Should You Pursue Wine Certification? #WSET

My Wine Certification Story – So Far
For the last two months I have been deeply immersed in studying for my first wine certification.  I just came back from a 4 day long intensive class which concluded on day 5 with a 2 1/2 hour tasting and written test.  While I feel good about the test, I won’t know for sure for 8 weeks.  I’ll let you know as soon as I hear the results!

I decided to share my experience in case you are curious, or interested in what is involved in seeking wine certification.

Are these good wine? What should they taste like and why?

Are these good wines? What should they taste like and why?

Why Wine Certification?
If you work in the business, either in a shop, a distributor, importer, or restaurant then you have a clear reason to enroll in a certification program. For an enthusiast & blogger, the reasons may be less obvious.  I decided to enroll partly to provide some credibility, i.e. I’m serious enough about this to be certified.  Also, education is in our family’s DNA, and the academic appeal is undeniable. Besides it sounded challenging and fun!

Australian wine - a gaping hole in my wine knowledge.

Australian wine – a gaping hole in my wine knowledge.

Which Certification
There are several wine certification bodies.  Two well known ones are the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). The CMS Sommelier program requires a high level of restaurant service expertise, perfect for someone interested in being a restaurant somm. My restaurant days are behind me; I bussed tables in a restaurant at age 16, found another job and never looked back! The WSET program is, at its peak, academic and business oriented.  The WSET program is a worldwide certification, which is nice.

The level 3 (advanced) certification is the first serious level and is required for any higher level study such as diploma or even the vaunted Master of Wine (MW). You’re expected to have a good knowledge of the wines of the entire world, and why they are the way they are.  That is, you’ll need to know something about the climate, the geography, grape varietals and winemaking in all the major winegrowing areas of the world.  In addition, you need to know how to taste wine in a structured way to assess quality, ageability, and price.

There are schools all around the world, and several around the US, however, there are none close to Minnesota.  After some research, I chose the Napa Valley Wine Academy, largely because they offer a multi-day intensive course with the test at the end.  I knew I would need to prepare on my own, but the intensive course appealed to me as I would only need to travel once.

Get Ready!
I signed up and received my materials in early December with my class scheduled for late January.  I knew I would have some time off over the holidays to study, and why not jump right in for the class and test right away?

Our first homework assignment, same varietal, unoaked and oaked versions, write tasting notes.

Our first homework assignment, same varietal, unoaked and oaked versions, write tasting notes.

There was more preparation required than I had anticipated.  I was pretty well versed in the US, much of France, and Italy. But Germany, whoa.  New Zealand, yes, but Australia was a great unknown as I had written off the wines as just too ripe and uninteresting. Oops. Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina.  You get the picture, there’s a lot to know!

Napa Valley Wine Academy – 4 Day Intensive Program
Napa Valley Wine Academy recommends at least 84 hours of pre-test study, and they weren’t kidding.  You’ll need to study the entire text, complete worksheets and practice tests, all before you show up for class. One key advantage of attending class in person rather than by distance learning is that you’ll receive intensive instruction and coaching on structured tasting.  The tasting is more for evaluating the wine and less about guessing the varietal at this level, but they are very particular about using the structured approach.

I took vacation and left Julie at home with our active puppy so there wasn’t any time for recreational wine touring while I was in Napa.  Visiting students did go out for dinner together, though.  Still studying, you understand.

Test Day
Sunday morning, 10am.  Show up with two #2 pencils, all books put away.  The WSET program is run out of London, and they maintain tight controls over the test materials and conditions.  I felt I was back at the SAT exam!  The test consisted of:

  • 30 min.: Blind evaluation of two wines – write a detailed evaluation of each wine
  • 90 min.: Written exam of 50 multiple choice questions and 5 short answer questions. The short answers varied between a few sentences and a page of writing.
Final exam, I haven't needed #2 pencils for 30 years. Nervous? Yes!

Final exam, I haven’t needed #2 pencils for 30 years. Nervous? Yes!

Conclusions – For Now
Results will come back about 8 weeks after our exam, so I should know by the end of March. I feel good about the test, but I don’t want to jinx anything, so no predictions at this point! Questions on the test? What do you know about Fino Sherry? How about Burgundy?

What did I learn?  Before the course, I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about a wide variety of wines around the world. I discovered that I have a good start, but there is so much more to learn, and so much more in depth knowledge to be gained. I gained a new interest in exploring regions I either didn’t know or ones I had written off, as the bulk wines that come to the US don’t tell the whole story of a region.

I found out that I do, indeed, have a good level of knowledge, especially after completing the course.  I also discovered that I need to go for the diploma level! 

Anyone want to start a study group?

March 22, 2016 Update

Excuse me for a minute while I go do my happy dance, my results arrived today:

Congratulations on a job well done!  Your results are as follows:

Theory:

  • Pass with Distinction

Tasting:

  • Pass with Distinction

Overall Grade:

  • Pass with Distinction

WSET3

 

 

 

Comments
23 Responses to “Should You Pursue Wine Certification? #WSET”
  1. Josh says:

    Cool story and great initiative, I am very jealous! My fingers are crossed for you. And let me know if you are able to pull together a study group as I would love to join.

  2. I am in Texas but I’d gladly Skype study/e-mail with you to hold us both accountable. I just started my Diploma course. You have to do Unit 2 first (viti/vini) before you do anything else, but my colleagues recommend studying for Unit 3 (Light Wines of the World) throughout each unit. We could figure out some sort of distance study if you’d like!

  3. There’s always more to learn! I’m sure you’ll pass just fine. I remember taking my Level 3. It gives you a great base level of knowledge to build on (if you remember any of it after the test, that is!).

  4. Congratulations and welcome to the fold… (hope it’s not premature). Kudos for jumping right in to level 3! Gutsy! I took level 2 and then 3 and the most difficult part is trying not to think about your results for the next two months! Best of luck to you, and again congratulations, at least on having the initiative to improve! -mj

  5. Allie says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for documenting your studies. I’ve been perplexed about which certifications/exams would be appropriate for me.
    Glad to read the one in Napa is reputable.
    Cheers!
    TSL

  6. Good luck mate, I’m sure you’ll have nailed it!

  7. SAHMmelier says:

    Good for you! I just signed up for level 2 for the same reasons you cited.

  8. Cairenn Rhys says:

    Thank you for the insight. I currently work for a winery and will be starting Level 2 this month. 🙂
    Very excited.

  9. penny sadler says:

    Hi Jeff. I just completed Level 2 in August last year. Doesn’t the level 3 also include a lot more information on spirits? Studying in Napa, now that must have been a treat. I’m not sure what I’ll do with my knowledge in the end. If I’ll take the level 3 for example. But it has made drinking wine even more enjoyable, to me. What about you? Any plans?

    • Hi Penny,
      Yes, level 3 is a sizeable step up from level 2 and does include spirits, although I would call it more of an introduction to spirits rather than in depth study. I enjoyed the challenge of broadening and deepening my wine knowledge in the process, not just my “go to” favorite regions. Passing level 3 has given me the confidence to take the jump and start the diploma program, likely this fall!

  10. Liz says:

    When taking the wset level 3 exam did they give you a blank sheet of paper to write your tasting or do the give you a printed page with appearance, nose palate etc? And you fill it in? Sorry for the dumb question, I took the course 5 years ago and became quite ill before I could sit for the exam. I have my health back now and want to take the exam, and they said I could but I am sketchy on some details. Any help would be so appreciated. Thank you.

    • Hi Liz,
      We had plenty of blank paper. I first wrote my notes there. The official evaluation sheet didn’t have any text or sections to help, so I needed to remember all the key points in writing my final notes. Good luck to you!

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