Like any other creation worthy of developing a loyal fandom, wine has its own language and customs that look strange from the outside: the whirling, the slurping and the spitting might seem wacky for the haters and intimidating for those with a compelling curiosity but who don’t know where to get started.
Many experts -real and “so called”- offer classes and organise guided tastings which can help you take the first steps into the world of wine, but such a vast subject is often approached in a unsystematic way, even by those who truly know it but lack the right teaching method. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is an organisation dedicated to the development and delivery of qualifications and courses in wines and spirits which was established in 1969 in the UK and nowadays features over 600 Approved Programme Providers in over 70 countries.
They offer a range of courses that covers all levels of depth, and two of their most popular ones are the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines and WSET Level 2 Award in Wine and Spirits. While the first level offers a very basic introduction, the level 2 is also open to beginners, but it reaches an intermediate complexity and those who’ve been working with (or consciously enjoying) wine for a while can truly benefit from it.
I was delighted to accept an invitation to enrol in the WSET Level 2 Award in Wine and Spirits by the Dublin Bar Academy. Having taken other classes in the past and with some experience writing, serving and selling wine; I was tempted to push my luck and see if I could land straight in Level 3 but after discussing it with former students of the program I shhhed my inner pushy student and acknowledged they were right: there is always something you can learn that will make your base stronger before you continue with more advanced levels.
WSET, Dublin Bar Academy’s Way
The course itself is always the same among the many different providers. The content and the material is created by WSET and the wines tasted at any institute will be chosen from a list of approved suggestions. Even the exam comes sealed straight from the organisation, and that’s the beauty of it: no matter where you take the course, the certification represents the guarantee of a standard.
Therefore the course provider’s touch is not in the what, but in the how. Dublin Bar Academy offers an intensive approach, divided into two full days (9:00 am to 6:00 pm) with the exam at the end of the last day. On this occasion, the chosen dates were the 16th and 23rd of August, two Tuesdays in a row.
Upon arrival I was surprised by the setting. It felt like the lounge of one of one of those IT companies that like to spoil their staff with coolness: colourful and spacious, with a pin-pon and a pool table in the main area and countless bottles of anything that can be put into a cocktail displayed behind a long, bright bar.
Once inside the classroom, I noticed that we were a very diverse group of sixteen students: nine women, seven men (I’d dare to say everyone was in their twenties or early thirties), all with a work-related interest in wine.
Impeccably punctual, the class started when Anke Hartmann, our teacher, introduced herself: a Level 4 WSET holder with two decades of experience in high end restaurants in Switzerland, England, Ireland and Germany, where she is originally from. We then opened our study material, which came in a box containing a workbook, the Level 2 content book and an A5 guide with the lexicon for the level’s Systematic Approach to Tasting.
We were also given the itinerary for both days. Day 1 would focus on the basics of tasting and winemaking as well as in the most important global grape varieties, and Day 2 would be about other grape varieties of regional importance, sweet wines, sparkling and spirits. For those interested in a more detailed account of the content of the course, here’s the specification.
Finding the Right Blend Between Theory and Practice
With two eight-hour sessions plus an estimate of 12 hours of study time (in which is highly recommend to carefully read the whole study book and watch a video), the course is not to be taken lightly. Yes, there were a few pin-pon matches during the breaks, and yes, there was laughter and a friendly, casual atmosphere , but that didn’t make the class any less demanding nor the exam any easier.
Anke was brilliant at knowing when to let us “take five” and when to politely remind us not to get distracted. During the two days, she guided us through the whole program, answering all our questions. I noticed that the group was also very varied in their level of knowledge, which meant that there was no question too basic. If you work with wine and have a little knowledge gap or chronic confusion which you don’t want to expose by asking about it to your manager, the course is the perfect environment to ask and polish your understanding. There is no “stupid” questions and no one will assume “you should know this by know”.
I personally got rid of a few Wine 101 doubts including some on the very particular German hierarchy of designations (Anke’s perfect German was a helpful bonus and I can’t wait to be in a situation where I can casually drop the word trockenbeerenauslese) as well as a few questions on Italian grape varieties that I’ve dragged for longer than I’d like to admit.
Over the two days, we tasted 47 wines and 4 spirits. The wines were tasted by flights of five or six at the time, always just after finishing the unit pertinent to their style. I was pleased to see the quality and the impressive range of wines served, from entry-level Pinot Grigio to Tokaji, and along the way many different Chardonnays, Bordeaux, aged Riojas, Champagne, Port, Sherry and more. It is not only a unique opportunity to taste an extensive range of wines, but also, to try them with an expert, the proper glasses and in an environment that favours concentration. Whether it’s your first time at a wine tasting or you’ve been to numerous wine fairs and festivals, just for this part the course is well worth it.
And thanks to the aforementioned Systematic Approach to Tasting (level 2), all the class was speaking the same language and using the same terms to describe the wine. Getting familiar with an structured system to comment about and rate a wine was particularly valuable, and even though I love creative wine descriptions, getting a better frame will only make them stronger. Sometimes people that really know their wines fail to get across the characteristics when describing them, and even though it seems very basic, being restricted to the approved language was actually and excellent exercise.
Finally, it was time to sit through the test. For the level 2 it is a 50 multiple questions test with four possible answers and only one correct per question. The tests arrived sealed and not even Anke knew exactly what we were going to be asked, however, there are plenty of practice questions in the study material, which we were encourage to fill and check in advance.
Any student that pays a decent level of attention in class and carefully reads the book should be likely to pass it, although getting a honourable mention (85% or more correct answers) is not easy. You have one hour to fill the test and all the questions on it will refer to something present in the study material.
I can’t empathise enough the importance of reading every page of the material and filling the practice test at the end of the workbook, especially given the intensive nature of the course which will include the exam just after class on the last day.
By the time I’m writing this I’m still waiting for my tests results, which will take a couple of weeks to arrive.
At €399 the WSET Level 2 Award in Wine and Spirits at the Dublin Bar Academy is offered at a similar price to other providers. Considering that it includes the material, 16 hours of intensive class with Anke, 47 wines to taste -many well above the €25 mark several over €50- and the exam itself, I found it reasonably priced. It doesn’t hurt to know that the resulting qualification is accredited at Level 4 in the National Framework Qualification of Ireland.
It is a course that you can take for personal growth or to improve your career prospects. It is recognised across the world and complex yet approachable, and the way it’s taught at Dublin Bar Academy makes it approachable, friendly and extremely convenient for those who want to improve noticeably and in a short period of time.
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.