Wine is a universe in constant expansion. It moults every year with the new vintage and encompasses disciplines as varied as chemistry, philosophy, geography, meteorology, history and marketing. Organising such a vast subject and turning into a systematised path to expertise that people from all over the world can follow is a colossal endeavour at which the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has managed to excel.
I was one of the 72,000 people who sat a WSET exam last year in 73 different countries. It was my WSET Level 3 Award in Wines, described as “an advanced level qualification for professionals working in the wine industry and for wine enthusiasts.”
This feature will be the first one in a series in which I intend to document my experience taking part in the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, and while I’m aware that doing this will add an extra layer of challenge to an already ambitious task, I am counting the days to start in Dublin this November 2017 and thrilled to begin sharing the highlights, tips and the insights I wish I knew before embarking.
Three Questions to Ask Yourself
As many who reach the penultimate step on a ladder towards the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, I am passionate about wine and serious about pursuing a long-term career involving it.
And yet, committing to progress into the Diploma was not a decision I took lightly, in fact I asked myself several questions: am I in a moment in my life in which I can dedicate a few hours a week for approximately two years to studying? Will the time, effort and resources invested on this be worth it? And the ultimate question, why am I doing this?
The first one was a solid “most likely.” For the second question, while I can’t see the future, I can imagine the possibilities with the help of a glimpse at some of the names who share this qualification.
One of the most notable alumni, and a person who I genuinely admire is Jancis Robinson, who was first of her class back in 1978 and a vocal supporter of WSET: “Thanks to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, my education in wine at least started out in a miraculously methodical manner. My experience of their courses between 1976 and 1978 gave me a sure foundation in this wonderful world of wine”, her words are nothing but encouraging.
Tim Atkin MW, another highly influential professional in wine, also sees the certification in a very positive light: “WSET rocks! The best place to start (and continue) your professional appreciation of wine”, the study is also seen as the prep for those intending to eventually become Masters of Wine.
Closer to home, several professionals that I hold in very high esteem have also gone through the Diploma. Wine writer and educator Liam Campbell, whose work I have the monthly pleasure of editing at TheTaste is one of them. “There is something about acquiring knowledge that can prove to be an insatiable pursuit: the more you have the more you want; the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Since he graduated from the Diploma in 1994 he has tutored over 1,500 students of levels 1, 2 and 3. One of his students eventually became a Master of Wine.
“One of the greatest skills gleaned from the two years studying the Level 4 Diploma was the Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT). This process of analysing objectively a wine or spirit I have applied daily ever since when assessing the quality of a drink.”
Liam also points out that besides the comprehensive knowledge of wine one gains, the Diploma was an eye opener when it comes to spirits. “I developed an appreciation for Scottish Single Malt Whiskies and learnt the regional differences”, he said.
Another Dublin-based alumni whom I spoke to recently is Justine McGovern, the engine behind California wine in Ireland, who had a couple of sensible tips for a person venturing into this programme: “It was a very enriching part of my life and it was really tough, you can’t get away with not doing much and it’s great to have a study partner to stay motivated.
Similar advice was given to me just at the end of my WSET Level 3 by Maureen O’Hara, who was my instructor at the time, and suggested that I try to become part of a study group, not just to bond and support each other, but to share the expenses of the wine samples we’d need to source as the course progressed.
As for the third question, why am I doing this?
One thing that appeals to me from the diploma is the diverse range of fields in which is useful, not just in media, but for professionals in sales, hospitality, distribution, teaching, public relations and more.
Every single graduate I know holds a position of responsibility in a company or organisation that works with wine or drinks, or has developed a name for themselves as an author or educator. Being such a multidisciplinary industry, obtaining a certification that is widely recognised and respected in an international scale is something I look forward to.
Through WSET themselves, I was able to reach recent graduates to get their thoughts on the experience. Petri Pentikainen, Sommelier at The Three Chimneys in Scotland wrote back: “They relied on the qualification [WSET Level 4 Diploma] and my passion as I hadn’t work in a restaurant before, yet I was going to oversee their wine list and to be on the floor recommending wines to accompany the guests’ meals. Upon completing the WSET Diploma the breadth and depth of knowledge you have gained is unparalleled.”
Helen Barugh, National Account Manager at Liberty Wines was also kind enough to share a few lines on her own experience: “There is no doubt that the WSET Diploma is a challenging course, but also a rewarding one, and I am delighted to have achieved my Merit result. Having more detailed knowledge and to be able to put the achievement on my CV will help develop my career in the long term, so I am pleased to have pursued the course and reached my goal. In the future, I would like to run a wine sales team of my own and to pass down my experiences and knowledge, but there is lots more to learn first!”
About the course
The WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits is described as a “specialist-level knowledge in wines and spirits, for both the trade professional and the serious enthusiast.” It’s divided in two semestres and comprised of six units of study created to develop expertise in specific areas of the wine and spirits world.
There is a combination of live classes, delivered by highly qualified experts, along with independent study time during which a wealth of online resources is available.
To be able to enroll in this course, applicants have to have passed the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines (often, the WSET Level 2 is the previous step, but in some cases a student can start in Level 3). If you’d like to find out more about all WSET courses you can visit wsetglobal.com
Those interested in more information about studying a WSET Diploma in Ireland are still in time to take part in this year’s first semestre, which starts in November and for which a place can be booked online. There is also a fully online alternative to the course, which is also supported by highly qualified and experienced tutors, many of whom are MW’s. Information is available on the WSET Global website.
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.