WSET: The Level I Experience


You know how, once you submit something for publication, you sometimes tend to just forget about it, so that by the time it is released in print format you feel a sort of disconnect, an uncertainty about what your former self might have written so many weeks or months ago? Perhaps not. This is the writer’s lament, and if you don’t have this problem, no doubt you have others.  But whether you can relate or not, I feel that often, and it’s an ongoing struggle I deal with as a writer. I was reading back over my WSET blogs today, and the author didn’t even sound like me. Admitting to being arrogant? I mean, I am arrogant at times, I’ll grant, but why admit it? All this to say, it’s been far too long since I touched base about my WSET studies, and I felt like I ought to fill you all in on how that’s going.

The short version of the story is: I passed. I spent a full day at the Napa Valley Wine Academy, in a room of about 25 other people who were pursuing this study for various reasons: some were about to travel to France, others worked in the wine industry, or simply wanted to.  I was the only writer. It was July 2, quite a while ago now, yet because it was such an excellent experience, it is indelibly imprinted upon my memory.

The content of the study, insofar as I can share it without saying too much, was a terrific balance of rigor and introduction. Our instructor, Shelley, was knowledgeable and, more importantly, a good teacher, able to help a diverse group of budding oenophiles understand what might not come easily to them. People had traveled from as far as Thailand, Mexico, Michigan and New York to take this class in Napa, California, to say nothing of the lone Nebraskan studiously taking notes in the front row.

For eight hours, we tasted, sniffed, studied, and discussed. The Socratic method was our friend. I learn about Botridas, the “noble rot,” and about the impact that salt and lemon can have on the flavor of wine (consequently, I rarely cook without both anymore). We discussed the varietals and terroirs of the world, the winemaking process, and more. I learned a great deal, and in all it was a wonderful experience.

It was during the day that I learned that an old friend, a Holocaust survivor, had passed away. It put a damper on my mood, in particular because nobody there knew him and, not being able to duck out of class, I was left to my own devices — and a glass of wine, to process. I may or may not have had to revisit a particular sauternes several times throughout the day.

After the class had concluded, my traveling companion Zach called. He had our car and he was running late. Undeterred, I struck off on foot for Napa’s nearby downtown, and saddled up to the bar of a tasting room I love. Eventually, Zach arrived, and together we shared wine and chatted about our days. He holds certification through the Court, rather than WSET, so we compared notes and avoided any very serious discussions from our respective days. The next morning, we hit up a few more wineries, and then returned by airplane to Nebraska.

Several weeks later, I got a small package in the mail. Contained therein was a letter, a certificate, and a small orange and gold lapel pin. I had passed my exam with a 97% (to this day, not knowing which question I missed vexes me). The pin now rests on my desk, waiting for the day I go to work and apply it to my coat, and the certificate waits patiently in a stack of papers to be framed.

One of my biggest takeaways from this was that formal learning in the field of wine didn’t take away from the pleasure this industry gives me. Rather, my increased knowledge enhances my enjoyment. I began unsure if I would pursue this beyond the first level, but at this point I believe I will; I’ve gone as far as to make passing the WSET Level II exam one of my primary goals for 2017, along with running 1,000 miles for charity, publishing three more academic articles, and learning to tie a bow tie.

A few nights ago, I stepped into one of my regular haunts for a glass of wine. There was a new guy behind the bar. We got to talking and I learned his name is Chris, and that he spent ten years in public education (the career that pays my bills) before leaving to work in the wine and spirits industry.  Now in my thirteenth year, I could relate to his feeling of burnout, and while I still love my job and maintain the vague hope that I will one day retire from the field with a pension at the age of 55, the twenty years between now and then seem pretty daunting on the tough days. I’ve been flirting with the idea of taking a “sabbatical” of sorts, to work as a full-time wine writer and perhaps moonlight as a somm while I try to recharge my battery. Only time will tell if that’s in the proverbial tea leaves for me or not, but holding my WSET I certification at least gives me more options, and passing the level II next year should open still more doors. Until next time, friends.



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