Sunil Iyer who teaches Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses at all levels tells us everything you need to know about the world’s most popular wine qualifications
For those wanting to learn more about wine, or those in the trade looking to acquire formal qualifications, there are many options available. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, option at the moment and its global footprint is growing significantly each year.
It is a body founded and headquartered in the UK, where it was established in 1969. Its initial remit was to assist the training of professionals in the UK wine trade, particularly those in import, distribution and retail. However, it has grown significantly beyond that early objective. Today, WSET training programmes are offered in over 70 countries (and in 15 languages) with 75% of students located outside the UK. WSET is also attracting many enthusiasts (particularly for the entry-level qualifications) who simply want to learn more about wine, not necessarily because they need it as part of their jobs.
I teach all WSET levels in Northern California. The US is currently WSET’s largest market and is witnessing double-digit growth each year. In Asia, the fastest-growing markets are Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. However, there is an expectation that the courses will gain greater popularity in India. While WSET also offers courses in spirits and sake, the most popular courses are those for wine.
What are the WSET qualifications?
There are 4 levels, from the introductory Level 1 to the 2-year Diploma programme (Level 4), each of which has an exam or set of exams at the end.
Level 1 assumes no knowledge of wine and is taught over the course of a single day. While the course covers both basic knowledge and an introduction to the WSET method of tasting, the exam is a relatively straightforward multiple-choice paper (usually taken at the end of the course).
Level 2 expands the set of regions and grapes considerably, and a typical course is done over the duration of a few days, with much more time devoted to learning how to taste wine. However, the final exam is still a theory-based, multiple-choice test paper.
Level 3 is when the difficulty level starts to ramp up. Students are expected to have significantly deeper knowledge than demanded by the prior levels, and there is both an essay-based theory section, as well as a (relatively straightforward for most students) blind tasting exam with two wines. Course options vary from intensive 5-day courses to evening classes spread over the course of several months.
Level 4 (Diploma) is the pinnacle of the WSET qualifications. It takes, on an average, two years and comprises six different papers, covering areas from the Business of Wine to Sparkling Wines. The largest and most challenging paper is the one on the Still Wines of the World. Papers are examined differently, with some focusing on just theory and others with a large blind-tasting component. It’s very tough to pass these exams without significant study time and tasting practice. In practice, depending on their wine knowledge and other qualifications, most students start at either Level 1, 2 or 3 (Level 3 is a pre-requisite to be eligible for the Diploma Course).
Who is a typical candidate?
In my experience, both as a teacher and as a student, I’ve seen a very wide variety of people take these courses. The early levels (1 & 2) tend to attract non-professionals, who are either simply interested in learning about wine (often attending with friends) or are considering a potential career switch. The Diploma Course, however, tends to attract a far higher proportion of those in the industry, supplemented by a number of passionate or dedicated enthusiasts.
In the US, historically, the more conventional route for people working in restaurants or services was to take one of the Sommelier qualifications. However, over the last couple of years, there has been a noticeable shift in this demographic towards WSET, perhaps because of the broader set of skills and knowledge gained from the WSET courses.
What are the key benefits of taking the qualifications?
There are numerous benefits for both professionals and enthusiasts. Regardless of one’s level of knowledge, there are always new regions and grapes to discover. In my experience, most students, even those with considerable experience, haven’t explored all global regions. Speaking about a region in class, or tasting a new wine, can be a launchpad to delve deeper into a region or find something different from the standard wines one might buy or order in a restaurant. Often the less-famous regions can offer great value!
There is often also an enjoyable social element to taking the classes; they can be a fantastic way to meet fellow wine enthusiasts in the area, often at a similar stage to you in their wine journey. Students often form tasting groups, where they can pool together resources to buy wines to practice for the exams, and these have led to long-lasting friendships. If you love wine and are new to a particular area, attending a WSET course is a great networking opportunity.
For those who are looking to get into any aspect of the wine trade, be it retail, distribution or restaurants, WSET is often a pre-requisite or advantage from the employer’s perspective, regardless of the level of qualification that you have taken. Employers often sponsor students to start or further their qualifications owing to the broad wine knowledge that students get from the courses.
What are the challenges?
Most students are intimidated by the blind-tasting component of Level 3 and the Diploma. However, this nervousness is usually unfounded, and students are often surprised when they come to find that the pass rates for the tasting papers are higher (sometimes considerably higher) than the pass rates for the theory papers. The Level 3 tasting consists only of a white wine and a red wine, and students are required only to describe the components of the wine (for eg the acid level or the flavours), but not asked to identify the grape or region of origin. Tasting at the Diploma level is
considerably more challenging and requires the identification of many wines. However, even if students are unable to do this correctly, they can still do very well if they can accurately describe the wine and assess its quality. Like most things in the world of wine, it’s all about practice!
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