My Path to the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines: A Preliminary Report

A mere 13 hours ago, I sat down in a room at The Wine House in Los Angeles to take my WSET Level 3 exam.  Since then, to say I’ve been on a rollercoaster of emotion is an understatement.  I walked out of the room feeling pretty OK….relieved, a bit loopy, and accomplished – especially after chatting briefly with a few fellow test-takers outside and realizing I got one of the more challenging questions right!

By the time I got home half an hour later, a wave of uncertainty hit me.  I stated getting “how did it go?” texts and calls from friends and family which in turn made me start second guessing some of my answers, wishing I had added a few more points to my essays, and generally questioning my success.  When I finally tried to fall asleep, I was repeatedly awakened by my brain walking me through the production of Port, describing the different styles of Sherry and how they’re made, and reminding me of all the challenges winemakers face in the Mosel – all of which were potential essay questions on the exam and all of which I made sure I knew like the back of my hand.

Since quality sleep didn’t seem like an option, I decided to wake up and share my experience with you while everything is obviously very fresh in my mind.  For those less familiar, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is the largest provider of wine, spirits and sake qualifications in the world.  They offer four qualification levels with their flagship WSET Level 4 Diploma being the most intensive and prestigious level.  While the WSET was originally established in 1969 for the UK wine trade, it is now the global leader in wine education.

My personal formal wine education path officially began in March of 2017 when I passed my Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam through the Society of Wine Educators.  The exam is incredibly intense, requiring in-depth knowledge of global wine production and varietals, as well as Fortified, Sparkling and Spirits.  The one-hour exam included 100 multiple choice questions and requires a score of 75% or better to pass.  After countless hours of study and 1000’s of flash cards, I walked out of the exam a newly-minted CSW.  The whole experience made me realize how much I love learning about the world of wine and how much I STILL had left to learn.

Which brings me to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).  Roughly one year after passing the CSW, I took my WSET Level 2 exam which consisted of 50 multiple choice questions.  While I still found this test to be challenging – especially for those with little prior wine knowledge, I felt my CSW studies helped me immensely.  I knew I had to continue on to Level 3, which is how I got here today.

The WSET Level 3 exam is administered in three parts – a blind tasting of two wines (1 white, 1 red), a 50-question multiple choice section, and an essay portion which consisted of four, 3 or 4 part short answer questions (roughly the front and back of a sheet of paper per question).  We were given 30 minutes to complete the blind tasting followed immediately by 2 hours to complete both the multiple choice and short answers.  Here are my key takeaways from the whole experience for anyone who may be curious about the WSET:

  • The WSET 3 text-book, study guide and accompanying materials should become your best friends.  Literally anything in the book is fair game for the exam so read it carefully.  Read it again.  Pay close attention to text in bold.  Take notes.  Make sure you don’t skip sections because honestly you would be surprised what can show up on the test.
  • For me, there was a great benefit to taking the WSET 3 class in-person vs. online.  Due to time constraints and because I had already taken the CSW, I took my WSET Level 2 test online at the Napa Valley Wine Academy.  This worked out fine for me at Level 2, but because there is a tasting component in the Level 3 exam, I found our in-class tastings to be priceless.  I think we tasted upwards of 70 wines in class (something that would have been impossible and very expensive to do on my own) and learned so much about the different varietals and styles found throughout the world.  To cap it off, my teacher Monica at The Wine House was incredible and made coming to class something I looked forward to.

  • Do your own impromptu tastings at home.  I was unable to attend a couple of off-site group practice tastings my classmates held, so instead I would have my own tastings at home on a regular basis.  After work when cooking dinner or whenever I found a free moment, I’d pour myself a glass of wine and run through the steps of the WSET Level 3 Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) until it felt like second nature.  You need to get to know the WSET 3 SAT very well, so every little bit of practice helps.
  • Flash cards are essential.  I found for both my CSW and the WSET Levels 2 & 3, flash cards were the best way to prepare for the multiple choice questions.  I know you can find online flashcards, but I found that just the act of writing them out helped me absorb the information faster.  I was able to bring them with me anywhere and run through them whenever I wanted.

  • For the essays in particular, don’t just know WHAT, but make sure you know WHY and HOW.  For me, the essay portion of the exam was the most nerve-wracking.  Just like with the multiple choice, pretty much anything in the book is fair game.  AND… most importantly, you need to be able to give the reasoning and logic behind your answers.
    As a very basic example, it’s one thing to know a Chardonnay from Chablis will taste differently from one grown in Napa… but at Level 3, you are expected to know why.  What are the different flavor characteristics the wine will have in each place?  What are the factors – both in the vineyard and in the winery – that could make the same varietal from these two places taste different?  You are expected at Level 3 to know this amount of detail for global wine regions, winemaking, varietals, wine service and much more.
  • Figure out how to best manage your points & time for the exam. When the exams are graded, you will be given a specific number of points for your answers.  The possible number of points for each question are made known to you as you’re taking the exam, so it’s your job to try to reach the highest number of points possible as you answer.
    For example, during the tasting portion, there are 20 points possible for the white wine and 21 for the red (the additional point for the red comes from your assessment of tannin), and you need to make sure you cover all points from the Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) to get your best score.  The same goes for the essay questions, as each of the four essays is worth a total of 25 points and is broken out into sub-questions worth anywhere from 1 to 6 points each.  Through practice, you can ensure you know how to achieve the highest number of points without running out of time.
  • Throughout the process, don’t forget to have fun. Throughout the study process, don’t forget to take a breath and enjoy yourself.  Depending on the day and your current state of mind, the amount of information you need to learn can range from hard to overwhelming to downright impossible.  But at the end of the day, it’s just wine and regardless of whether you pass or not, you’ll come out of the experience knowing so much more than when you began.

So now…I wait.  The results will take approximately 8 weeks to be graded which means I won’t know whether I passed until early June.  In the end for me, wine education isn’t so much about qualifications, pins or certificates.  Of course the competitive side of me wants to do well, but it’s also about gaining a deeper understanding of history, nature and our ever-changing climate, culture, travel, and how people make wine around the world… all of which are embodied in a bottle of wine.  And it’s about sharing the knowledge I’ve gained in an accessible, non-intimidating way with people who didn’t realize just how interesting and fun wine can be.

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