I have the blue pin, and I have the green one. But what I really want is the red one. The one that will distinguish me from the mere wine hobbyist. The one that says I endured six segments of British-style education (rote memorization and testing), countless hours of creating charts and flashcards of the world’s wine regions, of tasting and sweating the details.
And the real rub: Red isn’t even my favorite color.
There’s more I don’t care for in my program of study, formally called the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, or WSET. There’s the arcane system of grading papers with the British examiners’ cryptic and schoolmarm-like remarks: “It is not enough at this stage to state basic facts and expect to pass.”
Those sommelier movies have nothing over the three-year diploma program in which I’m enrolled. The pressure is equally intense and the expectations perverse. I spend weekends holed up with The Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine, one of several weighty tomes of required reading, and cannot taste a wine—even for pleasure—without mentally rolling through the tasting grid: “Medium intensity and body, medium+ acid, silky and integrated tannins, hints of vanilla, sweet baking spices.”
The real drive is to be taken seriously in an industry that has a fair number of poseurs.
Still, I am slogging through, in part because hubris has gotten in the way of common sense, and also because misery loves company: I have an excellent study/tasting group with whom I have swirled and spat, analyzed, cried and panicked.
But the real drive is to be taken seriously in an industry that has a fair number of poseurs. It’s a small triumph to attend a technical tasting and come up with a note more descriptive than “delicious.” It’s cool to trek though a vineyard and talk about trellising, pruning and soils instead of taking selfies with the grapes.
All those hours of study make a difference when I sit at a producer’s table in France or Italy or Spain, and instead of small talk, we have a conversation about the trials of producing wine under challenging conditions. Or discuss how to hang on to a tenuous heritage, whether that’s an ancient parcel of land or an arcane grape.
And it makes a difference if, on a return visit, those producers remember you because you had enough schooling to understand and respect the intricacies of their work and honor their tradition.
That’s when the lost weekends, the hair pulling and teeth grinding are worth it.
Back to School
Several organizations offer wine-study programs, with varying costs. Here’s a rundown of the most popular.
Based in London, this is the industry’s oldest academic accreditation. It offers four levels of certification and culminates in the WSET Diploma. There are 45 approved program providers in the U.S. (including Puerto Rico). Students range from hobbyists to journalists and wine-industry professionals. Nominal: DipWSET upon completion of the Diploma.
Also based in London and offered in the U.S., the court’s three levels of certification lead to the Master Sommelier Diploma, a rigorous program chronicled in the documentaries Somm and Into the Bottle. With an emphasis on service, this program is popular with dining/hospitality workers. Nominal: MS upon completion of the diploma.
Said to be the most difficult wine credential in the world, due to the program’s rigor, scope and self-teaching platform. Need evidence? There are only 353 Masters of Wine in the world. The curriculum includes a series of papers, blind tastings (36 wines) and a first-year assessment exam that evaluates your potential for success. Nominal: MW upon completion of all exams and course work.
This is a series of self-study certification programs that allow successful candidates to become “certified specialists” in wine and spirits, as well as educators. Exams are taken at approved testing centers and comprise 100 multiple-choice questions, which cover service, the business of wine, viticulture, wine laws and regions, and elements of tasting. Nomimals: CSW, CSS, CWE, CSE.
With five WSET exams down and three to go, Senior Editor Lana Bortolot sees a dim light at the end of the tunnel.