In the Eye of a Wine Hurricane: My WSET4 Diploma Journey
Last June I started the WSET Level 4 – Diploma in Wines course. Finally, if I may say so, because I finished the previous one, the Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits, more than 6 years ago…
Not that I have been lazy during that time. Apart from starting Wine & Words, my freelance wine education, writing and consultancy business, I’ve continued working at the university, travelled extensively, taught and participated in food & wine courses, become Champagne Ambassador and Wine Lady of the Year here in Belgium, ánd – best of all – I’ve got to share my ever-growing passion for wine, and especially food & wine pairing, with a few thousands of people so far.
At the same time, the need to widen and especially deepen my knowledge about wine continued to itch. Even though I learn a lot from reading every day, from interacting with all kinds of wine lovers and professionals, from a wide range of tastings and masterclasses, … I craved the focus of really digging in again. Also into the more technical and business-related aspects of wine. So enrolling in WSET Diploma was the logical next step.
What is WSET Diploma?
WSET Diploma is an elaborate, challenging, high-level wine study programme, offered by a range of Approved Programme Providers (APPs) all over the world. Basically: a (usually local) wine school you enrol in, which is your first point of contact and organises paperwork, class activities, exams and much more.
The programme itself is developed and organised by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET®), an organisation founded in 1969 to support the UK wine and spirits trade with solid training and standardised qualifications. Less than a decade later, they expanded their operations first into Ireland and Canada, then further into Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East. By now, their courses are offered in more than 70 countries and cover wines, spirits as well as sake.
WSET Level 4 in Wines, a.k.a. ‘the Diploma’, builds on the introductory and intermediary Level 1, 2 and 3 Awards in Wines, and represents the final level. WSET4 is normally completed over a period of 18 months to 3 years and consists of 6 study modules, each covering different aspects of wine production, business and the wider wine world:
- D1 – Wine production
- D2 – Wine business
- D3 – Wines of the world
- D4 – Sparkling wines
- D5 – Fortified wines
- D6 – Independent research assignment
You are required to take the foundation units D1 and D2 first, as they form a firm and much-needed basis for the other modules. The other units can then be taken in the order you prefer, depending on a number of fixed exam dates and specific requirements set out by the course provider where you’re registered.
More detailed information on the course content and the individual modules is available on the WSET Global website.
The site also gives an overview of the weighting of the different units, based on the minimum learning time and the additional private study hours that are required for each (see table below). However, in my experience (and I’m sure most fellow students will agree), in reality you’ll be spending a lot more time on it if you want to do well.
For my personal situation, combining WSET Diploma with work commitments and a myriad of wine activities didn’t seem advisable – at least if I wanted to hang on to my sanity. Which was the main reason why I had postponed it for so long. Yet my desire to embark on the Diploma adventure kept growing, so I decided to apply for a 9-month sabbatical at the university and use it to be a full-time student again. It got approved, and now I’m tackling WSET4 in a combination of online and classroom-taught modules, ánd taking photography classes 2 nights a week. Pretty much my dream life. 😀
However, it also means I’m on a strict deadline, so I’ve given myself just over a year to complete the full 18-months-to-3-years course. As a result, my planning looks like this:
- D1 (online): started May 31st / sat the exam on August 16th;
- D2 (online): started August 16th / sat the exam on October 27th;
- D3 (classroom) started October 1st / exam planned for May 10th & 11th 2022;
- D4: (classroom) started November 15th / sat the exam on January 19th 2022;
- D5: (online) will start on April 18th 2022 / exam planned for June 7th 2022;
- D6: research paper / due date here in Belgium is June 30th 2022.
So far I’m on schedule: I’ve completed D1 and D2, which went very well, with respectively a Distinction and Merit score. I’m currently waiting on my results for the D4 Sparkling Wines exam I sat in January. (It usually takes 10 to 12 weeks for the grades to be sent out.)
After D4, I took 10 days off from studying, and earlier this month I embarked on a 101-days study marathon to get ready for the massive D3 unit, a.k.a. ‘The Beast’, in May. The D3 exam will be spread over 2 days, with day 1 reserved for theory papers about still wines from any of the 33 wine countries or regions that are covered in the course. We’ll need to complete a total of 5 large open-response questions, in 3 hours and 20 minutes. (All WSET4 exams are very strictly timed, to push you to know the material very well, and to have you focus on the question as set, instead of waffling on about vaguely related topics you happen to remember.)
Day 2 of the exam is focused on tasting, in which in we’ll have 3 hours to taste and describe 4 sets or ‘flights’ of 3 wines each, with additional questions about origin, production methods, etc.:
- 3 wines made from the same grape variety;
- 3 wines from the same country;
- 3 wines from the same region;
- 3 unrelated wines, giving you nothing but the wines themselves to draw your conclusions from.
Needless to say, after D3 I’ll be in dire need of a break. 😀 So I’ve scheduled a few days off before I’ll have to start on D5 – Fortified Wines, preparing for the exam in early June. Then again a short break before the final challenge: the D6 research paper. The topic this time is Sustainability, which I’m really looking forward to, as it’s a theme close to my heart.
Would I recommend squeezing a course of this magnitude and complexity into such a short timeframe?
Yes and no. It’s super intense, especially when juggling several units at once, which leaves little time to relax and unwind. But so far it’s working, although I can already tell I’ll be ready for a relaxed summer holiday after this. 😉
On the other hand, I have the advantage that now, for the later modules, especially the daunting D3, I still have the knowledge and insights from the first 2 units fresh in my mind. And that really comes in handy when studying the large volume of course materials on still, sparkling and fortified wines.
But don’t get me wrong: it’s pretty crazy right now. It takes willpower, careful planning and – not to underestimate – a supportive environment. Last but not least: you need to take good care of yourself, every single day. Good food, plenty of sleep, quality time, and regularly coming up for fresh air are key, in order to stay strong, motivated and inspired. After all, the challenge is not just the studying itself, but also being fresh, sharp and flexible/creative enough to perform well during the exams. And to still have a life waiting for you at the end of it.
An absolute life saver for me is a tip we got from our D1 tutor, Sally Easton MW, towards the end of the online D1 course. Paraphrased, it came down to: along the way, keep reminding yourself you signed up for this, voluntarily, because you really like this stuff, and you want to learn and improve.
And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? 💖