WSET: Gearing Up


I’ve always sort of dreaded tests. As a teacher, there’s perhaps a thin layer of irony in that, but what it really does is lend me a higher level of empathy when giving my students exams (at least that’s what I tell myself). When I took my “comps,” the last do-or-die exams prior to writing my doctoral dissertation, I locked myself up in a hotel room for five days prior to the exams, and did nothing for that time other than study and occasionally go for a jog just to keep myself from imploding. I passed my comps, but it was an intense ordeal. So as my WSET Level I class and exam rapidly approaches, I can’t seem to fully suppress the queasy feeling rising in my stomach.

Friends encouraged me to skip level I and go straight to II. I couldn’t do that. Even if they’d allow it, I don’t have the nerve. I know enough about wine to know how much there is to know about wine, and I wouldn’t presume to be so knowledgeable as to skip a step in my training. In addition to tasting and reading and the usual Sunday night wine gatherings I host, I’ve begun to do some further studying. You see bartenders (sommeliers, not beer-slingers) doing this sort of thing a lot, pouring over The Wine Bible and other sacred texts as they gear up to take their next exam.

The first source I consulted was the WSET app in my iPhone. It scared the sh*t out of me. The app refers to itself as a “game” and gives you 60 seconds to examine ten wine labels and then place them on a map based on where the wine is made. Level I only requires you to properly identify the country, e.g. if the label is Champagne, you need to poke France on the map. Subsequent levels get harder and harder, requiring you not only to identify the specific region, e.g. Champagne within the map of France, but also offering up more and more obscure regions without offering any additional time. So far, I’ve scored 100% on level I, 80% on level II, and never better than 30% on level III, occasionally getting pitched a softball like “Patagonia” but far more often getting stuck with “Rheingau” (Germany, right?) or, worse, dozens of regions I can’t even pronounce let alone identify on a map. How these levels equate to my ultimate goals of WSET certification I don’t exactly know, but at this point I can’t seem to shake the notion that I’m getting bested by a game, though an educational one I will admit.


The other source I’ve consulted is a training manual that was emailed to me by the place where I’m taking the class. The manual provides a bit of an overview, which I appreciated. According to the manual, the test will be multiple choice, and broken into five sections that include:

  1. Understanding the main types and styles of wine available
  2. How to store wine
  3. How to serve wine to customers
  4. The basic principles of food and wine pairing
  5. The issues relating to the safe consumption of wine

This I found quite useful. I’m able to identify areas of weakness in my knowledge here, and from that I can study up. The manual also offered a few sample questions, but these threw me off a bit. Here’s one:


My dog Mollie could answer that question, and she’s not a smart dog. My nine-month-old Titus would do well with it, too, as I allow him to examine and sniff every wine that I am drinking. He likes that. So I’m left wondering if all of the questions are this easy, or if this is a red herring and the next question is “What was Juan Peron’s favorite wine to pair with the brutal oppression of his people?” (I would assume Malbec, but that is indeed a gap in my knowledge.)

Ultimately, I’m left to believe I’m probably going to do okay on this exam, especially after the day-long class I’m signed up for at the Napa Valley Wine Academy. But the butterflies persist. I know these WSET types are serious, some of them borderline obsessive, and I’m committed to doing well on this. I’m going to continue to study – especially the history of wines and the dictators who loved them. I’ll keep you posted.






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