The Wine Siren by Kelly Mitchell

A Journey Into Wine Education & The WSET

Wine Education and WSET

Wine education with the Court of Master Sommeliers view from my glass
This was the view from my glass at the Court of Master Sommelier Level 1 Class

There are many ways to improve your knowledge of wine. From books to certified courses, even learning online, your options are extensive. It can be a daunting task to choose the right program for you. Evaluate your goals; your reasons for getting a wine education before jumping in. Wine courses for certification are an expensive venture. You don’t want to waste a penny of that hard earned money.

To understand the best option for your wine education you have to work backward. Begin with your ultimate objective related to wine. It could be an advance in your career or increase in pay. How about starting a completely new career? People often pursue wine education to speak with confidence about wine amongst friends. Deciphering a wine list while making solid recommendations will wow dinner guests. Regardless of your goals, there are dozens of opportunities to choose from.

I began with the wrong objectives and no goal in mind. This is a bit of my journey into wine education and my experience with WSET.

Getting wine education while globetrotting the world

The romance and the perceived lifestyle of a Sommelier were intriguing to me. Looking from the outside in, I found it fascinating. I imagined having access to thousands of bottles of wine. To be the trusted taster. To have a life of travel to exotic places and to hobnob with the rich and famous. My gut goal (not very well thought out), was to have the ultimate confidence in selecting wine. I wanted to be able to discuss it with people in the industry and not sound like a novice. Sommelier seemed like the perfect avenue to pursue.

"While I relished the experience I had in fine dining, waiting tables wasn’t my calling."

I signed up for the two-day Intro to Sommelier course (also known as Level 1). I received a book and access to the velvet-roped section for learning. Resources. Glorious resources. The course was a few weeks away. I tried to study but wasn’t very focused. I read the book once. An acquaintance said the course was “so easy”. I didn’t have to study much back in college. So I thought I’d breeze right through the exam with little effort. My first mistake.

I headed into the Sommelier course at the Drake Hotel in San Francisco. The Court of Master Sommeliers  organized the event and handled the testing as well. The first half of the day was fascinating to me. We learned about intriguing wine regions of the world. Zeroed in on soils, terroir, vines, varietals and tasted several wines. The experience was intense and captivating. The course instructors were a team of Master Sommeliers, the rock stars of Sommeliers. They knew their stuff inside and out. You could tell they loved what they did. The passion was contagious. They talked about the taste of the wines and went into incredible detail on where they came from.  When discussing varietals we explored how the grapes influenced style. Were they Old World or New World? The big upside was the wine tasting and learning the deductive tasting format used by Somms. My palate at the time was very California. Not because I live here today, but because I spent most of my life in Hawaii. By the range of proximity, California wines were plentiful in the islands. What I was tasting in this class was very “Old World” for the most part. It was exciting!

"I had a history as a very articulate enthusiast, (think: reading French wine labels with flair at age eight)."

Getting Wine Education at the Court of Master Sommeliers

What I wasn’t prepared for was the second half of the class, also known as “Day Two”. Day Two would defy me. It would dance a dance of “Told you so”. It would give me flashbacks of my most detested aspects of my pre-college & college days.  My days as a server. A cocktail server, bartender, a flambé server, a table side server, you name it I did it.  While I relished the experience I had in fine dining, waiting tables wasn’t my calling. I had no enthusiasm for it.

"The fact that Sommelier's serve had escaped me. I was so caught up in the romance of the job, I didn't take a hard look at all aspects."

It wasn’t the fault of the course or The Court’s. I didn’t do my homework. What was I thinking? When we came to the service section of the course I knew I had failed to choose the right course for me.  Not only had I failed, I invested $595.00 in that class. While I still got an education, I didn’t get a designation. You have to take the test to get a designation. I wrote my name at the top of the test and looked at the questions. This was not an easy test for those who took a half-assed approach. I waited about 10 min and turned my test in. It wasn’t going to move me with desire into the direction I was hoping for.

Getting an education in wine, WSET program Napa Valley
My welcome mat at WSET 2 class at Napa Valley Wine Academy

When I walked out, I never looked back. For those who perform this job, I have deep respect. Being a Sommelier was not for me. I say that and three years later I am still a member of the Guild of Sommeliers. I devour their online education. They are an amazing resource.

I always want to be the best at what I do. I decided to pursue it. Commit. I was ready.

It took me two years to embrace another program. I had a history as a very articulate enthusiast, (think: reading French wine labels with flair at age eight). I thought I knew a lot. The wine world was my oyster, my other third. Once I grasped how vast and unending the wine world was, I was overcome. And thrilled at the same time.

I spend a lot of time with winemakers and vintners and the occasional Sommelier. A range of experts in wine who each contributed to my knowledge. Some had degrees, some were self-taught. Many had decades of experience. The reality of this learning was it gave you a swiss cheese foundation. You can try and teach yourself but there is a reason wine education exists. It’s needed on so many levels.  There were gaps in my knowledge and I had to fix that.

Wine education can often include blind tasting and it did with WSET 2
Fun fun fun! Blind Tasting for WSET 2 at The Napa Valley Wine Academy

About a year ago I remembered someone telling me I should get my WSET certifications. As I looked more into it this appeared to be a solid fit. The WSET (The Wine & Spirit Education Trust) is headquartered in London, England.  It was established in 1969 for the UK Wine Trade.  They have a network of over 700 approved program providers who have gone through a rigorous set of standards and approvals.  I selected The Napa Valley Wine Academy who is certified to do the WSET courses.  That would be a game changer for me.  I always want to be the best at what I do. I decided to pursue it. Commit. I was ready.

I received the WSET 2 package after enrolling, and the adventure began. I shared my goal with peers on social media. The outpouring of support from others in the wine industry was a big endorsement of my choice.

Industry people. People who appreciated the common thread and an educated level of wine knowledge in the field. This created a common ground amongst wine writers and brands. Investing in a solid wine education ingratiates you amongst your peers. Speaking the same language when describing wine is important, and overlooked. It’s difficult enough that we have different palates. Our sensory experiences are different as well. Conveying wine taste & smell with a using a strong base of words makes it easier communicate wine. It makes it easier for the everyday consumer to understand the wine industry’s. It unifies the industry. I found that idea truly compelling.

The SAT (aka Wine-Lexicon) is a guide that sets the common descriptors of aroma and taste. It’s also the foundation for how we are going to taste and describe wine. I’m not new to wine by any stretch of the imagination, having been sipped on it for the better part of 26 years. But I am newish to the more specific vocabulary used by my peers today. I’m eager to get on with my studies and see what else I don’t know.

"There are four sections that WSET 2 explores in wine. 1) Standards and the Consumer 2) Primary Grape Varietals Geolocations of Wines 3) Other less Mainstream Wines and 4) Spirits."

The night before class I am burning the midnight oil. After doing my day job of writing and video editing it is time again to study. This is a test I’ve promised myself I won’t fall short on. I’ve already gotten through the temperatures of wine storage, fermentation, maceration. Grape varieties weren’t too difficult because I had a strong base to begin with. I wasn’t excited about the Spirits section so that would require more focus on my part.

It’s class time! ID’s, identities verified and then it’s on to introductions. The instructor is engaging and knowledgeable. We begin by going through introductions. A well-known vintner couple is even in the class. That surprised me. One pretty common denominator on why we are here, ‘To stop feeling stupid around others’. Some look to understand the more technical aspects of tasting and winemaking. There are others who are considering career changes, or who want to increase their pay scale. Still, others who are doing this for self-fulfillment.

We drilled into labels and how to decipher them. Which varies by country, so this in-depth perspective was valuable. We learned more about the terroirs of the most important winemaking regions today. The reasons why they thrive and are instrumental in the end product. I learned a wealth of information about regions and even countries I’d already been to. I even learned more about Napa Valley, my home. It was compelling.

Wine Education Accomplishments Rewarded with WSET Diploma and Pin
WSET 2 Diploma and pin. MIssion Accomplished!

Taking the exam filled my belly with butterflies. I was having flashbacks of my Level 1 Sommelier course. This time though, I had invested more time in my wine education studies. Sealed test packages opened almost ceremoniously. Security in this process was impressive. There would be no opportunity for cheaters to get in on this or imposters to sub for someone else. The exam was not what I expected. I mean 50 questions, multiple choice, just like they said. But, there were many questions at first glance I thought I’d get wrong. I took my time.

After taking the test I walked out completely unsure of how I had done. Then the waiting game began. I was to first receive an email in a few weeks and later my certificate and pin if I had passed. I detest waiting.

Then the moment arrived. I didn’t think I could bear it if it was bad news. I opened the email, scanned down to the bottom and read these words “Your WSET Level 2 Exam Results Pass with Merit”. YES! A few weeks after that I got my pin, my certificate and I was hooked. Now I am waiting for my WSET 3 book. The journey of wine education continues.

"Let me caution you on one additional detail in the realm of wine. Once you open the box of learning wine, it’s impossible to close."

Wine education never ends as The Wine Siren shows in the caves of Mouton Rothschild, Bordeaux France
The Wine Siren in the caves of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Bordeaux, France 2018

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6 Responses

  1. Congratulations on passing, with Merit, your WSET 2. Amber and I took and passed our WSET Level 1 during our sojourn in London. We look forward to tackling, the considerably more complicated, WSET Level 2. Napa is our obvious choice for location, but we had been considering taking the course online. Do you think we would miss out on a lot if we did not attend classes in person?

    1. Thanks David. The tasting portion is probably the most valuable that is shared in WSET. But I know doing it in person increased my level of confidence. We tasted probably about 50-55 wines and broke them down. It definitely was helpful for me.

  2. Interesting to read about your experience. I do wish that you could pay for the test only and not the classes if you don’t need them. We did our level1 WSET and both of us felt like we learned nada. In fact, our instructor was wrong on many of the things she was teaching. We have been hesitant to spend the money for more instruction..

    I’m hoping our experience here in Napa will be a better one!

    1. Always do your research first is the biggest lesson for me. WSET 1 is for those who know next to nothing about wine. WSET 2 is more advanced and WSET 3 will definitely be a challenge. I think the higher you go the more helpful the classes are. Napa Valley Wine Academy does a great job.

  3. Great article Kelly. A nice insight into the behind the scenes of studying. I do not have any Post-nominal letters, but enjoy learning. I think that maybe one day, when I no longer have a full time job on top of the winery and living a bi-coastal life, I might go for a program.

  4. Great article!
    I’m taking Level 2 WSET in my Canadian hometown, and your endorsement is relieving!

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