The Bubbly Professor on Tim Gaiser’s Message in the Bottle

Photo of Tim Gaiser, MS by Kelly McCarthy

I recently read a book on wine tasting. As a sworn wine afficionado, it’s probably the 100th wine book I’ve read. However, this one—Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine by Tim Gaiser, MS—was special.

First of all, I’ve known Tim for about 20 years and have—on many occasions—had the pleasure of being in the audience as he gave a presentation on the intricacies of wine tasting. Tim has contributed much to subject of tasting and has given the crowded field of wine expertise a truly original perspective. Tim Gaiser is—in my humble opinion—one of the best wine educators in the world.

I am not in any way qualified to review books. I don’t know anything about writing styles, theme development, or the needs of the target audience. However, I can tell you that I learned a lot from this book, and that the book simplified some concepts—such as the subjective vs. the objective in wine tasting—that truly needed simplifying. (Before you think that means that this is an easy book, please note that simplifying something is extremely difficult. In the words of Steve Jobs, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”)

Before I go too far down that rabbit hole, here are a few things I learned from Tim Gaiser’s book:

We may never solve for the objective vs. the subjective in wine tasting, but Tim’s book has a notable take on the matter: Some things are objective and measurable (sediment, clarity, alcohol by volume); some things are subjective (aromatic intensity, flavors, balance)—and never the twain shall meet. However, Tim points out that even truly subjective concepts can be described and discussed by defining the extremes (nothing vs a large amount) and working from there. For instance, bitterness in wine can be non-existent (like a bowl of vanilla pudding), or extreme (like a double shot of espresso). Describing a specific wine as somewhere on that continuum is a way of combining the objective with the subjective (and might just limit the number of fist-fights to break out at tonight’s Valpolicella tasting).

There’s a tech sheet manifesto: I use wine tech sheets all the time and suggest their use to all of my students. Beginners will often ask what a tech sheet is, and I stumble all over an explanation which turns out to be something like “winemaker’s notes that may or may not tell you what you want to know.” While this sad fact is unlikely to change anytime soon, Tim’s book contains a meticulous wish list of what a tech sheet would, could, and should be. It includes basics such as grape variety, sweetness, pH, and level of alcohol (which are all-too-often missing) and well as more telling factoids such as vineyard elevation, ripeness levels at harvest, and cases produced. It’s a well-thought-out checklist, and if I thought it would work, I’d start a Change(dot)org petition to bring Tim’s Tech Sheet Manifesto to life.

Using associative rehearsal, you can improve your tasting skills without wine: Using a form of active recall to describe a specific type or style of wine (without the wine in front of you) is a great study technique; it’s been around a while and many wine educators refer to this practice as writing a dry tasting note. Tim has several meaty pages of advice for associative rehearsal/dry tasting notes, which—if followed—promise to help the student connect with and cement their knowledge of specific wines from tastings past. If you—like most wine students—have amassed a mountain of tasting notes and have a hard time remembering which wine is which, this advice is for you.

Impact compounds impact more than a wine’s aroma: I appreciate the concept of impact compounds, and love to wax poetic about the rosy notes of terpenes, the black pepperiness derived of rotundone, and the simple explanation as to why your wine may smell of gasoline (TDN).  Tim’s book explains the origin of impact compounds—which might be grape chemistry, the vineyard itself,  winemaking magic, or who knows what else. More importantly, what I gained from this section is the knowledge that these tricky little chemical groupings can be a key tool in detecting and recognizing specific varietals or regions-of-origin. In other words, if you want to develop your wine recognition/blind tasting skills, impact compounds are your new best friends.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in refining their wine tasting skills or exploring the philosophy of wine. There’s a lot here for advanced tasters, but plenty of space is dedicated developing the beginner’s palate as well.

Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine by Tim Gaiser, MS (Newworlding Publishing, 2022) is available on You can contact Tim via his well-read blog at

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Spotlight: Re-write (Tips for Transforming your Mangled, Messy Notes into an Awesome Study Tool)

In all my years of teaching, I have found that the students who claim to have “studied really hard” and yet fail to reach their goals have one thing in common: they did not take notes. They may have re-read the text a thousand times, dried up a hundred highlighters, and listened to a year’s worth of podcasts—but they did not take notes.

Here at the Bubbly Professor, we believe strongly in the power of notes. It starts with a proper reading of the textbook (ideally before you attend a class or webinar on the subject matter)—and taking written notes.

In this article, we’d like to offer up a few ideas on another best practice: the re-write. Used properly, a re-write (or three) can transform your notes—even if they started out as a mangled mess of scribbles—into a streamlined study tool.

For starters, here are a few basic pointers:

  • Read over your notes two or three times before you attempt your first re-write. This will certainly give you a head start with memorization, but the real goal here is to ensure that you understand the context and see the “big picture” surrounding the information.
  • Use a fresh, designated notebook or file for your re-writes. You should expect this notebook or file to be highly useful during your revision.
  • Rewriting is not the same thing as re-copying. Your notes should be transformed in the re-writing process, and this will take some effort. This is especially important if you have made the mistake of taking liner notes—meaning you’ve copied something from the book or something that your instructor said basically word-for-word.

Idea #1: Create a Shrinking Outline: The first step in creating a shrinking outline is to re-write your notes into outline form—your first outline. Start by identifying the key concept in a section of your notes and—using the key concept as your section header—add the supporting details. Make sure that you paraphrase the pertinent information in clear, simple terms and in your own words.

Study this outline for a few days (or weeks, or whatever your timeline allows), and then create your second outline. Shrink this outline so that it includes just the key concepts and eliminates the supporting details. When studying from this outline, use active recall to fill in the supporting details. Refer back to the first outline to judge your progress.

Your third (and perhaps final) shrinking outline should contain just a list of prompts or key words. This final outline might remind you of the process of creating a deck of flash cards (and once completed, it may be used in the same way). Use this outline for self-testing, once again referring back to your first outline to make sure you’re capturing all the information that you want to learn.

Idea #2: Create Cloze Exercises: Don’t be frightened off by the obscure terminology: a cloze exercise is just a fill-in-the-blank exercise. (The terminology is believed to have been derived from the law of closure, as used in Gestalt Theory.)

Despite the weird-sounding name, cloze exercises can easily be created via a re-write—and they are an excellent study tool.

To create cloze exercises, follow the steps outlined above to create your first set of outlined notes (alternatively, you could start with your messy, mangled notes if they are clear enough). Re-write your notes or your outline leaving out the key words or phrases that you’d like to commit to memory. Put the answers on a separate page. If you are typing your notes, create a new file and blank out the key words; your original file can serve as the answer key.

Here are a few examples:

  • The main grape of the Chianti DOCG is _______________________; which must comprise a minimum ________________ of the finished wine.
  • The only EU country to have an AOC-designated rum is _______________; the name of this product is __________________.

One of the reasons that fill-in-blank notes are so effective is that they allow you to use the awesome power of the active recall study technique.

TL/DR: Please take notes. Re-write them effectively. Use them for revision. They can—and should—be one of your best study tools!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Make it Meaningful to Make it Memorable (ft. The Chianti Seven)


As a wine student, you have most likely memorized the seven subzones of the Chianti DOCG—and somewhere along the way, you got it through your head that Chianti Classico does its own thing and is NOT one of the seven. For your next trick, you probably learned where to find each subzone on the map.

Or…at least that is the way my studies progressed. I was well-armed with flashcards, wine maps, and a power point slide with seven distinct bullets—one for each of the not-so-famous subzones of the Chianti DOCG.

Despite endless repetition, I had a hard time memorizing the seven subzones of Chianti (much less locating them all on a map). My mistake, of course, was trying to memorize a list of terms without any meaning or familiarity behind them. However, once I learned each area’s “back story,” memorizing the terms—and locating them on the map—was a breeze!

The moral of my story is: make it meaningful to make it memorable. Your brain loves (and finds it easy to remember) information that is ripe with narrative and meaning. Your brain hates (and tends to forget) lists of words, terms, or sounds that lack context.

Here is some of what I learned about the subzones of Chianti, many years ago. I still remember it to this day.  

Cityscape of Florence with the Arno River in the foreground

Four of the seven subzones are grouped around the city of Florence, so we will start there:

Colli Fiorentini:  This area—translated as and encompassing the hills around Florence—surrounds the southern edge of the city of Florence. This is one of the northernmost areas of the Chianti DOCG. The vineyards of Colli Fiorentini are generally planted on the south-facing slopes of the rolling hills of the area; and may reach as high as 1,000 m (300 ft). The zone also includes some low-lying land in the valleys of the Pesa and Arno Rivers. This is one of the lesser known of the Chianti sub-regions, and much of the wine produced from the Colli Fiorentini vineyards ends up being served—by the glass or carafe—in the cafes and restaurants of Florence.

Montalbano: This subzone is named for the Montalbano Hills—a low chain of hills located to the north/northwest of the city of Florence. The Montalbano zone—located towards the northern end of the Chianti DOCG—overlaps the Carmignano DOCG. Vines used for Chianti Montalbano tend to be planted on the western side of the hills (where the soil is more sandstone), while the Carmignano DOCG is located on the eastern side of the zone—where the soil is richer in limestone. As such, wines labeled under the Chianti-Montalbano DOCG tend to be lighter and fruitier in style than those produced in some of the more inland areas. This region famously includes the town of Vinci—where Leonardo di Vinci once lived.


Montespertoli:  Montespertoli is the newest of Chianti’s official subzones, having been designated as such in 1997. Before that, it was part of the Colli Fiorentini region. Named for the town of Montespertoli—located about 12 miles/20 km southwest of the historic center of Florence—this is the smallest of the chianti subzones in terms of acreage. The area is known for its rolling hills, well-drained limestone soils, and abundant sunshine—all of which help to produce well-ripened grapes and lush, balanced wines.

Rufina:  Rufina—undoubtedly the most famous of the Chianti subzones—is located in the foothills of the Apennines, east of the city of Florence. Rufina overlaps the Pomino DOC and is differentiated from most of the rest of the Chianti DOCG by its inland location. Likewise, Rufina experiences more continental influences on its climate and can claim some of the region’s highest elevations: vineyards here are planted as high as 1,600 ft /500 meters (higher than the average of the rest of the region, including Chianti Classico at 1,000 ft/300 meters). The high elevation of the area’s vineyards lend an excellent diurnal temperature fluctuation, and the area’s limestone-and-clay soils strike the ideal balance between excellent drainage and just enough water retention (making this area particularly drought-resistant).

  • The dueling republics of Florence and Siena famously solved their border dispute via a race between two knights on horseback, who each set off from their respective towns at the first crow of the rooster. The hungry black rooster of Republic of Florence famously arose before dawn, allowing most of the disputed land to be awarded before Florence. In honor of this event, the black rooster has been the symbol of the Consorzio of Chianti Classico since 1924. The rooster on our graphic map thus serves to remind us of Florence to the north, and Siena to the south.

Three of the seven subzones of the Chianti DOCG are located further afield from Florence:

View over the city of Siena

Colli Senesi: The Colli Senesi subzone—located in the southern reaches of the Chianti region and spread out over three noncontiguous areas—is tucked into the hills surrounding the city of Siena. The area is considered one of the most prestigious of the seven subzones, which makes a lot of sense considering that it overlaps Montalcino, Montepulciano, and San Gimignano. It even has stricter standards than some of its kin, in a sense. For instance, wines of the Chianti DOCG require a minimum of 70% Sangiovese in the mix; in Colli Senesi, the minimum is raised to 75%. It also requires a higher level of alcohol (13% minimum abv) for its Riserva wines; Chianti DOCG and the other six subzones require just 12% or 12.5%.

Colli Aretini: The Colli Aretini zone is named for the hills of Arezzo. Arezzo—one of the 9 provinces of Tuscany—is located in the eastern part of Tuscany. The Colli Aretini encompasses the valley of the River Arno at the point where the river moves from its southerly course and takes a loop-de-loop turn to head north and west on its way to the city of Florence. This river valley keeps the region cool, as it allows the moderating influence of the Mediterranean Sea to penetrate inland. The zone does include some elevation—as high as 1,000 ft/300 meters in spots—on the hills that rise out of the Arno valley floor. The Chianti Aretini subzone is not particularly well-known; much of the vineyards of the area produce fruit destined to be included in wines labeled as Chianti DOCG.


Colline Pisane:  The Colline Pisane—the hills around Pisa—zone is located just south of the city of Pisa. This region is unique in that it is closer to the Mediterranean Se—and on a lower set of hillsides—than the rest of the Chianti region. It is also somewhat of an outlier—literally—in that there some distance between Colline Pisane and the rest of the Chianti subzones, all of which are connected. The area’s unique location (and terroir) helps to make the wines of the Colline Pisane quite distinctive. They are often described as lighter and softer than most, with a ruby-red color, floral (violet) aromas, and a distinctively fruity (as opposed to earthy) character— especially when young.

Note: In addition to the concept that making information meaningful makes it memorable, this post demonstrates chunking—a key principle of education and learning that I find particularly applicable to the study of maps and geography. More on that later!

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Best Practices for Practice Tests

It happens at least once a month. A frustrated test-taker sends me their regrets—they have failed the exam! And they just cannot understand how-on-earth-they-could-have-failed-when-they-scored-100-on-all-the-practice-tests!

First—I feel your pain, failed test taker. This is no fun at all—and as a teacher I feel I have failed a bit myself. But…I know where this conversation is going. I have seen it many times before. So, I pick up the phone and let them vent a bit, and then gingerly ask: “So, that practice test you scored 100 on…how many times did you take it?” This is inevitably followed by something like this: “I took it TEN TIMES!”

Enough said. I get it, you took the practice test over-and-over again until you scored 100. That is an excellent way to learn some content (active retrieval and spaced repetition and all). However, if you take the same test ten times, you are NOT assessing your readiness for test day. 

There are several different ways to take advantage of practice tests, and you should decide which you intend to use before you dive right in. Consider these three distinct uses:

  • To assess how well you know the content: Taking a practice test can let you know how well you know the material and can provide a basis for planning the rest of your studies. In this case, you can take a practice test towards the beginning of your studies—or at a convenient mid-point—and use your results to inform the areas that you should focus on as you create and implement your study plan. 
  • To use as an item bank for study content: After you take a practice test, go back and revisit the questions you missed. However, do not just memorize the answers. That will only help you on test day (or in real life) if you encounter the same questions with similar options. Instead, strive to understand the content as well as its context and really learn it. If the original question was a true/false question—make sure you can explain why it was true or false. If the original question was a multiple-choice question, try to learn not only the correct answer—but why it was correct, and why each distractor (incorrect option) was NOT correct.
  • To assess your readiness for test day: To make use of this valuable option, you need to practice a bit of self-control as this will only work if you can approach a practice test under simulated exam conditions. This means—first and foremost—that you are taking a specific practice test for the first time, sight unseen. It also means that you use the same timeline parameters as defined for the actual test, and (unless it is an open-book or open-note exam), that you do not have any books, notes, maps, or cheat sheets in view. You can further mimic the testing environment by sitting at a desk or table, keeping the noise level low, dressing as you would for the actual exam, and trying your best to avoid interruptions (a “do not disturb” sign on the door might be in order—if you can swing it).

Once more, for effect: Practice test results will NOT assess your readiness for test day if you have previously taken the exact same exam (although, as described earlier, this is a valid way to study content).  It is a good thing to score a 100 on a practice test when your previous score was 60—it proves that you mastered previously unknown content. However, if you want to assess your readiness for test day…start with a new exam. 

Here are a few other benefits of using practice tests:

  • Using practice tests can help to ease your exam anxiety.  Scoring in the 90s-plus on practice tests and quizzes can boost your confidence and help keep you calm on exam day.
  • Using practice exams can also help increase your mental endurance; testing can be surprisingly exhausting. Using practice tests (especially in simulated exam conditions) can give you an excellent understanding of how you will perform under extended periods of mental focus. If you have a difficult time remaining alert towards the end of an hour or two, this is a good indication that your study plan should include some flexing of your mental endurance—think of it as building up your test-taking muscles.
  • More good news: taking practice tests that use the same format as the actual exam (multiple-choice, short answer, true/false, essay) is likely to improve your score on the final test—no matter what combination of the three approaches (discussed above) that you use. This is due to a phenomenon known as Transfer-Appropriate Processing. Put simply, this means that we are more likely to remember (retrieve) information in the same manner in which it was encoded.

Practice tests can and should be part of your study plan. Taking practice quizzes and exams is a highly effective method of active learning—just be clear on how you are using them and how you are interpreting your results.

P.S. One final caveat: consider the source. Make sure you are using a quality product. I won’t name names, but I have seen a whole lotta so-called practice tests and quizzes floating around the internet that amount to little more than “the blind leading the blind.” Ideally, seek out a set of practice tests created by subject matter experts based on the course content and the format of the actual exam. If you are taking a class—ask your instructor!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Fishbowl or Rabbit Hole? (How to Study for an Essay Exam)

I tend to dive deep down the rabbit hole while studying. A “quick search” for a definitive definition of llicorella once led me along a path leading from slate to metamorphic rock to sedimentary rock to clay to volcanic ask to foliated rocks and—finally, at the bottom of the tunnel—to quartz and (phew!) my desired definition of llicorella.

Jumping down the rabbit hole—studying a series of interrelated topics in minute detail—is all well and good, and I have benefited from my in-depth understanding of llicorella.

However, it is my opinion that if you have an essay test in your future, you should also include another form of study in your routine. I call this the “fishbowl” routine. Think of it this way: to the fish, the water in the bowl is the whole world. An observer knows that it is a tiny part of the world, but to the fish, it’s everything. When studying for an essay test, my advice is to look at a singular topic—whether it is white wines of Tuscany, Chardonnay across the world, or sugarcane juice-based rum—and study the whole topic. Don’t’ be distracted by anything else (anything outside of the fishbowl); but try to cover the length and breadth of the fishbowl topic.

Keep in mind that essays test you on the big picture. In addition to specific details, you will need to demonstrate your grasp of themes, relationships, and major concepts. You might be called on to use critical thinking, offer up an opinion, make a prediction, provide an analysis, or compare-and-contrast.

Here are some specific study techniques to use while studying for an essay test.

Study with the purpose of teaching. Strive to get to the point where you can comfortably speak about the topic—without looking at your notes—anticipating any questions that future students might ask. (Creating teaching materials, whether you will ever use them or not, is a great study technique for any type of test).

Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content—used spaced repetition.

Create an outline for an entire chapter or section in a book. Using the CSW Study Guide, the CSS Study Guide—or your reference material of choice—outline an entire chapter (Italy, Spain, Franc, Rum) or section (Tuscany, Rioja, Alsace, Rhum Agricole). Focus on the entirety of the material to envision the “big picture.”

Review your notes for recurring themes. Long time readers of this blog might recall that I like to approach the study of any wine or wine region along the following lines: location > terroir > grapes > style > terminology (in that order, as there could be causation/effect). Or, you can use “viti, vini, style” (viticulture, vinification, style) for wines; for spirits I use base ingredient > production techniques > style.

Make-your-own charts to represent differences/similarities. For instance, a good wine student knows that there are three main white grapes in the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc, Melon, and Sauvignon Blanc). Make a chart with the three grape names across the top; list the wines/appellations known for each in the columns underneath. Here are a few other ideas: brands of whiskey (Bourbon vs. Tennessee Whiskey; Scotch distilleries by geographical indication), sparkling wines across the world, Muscat-based wines across the world, leading orange liqueurs, gravel soil across the wine-making world.

Visual mapping/concept maps: Make some free-form graphs or doodles to visually represent the relationships between themes or ideas and patterns that recur on a regular basis. You could create a concept map with Chardonnay in the center, surrounded by the concepts you believe to be important. These might include Old World Chard, New World Chard, varietal Chard, Chard in blends, Chard in sparkling wine, Chard in dessert wine, low-intervention Chard, high-intervention Chard, reductive Chard, oxidative Chard, cool climate Chard, warm climate Chard…and so on (and on and on and on).

Practice your critical thinking and analytical skills as you go. This is so much easier that it sounds. All you need to do is ask yourself why? Why is New Zealand Sauvignon blanc so zingy? Why is Burgundy Grand Cru expensive? Why is fino Sherry an acquired taste? Why is Cabernet Sauvignon the most widely planted vinifera grape in the world? Why is Caribbean rum distinctive?

Create summary notes: If you have used more than one reference (CSW Study Guide, Oxford Companion, World Atlas, Guild Somm, Wine Bible), grab your various stacks of notes and compile them all into one outline.

These suggested study techniques will help you prepare for any type of exam, whether it be verbal, short-answer, multiple choice or the dreaded essay exam—and can also prepare you to use your new-found knowledge in real life (which is the ultimate, end-game goal).

Always remember to enjoy your studies!  Click here to see more of our tips and tricks for the study of wine and spirits.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Eight Good Reasons to Tangle with the Text (before Class)


If you are taking a wine or spirits class—or just about any academic-style class for that matter—you most likely have a textbook or other written content to accompany the class. In all likelihood, this material defines the structure of your class, and each individual class session is built upon a specific chunk of that content.

News flash: you will be a far better student, a far better colleague, and a more successful exam candidate if you read the assigned content BEFORE the scheduled class, webinar, or lecture.

Here is why:

1.You set yourself up to learn during class: If your webinar, class, or lecture is your first exposure to the material, it will be a series of “a-ha” moments, and you’ll have lots of basic, background questions running through your head. On the other hand, if the class is your second (or subsequent) exposure to the material, you will have already worked through the basics and will set yourself for deeper understanding and engagement with the material.

2. You build your all-important bank of background knowledge: By reading the content before class, you are expanding your background knowledge about the topic, and you have created more and more neurological pathways and connections between the bits of subject matter. In other words, you’ve created more “hooks” on which to hang the “facts” that you want to understand and remember.

3. You won’t injure your hand by maniacal scribbling: If you do not read the material beforehand, you’ll be tempted to write down almost everything the instructor says. While taking notes during a lecture is a great way to learn, the ideal ratio of note taking-to-listening is somewhere around 20%/80%. That means you are taking notes 20% of the time and listening the other 80% of the time. If you are writing most of the time, you will miss a lot of what is going on in the class or lecture.


4. You are better able to focus during class: If you read the content before class, you will have a road map of sorts for the class; you have at least an idea of what to expect. As such, you will be able to follow along with ease.

5. You can dig deeper: If you show up for class with an understanding of the basics, you can use the class time to concentrate on the more challenging (or detailed) material. In addition, you can take advantage of the availability of the instructor to get your more complex questions answered.

7. You can jump-start your spaced repetition: If you read the material the day before class, the class itself can serve as your second exposure to the material. With a bit of pre-planning, your class can be a ready-made part of your program of spaced repetition.

8. You can un-learn what you need to: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been teaching a class when someone asks a question that begins with the words but I thought (as in but I thought all Super Tuscans were 100% Cabernet Sauvignon).  If you always thought that all Super Tuscans were 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, a quick reading of chapter 10 in the Certified Specialist of Wine Study Guide will set your straight. If the subject is still confusing, you can bring it up during class, but the least you can to is come prepared.

And finally—we know (but we love you anyway): Here is a super-secret-teacher-truth: your teacher can easily tell if you have—or have not—read the material ahead of time based on your interactions during class. Just sayin’.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

eBook—The Bubbly Professor’s Guide: How to Study for a Wine or Spirits Theory Exam


We’re pleased to announce the publication and release (for FREE) an eBook entitled :The Bubbly Professor’s Guide: How to Study for a Wine or Spirits Theory Exam.

This material, based on extended research as well as my personal experience as a lifelong learner and 25+ years as a professional educator, was originally published—bit by bit—as a series of blog posts on here on the Bubbly Professor.

I began to post learning-and education-based articles on the blog many years ago. I had noticed, over the decades, that my students—whether they be young or old, based in the United States or China, college students or middle-aged career-changers—all shared the same common concerns about how best to tackle the overwhelming task of studying wine and spirits. Eventually, I ended up with a series of articles directed at adult learners that were scattered throughout the blog and as such, not conducive to ease-of-use.

For that reason, I have put together this booklet that brings all the information together in one place. It is currently offered free-of-charge and available to all interested parties.

Keep in mind that it is likely that not everything in this booklet with resonate with you; people certainly learn in different ways and at their own pace. However, for those that take the time to read it over, I hope it helps you with your study plans and goals.

To download the ebook (in pdf form), just click here: The Bubbly Professor on How to Study for a Wine or Spirits Theory Exam

I welcome your comments and questions, and may be reached at:

Happy Studies!

Jane A. Nickles

How NOT to Take Notes


It happens at least once a week. I get a frantic email from a student—typically someone who is studying for the CSW or CSS—who is feeling overwhelmed, confused, and hopeless. I ask if they are reading the text and taking notes, using the workbook, making and/or using flashcards, and studying their maps. A typical response is, “I use the workbook and the flashcards—for hours!” Or, “I watched all the videos five times each!” Or, “I’m very visual, so reading just doesn’t work for me.” To which I respond, “Just reading doesn’t work for anybody. What you need to do is read (actively) and take (meaningful) notes.”

I get that reading and taking notes from a textbook is not the most hilarious way to spend a Friday night or Sunday morning—but when it comes to learning, it works. Simply put, proper note-taking is essential to learning success, and provides two basic benefits::

  1. The act of note-taking (when done properly) involves processing, summarizing, and writing down information. This is an active learning activity that (by itself) will help you understand and retain what you read.
  2. Your notes are a living document and you will continue to learn when adding to, reciting, and studying your notes.

When it comes to taking notes—efficiently and effectively—my first piece of advice is to use active reading techniques before you even start. This means previewing the material before diving right in; and reading a small segment of the material from start to finish before you take notes. You are ready to begin your notes once you understand the main topic of the section and you recognize what you don’t already know as well as what is important to remember.

If we’re all agreed on this first step, let’s investigate how to take notes efficiently and effectively. This section is built around some of the more common missteps I’ve observed, along with some alternative techniques that work.

Don’t do this: Copy the textbook or speaker word-for-word. Instead, prioritize and paraphrase. Take notes after you’ve read the section through at least once, and note down just the key words, phrases and bits of information IN YOUR OWN WORDS. Copying something verbatim does very little to engage your mind and memory. If you don’t believe me, copy a sentence from a French textbook (assuming you don’t speak French) and see how much you understand. The most important step in effective note taking is deciding what information is important, where that information fits into the “big picture,” and paraphrasing the information (putting it in your own words). It is not exactly quick, but its effective. Remember, reading and taking notes verbatim might be quick…but it is a waste of time.

Some exceptions to this rule include dates, definitions, formulas, and quotations. (Don’t be a creative accountant.)

Don’t do this: Ignore the structure provided by the book. Instead, follow the visual cues from the text. The author(s) of your textbook developed a system of chapters, headings, and sections for a reason—to provide a framework for the information presented and a visual hierarchy of the main concept. This is good news for the note-taking students of the world; there’s no need to make up your own framework or to create an amorphous, impossible-to-understand blob of notes. Just follow the author. While doing so, pay close attention to the material written in bold or italics—these are often key concepts or vocabulary words.

Don’t do this: Fill the entire page from top to bottom. Instead, leave some space on the page.  Your learning and understanding is going to evolve over the course of your studies, and you might want to add additional notes or clarify some information. It can also be very helpful to add drawings, diagrams, charts, and summaries to your notes—and you’ll need space to do this.

One other little tip—mark the page number of the text (or more thorough bibliographical information if studying from a variety of sources such as articles and websites) at the top of each page of notes. It will help you if you need to go back and clarify some information.

Don’t do this: Highlight everything. Instead, highlight sparingly—if at all. I see it all. the. time. A student emails me a question (good study technique, by the way) and they’ve included a photo of their textbook showing the passage they can’t understand. The picture shows a sea of pretty colors—the student has highlighted the entire page (or close to it). What this tells me is that the student highlighted the textbook on their first read-through and marked almost every sentence as they (predictably) encountered a whole raft of new information.

If you do use a highlighter, be sure and keep it locked away during the preview stage and your first reading of the material. Use it on a subsequent read to highlight key words, cues, or definitions. In most circumstances, its best to aim to use your highlighter on no more than 20% to 30% of the total material.

Personally, I prefer to take notes rather than highlight, and I don’t specifically recommend highlighting as a study technique. The main reason for this is that highlighting is passive—it is NOT an active study method. If asked for study advice I do not dissuade folks from highlighting if they feel it works for them…but in reality, there are better ways to spend your study time (IMHO). One caveat: I do think that highlighting your notes can be an effective part of revision.

Don’t do this: After you’ve taken your notes, ignore them. Instead, re-write and view your notes on a regular basis. An ideal practice is to review your notes the next day by answering your own questions, reading them aloud, or reciting definitions of your key words or cues (using your own words).

P.S. A lot has been written about the different styles of notetaking, such as the Cornell method, the outline method, or visual/web/mind mapping. My best advice is to find the one that works for you and stick with it. You can read a nice, succinct article about the three methods here.

One more thing: I think if you are taking notes, whether it be by hand, on a laptop, or into a note-taking app, you are on the right tract. However, there are those that believe handwritten is the way to go. For more information on this subject, click here.

Duly noted!

Click here to check out the rest of our posts on “How to Study Wine and Spirits”

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

A Textbook is Not a Novel—the Art of Active Reading

The first rule of studying from a textbook is this: a textbook is not a novel. There are no sudden twists and turns, no smoldering romances, and very little slow burn of dramatic tension to keep you up well past midnight, turning page after page to find out who did what to whom…

As serious students of wine and spirits, we need to read. However, we cannot expect to pick up a textbook, crack the cover, and be instantly spellbound. As a matter of fact, students are advised NOT to pick up the book, dive right in and read the book from front to back. In most cases, this is a serious waste of time. The alternative is active reading.


How can you tell if you are engaging in active reading, as opposed to passive reading?

  • If you dive right in and just start reading…that’s passive reading
  • If you get bored and fidgety after five minutes….that’s passive reading
  • If you are reading while lying on the beach with your toes in the sand, listening to the crash of the waves, gazing at the water in between paragraphs…that’s passive reading
  • If you can’t remember what you’ve read an hour after you are finished…that’s passive reading—and you have just wasted a whole bunch of time and effort

Instead, let’s get active. There are a lot of systems that can be used for active reading—some of which get quite elaborate like S-Q-3R, P-4R, CP-3-0 or what have you—and these are excellent tools  encompassing the entirety of reading, studying, and taking notes.

For this post, I’d like to concentrate on just reading: active reading, that is. And, at the risk of sounding systematic, I’d like to discuss three steps: Preview, Question, Read.

Step one—Preview: Instead of diving right in—without really knowing where the text is going to take you—skim through the material first. Check out the titles and sub-titles, the charts, the graphs, and the pictures. In other words, take a few minutes and get an overview of what you are going to read. It’s like looking at a map before you arrive in a new city—you want to have a feel for the lay of the land before you start to drive around. This quick preview will help you to see the “big picture” (context) of the material and provide a bit of familiarity with the subject before you dive into the deep end.

When I approach a new module or chapter of a textbook, I like to take a few minutes to flip through the entire chapter. However, I think it’s even more important to do a quick preview each time you sit down to study, and to do this in such a way as to ensure that you first define the boundaries of your reading and proceed through the material in manageable “chunks’ or short sections.  This is easy to do, but important. By setting boundaries for your reading—whether it be a paragraph or a chapter, you help to maintain your focus. You know where you are going to begin, and where you are going to stop for a break.

Step two—Question: Take a minute to think about the material. What do you already know about the material? This can help your put the topic into its proper context. What do you think will be the main topic of the section? This can give you a purpose (looking for the answer) and can help maintain your interest. The “questioning” step should not take more than a few minutes, but it can go a long way in helping you stay focused on the reading.

Step three—Read: The next step is a thorough reading of the material. You need to read slowly and systematically, focusing on understanding and processing the information. Toss out any ideas you have of reading on “automatic pilot” with the goal of merely reaching the end.

Keep in mind that this is not quite yet the ideal time to take notes (that’s the next step). Taking notes at this stage will break up the flow of your reading and diminish your understanding. Taking notes too soon is not very productive, seeing as you aren’t likely to know if the first sentence is worth taking notes on until you read the rest of the section. (I am speaking DIRECTLY TO YOU FOLKS who are part of the highlight-the-whole-page gang.  You know who you are.) Once you are through the section, you’ll have the perspective to know what’s important enough to put down in your notes, but for this step, focus on reading through the section and understanding the material.

Active reading is nothing like reading a novel…it’s a real mental workout. And—as everyone knows—workouts are not always fun, but the lasting benefits are well worth the struggle!

Click here to check out the rest of our posts on “How to Study Wine and Spirits”

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…


Un-study Techniques: Wine (or Liquor) Store Archaeology

This is the ninth post in our series about “un-study techniques” for use in wine and spirits studies.  Un-study techniques are all about what to do when you need to study…but you just can’t stand the thought of it. Click here to view our other posts on un-study techniques.

The next time you find yourself wandering the aisles of your favorite wine or liquor store, use that time to do a bit of digging. With the right tools, a bit of liquor store archaeology can lead to a valuable educational find!

Here’s a plan:

  • Decide upon a type of wine or spirit that you want to uncover.
  • Visit a (preferably local) wine or liquor store with a good reputation for knowledgeable staff and selection. Talk to the staff members and see what they can tell you about the store selection and how the product makes its way to the shelves. Ask them for their advice on the products and see what you can learn from them. Caveats: be sure and demonstrate humility and gratitude; and please quit before you are tagged as a stalker or a nuisance.
  • Take note of the price range exhibited for the product you are interested in; and purchase a representative (or otherwise interesting) bottle.
  • Taste the wine/spirit and record your tasting notes.
  • Thoroughly read the information found on the label(s) and packaging. It’s particularly interesting to note the information regarding the producer (winery/distillery), place of origin, and importer.
  • Go online and find the producer and/or importer’s website. See what you can learn from the marketing materials that pop up (which will be hard to miss). However, what you really want to find is information on how the wine or spirit was produced. Wineries often post winemaker’s notes and/or technical sheets. Distilleries often provide a link to “how it’s made” and/or pictures of their tanks and stills. Often, the best place to look for this type of information is on a navigation button that reads “trade materials” or “for the trade.”
  • Your goal is to learn as much as you can about the specific product, and well as the product category, particularly regarding the rules and regulations concerning production.
  • Considering the available price range and the price point of the bottle you bought, what factors do you think contributed to the price of your bottle? Why were the others more or less expensive? What is a specific production technique, age (or lack of it), supply and demand, what the market will bear, creative marketing, quality, reputation—or none of the above?

Happy hunting!

Click here to view our other posts on how to study wine and spirits.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…