My Story of Getting a WSET 2 Certificate in Wine (& Spirits) in France
While I was in France, I decided to get a professional certification in wine and spirits through the international Wine & Spirit Education Trust. They offer courses and certificates at several levels of expertise. The program was originally intended for professionals in the industry, but increasingly it attracts wine hobbyists.
As much as I hate to admit it, my interest in wine started with the movie Sideways. The 2004 film not only was notorious for boosting pinot noir sales while depressing those of merlot because of the tastes of Paul Giammati’s main character Miles (“I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”) but also driving people like me to visit wineries and make tasting a hobby. The irony is that the temperamental Miles would probably look down on us for getting into wine because of a movie.
Years later, on a driving trip up the California coast in 2012, my best friend and I stopped in the Paso Robles wine country, (next to the Santa Barbara wine country where Sideways was filmed) and met a man in one of the tasting rooms who, after retiring as a professor in Illinois, moved out to work at the vineyard.
After that, whenever I thought of leaving my white collar profession — as I would more and more over the years — my mind went to that California wine country. I couldn’t tell if it was more of an escapist fantasy than a serious career path. But, as I’ve found, the best way to figure something like that out is do more and more of it.
Over the years, I took tasting classes at Astor Center in Manhattan and Seventh Avenue Wine & Liquor in Park Slope, Brooklyn; visited wine regions in the United States, France, Croatia, and South Africa; and worked for a week on a family owned vineyard, Pichon, in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France through WWOOF.
Then, as fate would have it, after I decided last year to move to France to teach English, I was assigned to the Bordeaux area of France, perhaps the most well-known wine region in the world. There were all kinds of ways I could get more into wine there: Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin museum, the inexpensive Bar à Vin run by the Bordeaux Wine Council, an excellent tasting class on French wine regions and wine mixing at Bordovino, the dispense-your-own tasting room at Max Bordeaux, visiting Saint-Émilion and other areas of Bordeaux’s vast wine country, and the wonderful wine store in my town of Biscarrosse Cave de Bassin.
After all of this, I figured the next step was to take the WSET. Even though it is offered all over the U.S. and there is a standard curriculum, I thought it would seem impressive to say that I had earned my certificate in France. I tried to find a course in Bordeaux, but none fell within a good window of time. So I broadened my search and came across a class at Chateau de Pommard’s École V in the region of Burgundy, which is considered France’s other top wine region (though of course there are many other great wine regions in France and different people have different tastes).
How the WSET 2 works
I enrolled to take the WSET 2, the second stage of a four stage series of certifications that gets progressively harder with each level. In the latter WSET 3 and WSET 4, tastings are even part of the test. I chose WSET 2 because you can do it without having done WSET 1, and some places do not even offer WSET 1. The program involves classroom time in a lecture format with a WSET certified instructor, a workbook that you take notes in during the class and that has practice test questions, and a textbook you’re supposed to read before the start of the class. The instructor basically goes over what is in the book during the lecture and then leads tastings after most of the lessons.
Contrary to my initial belief, actually getting the WSET certificate is not guaranteed. You must get a 55% on a 50-question multiple choice test. Significantly higher scores earn a distinction.
The WSET 2 is usually three days, but I took an “intensive,” taking place over just a weekend, from 9 in the morning until 7 in the evening with about an hour lunch break and a few short breaks. In the last hour of the last day of class, you take the test.
Learning about wine in Burgundy
I arrived at the Hotel Central in Beaune, the charming capital city of the Burgundy wine region, late the Friday night before my class, after a long journey on one bus and three trains.
The next morning, a frigid and sunny April Saturday, I met my cab driver Apolline outside the hotel and we drove 10 minutes to the town of Pommard. Château de Pommard, though it dates to 1726, is not your typical French winery. The first giveaway is its attractive web site, written in perfect English and with glowing quotes from American visitors.
On top of that, when I arrived, the person at the welcome desk greeted me chirpily and escorted me through one courtyard, and to the classroom, which was in the corner of a second courtyard, opposite a sleek tasting room. The château, once a “sleepy estate,” has become a big tourist destination thanks to changes made by its most recent two owners, a non-Burgundian Frenchman and, since 2014, an American tech investor.
For instance, the château offers what it calls “experiences,” including a “gourmet experience” and even a “jeunesse experience” for kids (“Your child will enjoy activities adapted to his age, discover biodynamic practices, visit historical cellars, learn how grapes transform into juice.”).
The class: day 1
Our teacher, Matthias, introduced himself at the start of the class and told us he’d worked in the wine industry for many years, in both Bordeaux and Burgundy and was himself studying to get a Master of Wine, the highest qualification in the field, and held by only 382 living people.
He started the class with an introduction to the storage of wine, what temperatures to keep different types of wine (keep Pinot Noir a little chilled but not Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot), factors that impact the quality, and how to pair wine with food (acidic wines go well with fat, the umami flavor is difficult to pair with). There was boilerplate on the importance of drinking responsibly (and on the test, there is a throwaway obligatory “why is alcohol bad for you?” type question that every test taker probably answers correctly).
Then, we were on to learning about grapes or varietals and the regions where they’re grown. We started with chardonnay and pinot noir, which tend to do well in similar regions, like Burgundy and northern California and then moved on to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, closing the day out with Riesling (which actually is often dry, not sweet). We would have to know the most well known regions for each grape and the main characteristics of the wine produced in each region — for example, that a chardonnay made in California is more oaky than one in Burgundy
After every lesson, we tasted four or five wines in the varietal category — for a total of 50 in two days. With each, we went through WSET’s SAT or “systematic approach to tasting wine,” a chart with a rubric to evaluate the appearance, smell, and taste of a wine.
First, we would look at the wine, holding it over a white surface to determine whether it was clear or hazy (if it’s hazy, there’s something wrong with it, we learned); pale, medium, or deep; and its shade of white, rosé, or red.
Then we put it to our noses, smelled it, and tried to describe what we were breathing in: is it clean or unclean?; how intense is the smell?: light, medium, or pronounced; and the aroma characteristics: fruit, flowers, spices, vegetables, oak, etc.
Finally, we took our first sip. There’s a method to do this that involves “sucking on it as if pulling it through a straw,” as Wine Enthusiast puts it and swishing it around in your mouth. Mixing it with the air and coating it around your mouth is supposed to help you pick up the taste in all its complexity. It’s easy to feel like a fool when making the sucking noise, but the WSET classroom is a safe space. Then, we tried to describe the wine’s sweetness, acidity, tannin level, body, flavor characteristics, and the finish — or how strong an impression it leaves after you’re done.
To determine acidity, for instance, Matthias told us we should swirl the wine around in the sides of our mouth and determine whether our mouth was moist or dry. The dryer our mouth, the less acidity the wine had. I’d like to say that I was able to correctly state the acidity by doing this, but I definitely wasn’t.
Each of these steps went something like this:
The room: Quiet. Then someone, maybe me, quietly calls out: “Medium….?”
Matthias: “High, it’s high.”
Me: Take another sip to see why I thought it was medium and not high. Still not sure.
A similar situation happened when we tried to describe tannins. As much as I’ve read about tannins, I am still not sure I know what they are, much less whether a wine has low, medium, or high levels of them. I do know they only exist in red, they’re bitter, and they correlate with the level of alcohol in the wine.
Oh, and we spit everything, otherwise we’d have been passed out and useless at tasting before lunch. The first day I had to share a spit bucket with my classmate on my right, a nice Russian woman who worked in real estate, because they had only given us one. In my semi-buzzed, keyed up state (I was already feeling the test anxiety setting in), I became increasingly preoccupied as the day wore on with whether we’d fill up the spit bucket. Each time we took turns spitting into it, I grew a little more nervous.
And, yes, spit bucket is the technical term for it, according to Wine Spectator, though “dump bucket" or, even “spittoon” can be used.
By the end of the first day, I was exhausted from all of the information and feeling woefully under-prepared for the test. I decided to take a walk around Beaune to clear my head, get takeout, and go back to my hotel room and study.
Although there are intuitive ways to remember some of the information we were learning, and no doubt some people already know about varietals and regions — like that New Zealand’s best pinot noir comes from Central Otago and the U.S.’s from Oregon — a lot of the WSET material, you just have to memorize.
And this is why I wish I had been a better student and thoroughly read the full textbook in advance as they had advised us. How was I going to keep straight that Australia’s top riesling regions are the Clare and Eden Valleys while its Shiraz does best in Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, and the Barossa Valley? Or that Pradikätswein is the name for the system Germany uses to describe its wines’ levels of sugar, in addition to all six of the classifications (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and my personal favorite, Eiswein)? Or that France’s and Spain’s sparking wines tend to get fermented using the “traditional method,” in the bottle, while Germany and Italy’s are fermented through the tank method?
I started making flashcards and quickly fell asleep.
The class: day 2
The first good omen on day 2 was that I walked into the classroom and saw that there were two spit buckets, one for me and one for my Russian classmate. Today was a new day.
I tried to strategize about how I would review an entire textbook while the course was going all day but didn’t really come up with anything besides skimming between breaks. We went through more grape varieties (Chianti, Malbec, Nebbiolo, Gewurtzraminer, Viognier, Sémillon — it was never ending),
Then we took a break for lunch at a pizza place, our second Italian meal in two days, because the sushi place the chateau tried to reserve was full.
I talked to my other classmates over our meal. Most worked in business or finance. They included a couple who lived in Zurich and worked at one of the big international banks there. The man investigated the bank’s clients for any kind of financial impropriety and said that those from Russia, Greece, and Italy tended to raise the most red flags. Another couple, a German man and Irish woman, lived in Zurich as well. There was also a man who was from and lived in the Netherlands, a woman from Taiwan who worked as a wine advisor at the château’s offices in Paris, and my Russian neighbor.
None of us even looked at the wine menu , so beached were we by our tasting.
The afternoon included cramming in the lesson on sparkling wine — including its complicated manufacture method — sweet wines, ports, sherrys, and spirits. Yes, we also had to know about spirts for the test, but fortunately those questions turn out to be on the easy side (“What is the base material for rum?” Answer: molasses).
The whirlwind of the WSET 2 experience ended with the test, which took place a little after 6 p.m.
It had been years since I’d taken a multiple choice test, so I was surprised at how quickly I was transported back to my school days. First, there was the moment of panic when I wasn’t sure I had the right kind of pencil, then there was the agonizing few minutes we had to wait for the proctor, Matthias, to give us directions on how to fill out the test booklet.
When we could finally start, I opened the booklet, looked at the first few questions, and was flummoxed. They seemed much harder than the practice questions in our workbook. I don’t know the answers to any of these, I thought.
But, if I had learned nothing else from test taking, it was that the more time I spend on something I am not sure about, the more I pick apart the question and possible answers, and the quicker my confidence depletes. Over-thinking on tests — as in life — rarely produces good results. So I skipped, and skipped, and skipped.
Finally, at question 6, I was pretty certain I knew the answer. I did all of the questions I knew first. Then, I went back to all of the questions I wasn’t sure about, tried to make educated guesses, checked over my answers, and handed the test in — pretty sure my score was hovering somewhere around 50%.
Here are some examples of questions from the test:
What characterizes a riesling from Mosel? (high acidity, green fruit, dry)
Hyperpallettes are used to produce what wine? (champagne)
Where are carménère grapes found? (Chile)
What is tequila produced from? (blue agave)
Why do cheaper New World wineries use irrigation? (increase their yield)
A question asking us to identify a type of sherry or port (I don’t even remember what I put, but I’m 99% sure it was wrong, as the sherry and port section of the class was a blur to me)
Where is the term méthod cap classique used? (South Africa … and yeah, that’s a tricky once since it’s a French phrase)
What characterizes a Nebbiolo (full bodied, red, high tannins, high acidity)
What is Trebbiano (a white grape from Italy)
Where can you find Priorat? (Spain)
What kind of wine is a Pouilly-Fume? (Sancerre/Sauvignon Blanc)
When I got back to my hotel, I couldn’t help but look in the textbook to see the answers to questions I wasn’t sure about — that is, torturing myself, which I have a certain knack for. Surprisingly, most I had answered correctly. Maybe there was hope.
And hey, I reminded myself, at least I knew a bunch of things about wine I didn’t just two days prior, like that chenin blanc, though historically cheap to grow in South Africa, is now being used there to produce some premium quality wines, that France’s Rhône is its premiere region for Syrah and Grenache, and that dishes high in sugar should be paired with a wine high in sugar.
Plus, if you fail the test, you can take it again.
Test results and the certificate
Despite the possibility I didn’t bomb the test after all, I was in no hurry to get the results back. Nonetheless, when an email came about a month later with the subject heading “Results WSET 2 - April 14, 2019” I tensed up, shakily clicking on it.
Fortunately, the news was good — unexpectedly good:
Hello Ms Meyer,
The team of Ecole V is pleased to announce you that you hold WSET 2 English diploma that you passed on April 14, 2019 at Chateau de Pommard.
Your score was 86/100.
You will receive your paper certificate soon by mail.
See you soon at Chateau de Pommard,
How on earth I earned 86 out of 100 was beyond me, but I was overjoyed. Maybe my educated guessing and memory was better than I thought. I now have a certificate of wine (and spirits!) — and there are even trustees involved, as you can see on the imprimatur. What I’ll do with it next is still an open question…