Back to School... Wine School, that is... WSET to be Exact.


 "The WSET recommends at least 300 hours of study..." I thought they were exaggerating, or at least padding the time for dumb people, a category that excluded me, on how much preparation is needed to pass the Level 4/Unit 3 Light Wines of the World exam. Given that the authors of that sentence are the writers and graders of that test, it turns out they knew exactly what was up. UNIT 3 IS INTENSE. Take WSET's advice on how much to study, with a special focus on the words at least.

WSET is the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, a first-in-class global program based out of London that prepares students to begin the Master of Wine qualification. WSET offers Level 3 and Level 4 certificates. Level 4 is the Diploma program, made up of six different units, and that level alone takes about a year and a half to complete. You can only make it to Level 4 if you have passed Level 3 (prior to that are levels 1 and 2, but those are intro courses), which in itself is an accomplishment, and where many people stop because the education is so complete. It takes a special kind of psychopath to happily throw themselves into the Diploma program.

The class for Level 4/Unit 3 lasts three months and culminates into a two part test made up of a blind tasting then a theory portion. It takes about five hours. The old college dream of being able to drink while taking a test does not work nearly as well in practice as it does in theory. Trust me.

My wine school did not look like this. It was more like a conference room in a hotel. Actually, that’s exactly what it was.

My wine school did not look like this. It was more like a conference room in a hotel. Actually, that’s exactly what it was.

The blind tasting starts at approximately 10 in the morning (because of course you have to do it before theory) and contains 12 wines, arranged into four groups of three. Each group is usually tied together by a theme, such as a common grape or country, or something else entirely, or maybe no theme at all (good ole 'Mixed Bag'). You assess each wine individually to conclude the group’s theme, if it has one. You are expected to hit 17 technical points in white wine assessments and 19 points in red wine, with the difference being the tannins - the level (low, through every iteration of medium, to high) and the nature (stalky/grippy/fine/round/silky, etc). The technical assessments are based on subcategories of color, smell, and taste. 

The next category is  a quality assessment based on your overall rating of the wine (poor, acceptable, good, very good, or outstanding) which you then justify by outlining specific positives and negatives (maybe the wine has complexity but the alcohol is just too high).  Finally, you finish with what you think the price range is, the wine's age in years, its ability to improve and/or 'keep' in number of years and why ("This wine will improve over the next two years as the tropical fruit flavors will progress into dried fruit and honey notes, while the medium plus acid level will preserve its freshness for five more years").

To be honest, the blind tasting is not as impossible as it sounds once you learn the WSET's Systematic Approach. This process uses deductive reasoning to determine what’s in your glass by eliminating what’s not in your glass. For example, an intensely purple wine almost immediately eliminates Nebbiolo as a varietal option and therefore many of its accompanying characteristics. Concluding that the wine has a low tannin level may make you start thinking in the direction of Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Dolcetto versus Cabernet, Sangiovese, or some other highly tannic grape; a low acid level would steer you away from Sauvignon Blanc or bone-dry Riesling, and so on.  But a ticking clock (you only get 120 minutes to complete all twelve wines and you have to write a page for each), tiring tastebuds, and extreme nervousness can really take their tolls on your ability to assess. Having participated in many blind tastings in my years in the program, I can tell you with 100% accuracy that although the tasting is difficult, it is the theory portion that always made me doubt my career choice and intelligence level. 

None of these is a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

None of these is a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

The Unit 3 theory test begins after the twelve glasses of wine and a quick lunch break. That lunch break was always murder. Because everyone sat around saying things like, "Oh, wine number 4 was definitely a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, not New Zealand, you could tell because of the underlying green notes, you didn't get that?", (that is actually a hysterically funny joke that only wine people will get) for basically an hour. And there was always the overly confident person who would helpfully interject that it was actually an Alsatian Riesling while exaggerating their politeness at their perceived sensory superiority, while speaking slowly and enunciating, as if talking to babies who for some reason getting were getting wine degrees. I know that's pretty much the environment after just about any test, but needless to say, I always got out of there until it was time to start back up.

There are seven questions the theory test. You must answer five. Only five. Answer six or seven and I suspect that WSET takes points away because you don’t listen to instructions, and they won’t read past your fifth answer anyway. One of those seven is mandatory for everyone, so you get to pick your other four, and the mandatory question likely has multiple parts. The questions are essay format, and the student must display high level, sophisticated knowledge, excellent writing and organization skills, address a variety of considerations ranging from characteristics of the grape, climate, topography, soil, vinification,  vitification, history, producers, market forces and trends, advantages/disadvantages or comparisons/contrasts, and any specialized knowledge, as well as mention in detail specific wines/wineries, and general history, to be considered worthy of passing. Annoyingly, these answers must be written by hand, in pencil, on loose leaf paper, and should be at least two pages long each. Topics can be almost anything having to do with wine. To get through this, just memorize as much of the Oxford Companion to Wine as you can. Literally. I am not kidding.

The test, and WSET as a whole, is demanding and takes WORK. (Or is it 'werk'? I don't know what the kids are saying these days.) 

But hard work is a good thing.  As much as I swear that the examiners are evil and insane, and that their rules are unduly strict and standards for answering border on pendanticism, I have to admit that I’m proud of the push. You must be excellent to get the diploma. Given WSET’s dedication to maintaining high and strict standards, passing just Unit 3 even if it's 'just' the tasting or 'just' the theory (meaning you have to retake the failed portion), is a big deal. There is no such thing as showing up and passing because you paid. You must perform. You cannot get lucky or fake it; the WSET has made sure of that. 

You must be excellent to get the diploma.

Results take three months because graders scrutinize what you have written and they are not - ARE NOT - afraid to piss you off and give you a failing grade with no explanation of why you’ve failed (they sometimes even tell you that you that although you’ve demonstrated good and sound knowledge, too bad, you still failed. No explanation on why unless you open a months-long inquiry and pay a pretty steep fee during which time you might as well just retake the test.) They also care not that you are basically in agony during those three months while you await results and to find out if you need to retest (the opportunity for which takes another six months to a year). Know your wine and how to take the test, or forget about that pin. 

Not that you get a pin upon successfully passing Unit 3, of course... you still have to get through Units 1,2, 4, 5, and 6 which are basically the same test, except 4,5,6 apply to spirits, sparkling, and fortified wine, respectfully, and thankfully there are just three wines/spirits to blind taste (meaning of course that you have to do nine if you take all three tests together). Unit 1 is comprised of an exam and three month long research paper, and Unit 2 is a surprisingly low pressure but still in-depth multiple choice test.

Just say goodbye to your life and your family while you are studying for your Diploma, and definitely take the WSET seriously when they mention their ‘300 hours minimum’ recommendation for Unit 3. After all, you don’t want to be in the category that excludes people who successfully passed. Did I mention there’s only about a 40% pass rate for Unit 3? Because there’s only about a 40% pass rate.

Oh and, please don’t be in the category of the superior person who calls everything an Alsatian Riesling. Not everything is an Alsatian Riesling, Gary*. There are other dry wines out there.

*Gary wasn’t Alsatian Riesling Guy’s real name.