The ultimate MBA exam: A Barsac or a Sauternes?

April 29, 2015, 5:04 PM UTC
wine glasses
group of empty sauternes wine glasses
Photograph by Michael Marquand—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

(Poets&Quants) — Three MBA students swirl an unknown Bordeaux in large decanters and scan the wine at various angles. They take long sniffs over and over again to understand all the subtle nuances of the drink. They jot down notes in between sniffs, then sip, slurp, swash, and deluge their palates.

“It’s a clear ruby, medium legs, medium plus in color concentration,” begins Brooke Matthias.

“On the nose there’s blackberry, like jam, a little ripe, some oak, eucalyptus,” chimes in Michael Pcck. “Eucalyptus?!”

They all chuckle gleefully at a buzzword from an inside joke.

“A warmer year, fruit-forward structure, lush, opulent – therefore, it’s a 2009,” volunteers Rex White. “Pauillac?”

And finally, Peck responds, “I’m struggling with this. It seems to be bright like a Pauillac. I’m just not sure. It tastes like a Margaux.”

A tasting at a local wine bar? No. These MBA students at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management are studying for one of their most difficult exams. But instead of dealing with a complicated balance sheet issue or leadership dilemma, they will be tested on their knowledge of wine.

The Left Bank Bordeaux Cup is one of the biggest amateur wine tasting competitions and it allows business school students to advance their wine prowess. UCLA Anderson’s wine club team, represented by Margot Bloch, Brooke Matthias, Rex White, Michael Peck, and Meredith Roman, ages 32, 27, 29, 28, and 30, respectively, made its presence known in the school’s first year of competition, besting teams from NYU, Columbia, Wharton, and Stanford among others at the preliminary competition in New York.

Like the fine wine they taste, these students’ love for fermented grapes has grown and matured over time. In honor of her name and year, Bloch’s grandfather and father presented her with a couple bottles of Château Margaux ’82, which turned out to be a fantastic vintage. Prior to attending business school, she managed a wine bar and did consulting work for an award-winning restaurant in San Francisco. She plans to use her MBA education by offering additional financial and operational expertise to restaurants and boutique wine groups.

UCLA's wine drinking champions: Bottom row, left to right: Michael Peck, Brooke Matthias, Rex White. Top row, left to right: Meredith Roman, Margot Bloch
UCLA’s wine drinking champions: Bottom row, left to right: Michael Peck, Brooke Matthias, Rex White. Top row, left to right: Meredith Roman, Margot BlochPhoto by Stephane Giloppe—Giloppe Photography
Photograph by Stephane Giloppe

Peck’s interest in wine was stirred while working at a premium wine retailer as an undergrad. He grew more enthusiastic while working at Silverado Vineyards in Napa Valley and later in the marketing office at Don Sebastiani & Sons in Sonoma. His interest in the wine and beverage industry is widely known on campus and he plans to continue working in the field after school.

Matthia’s family inspired her passion for wine. She completed a wine education program at UCLA before business school, and then began working at Club W (a fast-paced VC funded e-commerce wine startup) during her first year at Anderson. She accepted an offer from Club W, and she will be working with them as an associate wine director at the end of the school year.

White cultivated a love of wines while traveling in Argentina, Australia, Italy, and France. Although he won’t seek a job in the industry, he believes that maintaining wine as an avocation will compliment his professional career. “Anything you can do to build out a creative passion helps in business,” he reasons. “After employers ask the ‘Can this person do the job?’ question, they want to know ‘What’s this person all about?’”

Roman developed an innate love of wine from attending dinners with colleagues and clients while working as a consultant. After completing a wine marketing program at U.C. Davis, she decided that she would pursue a career in the wine industry after business school. As the only first year student on the team, she plans to represent UCLA at the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup again next year.

The Left Bank Bordeaux Cup competition consists of two segments: trivia and tasting. Teams are asked 10 questions to test their knowledge of the Bordeaux region. For example, teams could be asked to identify the artist who depicted a château on the label of a certain vintage. After trivia, there are three rounds of blind taste testing in which teams encounter a flight of three mystery wines. Teams must answer questions that could easily stump a sommelier at an upscale restaurant: “Of these three white wines, one is a Barsac and the other two are Sauternes. Which one is the Barsac?” With the win at the North American regional competition in New York, UCLA punched its ticket to the 2015 finals in Bordeaux this June.

So how did UCLA come out on top in the preliminary competition? They attribute the victory to their team’s dynamic. The group began preparation six months ago by studying trivia for a few hours per week and meeting every other week for a wine tasting. Purchasing six fine French wines at an average of $50 a piece makes tastings an expensive endeavor, so the team sought sponsorship from K&L Wine Merchants.

The group also turned to alumni for financial and competitive support. The Anderson alumni in the wine industry were happy to help. One alum donated bottles from his personal collection of rare vintages, one of which the team actually encountered in the New York competition. Another alum set up a tasting with Laura Maniec, master sommelier and co-founder of Corkbuzz Winestudio, who helped refine their palates.

The Bordeaux Cup offers access into the wine and beverage industry for MBAs seeking employment in the field. Margot explains, “The human element is so important for business these days and having a different common interest with people really helps. Wine does what golf does for business relationships.”

More from Poets&Quants:

Are The Very Best Business Schools Really This Bad?

Wharton MBA Student Calls Out Peers On Racist Jokes

Handicapping Your Chances Of Getting Into A Highly Selective MBA Program

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