WSET Level 3: How I died and survived! Part 1

I’m sure you’ve browsed through my fun adventures doing Level 2. And if you did, you know that I never opened my certificate or revealed my pin. Why the crazy behavior? Because I’d already set my sights on Level 3. Spoiler alert - Level 3 was not a fun adventure!

Shall we pick up at the point after all the uhmming and ahhing about why someone who doesn’t even work in the wine industry would want to do WSET Level 3? Yup, let me save you the drama that my friends had to counsel me through.  

So, in typical Cape of Good Wine fashion, I signed up for the course a 3 weeks ahead of time and received my textbooks 2 weeks before the course started. I didn’t give myself much of a head start...but at least it was a head and a start. One thing that I was really excited about was that I’d booked to do the course (one day a week for 5 weeks) in Stellenbosch. I’d be studying wine in the heart of the winelands! 

The process begins:

In those weeks before the course began, I furiously started making notes once my textbooks arrived. Heed this early warning - read the Specification Guide! I didn’t pay it any attention and merrily proceeded to whip out my many brightly coloured pens and give myself a hand cramp.

WSET Level 3 - read your Specification Guide!

So I changed tactic and decided that the modern woman embraces technology and types her notes. Everyday I’d knock out a chapter. Typing a full set of notes, reducing those full notes into bite sized tables of information, and adding a question and answer section at the end of each chapter. I was waking up at 5am and then breaking for the work day that started at 7am. I’d finish my work day at 5pm and jump straight into studying. I take the train to a client’s offices on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

I like to romanticise the impression I was giving off - sophisticated wine student furiously mumbling questions and answers to herself. Probably more panicked than sophisticated.

Week 1:

By the time my first day at the Stellies lectures began, I’d covered all of the Old World. I had my notes, my textbook, my many many pens and highlighters. I was ready to upgrade my wine knowledge. to put this nicely. I was sorely disappointed.

A teensy percentage of what I’d already studied was breezed over by the lecturer. Most of the day was spent tasting wines. I knew that there was a tasting exam where you’d need to assess one white and one red. But I was there for the wine knowledge...not for the wines. I now understand that there’s a huge amount of information to cover in 5 long there was no way that they could cover each region in depth. 

Week 2:

By the following week I was still way ahead of the course. And, again, disappointed by the brief overview of each region and the very heavy emphasis on the tastings. That’s when I truly panicked. Why had I signed up for this course? How was I possibly going to learn all the material on my own with no help from the lecturer? How was it that some people in the class hadn’t done any reading prior to the lectures...yet felt satisfied at the end of the day? Was this really all about learning to taste wines?

Searching for the secret:

I’ve found a wonderful wine community on Instagram. The people and their posts have been a great source of pleasure for me. I turned to them...desperately looking for someone who could tell me what the trick was to passing Level 3. And someone helped me.

She gave me the cold hard facts. YOU NEED TO DO THE WORK. You just need to study your butt off (back then it was a little butt, I’ve since added plenty of unwanted volume to my rear). And she, in her Level 4 wisdom, was right.

Attitude shift

I buckled down and started learning by myself. I’d get to the class armed with questions for the lecturer, remind them of sections that I’d marked as important in my notes, determined to at least get my money’s worth of answers. There were a few of us who adopted this method, but the majority of the students remained quiet.

WSET Level 3 - my notes while I was still enjoying the process with a glass of wine!

Don’t get me wrong, so many of the wines were fantastic. So many ‘very good’ conclusions (a final assessment of the quality of the wine). A few ‘outstanding’ wines. Being able to taste around the world was incredible. My first Tokaj sweet wine, my first Palo Cortado, and my first Amarone. But, for me, tasting the wines didn’t help me learn for the exam. 

We also experience a range of tutors. One of the standout lecturers for most of us was a guy that I'd first met at Level 2. He'd just completed his Level 4 Diploma - back then it wasn't offered in South Africa so he'd really committed to flying to the UK to complete this level. What stood out about him, and what I related to, was that he wasn't part of the wine industry. It was was nice to see someone else who just wanted to learn more about wine. Our half day lecture with him was a lovely change of pace - things were more conversational, we'd discuss wines and regions. It was like having a chat with a a fellow winelover at a dinner party. And, just like at the dinner parties, I was sorry to have our talk interrupted. I'd be keen to sit down with him and glean more information...if anyone knows him, tell him to start his own courses because there were a few of us that really enjoyed the session and would be interested in smaller coaching sessions! 

So what did help me learn?

1. I started off by typing full notes in full sentences. These became my textbook instead of the oddly written textbook that WSET provide (one of the students described it as being more like a coffee table book than a textbook). From this new textbook, I created a condensed table form of notes. And from both of these, I wrote potential questions and answers.  I saved these documents to the Google Drive so that I could access them on my phone and from other computers at ANY time.

2. Every morning I’d start off by reading through my condensed notes and then work my way through the questions. After work, I’d start with the questions...and if I didn’t know the answers I’d recap the full notes and try again. If I did know the answers, I’d move onto the next chapter. I’d aim for a new chapter each day.

3. In my desperate search for better ways of learning, I found the ThirtyFifty website. They’re a school in London who offer the WSET courses. But they also offer a range of additional support materials that assist students with at home learning. From multiple quiz tests based on the curriculum, practice written tests, to tasting tutorings. There are one or two free tests. The majority are for purchase - they provide you with both the questions and the answers. I ran through all of the free tests...but the exchange rate was, unfortunately, not in my favour. However, they have a brilliant podcast that follows the chapters of the WSET 3 curriculum. The host chats to winemakers from each region, and guides or fills in some missing bits applicable to WSET to help the listener along. I highly recommend that you give these a listen!

4. I changed my attitude towards the lectures. They were mostly a tasting experience. And every once in a while there would be a snippet of new information that I’d jot down. I’m a horrible my main focus was on calibrating my palate to the lecturer who would be marking our tasting. This didn’t go very well for me. I’d originally been taught (in Level 2) by someone else. And I, along with a few others, used her methods of assessment. I never quite got the hang of the new lecturer’s structure calls. When she’d call a higher acidity, I’d raise mine...only to be too high...and vice versa. It was frustrating and depressing because I was relying on structure to get me through the tasting portion of the exam. [Fun tip - there’s no negative marking, so you could technically memorise the entire WSET lexicon and they’d HAVE to give you the marks where you’re correct...and if you wrote down everything, you’d get them all!] But if you can figure out how to calibrate to the lecturer marking your tasting, that would be the best way to do better than my Merit.

5. At around the 4th week of the course I was starting to lag behind on the New World. I’d spend the week furiously reading and trying to make notes for the next lecture. But we never really knew which regions would be covered...and the lecturers would often jump around lead by the wines being tasted. But that was okay, because I was learning by myself. New attitude!

6. Around this time, between weeks 4 and 5, I finally started drawing maps. I can name every region in Italy (at Level 3 detail) along with their major wines and grapes. Do yourself a favour and use the maps from the start. It’s another visual embedding of the information.

And then, on the final day, the original lecturer returned - the same lecturer that I had for Level 2.

This a really long saga where I feel very sorry for myself, so I've split this post into two parts. Here's part two, where I reveal the best bits of advice given to us by our lecturer.

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