WSET class? Or go it alone?

Recently, I have been trying to advance my knowledge and experience with wine beyond just a casual level. I’ve done tons of reading, but I know I need to taste more. I saw that a local wine shop is running a WSET Level 2 class for the next 8 weeks and I thought it might be a great opportunity to learn some more refined technique in tasting as well as expose myself to wines that I would not have thought to.

I was about to sign up when I started to ask myself, “would I be better off just spending the tuition money on wines rather than commit to this class on Thursday nights?” The class is $986 for 8 weeks, 2 hours a piece, and then a 1-hour exam for the 9th week. The exam doesn’t mean anything to me professionally.

Am I off base? I’d still like to have the tasting experience, but I know there has to be a better way. The pandemic has screwed a lot of things up, to say the least, but in light of current circumstance, what is the best way to get involved with tastings?

Your line of thinking though was the same as mine when I decided against continuing further to take Level 3. I didn’t really feel the knowledge gained in the course was something I couldn’t get via reading or tasting elsewhere. So I opted to spend that money on wine to drink instead.

Similarly, the wine knowledge itself at Level 2 isn’t really much that can’t be garnered from books. In fact, I’d argue the scope of it is pretty basic in terms of wine knowledge. Tasting more though was the reason I decided to take Level 2. At Level 2, I tasted through some 40+ wines throughout the course. Reproducing that by myself at the time would have cost me more than the amount the course cost, and leave me with a ton of left over wine. At the time I didn’t have many wine friends, so opportunities to taste lots of wines at once was limited. So to me, taking Level 2 felt like an easier and cheaper way to taste widely. It also allowed me to meet a few more wine people interested in learning more. In that respect, I found it very useful. Though the cost analysis clearly depends from person to person.

It may also be worth checking out the Event Planner sub forum or even making a post there. There’s a lot of Berserkers throughout the US and the world that you may be able to connect with on your wine journey.

Thank you, Rodrigo. I hadn’t considered that I might be able to taste a significantly greater number of wines through the class. It would be nice to meet some wine friends there as well, as most of my friends are not seriously interested in wines at this point. I have to make the decision by tomorrow (registration deadline), so I have some more thinking to do!

I’ve taken WSET2 and WSET3 and I do not work in the wine industry, so I think I’m in a good position to weigh in here. My advise is… it depends.

The WSET2 curriculum is just ok (at best). The 50 multiple choice test is a joke. That said, it does teach a lot of basics and provides the baseline knowledge if you decide to go further.

WSET3 curriculum is better, but still not amazing. If you already have a very good baseline knowledge, you could probably get away with starting here. Everything you need to know from WSET2 will be re-covered in WSET3 but in more depth. While I’m a bit critical of WSET, I would do it again – and I’m seriously considering the diploma program. The reason why is that you will never cover all the material on your own without the structure of the class - and the class is a serious commitment. Think about it, are you really going to spend time on your own studying up on the various sub-regions of New Zealand/Chile/etc, tracing maps, creating notecards, etc without an exam to motivate you? I certainly would not. The other thing is that you learn to “taste” rather than “drink” wine. And when I say that, I’m not just referring to a tasting grid. When I “taste” wine now, I find myself thinking not just about the flavor profile but also the winemaking that probably went into it. And then I go look up the wine and read up on the winemaking and see if I my observations were correct. And every time I “taste” a wine, I learn something new about a region, varietal, producer and/or vintage.

That’s the thing about wine… even the best master somms out there have a lot to learn (and they know it). And without the structure of a class, you won’t truly grasp what you don’t know. At least with the class, you’ll learn to ask the right questions and it will set you on a path to learn and truly appreciate wine. So to answer your question: DO take WSET if you are truly interested in learning about how wine is made and how various factors influence what ends up in your glass. DO take WSET if you are potentially interested in continuing on to WSET3. DO NOT take WSET2 if this is going to be the last class you take. DO NOT take WSET2 if you are a wine “drinker” and not a wine “taster”.

Hope that helps!

This is a truly tough question…I managed a 35 year “career” in wine without the benefit of becoming “credentialed”. I worked retail for thirty years and five years for a very good wine wholesaler in Northern Jersey. Made far more money wholesale, but not nearly as much fun or personal fulfillment–and I learned early one that working for consumers is far more fun than working for owners. For me, the key was always 50% reading and book learning, and 50% popping corks and tasting with people who knew more than I did. The tasting opportunities for those in the business are truly mind-boggling…go to every single trade tasting you can…travel on someone else’s dime if you work for smart retailers and never, ever turn down a chance to taste. At the age of 70, I’m still learning…still drinking and listening with others…still refining and categorizing what I’ve learned…still looking for something new, something exciting, something that will lead me yet another region, grape, or producer. For me, taking classes meant following someone else’s path and I found that limiting. Find a group of wine lovers and insert yourself right smack dab in the middle.

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Jon,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write that out. I have to say, your response is extremely helpful and yet makes my decision no easier! [scratch.gif]

I would actually say I have an easier time tasting wine than drinking it. Unless the wine is low quality or just totally uninteresting to me, I try to concentrate on every sip, almost to the detriment of my enjoyment in some cases. The tasting element of the class might be helpful in refining my process, but I don’t think I need to learn a new approach.

What I would hope to get out of a class would be 3 things:

  1. Acquiring new language for what I’m thinking… I try and check my notes against the tasting notes of pros or of board members here, and I often find that I either have a ton of extra stuff, either redundant identifiers of the same element in the flavor profile, or certain things that no one else mentions at all.

  2. More background knowledge on characteristics of different grapes and regions such that I could eventually work towards making blind guesses on wine… Again, I’m a hobbyist, I’m not trying to become a somm/Master or anything, I’m just looking for fun. I don’t expect to be able to do this with any accuracy, but it would be nice to be something less than random in my approach.

  3. Meet some friends that I could start tasting with regularly.

In line with Steve’s response below, I think I could probably achieve all 3 goals by simply getting involved with a tasting group outside of the class. I think for now, that’s what I’m going to try to do. That way, I won’t have to rework a lot of things in my schedule to fit these classes in on Thursday afternoons.

I appreciate all the help here! I mostly expected a response like “those classes are a waste of time”, so it was nice to see that the consideration was worthwhile.

I just finished L2, about to start L3. Couple quick thoughts…

If you simply want to try a wide range of wines, you can look at the “specification” for each level and see a list of recommended wines to try with the class. If you make it a goal to try one of each, that’s a start. Get a Coravin so you can taste 3-4 side by side without committing to opening all of the bottles. One advantage though to trying these in a class, is that hopefully the class is choosing specific wines that are really typical of a varietal or region - whereas on your own you might pick something a bit different, and think it’s representative.

There’s definite value to tasting with others and hearing feedback as you taste. If you can find a local group great. If not, the class is a way to make this happen.

Studying for a test definitely makes you really try to commit to memory things like acid/tannin/body levels of certain grapes, or what style is typical of a country or PDO. Outside of a test there’s a lot I would read and think “oh that’s nice” and then promptly forget.

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A bit late - but Point 3 above has been one of the nicer things I’ve gotten out of the courses. I regularly meet up with various people (mostly from WSET 3 - level 2 was just 2 quick weekends). From there maybe you’ll get into blind tastings / dinners (which I like, even though I’m not so great at it… feels good when you do guess right).

I found the materials from CSW much better, rather, more comprehensive than either of the WSET 2 and 3 books. I did CSW as all just a theory test - so that was my solo effort. I’ve yet to finish the deep dives like FWS or IWS.

Lastly - I found wine education a bit of a slippery slope. After WSET 2 went after 3, signed up for CMS courses (requires flying fairly far from here), WSET Level 4 (been stalled for a couple years due to border closures where I signed up)…

I just completed L3 (just started Dip/Level 4) and would agree with much of the discussion. I am not in the industry and was/am a total anomaly in my class (ie. everyone else is in the industry). The L3 and Dip/L4 curriculum is very solid. The L4 is very detailed and structured. The most common question I get is…WTF are you doing this for-- and what are you going to do with it. The answer is mostly,

  1. I enjoy learning about something I am passionate about
  2. I want to be “good” at what I am passionate about
  3. I need a structured learning process
  4. I have no intention of “doing something with it”…other than enjoying learning about one of my passions
  5. I can afford it

I have met a few interesting people along the way BUT most are in the industry and are there for more practical reasons. Summary, WSET 3 and above have been great. There are plenty of other ways to gain competencies but this one works for me. Plus you get a lapel pin once you pass L3!!!

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I think it depends on how much you like a classroom setting and the act of studying. I normally really enjoy that. However with work and having to balance studying it was a bit overwhelming at times. However, studying for the wset did get me involved with some local tasting groups and some really good friends (prior to covid). Depending on what kinds of wines you want to taste and where you live it may be easier to just put together a group of like minded people to taste. However, it depends on how structured you want it to be. What I liked about people who are studying for something is that they take it more serious and are constructing detailed notes/or speaking about the wines they have tasted in a systematic way. With random tasting groups it could be all over the board. So in sum, I am glad I went after the wset so that I could meet people with a similar way to taste in a structured way, that they are ok spitting etc.

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Tom,
Just studying wine and producers/designates on your own time will probably get you where ypu need to go. In any case, I am excited for you. Enjoy the world of wine!