Two things I love both in wine and in life are structure and balance. Research and informed advice made me realise that embarking on the path to achieve a WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits was going to require a few adjustments to re-structure my routine and to balance frequent studying during my week.
Last November the course began, and after the first block of face-to-face classes and a couple of months of intense learning, I’m about to sit my first test this January 2018.
This is the second in a series documenting my experience taking part in the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, a two semester long course for the wine professional or dedicated oenophile that offers an in-depth view of the vinous universe as well as that of distilled spirits across the world (you can read the first part HERE).
The First Day of Class
On the 6th of November, I finally gathered with my classmates for the first time at the Hilton Garden Inn in Dublin’s IFSC. Some familiar faces, including former classmates from Level 3 were there along with people coming from different parts of Ireland and Northern Ireland to start their diplomas.
The majority of the crowd, a group of 14, worked in the drink or the restaurant industries, and a few of us were either writers or interested into venturing in the business of wine. The demographics were varied, with ambassadors from all age groups able to drink and work, six women and eight men.
From minute one I had the feeling I was in the right room, not just because the educator was there to welcome even the earliest of birds but because of the level of experience and enthusiasm of the classmates I was surrounded by.
The first block of classes, five consecutive full days, served to make sure everyone was on the same page regarding the examinations and what was expected from us. We also had an overview of the study guides and a lecture on the global and regional wine and spirits market, along with recommendations to make the most out of our independent study time and of course, tastings.
Blind Tasting is not a Party Trick
As I said, I love structure. Most activities in which I’ve persevered have some sort of system for measuring progress: in Karate, you’d have the colour-coded belts; in the Girl Scouts, numerous badges; in WSET you have the levels, of which the fourth is the highest.
Once the labelless bottles were handed to us, I felt again like that rookie karateka wondering when she’d be able to break bricks with a punch, but this time, I had the sense to keep the question inside of me. Guided by Program Manager Russell Dent, we skipped the party trick aspect of blind tasting and focused on paying attention to our glasses, not just to guess the grape and region, but to use WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) to help ourselves identify the truly meaningful characteristics of the mystery wines.
This was not just an interesting and, let’s admit it, fun, exercise. It allowed us to “calibrate” our palates and help identify our strengths and weaknesses, key points to work on on the road to the tasting part of the examination (a combination of closed and open book examinations and tasting is part of the Diploma’s way of evaluating students).
Surprised by a tendency to mix my medium to full-bodied oaky reds (is this a Shiraz or a Malbec?), I’ve made it my business to taste comparatively any time an opportunity presents itself.
Another important tasting realisation was the existence of tricks one’s mind plays when it’s just you and the glass: once you think you know what you’re tasting, it’s easy to try to find aromas and characteristics that reinforce what you want to believe. A vinous confirmation bias can cost you the test, so becoming aware of when you’re doing it and forcing yourself to keep an open mind is crucial.
Not all tastings were blind and in fact, one of the most pleasant experiences of the class was a parade of gorgeous sweet wines from different regions, showcasing the different styles of sweet wine making. We had the absolute privilege to taste Ice Wine, Sauternes, Tokaji and other honeyed gems along with expert insight and orientation. That’s an experience I’ll remember fondly and for life.
Valuable Market Insight
The course doesn’t look at wine as an isolated object but in the context of our market. We were able to discuss marketing, trends and the relevant issues and opportunities driving the industry. Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW offered an up to date insight on the Irish and UK markets for wines and spirits, and we had access to reliable figures that painted a clear picture on the status of the drinks industry in Ireland today.
For anyone working with wine or hoping to enter the business, this part of the course is incredibly important and a future evaluation will encourage us to delve even further in the current market for wine and spirits both locally and globally.
Cue Stationery and Lots of Coffee
While it’s wine what I’m studying, the course has also done wonders for my appreciation of coffee, or to be honest, caffeine. Working nine to five plus, evenings and Saturdays have had to be rearranged to fit the recommended study time per unit. For number 2, the upcoming test, a total of 60 hours is suggested.
A Whassap group has been very helpful for getting in touch with my classmates and share study tips and interesting material. Some are resorting to flash cards, others have found useful Youtube channels, and others swear by summarising the units and then learning from your notes (I’m in the latter group).
One thing I’ve found very useful is to draft a study schedule, which I adjust weekly to make sure work and social events have the space they need. I aimed to work through the recommended 60 hours in six weeks between November and December, dedicating ten hours a week divided in two 2.5 hour long sessions on my two least busy weekday evenings and one 5 hour long session on Saturday mornings.
This allowed me to take a break during the Christmas holidays and save January to work in two assignments due by the end of this month.
New Year, New Skills
While we’re still in the early stages, I already feel more confident with my tasting technique and thanks to the classes and the very detailed study material, I’ve been able to finally understand a few doubts I’ve carried for long enough.
While Unit 2 (the one the first test will focus on) is to be evaluated with a closed book, multiple choice test, upcoming units will also require longer answers and essays where a good memory won’t save you as research and analytical skills become key at this level.
So far, the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, has surpassed expectations and pushed me in a good way. Exercises such as creating a marketing plan for a successful high-volume brand of Chilean wine entering the Irish market or designing the vineyard for an hypothetical Romanian Pinot Noir producer have managed to help us see wine in all its dimensions and consider the sometimes overlooked decisions involved in its production.
If you are considering enhancing your skills this 2018 and the world of wine and spirits excites you, check out WSET Global’s page to find out about their upcoming dates both in Ireland and abroad. Classes for the organisation’s different levels are opening periodically and there are several authorised course providers for levels 1, 2 and 3 in Ireland. For level 4, WSET’s flagship course provider the WSET School London runs courses in Dublin.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.