So You Want to be a WSET Diploma Student: FAQs, Figures, and Insights
As a WSET Diploma graduate, I’ve received plenty of questions concerning the process of going through the program, and I usually choose to meet up with people to divulge what I experienced. However, in an order to make this knowledge more accessible, I decided that a public post might be helpful to answer many of the repeat questions. I’d like to make it known that all of this information is purely based on my experience, and it might be practical to ask other students the same questions to compile a more well-rounded response.
Q: Where did you elect to take the WSET Diploma course and why did you make that decision?
A: I took mine through Philly Wines (link) in Philadelphia, PA, as at the time there was no school that offered the Diploma in Texas. Honestly, I chose the school because it seemed to be the cheapest option and because many of my acquaintances were enrolled there, too. It’s definitely less expensive than some of the other approved program providers, like Grape Experience or Napa Valley Wine Academy, but the drawback was that I really didn’t receive a whole lot of support from my school as a distance student (perhaps this was due to perceived lack of accountability). I also found the online lectures a snooze fest to listen to, something that I also heard from numerous students. Nevertheless, I probably should have asked more questions and have gotten to know the instructors virtually. Philly Wines definitely did present presentations that were very up-to-date and instrumental in the compilation of my study materials.
I had to fly to Philadelphia every time there was an exam to take the tests in person...Everyone does. This adds up (see cost analysis below). But the great thing is that there are plenty of Air Bnbs in the area (Rittenhouse Square) that won’t break your bank.
Q: What is your opinion of in-person classes vs. online classes vs. home study courses?
To my knowledge, there are three methods to take these courses:
In-Person Classes: You can attend classes in-person if you live in a major city where Diploma is offered (these cities include New York, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Tampa). I am an in-person learner, so I HIGHLY recommend this way of learning, as you’ll have firsthand access to experienced educators (usually Masters of Wine, MW candidates, or seasoned wine educators) and will be able to taste all required wines as a group. The regular meetings also keep the information fresh and hold you accountable to actually keeping up with the material, which is difficult to do when you’re a distance learner. This is definitely more expensive, but the main costs center around the wines, which you’d have to source, anyway.
Online Classes: WSET offers online classes (in the US, you have to sign up for these classes via your school, NOT WSET directly) that provide you with virtual support and weekly assignments. I signed up for online courses for D1 and D2, but personally did not find them helpful. Some of the projects seemed irrelevant to me; what’s more, the grand majority of these projects were group-oriented and there was no guarantee that the other group members would complete their assignments, so there was a risk that the work would not be fairly allocated.
Home Study Course: My school, Philly Wines, offers a Home Study option. I’m unsure if other schools do the same, but I’ll still talk about my experience. A lot of this material must be learned by you, and you alone. It’s hard to maintain focus unless you’re a wizard at creating a study schedule and sticking to it, but it can be done.
Q: What are the costs associated with the WSET Diploma? How can I cut these costs?
Honestly, this depends on a multitude of factors, including your chosen school, whether you’re commuting for exams/classes, wine costs, and exam retakes. The costs of the units are surprisingly the cheapest part, and range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. At Philly Wine, I elected to choose the home study options (see above) and paid much less (a few hundred to few thousand dollars less, in fact), but then had to front my own wine costs. Since you must practice sampling wine for Units 3, 4, and 5, these wine costs can cripple you financially unless you can cost-share or obtain free samples. This is where having a career in wine or a study group really comes in handy.
I did the math, and with the costs of 2 online units, 4 home study units, 3 retake fees, 7 trips from Austin to Philadelphia and back, lodging and food fees, and wine costs, I spent about $13,000- $15,000 over 2.5 years. This also takes into account receiving 3 scholarships along the way.
Q: What is the breakdown of the material and exams? Do you recommend taking the exams in a certain order?
The year I graduated from the program, the curriculum changed slightly, but I still understand the overview. There are 6 units that you must pass in order to achieve a Diploma in Wines. They are as follows:
D1: Wine production: This covers viticulture and vinification. You must pass an open-response essay exam that is 90 minutes in length.
D2: Wine Business: True to its name, this unit covers the types of businesses involved in wine production as well as wine marketing. The exam is 1 hour and consists of more open response questions. Unless I’m mistaken, WSET will give you a relevant prompt to study a month before the actual exam. Mine, for example, was “social media in the wine world.”
D3: Wines of the World: Yikes, the big one. This is the unit everyone fears, and for good reason: it’s massive. This unit covers ALL still, non-fortified wines of the world. Yes, of the whole world. The exam is now split into 2 days (how fortunate, as I had to take mine all in one day). Day one is a 3-hr and 20 min exam consisting of two parts: one 2-hour paper and one 80-minute paper. Day two, on the other hand, is a two-part blind tasting examination of 12 wines to be completed in 3 hours (two papers of 1½ hours).
D4: Sparkling Wines: This is a fun one, covering everything from sparkling wine production methods to wine regions. The exam is not so bad: 90 minutes, half of which are dedicated to open-response questions, while the other half is a blind tasting of three sparkling wines.
D5: Fortified Wines: See D4, but with a blind of fortifieds!
D6: Independent Research Assignment: This is like your mini dissertation, a research paper of 3,000 words. There will be a bi-annual prompt, and if you don’t like the topic in the spring, you can check out the fall topic, or just keep waiting for one that you like.
You MUST pass D1 in order to move on to any of the other units, and you can complete the rest in any order that you so choose. I HIGHLY recommend completing all of these units in order. Unit 3 is known as “the beast” compared to the other units, but I think that you should just tackle it, as the sparkling and fortified wine exams are laughably easy by comparison. And then, once you have compiled a great deal of knowledge, you can excel at your Independent Research Assignment.
I have known a great many people, myself included, who have doubled (even tripled, even quadrupled) up on exams, especially the little ones like sparkling and fortified. Do I recommend this if you work full-time? No. Is it achievable? Sure. I’m sure that if you have plenty of time, no kids, no job, and no life, you could feasibly pull it off. Alas, I was not successful.
For more details on the weighting and curriculum requirements, visit the WSET site here.
Q: What was the benefit of taking this course?
This is a tricky question, and depends on what profession you’re in. Personally, I’m an educator, so Diploma prepped me to be capable of teaching WSET Level 3, which was always something I wanted to do. Obviously, it greatly expanded my knowledge on wine and landed me a few speaker gigs at wine conferences. Monetarily, after I passed, I increased my consultation and private wine education rates. HOWEVER (and this is MY experience), I don’t think I ever landed a job solely because I had this certification. I believe that professional experience is still crucial.
Don’t take Diploma (or any other high-level course) because you want prestige, respect or more money. Do it because you love wine and want to augment your role as a mentor. Why learn all of these things if you can’t pass them on?
Q: How does WSET Diploma compare to WSET Level 3?
Hah. My favorite thing to say to people is that WSET Level 3 is like training for a 5K, and Diploma is like training for a marathon, if that marathon also included an obstacle course. You can feasibly knock out Level 3 in a few months, while Diploma can take years. Prepare for anything and everything to get in the way: failure, life, whatever.
I was blissfully naive, so I didn’t prepare myself enough for the struggle. So when my timeline was tampered with, I threw a fit and was really hard on myself. Don’t be like me.
Q: Why would I take WSET Diploma over going for my Court of Masters Advanced Exam?
I have a few thoughts on this. First: one of my favorite things about WSET is that you can just apply for the programs if you feel like you’re ready to tackle them, whereas the Court requires you to apply to sit for each exam, and only a select few are chosen. Some people wait YEARS to take their Advanced exams, which to me is a shame. Some even claim that the selection process is political, but I cannot prove this.
Next, the Court of Master Sommeliers is much more service-oriented than WSET, thus their exam includes a service portion, during which you must wait on a handful of Master Sommeliers. If you are in the hospitality industry, I’d say that this element is probably very useful. However, if you are in a different sector of the industry, or aren’t in the industry at all, you may want to choose WSET, as they omit the service portion and focus more on the business of wine.
Lastly, after speaking to many CMS candidates, I learned that the Court has no set curriculum. That is to say, they have no general outline of what you need to learn when it comes to theory. I’m sure that viticulture, vinification, and wine regions are a good place to start, but what about other details? Some people think that this lack of structure is very “sink or swim”, and I’m inclined to agree. I felt very comfortable with WSET’s approach, which was to include very detailed Specification documents that gave concrete outlines. You had to do all of the research sure, but at least you knew what you had to learn.
Q: Nobody in my city or town is taking Diploma, nor do I have access to a study group. Can I pass this on my own?
Oh, darling. Yes, yes you can. I did it. I had nobody close to me (there were a few people that I connected with occasionally who lived 1-2 hrs away), but the majority of my studies were conducted in my apartment, head down, earphones in. It was lonely, but doable.
My suggestion is to connect with others on Guildsomm.com, start discussion threads, and form a community. You could even ask to form a virtual study group!
Q: Can you switch schools once you stick with one?
You can. The school doesn’t necessarily like or condone it (at least, mine didn’t), but you can switch if you find that you might prefer another option.
I truly hope that this was helpful. If you have differing opinions or experiences, I’d love to hear them!