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 trying to pad 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 the 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.
The two - part test is made up of a blind tasting portion and a theory portion and lasts 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.
The blind tasting starts at approximately 10 in the morning and contains 12 wines, arranged into four groups of three. Each group is usually tied together by some theme, such as a common grape or country, or something else entirely, or maybe no theme at all (good ole 'Mixed Bag'). You are expected to hit 17 technical points in white wine assessment and 19 points in red wine, with the difference being the tannins - the level (low, through every iteration of medium, to high) and nature (stalky/grippy/fine/round/silky, etc). The technical points are based on subcategories of color, smell, and taste.
The next category is a quality summarization, based on your overall rating of the wine (poor, acceptable, good, very good, or outstanding) justified by outlining criteria--specific positives and negatives (maybe the wine has intensity of flavor but a short finish). Finally, you finish with what you think is the price range, the wine's age in years, its ability to improve and/or 'keep' in number of years and why ("I feel this wine will improve over the next two years as the tropical fruit flavors will progress into dried fruit and honey notes, and that the medium plus acid level will let the wine keep for five more years") and the likely varietal and country of origin.
To be honest, the blind tasting is not as hard as it sounds once you learn WSET's Systematic Approach. The approach allows you to deduce and narrow down what you may be drinking; for example, intensely colored purplish red wines almost immediately eliminates Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo as varietal options, and therefore many of their accompanying characteristics. Finding low tannins may make you start thinking in the direction of Gamay, Sangiovese, or Tempranillo, etc, but a ticking clock (you only get 120 minutes to complete all 12 wines and you have to write a page for each), tiring tastebuds, and extreme nervousness can really take their tolls. Having been in WSET for several years now, I can tell you with 100% accuracy that the tasting is difficult. But the theory portion is where I really started to really doubt my career choice and intelligence level.
The theory portion begins after the12 glasses of wine and a quick lunch break. That lunch break was murder. Because everyone sat around saying things like, "Oh Number 3 was definitely a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, not New Zealand, you could tell because of the underlying green notes, you didn't get that?", for basically an hour. And there was always the assuredly confident person who would helpfully interject that it was actually an Alsatian Riesling while overly exaggerating their politeness at not laughing at your dumbassness, and speaking slowly and enunciating, as if talking to a baby who is for some reason getting wine degree. I know that's pretty much the environment after just about any test, but needless to say, I got out of there until it was time to start back up.
There are seven questions the theory test. You must answer five. One of those seven is mandatory, so you get to pick the other four, and that question likely has multiple parts. The questions are essay format, and the student must display high level, sophisticated knowledge, excellent writing skills, address a wide range of considerations ranging from characteristics of the grape, climate, topography, soil, vinification, vitification, history, producers, market forces and trends, advantages/disadvantages, and any specialized knowledge, as well as mention in detail specific wines/wineries, and overall history, to be considered worthy of passing. Annoyingly, these answers must be written by hand, in pencil, on loose leaf paper. Topics literally can be anything having to do with wine. Just memorize as much of the Oxford Companion 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 -- I am happy for that. The WSET makes you strive for excellence. The WSET truly does maintain high and strict standards, and passing a test, even if it's 'just' the tasting or 'just' the theory portion (meaning you have to retest on the failed portion), is a big deal. There is no such thing as showing up, paying, and passing because you know what grapes are allowed in Bordeaux blends and what Tokaji is. You must perform. You cannot get lucky or fake it; the WSET has made sure of that.
Results take three months because graders scrutinize exactly what you have written and they are not - ARE NOT - afraid to piss you off and fail you. They also care not that you are basically in agony during those three months wondering how you did and what the examiners think of how you fashioned your answers. 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 4, 5, and 6 which are basically the same test, except they apply to Spirits, Sparkling Wine, and Fortified Wine, respectfully.
So often I swear that WSET is evil and that I hate them. But it's not true. I love every minute, I love the push, I love the pull, I love it when I realize that I know exactly what I'm doing sometimes and the fascinating information that has opened up tom while studying wine.
I will put in my 300 hours of study over and over and over again!!