Now that my WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) student life is over, I thought I would like to write this article to share my experience that I gained during my wine studies. In the following article, I will explain a lot of things regarding the programme and how to achieve a pass on WSET Diploma based on my own experience. I would also like to discuss the changes that still many students are not aware of. I hope this will be a useful one for those who are also debating whether to start the final level of WSET, the Diploma.
WHAT ARE THE WSET LEVELS?
Firstly I think it will be useful to touch on the levels of the programme provided by the WSET. Those who are familiar with it, must have heard of different levels. The programme consists of four levels. Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 and Level 4 (the diploma). If you are young and at the very beginning of your wine exposure, you would perhaps start from Level 1. I have not done that as I have been drinking wine for the last 20 years before I started the programme. I started from Level 2.
Level 2 does not have a prerequisite. It is the shortest and sweetest of all. You learn the basic styles of the wines, most common grapes and big production regions or countries. You also taste many wines which is much more interesting than the textbook. I completed the course at WSET London School in 3 consecutive days. The final day was the multiple choice exam. There is no tasting in this exam. It is easy to achieve a distinction or merit at this exam if you read the text book given by the school upon your registration. You do not need any other source. Reading the book twice and listening to the lectures will be more than enough to achieve a pass. That pass is important if you plan to study Level 3. As this is a requirement.
The time you need between Level 2 and Level 3 is a minimum of 3 months. That is how long it can take WSET to publish the result after your exam. Once you know you passed, and there is availability immediately, you are advised to register for Level 3 that will happen at least 3 months later.
Once again, I did my WSET Level 3 in the main school in Bermondsey, London. It was 5 consecutive days and the 6th day was the exam which consisted of two parts. A written theory part, and a practical part. The practical part has two wines; a white and red which you have to assess the wine as per the WSET SAT. The theory part is where you have to learn many things in advance. This is why it is crucial to start learning the green book by heart and at least 3 months before the exam date. Once you get the book, you will realise you actually do not know much about wine, at least that was my experience. There are a lot of appellations, rules and regulations to learn. You will need to be very familiar not only the locations on a map, but also many French, Italian, Spanish and German words that come up many times in the wine world and in your exams. In my experience the theory parts of WSET are the hardest parts, as I have had no prior wine education. Drinking wine for many years perhaps helped me with my practice exams as I was familiar with many different styles of wines. But I can recommend that just reading the Level 3 book just during your class week will not be a success. As I was not aware of this, I failed the theory part of Level 3 at my first attempt. WSET allows you to retake the part you failed. As soon as I knew the results, I registered for the theory part again. I asked Erica Dent of Enjoy Discovering Wine School, to help me with the theory part of this exam. Erica explained to me in detail. When I asked Erica about how to be successful at WSET Level 3 exam, she said “We do not run Level 3 so intensely as the key to being successful in the examination is learning the skill of not just recalling facts; the learner now needs to be able to clearly explain ‘why’ and ‘how’ the wines are like this. Students at Level 3 may be able to collate all of the factual information but cannot pass the exam if they cannot apply that knowledge to explain how the producer does things and therefore what the outcome is. Level 3 is perfect for those that want to really understand things, not just know them. The extra time throughout the course is key to learners having time to process and apply the classroom information. Make sure that you allow around 70 extra hours on top of the classroom time, however you are studying, to give time to practice exam technique”
I passed it the second time. I knew I always wanted to learn more and I decided I wanted to pursue Level 4 (the Diploma) which would take a lot of time and money. I asked myself and the educators a lot. Why should I do this and shall i do it now? One of the educators at WSET London School advised to go for it immediately. I thought I could lack the experience in tasting. I was advised that there are many trade tasting events in London. With eagerness, I really wanted to start the Diploma. Because I was fully in wine trade now, also expanding my wine import portfolio. It was important for me to learn wine more technically and to improve my pallet so that I could take better decisions when I was purchasing wines for Sonvino Ltd.
Once again the time between waiting for the result and registering the Diploma and starting the actual course takes a long time. It was almost 9 months! I started the Diploma course in February 2017. There are many modes of learning at WSET Diploma. It also takes time to understand them all and make a decision which one to go for. But Do you really want to do a WSET Diploma?
WHY a DIPLOMA in WINE?
One of the most frequent questions that come up in wine circles and in my Facebook group “WSET Diploma Study Group” is this. Shall I do a Diploma or not? I have met people who were doing it just for fun. For the sake of learning in the class and tasting together. Some of them would not sit the exams. There are people from all backgrounds in the WSET Diploma programme with many different reasons why they are doing this programme. I divide the reasons into two. Those who are in the wine business/have plans to change career/plans to start a new chapter in wine and those who are just doing it for fun. If you are in the first group, I really encourage you to go for it. If you are in the second group, I would ask and make them think if they want to spend their money and time for something which is not easy at all. Firstly it is a huge investment, it costs around £10,000 for the programme (tuition+ wines+ travel+ accommodation). The time you need to invest is also huge. You have to learn and remember a lot of things to be able to pass the exams. I think that amount of money and time can be easily spent tasting many wines you want and when you want without going through the stress of exams.
THE STUDY MODULE
I made a decision to start the block release mode of learning. That meant my programme would take two years. In the first year 1 week of block release in February and the second was in April. This mode is very popular with international students. In my first year I was the only student from London. And this was the same thing in the second year. There are advantages and disadvantages to this way of learning. The pros are that you dedicate a week of learning which is very intense. You meet wine professionals from around the world. I made many great friends. The cons are it is extremely difficult to find other students from where you are based.
THE STUDY GROUP
I asked WSET many times if they could connect me with other students. As with many things, WSET were not greatly helpful with this. They referred me to social media or Linkedin. I made many attempts to connect with other students in London but I was not successful. Because there were no groups on line. I decided to set up one myself. The group where everyone is welcome if they are studying a WSET. This is my Facebook group where we encourage discussions. I am very proud to see that it is a successful group with more than 3,500 members from all around the world. It is growing strong every day.
The reason why I wanted to form a local study group was to have a theory study group. Because the most difficult part of the WSET exams is to find motivation to read all those books. So I finally found a study group. I provided a meeting room in central London and I steered this group with six of us. It is important that the study members were as motivated as I was. We shared the work load and each time we were there to support and discuss various parts of the exam. I asked my study group friend Aleyna from Wine-Searcher to describe how the study group was for her. Aleyna said “It was great to have the support of fellow students who each had different wine regions they were passionate about. It was a vital part of my studying to go over the course material and practice exam technique together.”
WSET DIPLOMA in WINES
There are also changes in the programme which were introduced in August 2019. I asked Jim Gore from the Global Wine Academy to tell me about the changes, and what was the reaction to it from the existing students. Jim told me, “The Diploma has been revamped to both improve the qualification and also to help the students learning experience. The main change is that the materials are now all online, this is designed to help students who want to study from a mobile device and also means that they can be updated each year. Students will have to print the materials if they want a paper copy however. I have broken it down and keep it all on google docs in separate chapters – I also keep notes relating to each section there too. There are some other potential reading materials but the main line is that you do not need to read outside the main text to achieve top marks.
Spirits has gone and had its own set of qualifications. The units have been renamed somewhat and now are called D1-5. The examinations have changed too and now there are no multiple choice papers in the qualification. The exams are slightly longer and with D3 ( Wines of the World) now having the tasting papers on a separate day to the theory, this is mainly to prevent fatigue. The extra time in the exams is also designed to allow students to show their analysis and evaluation skills which is essential for a Level 4 qualification. Short exams tend to lend themselves to factual recall.
The tasting element is pretty much the same but the SAT has been neatened up slightly. There are still 12 wines to analyse but the tasting question in the papers are now based on variety, country, origin and 3 final wines that have no link, this is often called the mixed bag question. Even more emphasis is being placed on quality. All the different types of questions that can be asked can be found in the specification.
Students have been receptive to the course but I’ve certainly found in the first 2 units ( D1/D2 aka Viti/Vinci and the business of wine) some students have failed to understand what sort of questions could be asked. The best advice is to look what the examiners use to write their questions – these are called the assessment criteria and are listed in each section of the specification, there is also a range underneath to show you which topics they can ask on. Combine these two and you’ve got your answer as to what they can ask, this document should be the basis of any revision or learning plan.”
After two years of study and passing each exam one by one, I was finally at the end of in 2018. I got the final exam results in January 2019. I am very proud to call myself a wine expert. I am passionate about wine and I love to learn about it every day. My passion continues in sharing. I would like to conclude this article with few tips.
HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL at WSET DIPLOMA – 10 TIPS
1-It is very interesting to see many students that are not familiar with WSET online classroom. Every thing you need is there. Familiarise yourself with it and get the best out of it.
2-The most important document is the SYLLABUS. Learn everything that is in that!
3-Calibrate your pallet in the classroom. As WSET is all bout the tasting together and learning on your own. For me, this was the best thing I got from the school.
4-If you like to share and find power in teamwork, form a study group. Do brainstorming of the past exams.
5-Do not just read. You will forget a lot of that. Take notes. They will be yours.
6-There are many free mailing lists. These give you snapshots of what is going on in the wine world. Register them and have a look every day for 10-15 mins.
7-Use the best of social media. Connect with other winestudents.
8-Go to masterclasses as much as you can. Take notes and use them in your exams
9-Learn the WSET SAT by heart. Do not go to exams without any hesitation.
10-Always learn with a smile and enjoy the wines at your tastings and exams! It is actually FUN!
Written by Serhat Narsap, DipWSET