The WSET Diploma


     Guildhall, London

Although I have written about this once before, I am returning to it here, prompted by the fact that I have now actually graduated. While counting the weeks to the ceremony (only held annually) I had time to reflect on what I learned and how it has shaped my attitude to wine as a drink and as a business. Here, though, I want to note down some facts about the study regime, and a few tips, which I humbly hope might help current or prospective students.

It was finally this January (2018) I had the enormous pleasure of receiving my Diploma from Steven Spurrier in the wonderful setting of Guildhall. Guildhall is the historical city hall of London, built over the ruins of what had been Britain’s largest Roman amphitheatre. It is a magnificent building, enhanced by a modestly sized but terrific art collection.

Receiving the certificate from Steven Spurrier

My studies had taken four years, since I first attended West London Wine School in Chelsea for Lecture 1 of Level 2. Quentin Sadler saw me safely through that, then the school’s head, Jimmy Smith, taught me the Advanced Certificate, Level 3. The general advice had been that Level 3 is ‘a big step up’, but the Diploma (Level 4) less so. Judging by the breadth of the syllabus, this seemed unlikely, though I began to understand that view later and will return to it here. But the Diploma beckoned, and I signed up. It was a challenge, and man likes challenges. Apart from that, the idea of drinking wine during an examination did and still does bring a smile to my face!

Soon I was attending classes at WSET in Bermondsey, and all the time going to wine fairs, trade shows and evening tastings to broaden my exposure to wine – I was the only student in my class who was not working in the trade.

The Diploma syllabus has six units: Business, Production, Wine (‘Light wines of the world’), Spirits, Sparkling and Fortified wine. Each has its own exam to pass, while Production has an extra paper in the form of a project requiring an essay, and Wine has two separate papers, Theory and Practical (tasting). For Spirits, Sparkling and Fortified wine, a single paper includes both theory and tasting.

The largest element by far is Unit 3, Wine, each of the two exams counting for 25% of total credits. The stumbling block for many candidates is the theory paper. The syllabus has grown a lot over the years as the global wine business has developed and is now substantial: 38 countries, with all the regions, soils, climates, grape varieties, history, laws and styles of wine that that entails. Each exam question requires not just adequate knowledge of the facts but also the ability to marshal them without notice into an essay that answers the question. Fact dumps won’t do, as the examiners are looking for a reasoned argument and, anyway, there isn’t time to write down irrelevant information as well as that which is.

But as always in exams, good exam technique helps. The most basic element is to practice writing with a pen for three hours solid, an arduous task for most people in this age of the touch screen, keyboard and mouse. Past papers are available for this task, some with model answers and examiners’ reports, so it is also a learning opportunity. The theory of wine exam has one compulsory question and a choice of three from six others, so the same past papers can be analysed to see how much (i.e. how little!) of the syllabus needs to be learned to be sure of providing four good answers. The core of this is of course France: its regions, grapes and styles. At least one of Spain, Germany, Italy and Austria is almost certainly going to figure too. Beyond that, I felt it was better to know just some of the other countries well rather than spread my attention too widely and be hazy on everything; those students with better memories than mine have my admiration.

The other helper in exams is luck! I couldn’t have wished for a paper that suited my particular interests and knowledge better. The very first question was on wine from the region that I had most recently visited: Hunter Valley Semillon, and it went on from there. The obligatory question on France was about the Loire valley. I had been there, I love Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc and old-world Sauvignon Blanc, and I knew enough about the smaller players such as Muscadet and Gamay. A question on Spanish white wine just fell into my lap, my interest piqued a few years ago by meeting Maria-José López de Heredia. Another was on Grenache so France and Spain, here we come again, not forgetting blends and rosé, and a bit about Australia to at least cross the finishing line.

So how can the Diploma not be another big step up from Level 3? In terms of sheer effort and knowledge required, it certainly is. But as an intellectual exercise, l can see what people mean. It’s at Level 3 that the need to present a coherent account or argument rather than just the facts becomes a requirement. Level 3 is also where you learn most of WSET’s tasting format, the Systematic Approach to Tasting® or SAT; the Level 4 versions (one for wine and one for spirits) are more demanding but follow on naturally as one’s tasting experience develops. I think there’s another reason too: candidates for the Diploma have made that commitment and feel comfortable that the task is in some sense more of the same. They are, I feel, a self-selecting group. But it’s still sobering to be told in the introductory lecture that ‘there is nowhere to hide’. There is a journey to make, and there is no terminus, but Guildhall is a milestone. The satisfaction in reaching it runs deep and long and to those with or working on Level 3, I encourage you to go the extra mile. Salut!

   The graduation reception




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