The WSET Level 4 Journey
The journey to getting the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines has begun!
First, I’m guessing you are probably asking, “What is the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines?”
It seems important to share what this is and how it’s different from a sommelier certification. The WSET, which stands for Wine and Spirit Education Trust, is a globally recognized certifying body of wine education. It is more geared towards those working in wine communications–such as journalism, education, and other areas of trade–whereas Sommelier certifications are geared more towards those in the service industry. This pathway is an excellent fit for me because I’m passionate about educating others on wine and wellness, and how knowing more about wine can help us savor the moments offered with every glass.
On a side note, because of the movie series SOMM, most are familiar with Master Sommeliers (MS), which is the highest level of certification a sommelier can attain from The Court of Master Sommeliers. A Master of Wine (MW) from the Institute of the Masters of Wine is the highest level of wine education that follows the WSET Diploma Level Certification. To pursue the MW, you must first complete the WSET Diploma level or have earned a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in wine. As of earlier this year, there are just over 260 Master Sommeliers and just over 400 Masters of Wine.
The easiest way I find to describe it is that the WSET Level 4 Diploma is like getting a Master’s Degree in Wine and becoming a MW is like getting a PhD in wine.
There are two parts to the WSET Diploma Certification: Theory and Tasting. The theory component includes understanding viticulture, enology, wine business, as well as knowing the various wines and wine regions throughout the world.
The tasting component requires us to be able to blindly taste wine to identify various characteristics such as appearance, aromas, taste and then use this sensory information to deduce the wine varietal, region and quality of the wine.
This takes lots of practice tasting wines from all over the world, but I think I’m up to the task!
The Diploma Level is divided into five sections and I must pass each section before I can move on to the next. Once I pass those five parts (fingers crossed), then I am required to complete a research assignment on a specified wine related topic. To complete the entire program can take as little as 18 months to complete, but they allow up to 3 years for completion.
It’s an exciting journey to be starting and I’ll try to check-in once a week or every couple of weeks to share insight I’ve gained–or how wrong I was on one of the tastings.
I already know that approaching wine with a humble heart opens up so much more in every taste. So I plan to forge ahead, one step at a time and let the adventure take me to new and exciting places inside the incredible world of wine!
And who knows? Maybe my story will inspire you to begin your own journey with wine and maybe discover how it is so much more than a beverage!
Week 1- Holy #$%&*
The first week of this WSET Diploma process started with a bang!
The first 5-week section is all about wine production– which is almost entirely theory. What I’ve often said about learning wine is that it requires you to learn about a variety of subjects-agriculture, geography, geology, enology, science, cultures, laws, language, etc, etc.. As you can probably see from that list, wine is very nuanced, and every layer of it is influenced by its origins.
For instance, much of the focus this week is on the vine, which brings in the fields of botany and agriculture. But we’re also learning about soil types, which is geology. Plus, weather and how weather impacts the vines and grape growing.
The first assignment is to decide what two varietals I want to grow– one white and one red– and where I want to grow them. These choices are required to be justified with the facts learned from the week.
It would be too easy for me to choose to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Sonoma, since I know this region and these grapes. But I really want to challenge myself, and so I knew picking grapes grown in a region that makes up my back yard might make things too easy. (Well. That might not be exactly true, but you get what I mean!)
Thus, I chose to grow Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon in Clare Valley, Australia.
I’m fascinated to learn more about the Southern Hemisphere growing seasons, which are opposite of here. It’s an entirely different world “down under,” which will force me to open myself up to something different and brand new, and for me, that’s pretty exciting!
Plus…I’ve never been to Australia so in addition to expanding my mind, my second justification for learning about it is that, clearly I’ll need to visit!
Week 2-The Tasting Portion
While I mentioned that most of the Wine Production Section is theory based, they do encourage us to do weekly tastings so that we get comfortable with the SAT: Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine.
Each week WSET suggests the specific wines we should sample and do tasting notes and choose these wines systematically to help illustrate the lessons from that week.
For instance, the first week the recommendation was a high-quality Burgundian Red and a high-quality Pinot Noir from another region to illustrate the impact of natural factors like climate and soil on the wine- or what is often referred to as terroir.
“Terroir is the belief that the place where grapes are grown and wine is made imposes a character on that wine. Idea starts with the soil in which vines are grown, but also encompasses the influence of the environment, the elevation, the angle toward the sun and the people who tend to the vines and make the wine.”—as defined by the WSET
The two wines mentioned above, while made from the same grape variety to make a high-quality wine have different characteristics. For instance, a Pinot Noir from Bourgogne is known to have more earthy characteristics and be lighter body than one made in Sonoma County that will be fuller body with more red fruit characteristics.
This week, we are asked to taste a Pinot Grigio versus a Pinot Gris to help illustrate how human influences and culture can affect wine style. Both of these wines are made from the same grape just called something different because of where they are from.
Pinot Grigio from Italy is often called a “simple wine,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is because of the way the grape grows in Northern Italy and because the winemakers do very little to the wine. Whereas Pinot Gris, from Alsace is often made to be off-dry, meaning it has just a hint of sweetness. They are often aged it in older French oak for a few months which adds depth and texture so this not a simple wine. Same grape, but different wines because of how the way the wine was made.
Such a fun tasting exercise! Although you didn’t get to taste the wine with me, I hope this gives you an idea of how the same wine varietal can have very different characteristics. In fact, it might be enlightening for you to duplicate this tasting exercise to continue your own wine journey.
Until next time, cheers!
Week 3: Wine Geekiness
I’m a bit delayed in my blog content, but I didn’t want to be remiss in continuing to share this educational journey because although it is challenging and time-consuming, it is a magnificently fun, illuminating and invaluable experience!
In a previous post, I mentioned my proposal for a group assignment included making Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon in Clare Valley, Australia. Well, based on everyone’s proposals we were grouped with others who had similar interests. Thus, for the last couple of weeks myself plus three classmates have been creating a plan to make premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Mornington Peninsula, Australia.
I don’t want to bore you with my wine geekiness about this, but if you want to nerd out with me I thought it would be fun to share a little about chardonnay and why the climate of Mornington Peninsula suits growing this grape to make a good quality Chardonnay wine.
Mornington Peninsula has a cool to moderate maritime climate. This is beneficial for Chardonnay grapes because they are a low acid grape and late into the ripening season grapes lose acid as sugar accumulation increases. If this region had a warm climate it could cause the grapes to lose acid faster, potentially before the grapes were fully ripe. If this happened the overall quality of the grapes would be compromised. Mornington Peninsula’s milder summers help the chardonnay grapes ripen fully while retaining their natural acidity, which allows for a higher quality wine to be made.
I find knowing that to be super cool, because then you learn to use that type of knowledge to taste wine and deduct where it’s from and its quality. Cool, right?
Stay tuned for the next post, when I’ll share a momentous new wine discovery!
Week 4: Wine Discovery WOW!
I think one of the reasons I fell in love with wine is because of those moments when a wine transcends beyond the sense of smell and taste to consume your entire being. A wine that makes you pause and reflect. These occasions are rare, thus worthy of sharing!
One of the wines we were required to taste as part of the WSET tasting component was a Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG from Italy. First, let me tell you what a Recioto is…
Valpolicella is the region it comes from in Northern Italy and it’s made predominantly from the Corvina grape. If you know Amarone, it’s the same grape that makes Amarone. The grapes for both wines are dried after they’ve been harvested, which concentrates the sugar in the grapes. Fermentation of the wine for Recioto creates a sweet, full body dessert-like wine.
I typically do not drink sweet wine because they are too sweet and often too high of alcohol to be enjoyable to me. Therefore, I was somewhat dreading tasting this wine, but it’s required to know all wine styles. The sip had barely touched my tongue, when I began to experience ecstasy…honestly that’s the only word to express my feeling. This wine was balanced with sweetness and depth of flavor–dried red fruits like strawberry and red cherry, plus notes of vanilla, chocolate, coffee, almond. All these flavors continued to linger on my palate for minutes as I just sat and savored in stillness.
It was not an easy wine to find, nor was it inexpensive, but it was truly worth the experience. The only thing missing was a companion to share it with.
Seek and savor these moments!
Pivoting and Life Lessons
I realize you haven’t heard from me in awhile about my WSET Level 4 Diploma journey. That’s because, I was studying a lot more than I was writing about studying. Once the on-line class ended I had about four weeks to study for the first exam. However, due to increasing restrictions and closures all throughout northern California, which is where I would have had to travel back to in order to take the exam, I deferred until March 2021. This decision was certainly not made lightly because in “normal” times you can only defer for extreme circumstances, like a death in your family.
I find a lot of joy and satisfaction from crossing things off of a to-do list, so this very big to-do continuing to take up space on my list is causing me some unneeded anxiety. But 2020 continues to be a year all about pivoting. In fact, we even labeled one of our January Crush Collection wines with the name, Pivot, because it’s become sort-of a motto for the Major Crush Team.
Moving forward– I will begin the second portion of the WSET Level 4 Diploma in January, which is Wine Business and it will start with a five-week on-line class. Then I’ll take both exams in March—and the to-do list continues to grow.
This recognition of my absolute hatred for to-dos on a to-do list has prompted me to create a New Year’s intention—to accept there will always be to-do’s. The goal is to prioritize better and not get behind on the to-do’s. How to accomplish this, well I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I’ll begin with dividing the list into daily to-do’s, weekly to-do’s and monthly to-do’s.
I guess I strayed from the topic, but this educational journey actually ended up providing me with a life lesson.
Until next time, Cheers!