And should you take it?
I want to start with the most crucial piece of information at the top. If you glance over and do not read the rest of the article, I hope you at least read this.
You should never take the WSET classes/tests or any wine education courses exclusively to “get ahead” in your career. More likely than not, you will either fail and be disappointed or succeed…and still be disappointed. Instead, pursue a wine certification if you are genuinely passionate about this beautiful world of wine and want to challenge yourself/ connect with other like-minded individuals.
The WSET Course
Every year, 100,000[+/-] starry-eyed wine professionals and amateurs in 72 countries (based on the 2018/19 WSET enrollment numbers) across the globe sign up for the various guided courses provided by the London-based Wine and Spirits Education Trust or the WSET. With the release of the movie “SOMM” in 2012, and the recent pandemic, interest in wine education has grown significantly in popularity, and the WSET has benefitted.
How does the WSET Work?
The program spans courses that will progressively increase your knowledge of global wine regions and improve your tasting skills with a deductive approach called the “Systemic Approach to Tasting (SAT).” Finally, if nothing else, you do get a spiffy pin that you can put on your coat that holds some value in the industry and may (or may not) help you get hired. Some wine companies even mandate/recommend for their employees to take the WSET and will pay for you to do it. So if you work for one of those companies, a) Lucky! I am jealous b) Stop reading and do it. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
I suppose the question is, is it worth your time/money?
Everyone is different, so the answer to the question above will vary. Yet, as someone who has gone through (and is going through) all four courses, I am in an ideal position to share my opinion. So, we will look stage by stage and answer the simple questions:
- First, how much time/money are you expected to invest?
- Then, for whom was this stage developed?
- And finally, my opinion on whether it is worth the time and money?
Each program is different. I study with the Napa Valley Wine Academy, which offers a great deal of support at a premium. On the other end of the spectrum, you could try to take the tests without going through the course, which I would not recommend. If you choose to self-study, be aware each failed test will cost you time and more money. If you are interested in more details and want to hear the sales pitch, check out Napa Valley Wine Academy’s website. (Not sponsored content).
Let’s begin, shall we?
WSET Level 1
- Investment: About 2 days and 6 hours of studying. +/- $300
- For whom: Amateurs interested in getting a little more invested in global wine.
- Worth it?: If you are a wine professional in a job where you talk about wine- like a tasting room associate, a server, a retail wine clerk, etc.- you do NOT need this class. You will learn more at your job than you ever will through the program. However, if you do not know that Pinot Noir is a red grape (WSET uses “black grape,” but that’s neither here nor there) or that Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape, this program may be beneficial. Another upside I gained from this program is learning more about food and wine pairings.
WSET Level 2
- Time investment: 16 hours in class, 28-35 hours of study, +/- $700
- For whom: Wine professionals at the entry-level. People like hospitality associates, wine clerks, and aspiring sommeliers.
- Worth it?: I think so. For a beginner, the WSET 2 is an excellent jumping-off point into the world of wine. If you took WSET 1, you could expand your knowledge more in-depth. Believe me, when I was in my WSET 1 class, everyone was already asking WSET 2 questions, so it begs the question of why level 1 even exists. Level 2 is the de-facto base level and where you should jump in.
WSET Level 3
- Time investment: 30 hours of class, 84+ hours of study +/- $1,300
- For whom: Advanced and dedicated wine students
- Worth it?: At this moment, I hold the level 3 certification with the WSET, although I hope to go to Diploma soon. My one gripe with this program is that for a dedicated wine professional, it is relatively easy to pass. Maybe that is a positive, especially for those just chasing the pin, but it devalues the whole thing. It seems like, at this level, the Certified and Advanced Sommelier exams present far more of a challenge. Everyone has different abilities when it comes to studying. So, don’t take my word for it.
WSET Level 4, aka The WSET Diploma
- Time investment: Two years (or more) +/- $6,500
- For whom: Truly serious wine professionals looking to head into the wine industry’s upper levels and challenge themselves.
- Worth it?: The jump from Level 3 to the Diploma is RIDICULOUS. The level might as well be its separate program (and it is. It is more intensive than levels 1-3 combined). To enter the program, you must have your Level 3 certification.
- There are six stages or divisions in the program:
- D1: Winemaking/Viticulture
- D2: Wine Business
- D3: Wines of the World (Still)
- D4 Sparkling Wines
- D5: Fortified Wines
- D6: Independent Research Assignment.
Each stage is a rigorous 3-6 month process, culminating in a written test and, in the case of D3,4, and 5, a tasting exam. For D4 and D5, the tasting and the exam are all within an allotted time, so you will need to manage your time well to pass. I am saying this not to deter you from trying the Diploma but to set the expectations. Diploma prep can be a part-time job, if not a full-time job, so you better have allocated time or be ready to grind. In the end, I think it is the most worth-it program of all for wine professionals working in any field.
A couple more things to note
Most WSET classes require only a 55% score to pass. You can pass “With Meritt” or “With Distinction” if you do better. This makes the passing easier at the lower levels, but it is still incredibly challenging to get through the Diploma, even if you only need 55%. Each test gets mailed to the WSET London office to be graded, so the average lag-time between the test and the result can be as long as 2-3 months.
To Wrap It up
Wine education is not for everyone. Some people learn better on the fly. There are many highly talented wine professionals who know an astounding amount of information about wine without ever needing to sit in a class. People with super-palates can discern incredible nuance in any wine without ever being taught the “Systematic Approach to Wine Tasting.”
Everyone approaches wine differently. Also, you can never learn everything in a class. That is a simple truth that every college graduate knows. But I don’t think taking the WSET hurts anything, and if you are passionate about wine like I am, a days/weeks/ years and a few hundreds/ Gs are all worth it in the end.
I hope the information provided here has given you an honest understanding of what it takes to take on the journey with the WSET, as I did.