WSET Diploma Part 1: Where to start?

Maybe you know, maybe you don't...

...I'm currently enrolled in the WSET Diploma course. It's been a baptism of fire...well, mostly a lot of swearing and frustration, anger and anxiety, and so much disappointment. Going into the course, I absolutely believed that I'd document the process so that I could help the next person who decided to take on the Diploma challenge.

But I was drowning. I lost all sense of perspective. I lost my sense of humour. Worst of all, I lost all sense of gratitude. It took my 8 months to find myself and remember my purpose...and finally arrive at a place where I'm willing to share the experience and maybe help others navigate this journey. The only way I could reach this place was to learn to temper my expectations. Here's how I did it:

Textbook + Lectures + Wine + Exams. These 4 things are key. Once I accepted that this was all that my money bought me, I found my peace and started to put my head down and get through the work. I accepted that taking full advantage of these 4 elements is how I will earn the two items that I (currently) most covet in my wine journey - a Diploma certificate and a pin...yup, the same certificate and pin that I wasn't interested in and have still not opened for Levels 2 of 3?!?

A pretty good place to start this saga is with 'where am I now?'.

Tip Number 1: Be informed by those who are informed

Look for people who have excelled at the course and who can offer solid advice to help you understand what to expect as soon as possible.

That person isn't me. I just found out that I failed my D4 Sparkling Tasting this really isn't me. But there are only so many blogs out there that offer honest advice about how to attack the Diploma course (trust me, I've read them all!) read this with a big dose of your own discretion.

In South Africa, we have a set curriculum that runs over 2 years. Our course started in the last week of January.

  • We wrote the D2 (The Business of Wine) exam on 10 March and I scored a disappointing Pass with Merit considering the amount of work I put into studying.
  • Followed by D1 (Viticulture and Viniculture) a month later on 15 April - I passed with a surprising Distinction.
  • D4 (Sparkling Wines) on 8 June. If you thought I was disappointed by my Pass with Merit for D1...hello meltdown! I failed my tasting exam. I passed my theory with Merit. I'm still in disbelief that I didn't score a Distinction for theory...but more on that in a follow up blog post.
  • I'm currently studying for the D5 (Fortifieds) exam towards the end of October [update: Merit for Theory, failed the Tasting...again. You can read more about failure it here.] + starting to work on D6 Independent Research Assignment [update: another disappointing Pass. I, obviously, have thoughts about it here.].

Gather your advice from someone who knows what they're talking about and has cracked the WSET code...otherwise known as someone who has figured out what WSET expects. [update: my 'someone' was the D3 Matchfit Theory course with Jim Gore and Erica Dent - I couldn't recommend them enough! ]

Tip Number 2: Prepare and plan

When you've just finished your last day of WSET Level 2 lectures, and cautiously approach your course lecturer enquiring about how to start prepping for Level which their reply is 'let's cross that bridge when you get there' - don't listen to them! Know what your next step is going to be. The beauty of the WSET curriculum is that each level feeds into the next. Level 3 expands on Level 2. And Level 4, the diploma, expands even further on Level 3.

Fun fact: I'd printed out all of my studious/obsessive Level 3 notes...single sided (sorry trees), and am currently using the blank backs of the many, many pages as scribble pages for Level 4. It's amusing to inadvertently flip the page and see just how much info is covered in Level 3 that still applies to the Diploma.

Something that I've recently learned, and that may not really apply to South Africans, is that there is a long list of awards and prizes that are awarded to all levels of WSET students with outstanding results. They're mostly aimed at students living and working within the wine industry in the UK and US...but there are a few exceptions that seem to apply to anyone. If finances are a concern, know that your brain and diligence could earn you an award and reward that could possibly contribute to as much as a financial investment in your MW fees...aim high!

My point is this - if you know the path you want to take, you can start preparing for the road ahead. Knowing that I wanted to do Level 4 meant that I was reading beyond just the Level 3 textbook. I was devouring blog posts, YouTube videos and podcasts that were geared at the Diploma (and, thankfully, downloading and saving any useful'll soon find out that WSET doesn't encourage their material being shared on the interwebs...grab anything you can find while you can!). I followed and befriended people on Instagram who were in the midst of the Diploma, and started asking them how best to prep. The answer is tip number 3...

Tip Number 3: Get a head start

Recap Level 3 before you start your Diploma. It is all connected. Having a solid base knowledge will help immensely when starting your Diploma. It isn't overly apparent in D2, The Business of Wine. But it is as clear as 'a fine dining restaurant's polished glasses' when you attack D1 , D4, D5, D6...and inevitably D3. [update: it absolutely applies to D3. In fact, you'll want to get out your Level 2 textbook because some of the information is sitting in this book and WSET assume that you should know this and so don't repeat it in the subsequent levels].

A parallel tip is to make sure you receive your textbook (there's no physical book, you need to print your own from the PDF...or use their eBook on your tablet if you're younger and hipper than I am) WELL in advance. GET A HEAD START! Especially if you're in South Africa and at the mercy of the fast paced curriculum. Give yourself some breathing and living room. Our first lectures were at the end of March...the first exam (D2) worth 10% was 2 months later...and the second exam (D1) worth 20% was a month after that! To put things into perspective - D4 and D5 are only worth 5% each, yet we've had months to prepare for the units that contribute the least percentages! The timing is get ahead!

Tip Number 4: Bursary and start saving

There is a study bursary for students from financially disadvantaged countries. If you're South African and you earn a modest income, you should apply! I had the silliest belief that I didn't deserve to apply for the bursary because I could take a year or two to save up for the R96k tuition fee. Then I used my savings to fund a wine scholarship for those less privileged than myself...and finally came to my senses. If you're not loaded (if you work in wine, you probably aren't) apply for the IWC Education Bursary! You can knock as much as £1,000 off of your tuition fee.

Bonus tip - write a kickass letter from the heart! One day I might share my application letter...writing my letter showed me exactly why, despite not working in the wine industry, I deserved the bursary.

The course is hella expensive and my verdict is still out about whether it is worth the money. Start saving now because you'll find out that the textbook, lectures, wines at lectures and exams are one thing...but any 'extracurricular' tastings,  additional books or website subscriptions to stay on top of wine information will start to add up. There's also the wine you might want to purchase for self studies or contribute to your group tastings if you have social classmates. And...

...more to come on this next year as I'm still counting my might want to fork out on additional tuition from people who offer tasting and exam techniques specific to this diploma. Once I discovered Jim Gore's Global Wine Academy, the penny finally dropped: there is a huge disconnect between what your APP most likely offers in lectures, and understanding HOW to prepare for the diploma examinations. It helps to read as much about other's experiences, listen to podcasts that talk about the examination experience and what is expected of you...but ultimately, if you aren't able to crack the WSET code, you might want to pay someone who already knows what is expected of students.

Tip Number 5: Lower your expectations

You probably think of the WSET Diploma as being the ultimate wine geek experience...the pinnacle of your wine education...the final stepping stone to entering the MW program. You might be thinking that you'll brush shoulders with MW's and leaders in the wine industry...have a chance to debate and engage with the diploma material in class...taste fabulous and exotic wines.

Lower your expectations. Ditch the romance.

To be fair, we walked into our first lecture at Spier Wine Estate wearing masks...during a booze ban...spaced 1.5 metres away from each other...with all the doors open to allow airflow...and reeking of hand sanitiser after each bathroom, coffee, and lunch break. Our group did not start our Diploma journey under the most romantic of conditions. But I had expectations. It took me 6 months to make peace with my expectations. I know that each APP is different, but if there is one piece of advice that I can offer with absolute confidence, it is this:

Textbook + Lectures + Wine + Exams. Those are the ONLY 4 things that your tuition fee guarantees.

  • Your fee buys you access to the textbook - and it IS possible to get a distinction from only reading the information in the WSET Diploma textbook. The textbook (in 2021) is still being edited, hence not having a printed version available. It's actually far more pleasant to read than the L3 textbook...but know that there are typos, awkwardly written paragraphs, and the chapters are written by different people so units of measurements and the way they're displayed change. E.g. per cent - I didn't even know that you could spell % this way!
  • You'll quickly figure out what type of student you are, and whether your APP provides useful lectures. Our lecturers are great...I just don't learn in this way. It used to frustrate me...until I learned to treat them as all day nerdy wine chats with people who know a fuck ton more than I do about wine...but I, personally, solely rely on the textbook when studying for the exam. However, take notes when the lecturers allude to questions that are recur in previous exams. Our lecturers have been hesitant about sharing their WSET notes, but I suspect that these could be clues as to what WSET believes is important info that you should focus on - try and have your lecturers share these with you. This isn't a private lecture so you need to be aware that your interesting-but-unrelated-to-the-curriculum questions are taking up other student's valuable learning time.
  • You'll get to taste a range of wines, and it's a different process to Level 3. (If you can, try to learn in advance from a Diploma student, so that you'll pick up this new way of assessing wines as quickly as possible.) Here's where the lecturers show their full potential. Take notes like crazy as they talk about how to decipher a Lambrusco from a Sparkling Shiraz, a Fino from a Manzanilla, the deceivingly low acid wines and dry wines! Our Sherry lecture offered me an opportunity to taste wines that I wouldn't even know how to access from SA. MAKE SURE your lecturer runs you through a FULL tasting note as would be expected in an exam scenario!!! MAKE SURE you understand what the exam tasting format will be!!! Yes, these cringeworthy excessive exclamation marks are necessary -  otherwise, you'll be grabbing at straws and needing to fork out for extra tasting classes at an additional financial expense to you. You need to learn HOW to write exam tasting notes before you can start practicing at home. You might not be able to taste all of the WSET required wines (country, import, blah blah blah reasons), but you'll probably have MW and MW student lecturers who'll have access to exciting wines...revel in this part of what you paid for. Also, if you're a fan of quirky, independent boutique wineries...take a deep breath and centre yourself - you'll only be tasting wines that fulfil the curriculum.
  • Your tuition affords you the opportunity to sit the exam. They're completely random, and I'll tell you a little more in the next blog post. But, same as for Level 3, you're expected to learn/cram/memorise the textbook...and face down only a fraction of the information you've stored in your head. Some questions will have you wondering 'what the actual fuck'...others will have you silently 'hooting and hollering' and exhaling in relief...either way, you take a breath and start scribbling as quickly as you can. I haven't really figured out what WSET want - but I'm starting to think it's a combination of regurgitating the textbook whilst adding a teensy bit of flair with your opinion (based on the textbook). Look, I just shove the entire textbook into my head and pray that I luck out with the questions. At the end of the day, a large part of the way WSET is structured is based on the luck of the exam draw. If you work in education, you'll instantly recognise that hardly any of the WSET curriculum is based around learning and testing that/what you have learned. It's luck of the draw...who can vomit out the textbook best...and who can align their palate to give the WSET expected tasting notes.
  • [update: after doing the D3 Matchfit, I admit that I was wrong. There is luck involved in getting regions and grapes that you've revised well. But it isn't about regurgitating the textbook. It's about understanding HOW to answer the damn question. It sounds simple enough. It IS all in the specification guide - but that specification guide almost needs it's own guide. I don't know how non native English speakers deal with the confusing phrasing...I got twisted around a few times. Understand WHAT the question is asking, HOW it should be answered, and then find THOSE answers in the textbooks.

In summary:

I'm only halfway through and my feelings may change as we ramp up into the hard work of D3. I'm not knocking the's just taken me far too much time to figure out how this actually works and how to plan around this clearer idea of what the diploma entails. The sooner you figure this out, the sooner you can structure a better study and preparation plan.

My advice is to hold dear the belief that 'the value lies in the learning, and not the exam'. Prepare for the journey that will take roughly 2 years of your life [update: 2.5 years for me as I chose not to write the Theory exam in October]. Enjoy the journey of learning. I can only assume that you're reading this because you're either considering the Diploma, or are having a tough time adjusting to the start of the Diploma:

  1. If you're wondering whether to enrol, my answer is honestly 'I don't know'. I don't think it's worth R96k unless you know the path that you're on and this certification get your closer to your goal.
  2. If you've already started - you've got this! You've spent your money, so make the most of your OWN experience.

It helped ME to think of this course as distance learning - each lecture and tasting was a bonus to my solitary study sessions. My belief is that once you accept that you are in this on your own...that this is your OWN journey...the lecturers and fellow students and experience start to blossom into, and even exceed, your initial expectations.

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Or if you're in South Africa, you can find the information here:

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