an introduction to the 2018 winning submission
Choosing a winning essay for the very first scholarship in honor of my father was challenging for many reasons. The first might be obvious — my family and I wanted the creative essays to do justice to the life my father lived. I can say with complete honesty that the fact that we received so many submissions from so many talented, inspired Master of Wine students, took a great deal of pressure off of the first challenge. My family and I were humbled by the response from the global community of Master of Wine students, and we were grateful for the seriousness in which the Institute of Masters of Wine took the scholarship.
The next challenge was inherent to evaluating creative writing in general, and that is its perceived subjectivity. Evaluating writing can be like evaluating wine in some ways - everyone has a personal preference, and for some, this can muddy the waters when it comes to defining quality. Yet personal preferences cannot detract from objective quality in wine or writing. I learned this about writing in my former life as a teacher after earning a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in creative writing. I learned this about wine after many years of tasting, and ultimately, when I became a Master of Wine. This is all to say that I look at both creative writing and wine with a critical eye, and overall quality was a major consideration. But like wine, being sound in quality is not ultimately enough to move us or bring us pleasure. There must be something more — something compelling — that connects us to the glass of wine or to the piece of writing.
The topic this year was: “Explore how wine has the capacity to tap into our creative senses and provide inspiration.” Answers did not have to be in formal essay format. Åsa’s piece managed to combine a strong poetic voice, an unconventional yet organized format, along with a distinct passion and clear expertise on the given subject. Rather than simply telling us the answer to that question, she truly explores it, and ultimately shows us the answer with her narrative. What stood out the most was Åsa’s ability to relate wine to the human condition. Her piece exhibits vulnerability, making it both striking and courageous. Åsa’s unique story is one of ambition, love, success, failure, and perseverance, yet it remains relatable to stories beyond her own. There is a piece of everyone who has ever pursued anything bigger than themselves in her narrative. This, in addition to her beautiful descriptions about specific wine experiences in her life, is what made Åsa’s creative writing piece particularly compelling.
I hope you enjoy reading Åsa Wahlström’s winning submission, “A Question Changes Everything,” as much as we did.
Mary Margaret McCamic, Master of Wine Founder of the George T. Gamblin Memorial Scholarship
A question changes everything
by Åsa Wahlström
She bends her head down. Eyes closed. Question hanging in midair. - What kind of white wines are available?
The simple question takes her on a journey far beyond anything she ever imagined.
She has been taught by one of the best. There is no cocktail she cannot make, no order too complicated, no unfamiliar question. The mixing, the tastes, the smells.
But now she cannot answer. She must leave.
A white wine. Green apples?
He looks at her.
- What is your previous experience with wine?
She becomes trapped in the bar but finds every opportunity to escape.
The remains of a fortification tower from the 14th century stands majestically in the main room. She has only eyes for the wine cellar. The sommelier presents a bottle. A small sip. Her heart sings again and she knows she must find a way.
1988 Clos St Hune, Trimbach, Alsace. Lusciously ripe lemons. White melting of a winter cover. Cool.
Long hours of hard work make her strong. Fast. And finally, one evening.
- You are good at this. I will teach you. And I will send you to sommelier school.
They cannot see the sweat rolling down her spine or the slight tremble of the hands during decanting. They offer her a sip. She is in love. Again.
She is offered good money to move. What kind of wine do they have there?
They say they do not care about wine. The decision to stay comes freely.
1982 Petrus, Bordeaux. Forest in early spring. Dark berries under wet leaves. Tanned leather. Morning dew.
There is a phone call. She is twenty-eight and sees her childhood dream come true. - Come and join the airline company?
When she travels she looks for wine. It is all so wonderful. The stunning landscapes, the passionate people, the refined enjoyment. All fun, but it makes her restless. She needs to return to the ground. To wine. She is offered a position in sales. They tell her she cannot taste the new vintages because she should know such things being a sommelier. Once again trapped.
1988 Pierre Peters, Champagne. Warm toast, butter and freshly squeezed apple juice. Spring turning into summer. Willed.
She sits in a wine bar and the owner looks at her sad face. - Why don ́t you come and work here?
The wine bar is heaven. People around her think she is mad. Turning down good money for work as a waitress? She does not care. Money never mattered. She spends it on wine education and gets to taste every vintage her heart desires. She is happy.
1989 Le Haut-Lieu, Hüet, Vouvray. Acacia honey swirled, dripping over roasted almonds. Stones wet by rain in summer. Warm skin. Liberation.
A woman enters the bar.
- You should teach others about wine. Come and join the university?
They listen to her. They ask questions to which she doesn’t have all the answers. She is intrigued, fascinated by their eagerness to learn. That follows her. It triggers her to finish studies of pedagogy whilst teaching students about wine. She is exhausted but content.
NV Diebolt-Vallois, Brut Prestige, Champagne. Lemon curd. Fingers touching chalk. Midsummer, fragile buds turning into berries. Warm sun on your face. Grace.
She returns after work and finds him in the kitchen with two glasses and a bottle of wine: - Will you marry me?
She is upset…he opened the bottle she bought for keeping. It turns out to be beautiful. It makes her heart melt. The wine is exceptional. He is exceptional.
Selosse Substance, Champagne. Browning butter in a pan. A fickle of hyacinth. Seeking shade from the sun. Sweat dripping. Invigorating sparkle. Passion.
The Master of Wine program is open for entry. She lets her work place know of her plans. - Who do you think will finance this? Why should you do something so difficult?
She starts her own consultancy. Working in restaurants, teaching at sommelier schools, hosting wine tastings. And she is accepted onto the MW program. Her heart sings again.
2013 Hirsch San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir. Shreds of newly cut oak. Wild raspberries. Early autumn breeze, fingers touching earth. Drying of leaves. Crunch.
She gives birth to two children. She fails the MW exam. Twice.
- Why don’t you apply for the open position? It will give you calm. And wine.
She realizes she hasn’t tasted the world nearly as much as she should have. The new position is heaven. Again. She receives the phone call saying that she passed the practical part. She worked so hard for this. It has temporarily drained her of her love for wine. But only temporarily.
2009 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon, Argentina. Ripe plums in grandma’s garden, grass in late autumn, coffee grains, silk against a cool cheek. Revival.
Her children are growing. They all travel together through Europe ́s vineyards.
- Mom! Look what we can make out of corks! This is a monkey…this is a lion…
She smiles. The wine brings so many beautiful people into her life. They share the love, the joy and the passion. Life is good. She prepares for the theory part of her exam.
2007 Berg Rottland, Georg Breuer, Rheingau. Rain on empty vines. Rain on pavement. Ripe, green mealy pear. Refreshing lemonade. Future.
She sits on a train. Tears are rolling down her face. Heartbroken. - I need a change. I want a divorce.
Her wines keep her company, but she loses herself for a time. She doesn’t sleep or eat. But she works out hard. And gets to keep all the wine. The wine cabinet, the storage cellar. Energy is too low to study but she keeps smiling. She knows it will get better.
2008 Hunter Valley Semillon, Tyrrell’s. Beeswax. Salty tears. A tremble. Solitude.
He looks at her from the other side of the table.
- You should be the CEO for the company. Are you interested?
She loves a challenge. But realizes quickly it will take her away from what she loves more. So she declines. Returns to the books.
Puzzle is yet to be mastered. She has two hundred days left.
2016 Orange Gewurztraminer, Rossidi, Bulgaria. Apricot jam. Fragrant rose garden. Lips touching satin. Smiling.
Her friend sends her a message from far away.
- You should write on the essay title just sent out!
She hesitates. Her friend insists. Tells her she is creative and has a special intelligence that makes her look at normal things with different eyes. She smiles. Not because she agrees but because she realizes her love of wine has brought her here.
2016 Mustigullo Garnacha, Valencia. Red berries under your feet. White pepper freshly grained on red meat. A sigh of relief. Winter is near. Hope.
About the author: Åsa Wahlström
Åsa Wahlström is a second-year Master of Wine student and has passed the rigorous practical (tasting) portion of the exam. She resides in Sweden and currently works as the Quality Manager for Solera Beverage Group, an importer of wines and spirits into the Nordic markets. Åsa’s career in wine began in 1996 when she began working as a sommelier at The Lion Tower in Stockholm. She has also held positions in wine education at The Restaurant Academy and Örebro University. In addition to her role at Solera Beverage group, Åsa continues to write and teach about wine as a Certified Educator with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Åsa also holds the prestigious WSET Diploma.