The WSET* Diploma in Wines & Spirits may be well recognised, but it is quite an undertaking. So what do you really get out of it? Here are 7 benefits that I have discovered (so far).
As many as 90% of those taking this in-depth wine course are in the industry – for example, working for merchants or distributors. Employers often sponsor their people, which clearly has a financial advantage but it also adds pressure to pass. The other advantage many have though, is the opportunity to taste a wide selection of wine on a regular basis. I am part of the remaining 10ish % with a slightly different perspective. I bought the vineyard which became Château George 7 in 2015 and started the diploma the same year to help equip me for my future wine production project. I passed early last year – and 2018 is also the year of what will be my first vintage.
Not one to shy from a challenge, I threw myself at it and I have to admit that I found it more demanding, in time and money, than I had expected. Partly, this is due to my lack of research but also because it is really a huge step up from the WSET level 3 and you can’t really grasp that until you are waist deep in it. The materials I read woefully underestimated the time commitment and fellow students agree. One of them, Angie, pointed out, '..there will be times when you have no life' but she goes on to say that 'but it is totally worth it!' Most people already have a busy life and it seems to stop when exams (and specifically unit 3 prep) comes around. This paper (theory and tasting of still wines of the world), is especially time consuming! In terms of cost, I funded it myself, but the cost of the course itself is spread over a couple of years at least. Apart from the fees (and costs of travelling to the classroom element of the course), the spending I hadn’t reckoned on, was the purchase of wine (still, fortified and sparkling) and spirits samples to practise tasting…. and to keep on practising. I recently met a would-be student who works at a winery in central Otago, NZ and she just cannot afford to access a large range of old world wines. So commitment is absolutely essential – mentally and financially - but taking these into account, is it worth it? I definitely think so and here are 7 reasons why:
1. Content: The depth and breadth of content covered forces you to tackle topics that you might not have bothered digging into beyond reading the odd article. It stretches from viticulture to the drinks business to all the key winemaking regions of the world. I found that learning about wine regions is like learning each new language – each one is slightly easier than the one before because there are elements that are similar to a previous one you have studied, yet there are plenty of new particularities and subtleties to discover. I may be Bordeaux-based but I love the perspective that having a grasp of all those other regions gives me. I also think the breadth of content complements all that I am learning hands on in the vines and the winery at Chateau George 7.
2. Confidence: With all that content under your belt (and to refer back to in times of doubt), your confidence increases tremendously. This is especially true for non wine trade students who do not have colleagues to bounce off on a daily basis. Having spent the first couple of years of wine study feeling I knew so much less than everyone else on the planet, the diploma helped sort that one out once and for all. For example, it has given me the confidence to venture into wine education and a fellow alumni Sue, who is now an international wine judge, says the diploma has given her 'heightened confidence in her opinions and judgement'.
3. Credibility: If you are looking to go up a step in the industry or make a career change, then the diploma really does give you a well-recognised qualification that has credibility - whether your working experience prior to the diploma was in wine or something totally different. For example, having the diploma has opened the door to my judging at wine competitions.
4. Consistency for tasting and study: Not only does it give you an invaluable framework for tasting in a consistent way but also for future wine study. Learning the tasting schema until I could work through it in my sleep, means I have an efficient mental method as I taste and appreciate a new wine . Other schemas exist of course - but I think this one is as good as any to help me taste consistently whatever the context or reason for doing it.
5. Course flexibility: Both in terms of how you study and also how long you take. I did block study for a week, then went away and worked on the content. So I appreciated and enjoyed getting immersed in it for a while, having access to a whole range of wines to taste and then having periods when I could have some time off too. The exams are spaced out enough to be manageable but the course isn’t so long that you lose sight of the end goal. Home study means you can go at your own pace although getting hold of rarer wines to taste can be tough as another diploma graduate, Sara, reminded me.
6. Comfort zone (or rather out of it!): You are forced to taste and consider more wine styles and winemaking approaches than you ever imagined. Just as I gravitate towards the same kinds of clothes when out shopping (and unfortunately not always the ones that suit me!), I tended to pick the same grape varieties or regions from a wine list. Added to that, because I live in France, my choice was somewhat limited beyond French wine. You cannot pass the diploma by sitting in your narrow comfort zone. As a result, horizons are duly and wonderfully widened and it makes you much more adventuresome when choosing wine.
7. Connections (aka friends and contacts): Following any new passion opens up opportunities to mingle and exchange but wine and looming wine exams provide excellent means to connect with likeminded folks. Unlike some hobbies, wine most certainly is not ageist and so it really does open up new horizons as you connect with all ages of fellow diploma students and people in the industry. I have new friends from the age of my eldest son upwards and spanning 40 years.
*Wine & Spirit Education Trust
Note: This diploma is transitioning to become the Level 4 Diploma in Wines in 2019