Sunday, June 5, 2011

The End and The Beginning

31 days.

That's how long it took from the beginning of this quest to hearing the words:

The job is yours if you want it.

Where did I hear them?

I can't tell you.

It's a legendary place, a world-famous place, a fabled institution full of stories.

I am such a sucker for stories. But saying anything about this restaurant will likely guarantee that anyone who knows anything about Florida dining will recognize it.

Which is why I must sadly end this blog. I originally thought it could easily remain anonymous, both on my side and the restaurant's. Now I worry it can't, and if this job turns out to be the career-changing opportunity of a lifetime, then I don't want to be doing anything that might scare the management. I had already promised myself that I would never say anything negative about my eventual workplace. I swore I would include any humorous deprecation solely at my own expense. But with the media reporting almost daily accounts of blog-based firings, I don't want to take the chance of being misunderstood.

So I will end with a few explanations about why I am going to a place that in many ways is totally unlike Perfect Place #1. No water view. No boats. No palm trees. No sunsets.

And no chance for making any real money for over a year.

That's right. My most urgent goal for seeking a job was money, and now I am choosing a place to work that will not provide more than a bare minimum for at least a year or more. Until I am ready. Until I have passed the training, which is the most intense in the industry. In fact, although they will call it "working," I have decided to view the year as "going to night school." Monetarily, this next year will be more similar to being a grad student than to gainful employment. However, unlike any other area graduate program I might consider, this one has the advantage of being:
  1. "Free."
  2. Paying me a "stipend" that will at least cover travel costs and maybe some groceries
  3. Strongly guaranteeing a salary in a totally new field from my current one that upon completion of schooling could immediately start out as high as $70,000 and move up significantly from there after more experience.
Some might view a year of pittance-wage training as a ridiculously long period of time for the business of waitressing. But as someone who spent four years in a social-science Ph.D. program, it sounds to me like a fast-track to the top of the profession. And as someone living in a state where unemployment is now 12%, it also sounds like an offer I can't refuse. Even if it means taking the financial hit of using retirement funds to survive.

Here are other reasons why the place won me over:

  • The web site describes a set of philosophies and standards that are eerily similar to those I have constructed for myself over 20 years of education research and consulting. For example -
- "The philosophy of one-size-fits-all does not exist at (this restaurant)." Holy smokes, how many times have I advised clients that the most underutilized secret to motivating and educating students, particularly in literacy, is personalization? How many reports have I written, how many projects have I been on, how many articles have I read, where the primary argument was against one-size-fits-all education, where we even used that exact phrasing? Seeing those words on their website gave me goosebumps.

- "(This restaurant is) based on the belief that the guest must always come back." The restaurant even specifically encourages diners to request a particular, favorite server. In other words, they are all about the long-term-relationship, rather than any single dining experience. If you read my previous post on this topic, then you know why this made me rush right down and put in Application #2.

  • The restaurant boasts the world's (yes, world's) largest collection of wines and promises a comprehensive wine education as part of the training program. How could I turn down the chance to make Bill Wilson proud by using his Wine for Newbies lessons as a launch pad to this?
  • I have long believed that if there are synonyms for heaven, then one of them must be dessert. And this place elevates dessert like no place I have ever seen. As a diner, you actually leave your table once the main course is over and proceed upstairs (i.e., closer to heaven) to a whole other series of rooms exclusively designed for exploring and savoring the world of desserts: everything from complicated concoctions set on fire to homemade ice creams. Maybe if I hadn't seen the list of homemade ice creams I could have resisted. But I did. And I can't.
  • I learned during the interview that 75% of trainees drop out in the first month. Good grief, it sounds like a Navy SEALS class! According to the manager, they leave upon discovering that they can get employment at another restaurant where they will spend only one month in training before making big bucks, rather than spending an entire year plus. They sacrifice the chance for the best professional training in the business for immediate cash reward....
Leave it to the Ph.D. to actually be attracted to the notion of prioritizing pursuit of knowledge, especially deep and arcane knowledge, over making money. Story of my life.

In fact, even once the training is over, even once I have spent some time serving, I will have to undergo a 2 - 3 hour oral exam in front of a managerial "committee" in order to remain employed. I'm telling you, it warms this old academic's heart. Just add a written dissertation to it, and I'll feel like I'm twenty-five again.

But will I really get to that point? Or will I end up being one of the 75% of dropouts? It's hard to tell. Even if I end up passing the training and making it into the ranks of the highly paid, I may one day leave for a place that promises not only money but also daily sunsets over water.

Or I may decide that I can never leave the homemade ice creams.

Either way, I honestly believe their description of this restaurant as a "gastronomic adventure."

"Adventure" is one of my all-time favorite words and longings.

Class begins next week.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 22: Application #1, Bartending, and Classroom Management

OK, Application #1 is in to a place that I think has it all:
  • palm trees
  • waterfront view
  • boat slips for sail-in or motor-in dining
  • outdoor deck
  • great food, full bar, extensive wine list
I've started diligent research on the menu by (a) eating there with husband and (b) dropping in a few times at the bar for a take-out food order. The same bartender, female, has been there each time, and each time I am profoundly amazed at her ability. Not in mixing drinks -- I wouldn't know. I'm talking about her unspoken communication skills. You see, each time she gives me a wide smile and friendly greeting. Really it's a picture-perfect smile, well-voiced greeting, and each time her service for my take-out order has been impeccable. Yet somehow she communicates subliminally an additional crystal-clear message:

Me: (sitting down at the bar) Hi.
Bartender - Explicit communication: (Big smile) Hi, welcome to XXXXXXX. What can I get you?
Bartender - Subliminal communication: And I am NOT going to take any CRAP from YOU!

It's not just me; I see it in her manner with all the customers. It's an incredible skill. I wish I had it.

In fact, I think education could be tremendously improved if we had a way to help more teachers develop that skill. The folk wisdom for new teachers used to be focused on how you appeared to students on the outside. The advice: Never smile before Christmas. A quick Google shows that many teachers take exception to that adage nowadays (see here and here), but I still hear too many stories from my own children about teachers who lay everything out in explicit communication like this:

Teacher to students: And I will NOT tolerate ANY WILLFUL DISOBEDIENCE.

My children report that any phrase like "willful disobedience," especially used at the middle or high school level, is a guaranteed mocking target and completely destroys any possibility of student respect or cooperation.

The sheer complexity of classroom management and the skills needed for maintaining authority and control among 20+ children who generally want to be somewhere else is the top reason I am swerving my career path into the restaurant business instead of teaching, despite having 20+ years experience in educational research. In fine-dining restaurants, your customers generally want to be there, they want their interaction with you to be a success, and they don't have any motivation to test your patience. I suspect that all these qualities may not extend to customers who go exclusively to the bar (particularly after some time has passed), which is likely why bartenders have developed their extraordinary communication magic.

Teacher quality, teacher preparation, and evaluating teacher effectiveness are all hot topics in education at the moment. So even though I am now entering a different career field, I have a suggestion:

Send student teachers to bartending school. At least for the communication part.

Or, just send teachers to lots of bars to observe the masters. Somehow I suspect teachers will embrace this type of professional development more readily than most of what they get offered (excepting any projects I worked on, of course). And based on what I hear from teachers, this would also likely be more respectful of them and more targeted to their true needs.

Should I think of developing this skill as a waitress? One of my sources (How to make megabucks waiting tables) makes the following - and surprising - claim:

(p. 45) An interesting phenomenon may develop as you become a better waiter. As you get more skilled in anticipating your customers' needs, and less forgetful of your customers' wants, you will start to find that you don't need to be as nice as you once did. Of course, niceness is always, um, nice, but once you are meeting all your customers' expectations, you will find that you sometimes make better tips when you're a bit brusque with them, less chirpy, more curt. Who knows why this happens, but sometimes customers feel like they have to live up to your expectations of them as a good customer.

The author also issues a warning:
Beware, however: This strategy works only if you are a good waiter. If you try to have an attitude and don't deliver the goods, you'll end up with numerous customer complaints and empty pockets.

So I don't think I'll take that risk, certainly not at first. For now, it's focus on nice. And on Application #2.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Day 18: Liquor, Wigwams, and the Brain

Here's a tip:
If you want to practice opening a bottle of champagne, don't buy a $5.99 bottle.

You will discover that underneath the lovely gold foil, there is a screwtop cap, not a cork.

After the champagne bottle practice was thwarted, I dove into a crash course on liquor and have spent the past couple of days immersed in a whole new world of alcoholic vocabulary. Just a few days ago I could not have told you the name of a single brand of gin. Today I can rattle off at least four, none of which are as hard to pronounce as Gewurztraminer:

Tanqueray, Beefeater, Bombay, Bombay Sapphire.

I also know at least:

3 types of Bourbon
- Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Wild Turkey

3 types of Canadian Whisky (no 'e' in Canadian whisky)
- Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Seagram's

3 types of Scotch Whisky (no 'e' in Scotch whisky either)
- Johnny Walker Red, Johnny Walker Black, Glenfiddich

2 types of Irish Whiskey
- Jameson's, Black Bush

6 types of Vodka:
Absolut, Smirnoff, Finlandia, Grey Goose, Stoli, Ketel One

4 types of Rum:
Captain Morgan, Malibu (which has a flavor of coconut), Bacardi, Meyer's Dark


3 types of Tequila:
Cuervo, Sauza, Patron Anejo Gold

When I get a job, of course, I'll have to learn the types stocked by that particular restaurant, but at least now I won't be completely ignorant going in. The flashcard app helped, as did the book Bartending for Dummies, as did knowing from my previous career a very important tenet of learning:

The brain rejects arbitrary information.

It would have been much harder for me to learn what I have so far if I had not known this and had only relied on flashcards. Instead I knew that the more and richer connections I could make around the names and brands of alcohol, the easier they would be to learn.

One way to make these connections would be through actually experiencing these brands. However, that would take more time than I have, and there's also the minor problem that I can barely tolerate any alcohol without feeling the next day like my insides have been blowtorched. Though the brain rejects arbitrary information, my head and stomach reject alcohol even more, so the direct experience method is out for me.

Instead, I've tried to learn as much about the story and context of the brands as I can, and that seems to have worked well. Brain scientists know that narrative information is one of the brain's favorite and easiest types to encode and remember. For example, here are some of the connections and stories I read about in Bartending for Dummies that made learning the brands of gin easier:

- Gin was invented by a professor at a university in Holland, and British soldiers brought the recipe back to England after the wars in the Netherlands. The professor made the concoction from the juniper berry, and French for juniper is genievere, which is also what the professor called his elixir. The Brits shortened the name to gen and then gin, and it became the national drink of England.

-Tanqueray is one type of gin and puts the drink in a green bottle that is said to be modeled on an English fire hydrant.

-Beefeater is the name of one of those heavily costumed soldiers in the British royal guard, so that makes it easy to remember as the name of gin, once you know that gin is such a British drink.

-And everyone knows that England was big into India for a long time, so that makes it easy to remember the brands of Bombay and Bombay Sapphire.

It may seem paradoxical that it's easier to learn and know more about something, like gin, than it is to just try and remember four arbitrary brand names, but that's how it works. You have to build as many rich connections as you can if you want to remember something for real, and not just for tomorrow's exam. I remember one study that was often cited as an example of this: it involved elementary students who needed to learn which tribe of Native Americans built and used which types of dwellings: longhouses, wigwams, teepees, chickees, etc. Kids had a terrible time remembering which was which when the information was presented in a list. However, when they were taught much more about the subject -- for example, where each tribe lived and the weather there, plus interesting stories about the tribe's lifestyle, it suddenly made much more sense why a particular tribe would build a particular type of structure. The information was no longer arbitrary.

That's also the reason why the education world recoils when state governments start demanding that teachers cover a curriculum that's far too broad, often called "a mile wide and an inch deep." If you don't have time to teach enough rich connections around information that you want kids to remember, then the info will seem arbitrary and it won't take hold in the brain.

But that was my last career. I need to get back to more relevant topics now like liquor. I need to not only know the brands, I need to know the names of drinks and the types of liquor in them, so that I can make instant connections like:
Customer orders a Rob Roy = Scotch Whisky = Would you prefer Johnny Walker Red, Johnny Walker Black, or Gledfiddich = look for a drink on the bar that looks like this:

Fortunately the Mental Case flashcard app allows you to include pictures. It's all a lot more complicated than "would you like fries with that" but the pay should be better too. Otherwise I may be looking for a good deal on a chickee....

Of course, I know I can't study forever. I'm nowhere near finished studying mixed drinks or listening to Bill Wilson's wine podcasts, but in three more days it will be three weeks since I started this quest, and that's long enough on the talk. Time for some action. I'll apply for my first job no later than Tuesday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Day 15: Corkscrewed

I have high hopes for my second corkscrew, including hopes that yesterday's failures will not be repeated.

You see, in all 77+ of the Bill Wilson podcasts, there were none that appeared to give a true wine newbie the secrets of uncorking the bottle in a professional manner. I had to turn elsewhere for guidance.

According to the book, Wine for Dummies, all waiters use what's known as a "waiter's corkscrew" or "waiter's wine key." When folded, it looks like a swiss army knife, and when unfolded, it looks like this:

You use the blade (on the right above) to cut the foil from around the top. Then you screw in the "worm," then you somehow use leveraging action to remove the cork.

I've never been good with tools, so exactly how the leveraging action worked was not clear to me. I found a couple of YouTube videos that gave a good demonstration of the "two-stage method." However, the two-stage method requires a corkscrew with a longer lever-part, as shown on the left in this diagram:

See the difference? (Look closely). Apparently you use the first groove on the left lever to do the "tricky initial pull" on the corkscrew. Then you stop, shift the lever to position the second groove on the lip of the bottle, and finish pulling the cork the rest of the way out. That's the guaranteed fool-proof method shown in this video, and also in this video, which features a waitress-in-training named Melissa, also known as the "July Drink-Art Girl."

Melissa is about nineteen and cute, but she is wearing a spaghetti-strap top that looks like it might have fit her in second grade. In her case, that's no doubt a man magnet. In my case, after bearing two children, the tummy is no longer in the category of "body parts for public display."

In contrast, The Perfect Server video episode on serving beverages shows Jane wearing a crisp and professional long-sleeved waiter's shirt. Jane uses the shorter-lever, one-stage wine key and pulls out the cork in a single, fluid, elegant motion.

I want to be like Jane.

I drove to the gourmet kitchen store and asked for a waiter's wine key. They had a large selection, and the saleswoman guided me to the "Waiter's Friend," Argyle Professional Corkscrew. A one-stage wine key. "This is the most popular one," she said. "You know, for those in the business. Because it's so small and goes easily in your pocket."

The way she said "in the business" sold me, and at $11.99 it was well in budget.

Back at home, I retrieved our remaining two bottles of wine, purchased back in the days before we quit drinking it. I re-watched Jane on the video and then made my first attempt.

It failed, but it was not all my fault. Something had happened to the seal, and the corkscrew began to turn inside the neck of the bottle. When I finally --and very inelegantly-- forced it out, it was wet from the bottom of the cork to the top: a clear sign that the seal had gone bad. (As I have learned from Bill Wilson, this is the real reason the waiter presents the cork to the diner: the diner is supposed to check that the cork is wet on the bottom end and dry on the top. Dry on both ends is bad, as is wet all the way to the top. The notion that the diner is supposed to sniff the cork is a myth.)

I poured the bad wine down the drain and moved on to bottle number two: a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again, I carefully cut through and removed the foil, and then screwed the worm inside the cork.

Now it was time for the leveraging action.

Perhaps I had screwed it in too far, perhaps the cork was crumbly from age, perhaps I am so uncoordinated that I will never be a Jane: for one reason or another the cork broke in two, with the bottom third of it still in the neck of the bottle when all the leveraging action was over. Further extraction attempts were futile, and I finally poked the rest of the cork down into the bottle with a spoon handle.

This did not bode well for my career move.

I was too humiliated to go back to the kitchen store and admit I needed a fool-proof Melissa-type corkscrew. So I drove out to a nearby winery.

They had lots of decorative, gifty-type corkscrews, but nothing that looked like a two-stage waiter's key. I went up to the wine-tasting bar, where there were no customers at the moment, and asked the two women behind the bar for help.

Both of them were much older and better-dressed than Melissa, and one even had an exotic foreign accent -- European? South American? Hard for me to tell. I showed her my Argyle professional purchased earlier that day.

She shook her head and said sympathetically. "Oh no. Those are the bad ones. Come, I show you."

She walked over to a cupboard at the back of the bar and pulled out a simple styrofoam box. Inside were very plain-looking wine keys. "Pick a color," she said.

I chose blue.

"I open hundreds of bottles of wine," she said, "all the time. This the only kind I use. Watch."

She pulled out a bottle and unfolded the wine key.

To my dismay, I saw that it was another single-stage key, not the double-stage foolproof kind I was hoping for. However, it her hands it entered the cork effortlessly. She set the hinged part of the lever on the lip of the bottle, and pushed the bottle over to me.


A bit clumsily, I attempted the leveraging action.

The cork slid out.

"You see!" she proclaimed. "Only kind you need."

I looked closer at the tool. There was nothing on it but the word "ITALY" stamped in the metal.

It must be good, I thought. It has the name of a European country on it, and it's recommended by a woman with a European (I decided it was European) accent. I had come looking for a double-stage wine key that even Melissa could use, but here was one that promised to make me a Jane.

And it was exactly half the price of the Argyle Professional.

So tonight I will make my second attempt at professional wine bottle uncorking. The only problem is that we're having hot-dog-and-crescent-rolls for dinner, and I'm not sure what wine goes with that. Bill Wilson says that Pinot Noir is the ultimate in versatile wines, so perhaps that's what I'll try. I'll also get a bottle of champagne, since learning to open those is my next learning challenge....

Friday, May 13, 2011

Day 10: BW Apology and Pronunciations

Still no reply to the e-mail I sent Bill Wilson:

Hi Bill -
I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your 2009-2010 Wine for Newbies 101 video podcasts, Lessons One to Six.

In fact, I just finished Lesson Six and was dismayed to find that there was no Lesson Seven+, especially since it truly sounded like you had planned more. I even got concerned about your health since you had mentioned that scratchy throat in Lesson Four. (I promise I am not a stalker; I am happily married and own an education consulting business. I found your e-mail address at your page.)

With the help of Google, I was relieved to see that you are alive and well on Twitter. Any plans for more video lessons in the future? Also what did you mean on today's Twitter post that starting June 1 the Wine For Newbies podcasts will only be available at I went to and got automatically redirected to a site called "" that proclaimed "Freedom of Speech is a Human Right," in both English and Arabic writing and did not look like it had anything to do with wine....

Thanks again for being such a generous wine educator, and I guess I'll start in on those older audio podcasts at, unless you have another suggestion for me.

However, on the same day I sent the e-mail, some hours later, I saw a new post appear on

May 10, 2011

After several years and over 2.2 million downloads (!), I have decided that it is time to take Wine For Newbies out of iTunes and other RSS feeds. Simply put, the number of current downloads is trickling closer to zero, and it no longer justifies the cost.

The good news is that I will submit all of these to, where they will live so long as that project lasts.

Wine For Newbies has been a blast, and it will always be something I look back on fondly. I’ve received many, many emails from listeners who have learned more about wine, and I know this podcast has served its purpose.

So, while the episodes will no longer be available here or in iTunes as of June 1, 2011, you’ll still be able to get them at I will post a message with the details when the migration is complete.

This was the first post to his site since May of last year. Note also that the archive site appears correctly here as "," as opposed to the erroneous version, "" that he'd put in his Twitter post.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

I wonder why he did not e-mail me back with a personal reply. Maybe he somehow found this blog and was offended that I had compared him with the Happy Days dad.

On the other hand, his own e-mail address contains the phrase "winegeek," so how mad could he be?

Bill, if you are reading this, I am sorry I compared you to Howard Cunningham. Tom Bosley passed away last fall, and I don't know how suave he was in real life. But after spending more time with your podcasts, I am now convinced that you are much more suave than Richie's father ever was. Truly.

Just please don't give up your dream of becoming a full-time wine critic/wine educator. I believe in you.

Another reason I value Bill Wilson's podcasts is my discovery that there are a tremendous number of wine names that are difficult to pronounce.

Like Gewurztraminer. It looks like a cross between something you say when a person sneezes and a Weimaraner. Turns out it is neither a German dog nor a God-bless-you; it's a white wine grape, and I will apparently be learning much more about it in Lesson 13. Hearing Bill say it in the audio podcasts is my first step toward mastering all those syllables.

But what if I'm studying my notes or flashcards and forget how something is pronounced? I found three things to help:

1. has a special page of wine pronunciations. Look up the name in alphabetical order and you can read the phonetic spelling as a guide to pronunciation. For example,

Gewurztraminer Guh-verts-tra-mee-ner

2. includes not only the written pronunciation, it also has an audio clip so you can hear the word. Inogolo's agreement with the pronunciations listed at is similar but not identical:

Gewurztraminer guh-VOORTS-truh-MEE-ner

By the way, don't try typing "Gewurztraminer" into the Inogolo search box: that wine name actually has an umlaut above the "u" and for some reason that messes up the search. (Anyone know how you type an umlaut on an American keyboard while on the web?) Instead, go to the Pronunciation Guide page and scroll down to find the Guide for Names of Wine.

As you'll see, Inogolo doesn't just help with wine names; there are all sorts of categories. Like artists. Ever wonder how to pronounce the name of Swiss abstract painter Paul Klee? Turns out it rhymes with "play" not "knee." French painter Edgar Degas? (Hint: Last name does not rhyme with Las Vegas.) German artist Albrecht Durer? (Another umlauted name - I wonder if he drank Gewurztraminer?) I do think it's interesting that on the Pronunciation Guides page, under the main category of "Arts and Literature" the site lists two subcategories. One is "Artists," and if you go to that page, you can explore the famous names above and many others from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. The second -- and only other -- subcategory is "Pronunciation Guide to characters and places in the Lord of the Rings trilogy." Clearly the site creators have strong opinions about the rightful place and weight of Tolkien in the arts/literature canon. Maybe they are still working on an "Other Authors" page.

3. The Mental Case flashcard app allows you to record and add audio to the flashcards you create. I plan to try this feature out as soon as I can actually say "Gewurztraminer."

Soon I'll need to stop spending all my time on memorization and pronunciation and start practicing physical skills, like gracefully opening a wine bottle and balancing drinks. Time to shop for a waiter's wine key and a cocktail tray....

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Day 8: He's Alive and Flashcard apps

I was immensely relieved to find that Bill Wilson is alive and well on Twitter. I even found an e-mail address for him and sent him a note. (Again, trying hard not to be stalkerish.) We'll see if he responds.

Meanwhile I have plunged into his backlist of 77 audio-only wine podcasts, starting with the ones on "The Big Six" varietal grapes:
1. Riesling
2. Sauvignon Blanc
3. Chardonnay
4. Pinot Noir
5. Merlot
6. Cabernet Sauvignon

It's all a tremendous amount of information, and it's clear that much of my quest in becoming the ultimate waitress is going to involve a lot of memorization. Which wines go best with which foods? If someone is a fan of white zinfandel but is looking to try something different, what's your best bet for something they'll like? (Answer: a Riesling.)

And it's not just wine. If I'm going to upsell the customer on liquor – that is, suggest they try a brand of alcohol more expensive than the cheapest possible no-name "well liquor" in the bar stocks – I'll need to know immediately what kind of alcohol is in that drink:

Customer: I'd like a Tom Collins
Ultimate Waitress: Certainly sir. Is there a particular type of gin that you'd prefer - we have Tanqueray, Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire....

I'll also need to know all – and I mean all – the ingredients in each item on the menu. Now, in Reader's Digest's "Twenty Secrets Your Waiter Won't Tell You" article, they claim that if you ask the waiter whether a dish is made with vegetable stock, the waiter will tell you "yes" even if they have no idea, even though most dishes are made with chicken stock.

I am guessing that is because most waiters are twenty-somethings, and they just don't think like us forty-somethings. As a forty-something waitress, and a mom, I'm immediately going to assume that the customer is asking because they have a rare poultry allergy. And if I tell them wrong thing and it turns out the dish was made with chicken stock, they are going to go into anaphylactic shock and die. (I'm not making it up about the poultry allergy either: someone mentioned it in the comments on the article.)

So memorization is going to be a life-or-death thing for me as a waitress. And as a sometimes-believer in the promise of technology for education, I knew that memorization = flashcards, and flashcards are definitely something technology can handle to make life easier.

Type "flashcards" into the iTunes app store, and you'll get a large selection. I had a hard time choosing between "flashcard touch" and "mental case hd" for iPhone/iPod touch. Both are $4.99, which is "expensive" for an app, but I knew I would need something heavy-duty, and when it comes to apps, you generally get what you pay for. Both also have the advantage that you can import already-made flashcards from an online flashcard community (yes, there are such things). I knew it would actually be more helpful to create my own flashcards, because that's what psychologists call a "generative" activity that is more powerful for memory than simply looking at something and trying to recall it. However, I could imagine that it would be helpful to check my knowledge, particularly about wine, against other people's knowledge, just in case Bill W. misses some information in his podcasts. Though I have come to trust him immensely.

I ended up going with Mental Case primarily because they tout a Mac version of the app that you can put on your desktop computer and use to actually create the flashcards, rather than typing on your phone. (I hate typing on my phone.) Then you simply use your Wi-Fi to sync your Mac and iPhone apps, and you get all the notes from your Mac on your iPhone and vice versa.

It really works, and it didn't take me long to figure it out.

Now, you have to spend an additional $19.99 for the desktop app, but you can try it free first for 30 days. I'm hooked, and as someone old enough to remember $60 Reader-Rabbit CD-ROMS, I'm not offended by the price of twenty-bucks for good software. I did realize later, though, that perhaps you can get around the same problem -- not wanting to type on your phone -- by using your desktop to create the cards online in the flashcard community ( for the flashcard touch app, for the mental case app) and then downloading them to your phone app. That might make the desktop app unnecessary. But the Mental Case approach works well and easily, and I'm not sure that would be the case for the other option. And I've got way too much to learn about wine and liquor to spend any more time researching flashcards. If you've investigated this other option, please comment below so we can all learn how well it works, and that way others might save some cash.

Note also that you can go online to and and use other people's flashcard stacks to study on your desktop computer, without buying the apps at all. There are a number of flashcard stacks on wine, some posted by people who are obviously studying to pass a sommelier exam. But again, I knew that creating the flashcards is something I would need for menu-learning and also would help me remember the material better.

I also liked the fact that the Mental Case developers deliberately chose a name for their app with a double-entendre meaning both "briefcase for your thoughts" and "crazy person." I just hope the latter doesn't describe me for attempting this whole project. And for hoping I hear back from Bill Wilson....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Day 7: Wine Quiz and a Missing Person

Halfway through the Bill Wilson videos on wine, I realized that I was failing to use an important strategy: assessment-centered learning.

Cognitive scientists know that people learn best when they have frequent, low-stakes, low-pressure opportunities to test their abilities and get feedback. In a recent study, for example, education researchers looked at several ways to combine lessons and quizzes in an eighth grade science class. They found that children learned best under this schedule:
1. One quiz before the lesson
2. A second quiz immediately after the lesson or the next day
3. A review quiz the day before the unit exam.

So I immediately put Bill on "pause" and googled "Wine Quiz."

Wow, loads of them. offers three levels of quizzes: a Basic Knowledge quiz, a Wine Lover's quiz, and a Wine Professional's quiz.

Not wanting to jump into the higher levels just yet, I took the 15 question Basic Knowledge quiz, comprised of questions like the following:

German wines are:
a) Always sweet
b) Always red
c) None of the Above
d) All of the Above

I took my best shots, pressed the submit button, and got my score:

1/15 correct. And it wasn't the German question either.

I guess Bill had just not gotten to all this information yet. Obviously one limitation I am faced with is that these internet quizzes are not, as education jargon would put it, aligned with my particular curriculum. So it's definitely not what the researchers would call an ideal learning environment, but I decided to try and make the best of it.

I read carefully through the feedback from the quiz that filled me in on information such as:

Germans Wines can certainly be sweet, and the best of the best are; however many German wines are as dry as any in the World. These crisp dry wines are great with most foods, and can be found by looking for "Kabinett" on the label.

While there is not a lot of red wine made in Germany, there is indeed some. The best of these would be the Spatburgunder, which is known in the rest of the World as Pinot Noir.

Then I retook the quiz a couple of times to make sure I could get a perfect score.

With that success, I returned to Bill's 2009-2010 Wine for Newbies 101 course.

And at the conclusion of Lesson 6, I was shocked. The lesson ended with Bill promising to come back soon with another lesson. Only....there were no more lessons.

What happened? Why would he post audio podcasts for five whole years, start a new video course in 2009, and then just disappear? Did he give up on his dream to quit practicing law and become a full-time wine writer/reviewer/podcaster? Bill, please say it isn't so!

Maybe something really bad happened to him. What if the scratchy throat he mentioned in Lesson Four was a lot more serious than he made it out to be?

Now I am really concerned. I need to find out if he's OK. I wonder if I can find an e-mail address or something....