I can’t even remember when I first started thinking about getting a wine qualification. One moment that comes to mind was chatting to a chef who was also keen to learn more about wine.
We discussed the Cape Wine Academy, but neither of us lived close to Stellenbosch, where the course was held. A few weeks went by, and I came across an article that compared the Cape Wine Academy curriculum with the WSET curriculum. What was this WSET and why had I not discovered this earlier? Buckle up, this is a long story!
What is WSET?
So for those who don’t know, WSET stands for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. It was started as a charitable trust in 1969. What most attracted me to this program was that the qualification is internationally recognised. The other thing that made this course a no brainer was that, of the numerous locations it was held, one of the venues was around the corner from where I lived. It was decided.
NB. I was one of the last classes who did the old curriculum that includes both wine AND spirits. The curriculum has since changed to specialise in either wines or spirits. Ie. WSET Level 2 Wine and WSET Level 2 Spirits are now two different courses that focus on their relevant subjects in more depth. Head to the WSET website to find out more about the current curricula.
Speed Bump Ahead:
And then there were a series of unfortunate events: I picked a fight with a truck on a pedestrian crossing. The truck won. I subsequently lost my sense of taste (not officially, it’s just that nothing tasted quite the same), and a family emergency erupted (nothing tragic, just incredibly draining) that would have fallen smack in the middle of when I wanted to write the exam.
Pulling the trigger:
Things finally calmed down and returned to normal: my brain, nose and tongue agreed on aromas and flavours, and family life settled down. So, as my birthday present to myself in 2019, I officially signed up for the Level 2 program...a week before it started. My textbook arrived a few days before the weekend course began. You receive the textbook, a workbook, the WSET Level 2 Systematic Approach Tasting Wine (SAT) A5 laminated guide sheet, and we received a set of four ISO tasting glasses that we used in class.
I hadn’t studied in a good long time. And I was nervous. Really nervous. But I’m also one of those people who prefers to be over prepared and always have a game plan. For weeks before signing up, I’d been scouring the web for a better understanding of what the course involved. And through https://www.cram.com, https://www.studyblue.com and https://www.brainscape.com I found other student’s flashcards. I was able to read through their question and answer flashcards, getting a very good idea of what the material would cover. A word of warning, you CANNOT rely on someone else’s note taking. They could be wrong. People make mistakes. And for this reason, my FIRST TIP is to:
1. Get the course material as far in advance as you possibly can. It will give you plenty of time to read and make notes, without the pressure of an impending deadline. Having said all that...I like pressure, and time and again, I amaze myself with what I’m able to accomplish with a little/lottle bit of deadline pressure. So my second tip is: believe in yourself! You can do this.
One of the first things I noticed, especially after doing the practice assessment test on the WSET website that’s designed to help you ascertain your level of proficiency, is how much I already knew. Sure, I didn’t know the grape variety for Gavi. But I scored roughly 65%. Tip number two is:
2. Don’t stress too hard about the 50 question multiple choice exam. There’s no tasting exam. Just the multiple quiz. If you already know a bit about wine, you should be able to pass the exam without even studying. But if you want a distinction, you’ll want to hit the books pretty hard.
TIP THREE is flashcards:
3. Everyone talks about using flashcards. One of my favourite scenes from the Somm movie was watching the sommeliers work their flashcards. Maybe I’m a nerd, but I do love a good flashcard. I opted for digital flashcards using the Quizlet app. Only because I couldn’t find flashcards in stock in Cape Town. In hindsight, I wish I’d made physical flashcards that I could keep on my desk and reference at a drop of a hat. I found the digital cards didn’t allow for as much flexibility. But flashcards helped enormously. Make them! Use them!
TIP FOUR is to make your own notes:
4. I have never been able to bring myself to underline or highlight in a book. It probably stems from going to schools where the textbooks were loaned to you and defacing them in any way, shape or form was an offense! But the beauty of this is that I’m constantly writing notes. Yes, you could type them...but writing by hand adds extra layers to embedding the information in your memory. Condense the information in the textbook, and write them out by hand. And then go ham on highlighting and underlining your written notes. Have fun buying all the loud and bright stationery - all the post it notes, all the highlighter colours, all the colour pens. When else do you have an excuse to buy the pink, purple and sparkly glittery pens?
TIP FIVE is to make recordings.
5. One of the best things that I did was record myself reading my notes. This meant I was able to revise when I was out and about and didn’t have my hands free. Commuting to work, walking, even listening to myself in the office while I worked. And go with your mistakes...I had a giggle every time I anticipated my mispronunciations...but those funny recording moments cemented the information in my brain!
So what was the weekend course like? As much as I’m a nerd...I’m also the kid at the back of the class making jokes and dropping unwanted witty commentary. Luckily, I found a friend who shared my easy going ways. It was an intensive 2 days of drinking, and not really remembering to spit! The novelty of being ‘allowed’ and encouraged to drink wine first thing in the morning was a delight. It felt like being on holiday. That is, until it’s lunch time and the pace of information being presented to you hasn’t slowed down one bit. I’d love to tell you to remember to spit...but fuggit, the course is expensive and I wanted to enjoy every last sip of wine offered to me. Except for the Zinfandel...nobody enjoyed the Zinfandel! We all dumped the Zin. And then you go home tipsy, try to sober up with dinner, make adjustments to your notes...and wake up and do it all again the next day. It felt like an intense pace. But it’s great fun.
We had a week to study before writing the exam early the following Saturday morning. And I studied. Right up until I walked into a coffee shop within walking distance of the exam room (I wasn’t risking anything) to grab a flat white with almond milk. You sit down for the multiple choice exam of 50 questions. Some of them are tricksy, so this is where studying helps to speed things along. I wish that I’d written down some of the questions that I remembered...but I didn’t. But everything was in the textbook. So the BIGGEST AND FINAL TIP is:
6. Ignore any other book, website or material that you’ve ever consumed about wine. Focus on the WSET Level 2 textbook. The answers in their textbook are the ONLY answers that count. It’s multiple quiz, so you don’t get the chance to back up your answer. All the answers you need are in that textbook.
As far as multiple quiz advice goes:
- Keep an eye on the time.
- Work quickly through the answers you do know, and mark the ones that you’re unsure about. Then circle back to those questions that you might need to think about before committing to an answer. [NB. When you use this technique of leaving out the questions you’re unsure about, you want to double check that you’re filling in the correct answer for the relevant question. If you mess up a line, it can throw everything out. So double check, triple check that question 5 lines up with answer 5. Question 22 lines up with answer 22. When I was double checking before handing in my paper, I found I’d made a mistake and quickly rectified it.]
- One of the things I did was use the question paper to draught my answers. I’d highly recommend doing this to avoid confusing yourself.
So how’d I do? Three weeks later I received an email. 90%. Distinction. Yay! I was well chuffed with my results. I mostly knew I’d passed, however I’d also braced myself for a possible question to answer alignment errors (or possibly just being overconfident about everything). So I never fully relaxed. But I passed. And instead of packing away my notes, and ripping open the certificate and pin that I received shortly after the email...I instead set my sights on Level 3. My Level 2 certificate and pin were left unopened in their original courier bag next to my wine rack. I’m a strange cookie.
Would I recommend the WSET Level 2 course?
Definitely! It's a way to learn about the major wine regions of the world, the major grape varieties and their wines, and learn to taste in a structured manner.
If you have the money, and/or are interested in furthering your wines studies you should do WSET. It’s structured, broken up into manageable amounts of information. It’s also a good path to taking a run at Master of Wine!
But also know that you don’t need to spend all the money to do this course. As I’ve mentioned, I knew some wine info to begin with. Experience will always count for much more in my erm books. You can learn through reading books and websites. But, if you’re lazy like me, you might need that little push to challenge yourself to make flashcards and notes...and actively learn.
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