What is a Wine Certification, and Do I Need One?

What is the WSET study program, and will it aid your wine journey? Hint: start at level 3 if the answer is yes.

5/25/20233 min read

If you’re a wine enthusiast looking to deepen your understanding, you might find yourself contemplating formal wine education. Among the most popular choices are the programs offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and various Sommelier certifications. These programs offer comprehensive studies into the intricate world of wine, covering everything from grape varietals and winemaking methods, to sensory evaluation, and even food and wine pairing. But do you need formal certification to enjoy and understand wine? Not necessarily.

WSET: A Goblet Full of Knowledge

The WSET is a UK-based wine education program known worldwide for its structured and comprehensive courses. They offer four levels of certifications, with each level delving deeper into the complex world of wines and spirits.

WSET Level 1: First Sips

WSET Level 1 Award in Wines is an introductory course intended for individuals with no prior knowledge about wines. It provides a hands-on introduction to the main types of wine and basic food and wine pairing. It’s a one-day course with a 30-question multiple-choice exam at the end. However, if you have been drinking wine and dabbling with different styles for a while, you might find this level too elementary. It covers basic styles of wines, storage and service of wine, and basic food and wine pairing – aspects that most wine enthusiasts may already know.

WSET Level 2: Deepening the Plunge

The WSET Level 2 Award in Wines is a more detailed exploration of wines. It covers the major wine regions, grape varieties, and styles of wines. It also introduces the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine (SAT), which is a standardized method for tasting and evaluating wine. The course usually takes several weeks and culminates in a 50-question multiple-choice exam. This course will suit you if you know the basics and want to learn about the different wine regions of the world. However, if you are an ardent wine lover, you might find that the information in Level 2 is something you have already learned through your wine exploration journey.

WSET Level 3: Diving Deeper

The WSET Level 3 Award in Wines is where things get quite serious. This level delves deeper into wine regions and their climates, vineyard and winemaking practices, and advanced wine tasting techniques. This course provides a more detailed understanding of the principles of wine tasting and evaluation. You are expected to describe a wine accurately, and account for the style and quality of wines based on your understanding of viticulture and winemaking. The examination includes a theory paper with short-answer questions, a multiple-choice section, and a blind tasting of two wines.

Now, if you are someone with a substantial base knowledge about wines or have industry experience, the WSET Level 3 can be a good starting point. It offers comprehensive wine knowledge that would significantly enhance your understanding and appreciation of wine. Starting from Level 3 saves you time and money that would have been spent on the earlier levels which might feel like a recap rather than new, engaging learning.

WSET Level 4 – Diploma: The Magnum Opus

The WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines is the highest level of qualification provided by WSET. It covers all aspects of wine through in-depth academic study and a high level of tasting skill development. The focus is on providing a comprehensive understanding of the factors that account for the style, quality, and price of wines. It's an intense commitment, requiring hundreds of hours of study and often taking over two years to complete. It’s most suitable for professionals working in the wine industry or for those who intend to become professionals.

Sommelier Certifications: Masters of the Cellar

Apart from WSET, the other often-discussed path is the Sommelier certification. These programs focus more on service aspects, understanding the business of wine, and building a cellar. There are several bodies that offer Sommelier certifications – Court of Master Sommeliers, International Sommelier Guild, Wine Scholar Guild, etc. These programs usually have levels similar to WSET and provide pins or lapels at the end of successful examinations. These certifications are more service-oriented, and often pursued by those aiming for careers in wine service in the hospitality industry.

To Certify or Not to Certify?

While these certifications offer structured learning and an in-depth understanding of wine, they come with a significant cost, both in terms of money and time. If you are looking for a career in the wine industry, these certifications might add value. However, if your interest in wine is purely out of love and passion, these certifications might seem like a heavy investment.

There's a whole world of wine knowledge out there that can be explored without a formal certification. Reading books, attending wine tastings, visiting vineyards, participating in wine clubs and forums, and most importantly, tasting a wide variety of wines, can help enhance your understanding and appreciation of wine.

Remember, the world of wine is vast and subjective, and understanding it is not a one-size-fits-all process. The best way to learn about wine is the way that suits you the most. So, whether you choose to dive into a formal certification or set out on a self-led exploration, let your love and passion for wine guide you.