to be revisited multiple times in the process of learning a major region. This simply because many of the most important wine places have classifications involving villages or sub-regions. But always start with larger/major places and upon revisiting go smaller.

Geographical features: after locating said place on a map next up is being able to point to major geographical features that will influence the place where grapes are grown and wine made. Here we’re talking about two major things that influence climate: elevation in the form of mountain ranges (think rain shadow effect) or bodies of water as far as important rivers, lakes, and even oceans.

Major grape varieties and styles of wine: along with place, the specific grape variety is the most other important part of any wine equation. In a given region what are the major grapes? Are they white? Red? Further, what style or styles of wine is/are made from said grapes? Still, sparkling, aromatized, or fortified? To the last point, knowing that dry wines are made in the Douro Valley in Portugal from the same grapes that have been used to make Port for centuries is important.

Soils, viticulture, and vinification: knowing major soil types and connecting them to places and specific grapes is next. From there being aware of any important methods, even laws, for growing grapes (think irrigation vs. dry farming and sustainable farming vs. biodynamics) and making wine. A good example of sommelier-related winemaking knowledge is connecting carbonic maceration in the production of Beaujolais Villages to the characteristics of said wine in the glass.

Laws & classifications: aside from geography–which can be really complex–laws and classifications require the most time for study and learning. Regardless of the recent changes in EU wine law, every European country has its own set of wine laws which in many cases varies with different regions. They can be simple or markedly complex with long lists of place names (think 1855 Bordeaux classification or the VDP classification). It goes without saying that this “pull-down menu” can get complicated as there are instances where knowing residual sugar in finished wine in grams per liter, minimum aging requirements, or alcohol by volume is necessary.

Vintages and producers: knowing top vintages—and off vintages—in the last two decades for any wine region is key. Exceptions would be vintages for Port since WWII.

Relevant history and lore: not a deep as it sounds. Many regions have historical figures, events, and dates that make the place what it is in the modern wine world. In California wine we can point to two dates—and monumentally important people—as being the most influential in the last 100 years. Those would be 1938 when George de Latour, owner of Beaulieu Vineyard, hired Russian-born, French-trained Andre Tchelistcheff to be his chief winemaker, and 1966 when Robert Mondavi founded the winery bearing his name in Oakville. Both are red-letter dates and arguably the most influential people in the modern history of California—and American—wine.


Hubble Telescope
Using the Khan Philosophy in Studies

There are any number of ways to break down study of theory but the two tenets of the Khan educational philosophy, “mastery” of a subject in incremental pieces and “Swiss cheese learning,” can be remarkably valuable tools for the student. I’ll also add two important strategies that I’ve written about previously:

First, that students not think of studying in terms of hours spent sitting in front of laptops or looking at books or flashcards, but instead schedule shorter “modules” of 45 minutes that allow time to completely focus and then take a break. This simply because the mind does far better when studying in shorter intense periods of time.

*One important note from personal experience: visual memory and the stress of an actual exam do not peacefully co-exist. If one just studies visually (reading and looking at flashcards) the potential to blank on an answer to a question in an oral exam goes up exponentially. Multi-sensory memory is absolutely needed. Which brings me to the second point:

Second, use narrative constantly when studying—as in talk out loud when you’re studying and for two very good reasons: first, the simple act of narrative when reading something improves memory by as much as 40%. Second, and perhaps more important, when (not if) you pass the exam you will probably want to teach and so why not start assuming the role of the teacher when studying for the exam? What I have in mind is a scenario where someone studying is standing up (yes, standing up) and literally talking out loud while holding notes in hand and pointing in the air to a place on an invisible map.

Now we’ll add the Khan tenets to the mix. With a region or even sub-region, use each of the pull-down menus or buckets listed above. Start with being able to find the place on a map and then note any major geographical features. From there proceed to major grapes and styles of wines, and so on.

There’s only one rule here: you absolutely cannot go on until you know whatever it is you’re studying cold – as in you could explain it to anyone, even your Aunt Bernina from Des Moines.

There’s one exception to the rule in all this (Of course there’s an exception!). Often wine information comes in the form of extended lists of things, be it vineyards, or producers, or whatever. If there are more than five of anything on a list, I strongly recommend spending time memorizing/learning whatever the list is LAST—after you have mastered everything else about a place.

Nothing saps memory, energy, and confidence like trying to memorize all 61 chateaux of the 1855 Classification or all the Burgundy Grands Cru. These extended lists should be tackled last and in doing so the best strategy is to remain consistent with tiered learning by breaking the list down into communes/villages or smaller geographical units.

Above all, I strongly suggest NOT spending time initially trying to memorize long lists of abstract information. Our brains don’t work that way. Long lists of any kind need to be broken down into more manageable numbers of three-to-five bits of information that can quickly be related to a more complete larger picture—and with wine this always involves geography and that requires a map. Maps are indeed your friends.

Final Thoughts

Some countries are far more challenging than others. Italy and Germany are the most challenging of all and need to be broken down in manageable chunks so they can be readily understood. Start with something easy like Alsace or countries in the New World. Begin each study module reviewing things you already know. Memorize information in chunks of three and five bits of information.

Finally, remind yourself often that there are two distinct categories of information: the information that you already know and will be henceforth reviewing vs. the information you are in process of learning and committing to memory. If you don’t constantly remind yourself of this distinction your brain will all too willingly generalize and see all wine theory as a tsunami of data that can never be learned and it will go right into overwhelm mode–which is far from useful.


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