Set on the WSET

Shortly after passing my Introductory Sommelier exam back in early November, I started looking for a new wine-related goal – other than how to live in Canada and work a vineyard for the next 4 years.  The Certified Sommelier exam isn’t likely to be available in the Seattle area for several months, and I’m not even sure I want to go in that direction. However, I figured that I should take advantage of all these wine factoids being fresh in my mind, so perhaps preparing for another exam might be the best route. I checked the WSET website and there was a level 3 course starting in March, 2017 – exam at the end of the April. So . . . signed up. 🙂


WSET stands for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. It was established in the UK in 1969 and is now globally recognized and taught in over 70 countries.  There are 9 qualifications, 4 which are wine related.  I’m skipping levels 1 and 2 and moving straight to level 3 (and hoping I won’t regret it!)  Based on what I’ve read, WSET Level 3 is comparable to the Certified Sommelier exam. Level 4 is the Diploma level and I believe the closest “school” that teaches this level is in Vancouver, BC.  So I’ll cross that bridge (or Peace Arch) when I come to it. 😉

The WSET is well-respected among industry insiders and is the stepping stone to becoming a Master of Wine. To the public though, it certainly isn’t as well known or as “glamorous” as the title of Sommelier.  But I guess if it’s good enough for Jancis Robinson, it’s good enough for me.

When I started preparing for my Introductory Sommelier exam, I put together a whole detailed schedule for what I was going to study each week. Super idea, right? Awesome way to stay on track. Unless, of course, you completely ignore the schedule while traveling in France and immersing yourself in Champagne, Burgundy and the Rhône for two weeks.  And then when you return to real-life, you cram pretty much the entirety of the New World and beverages besides wine into the last couple of weeks before the exam and pray that the exam has very little on New Zealand or sake on it because you don’t know shit about that region or that style. (thankfully, it didn’t. But I know the I missed the one question on sake!)

Ever since law school, I’ve been rather ADD with my studying. Back then, I put together detailed outlines and memorized them while puttering around our apartment, or getting ready in the morning (that mid-90s Rachel ‘do took a while to perfect), or driving (this was before texting could take up all that downtime). Since that methodology managed to get me a J.D. magna cum laude, I’m thinking I’ll stick with it for my wine exams.

So I have 10 weeks until our first class, and 16 weeks until the actual exam. I’ve got the materials, skimmed through them, and noticed some glaring differences between the WSET Level 3 Exam and the Introductory Sommelier Exam:

1. Different Focus.  The primary study guide for the WSET is a 200 page textbook called “Understanding Wines: Explaining Style and Quality.” The Intro Somm exam materials were about the same length.  But where that book was dedicated about 1/3 to France and Italy, less than 20% of the WSET book is on those regions.

There is way more focus (over 1/3 of the book) on the foundation of wine: pairing with food, winemaking, viticulture, etc. The WSET calls this “the principal natural and human factors in the vineyard and winery that are involved in the production of wines.” Which is a mouthful, and sounds boringly clinical, so instead I’m referring to it as “the foundation of wine.”

2.  Tasting Focus.  The WSET has a tasting portion of the exam in which you need to get a 55% to pass. They have a very specific (almost clinical . . . there’s that word again) way that they want you to write out your tasting notes, which aren’t inconsistent with the Guild of Sommeliers method, but differ just enough to be annoying. This is something I’m definitely going to have to work on because my usual “tasting exercises” often happen in front of the TV or in the middle of cooking dinner. So I’m not exactly focused on what I’m doing. Also, I know my palate isn’t as sharp as other people’s, so continual practice will be key here for me. Yay – more drinking! 😉

3.  “Help” with Focus.  In addition to the WSET textbook, I also received a 30 page booklet with specifications about the exam itself. This booklet has to have been written by an engineer because it takes about 10 pages to tell you, in convoluted terms, what is going to be on the exam.  I don’t think the actual exam is even going to be 10 pages.

There are 2 units (theory and tasting), which are each then broken down into several Learning Outcomes, then further into Ranges and finally a exam percentage weight is assigned to each of these. It’s about as clear as a 1948 Vintage Port. So far, this part has been the most challenging thing for me to comprehend . . . what the fuck is going to be on the exam. So comparatively, memorizing the 20 wine regions of Italy and their principal grapes and the g/L dosage for Champagne levels of sweetness will be a snap!

4.  Lack of Historical Focus.  I am disappointed to see that there is very little, if any, text in the WSET book dedicated to the history of wine regions. Specifically, I just finished reviewing Burgundy . . . and there is nothing about the Napoleonic Code or influence of the monks. Zilch. This is bugging the crap out of me!! Can you truly understand why subtle differences in soil types are so important in this region or why vineyard interests are so fractionalized if you don’t review Burgundy’s history? To me, you’re missing some of the very reasons why Burgundy is so unique!

Another example, when I went over Austria in the text, there’s no mention of the antifreeze scandal of 1985 – and why that event led to Austria now having some of the strictest wine regulations of the world. When I get around to studying Alsace, will there be anything explaining WHY this region has German traditions? I’m guessing not. (Just confirmed: nothing.) 😦

For an organization that appears so focused on the foundation of wine, I have to wonder why they wouldn’t include some historical background of these wine regions.  Particularly at this more advanced level of study. And unfortunately, this makes studying more clinical when you’re not getting the beautiful, colorful history of these places.

So maybe my coloring book will help with this – best Christmas present ever!! 🙂

A fun & colorful way to learn wine regions since the WSET looks pretty stale so far

5.  MY Focus.  Based on what I’ve read, there is nothing on the WSET exam that isn’t in the materials. So in essence, if I memorize and retain the 200 page text, I should pass the written and multiple choice portions with “distinction.”  I’m keeping this in mind as I have a rather annoying habit of wanting to learn the minutia of things even when I know I won’t need it. Case in point: soil types in Jerez weren’t on the Intro Somm exam – no surprise there, yet I couldn’t help myself from memorizing them! I don’t know if that’s being a corkdork or a borderline masochist. :-/

So, I’ve decided that if I’m tempted to learn, memorize, or read in detail something that isn’t in the WSET book (at least for the next few months while I’m focusing on this!), I will instead memorize an obscure baseball statistic because this has the same probability of being on the exam.

Seriously, I just turned 44 and my brain is only capable of holding a finite amount of information. I need to triage what I’m putting in there.

I don’t know what my plan is with this (hopefully!) alphabet soup of letters after my name, but it certainly makes me look more like I know what I’m talking about. 😉 And it will likely open doors for me and introduce me to other people in the industry. Plus, and this might be most important, I love learning about wine.  No matter where I go on my wine adventures this year, this is what is driving me.