You’ve been thinking about taking a wine course for some time, but for whatever reason you’ve been putting it off. Well now is the best time of the year to take a wine class. Here’s why:
- It’s spring, the time of year for outdoor parties, picnics and outings and knowing something about wines makes all of these activities better. Advancing your wine knowledge gives you an opportunity to take an ordinary event and add something special. You’ll be able to introduce friends to wines like Gavi, Bandol, Tavel, Rueda or Zweigelt with the confidence of knowing that the particular lesser known varietal or place is absolutely perfect for the warmer weather occasion.
- Spring is a season of new beginnings, a time to challenge yourself and learn something different. Wine is a great subject around which to build new skills and knowledge. Moreover, its wine – not rocket science or economics! You can choose to go as deep or as broad as you like in the subject without thinking you have to master the entire world of wine. And you get to incorporate science and history into the study of wine while giving your taste buds new sensations.
- If you work in the industry or want to get into a wine business, a class will fill in missing bricks in your knowledge foundation at a time when consumers are looking for something different to drink. You can speak with more confidence and authority about new styles and places and help other people break out of traditional wine habits.
- It’s fun! A good wine class is entertaining and involves group discussion and, of course, tasting. The social aspect alone exposes you to new people and ideas.
So which class is right for you? Grape Experience suggests WSET Level 1 or Level 2 in wine. Both are beginner classes, with Level 2 going into a little more depth than Level 1. These are generalist, structured classes geared to give participants an engaging way to build wine knowledge.
We have WSET Level 1 and Level 2 starting this June on weekends in the Bay Area. You can see the schedule and enrollment links here:
So, go ahead and take the plunge. Sign up for any wine course that seems like a good fit for you. It will make your spring and summer incredibly memorable.
People constantly ask me how they can become a wine educator (often hoping to teach WSET courses). My first response is to ask, “why do you want to teach?” The answers fall into five categories:
- I want to share what I know with others
- I think it is the logical thing to do once I get my certification, isn’t it?
- I think it would be fun
- I want to help other people grow their wine knowledge, be more confident and have more enjoyment with wine
Answers 1-4 always make me suspicious. Often, people get a certificate and just want to announce to others that they have achieved something special. These people are often the worst teachers because they pontificate rather than coach and support students.
Teaching can be fun, but it is also hard work that involves preparation, patience and consistent re-evaluation for continuous improvement. The goal is to help other people learn and grow in a way that builds knowledge, skills and the confidence to use them. Rarely is this just telling a student what they should know but rather helping them tell you what they have learned.
A good teacher balances being an entertainer, manager and knowledge sharer. Some people are natural teachers who inspire other people to want to know more, while also keeping a class on topic and on time. They can easily read individuals in the classroom and what their learning needs are. For other people developing good teaching skills takes more work. While still others probably are just not suited for teaching – even if they know a lot about wine (by the way, there is no shame in this, as wine knowledge and teaching ability are unrelated).
If you do think you might like to be a wine educator there are some steps, you can take to build your skills and see if you are suited to the role. I suggest starting small with the process here:
- Teach Others Informally
Start by hosting a fun in-home wine tasting party. Pick 3-5 wines you like and create a plan on what you want to tell your friends about them. Think about what they might want to know and what their mood and mind set will be (likely to have fun, learn something without being overwhelmed and to enjoy each other’s company). What nuggets of information can you give them that they will be able to see when they taste the wine and then use in the future? Then ask for honest feedback – what did they like, what did they think you could have done better? Also, be kind to yourself. You will be nervous and that is OK. Try to do these wine tasting events regularly until you feel you and your audienceis really enjoying them.
- Ask to Train Other People at Work
Regardless of whether you work in the wine industry, look for opportunities to train co-workers, new hires or educate customers in whatever you do. Create session plans for formal training and find means to gauge whether your audience was engaged and learned. For consumers, think about how you build a relationship. For any person you want to get good at empathizing, understanding their needs and ability to understand new information.
- Teach a Fun Consumer Wine Course
Think about a one-night short wine class that you might enjoy teaching – but more importantly, that you think individuals might sign up for. Plan out how the session would go down to the minute (build in time for extended tasting). Then seek out an adult education center and propose it to them. Have a budget for the wine and be prepared at first to possibly offer your time for free. Once you have a scheduled course, teach it first to a few friends or family so you can get the timing down and work out kinks that didn’t show up on paper. Think about teachers you enjoyed learning from. What did they do? Can you emulate their approach in any way? Keep teaching these classes and get and be open to feedback – It is the only way you can improve.
- Co-Teach a WSET or Other Certification Class
When you feel that you have developed good teaching skills – that students are engaged by your style, that you can control a room and manage time and that participants are actively learning from you – ask a WSET APP or other wine certification program if you can teach part of an entry level course. When the opportunity arrives do your homework. Ask about the class dynamic, the classroom and review the session plan with whoever you are sharing the class with. Then practice at home before the actual session. After the class, think about what went well and what did not. Then speak honestly with your co-teacher and express what you felt and really listen to what they thought.
Be honest with yourself about both your skills and your enjoyment level when teaching. If you don’t really love doing it, your class/audience won’t be engaged or happy either. You may find that the fun non-certification classes are more what you like doing. You might find the whole process is just not for you. Or you may find that you can inspire other people in a way that makes both you and them really happy!
In January and February, all of Grape Experience educators – including myself – attended day-long workshops to learn about the new WSET Diploma in Wine that’s being introduced in August. There are some major changes to the current Diploma program in both teaching approach and in content. It was critical that all WSET educators understand the intentions behind the new Diploma in order to be able to teach the new program successfully.
I am incredibly excited about the changes, which I think will greatly aid students in their approach to studying for and taking the rigorous set of Diploma exams. First of all, the new Diploma will be more interactive: there will be an online textbook and an extensive library of resources for students to access. The classroom experience will be less lecture-based with more dialogue between educators and students – an opportunity for us all to learn from each other and also to put our understanding into practice.
As educators at Grape Experience, we have always tried to make clear how best to approach the Diploma exams in order to pass them, but it has not always been easy. The key to the Diploma is to apply your knowledge rather than simply state the facts. That hasn’t changed, but WSET now makes that aspect much more explicit.
The Diploma is now logically organized into two approaches. The first two units, D1 and D2, are classed as “foundation units.” As the name suggests, these provide the foundation for the rest of the exams. D1 is focused on wine production – i.e. the vineyard, the winery, and post-fermentation. This used to be assessed by a multiple-choice exam, but now it consists of open-response questions so that students can demonstrate their understanding. This new exam approach should help students better retain and apply viticulture and winemaking knowledge in later units.
D2 is the business of wine, which also consists of open-response questions and no longer has an exam based on a pre-issued case study scenario. Both of these two units must be taken before going into the later units to ensure that students have a foundation of knowledge which they can apply when answering questions about the wines of the world.
The other three units focus on production knowledge. D3 is wines of the world, similar to the current Unit 3, while D4 is sparkling wines and D5 is fortified wines. D3 hasn’t significantly changed, except for one major aspect: WSET’s Global Director of Education Karen Douglas emphasized that students are given more time for both tasting and theory so that the best students have the opportunity to convey their knowledge and understanding. The sparkling and fortified wine exams are now much more in line with D3, in that they have more complete, open-response questions rather than simple statements that “previously invited students to dump their knowledge.”
Finally, students finish their studies with D6, a research paper of 3,000 words focusing on current issues in the world of wine – a natural conclusion from the previous five units.
For students already taking the Diploma, there are some important things to note:
- all previous passes from exams already taken stand: you do not need to retake any exam you have already passed.
- Karen stressed that the WSET has worked intently to make the changes as transitional as possible – taking the new courses and exams will not be an upheaval; in fact, there will be a lot more material and resources to help you pass future exams.
- the online textbook will be available in July. It will contain information you have already studied, but it is worth going to as a resource and for review.
- there is no longer a spirits element to the Diploma. Existing students who have passed the spirits exam are able to earn the Diploma in Wine and Spirits. If you haven’t taken the spirits exam, then you are able to earn the Diploma in Wine.
The work that the WSET education team has put into the new Diploma program is amazing and represents a significant improvement in all aspects of the current course. I anticipate these changes will give the students a much better chance of passing the Diploma while still maintaining its rigorous standards. The WSET have put a great deal of time and effort to create the new Diploma, and I think they have done a superb job.
Look for the new Diploma to be first offered for D1 Winemaking the weekend of August 3-4 in San Francisco and shortly thereafter in Boston.
2019 will mark the start of several new WSET Spirits programs. The renowned education company has created a suite of Spirits only courses focused on today’s drinks business and the trends shaping it. With three Levels (1-3) in Spirits there is a course for everyone. Grape Experience will host a Level 2 Spirits course in San Francisco February 2-3 and you can find out more at https://www.grapeexperience.com/events/spirits-level-2-san-francisco/?doing_wp_cron=1542590186.1309440135955810546875
The interview below with WSET USA’s Spirits Development Manager, Rob McCaughy brings to life how these classes were shaped.
Q&A with Rob McCaughy, WSET USA Business Development Manager – Spirits & Sake
With more than 20 years experience working in the hospitality and beverage industries throughout Europe, Asia and the USA, Rob McCaughy has a wealth of knowledge of the drinks business. In his current role, he is responsible for the continued growth of WSET’s spirits and sake qualifications within the USA. Here we catch up with him for an in-depth look at the WSET’s new Level 3 Spirits course, slated to roll out in 2019.
How does this new course fit into spirits trends today?
Beverage professionals have had access to great objective education in the wine and beer sectors for some time but the spirits segment of the industry has traditionally been dominated by brand-led initiatives. The spirits sector has been on an upward trajectory for many years now and more and more beverage professionals are looking for impartial spirits education to deepen and broaden their knowledge and understanding.
We currently have a spirits module in our Diploma qualification and beyond that our levels 1 & 2 Spirits certifications provide a great entry point. However, there is a gap in the market for an in-depth spirits focused program and we feel that the Level 3 Spirits qualification will fill that void. The spirits module of the Diploma will be removed from August 2019 to coincide with the launch of this course – which we hope will provide the missing link for those who have completed Level 2 Spirits and are looking to progress further.
What spirits are covered?
The content will be split into two sections: depth and breadth.
Section 1/Depth: Students will need to be able to describe in detail the key characteristics of the core global spirits categories as well as understand decisions made at every stage of production, the impact those decisions will have and explain why a spirit has a certain style and quality. In the examination these spirits will be assessed using both multiple choice and short answer questions.
The spirits covered in this section are: Bourbon, Rye Whiskey (US), Tennessee Whiskey, Scotch, Cognac, Armagnac, Caribbean Rum, Tequila, Mezcal, Vodka and Gin.
This is not an attempt by WSET to say these spirits are somehow superior to others. In order to dive deep into the ‘why’ of spirits production we needed to select a small number of spirits in order to make the course manageable. They also needed to be globally accessible and we feel that the selection above achieves this.
Section 2/Breadth: These are the spirits students will only need to know about – the key facts and styles to be assessed using multiple choice. For some, a number of these spirits are personally or professionally important.
The spirits covered are: Irish Whiskey, Canadian Whisky, Japanese Whisky, other whiskies, Grappa, Pisco (Chile and Peru), Brandy de Jerez, South African brandy, European fruit spirits, Sotol, other agave spirits, Cachaça, other rums, Baijiu, Shōchū, Soju, flavored vodka, Genever, spiced rum, flavored whiskey, aquavit, aniseed spirits, liqueurs, bitters and aromatized wines.
What are the differences between the different levels?
All of our qualifications are tiered to develop key competencies in students. Level 1 courses are designed to provide a foundation of knowledge and facts. At Level 2, the student begins to expand upon those foundations and begins to develop a broader understanding and the ability to compare and contrast as well as describe key processes and procedures. For both of these levels a multiple-choice assessment is sufficient to ensure that the key learning outcomes have been met. Once a student reaches Level 3 we begin to develop some of those key critical thinking skills to be able to not only understand and explain the ‘how’ but also the ‘why’. This is difficult if not impossible to assess through multiple-choice testing so short answer theory questions are required to show that these skills have been acquired.
What sort of trade is WSET Spirits geared towards: retailers, bartenders, enthusiasts?
There is a course for everyone, whether an enthusiast just looking for a framework to underpin their enjoyment, someone just starting their journey in the spirits business, or an industry veteran. By focusing on developing core competencies and skills in the student rather than solely concentrating on product knowledge and rote learning, our courses are designed to give students not only a level of understanding but also the confidence to make qualitative assessments.
If you’re a distiller, is this a course you should take?
With the proliferation of craft distilleries emerging in recent years there has never been a greater need for courses that will not only provide an understanding of the benchmark expressions within a category but also the tasting skills necessary to make qualitative assessments. We have had a great response from the distilling community and I certainly see our Level 3 course has been a valuable tool for any serious distiller. Most professionals tend to live in a particular bubble or lane, focusing on one particular category. By providing an understanding of processes involved across all categories our Level 3 course provides opportunities for distillers to tweak and hone their best practices as well as to innovate.
Does it cover cocktails? Is it more production or service based?
One of our learning outcomes for Level 2 is an understanding of how spirits are best served and cocktail applications as well as the key considerations when making a balanced cocktail.
At Level 3 we are really focusing on four key competencies:
1) Develop detailed knowledge of the spirits of the world
2) Provide accurate descriptions of complex processes
3) Ability to explain why certain processes are required and how they affect a spirit’s style and quality
4) Ability to reasonably and confidently assess the quality level of a spirit
Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular white wine varietals, especially since New Zealand producers started exporting their crisp fruit driven styles in the late 1980s. American Sauvignon Blancs are often labeled “Fume Blanc.” This branding was started by Robert Mondavi, who in a reference to the Smoky Pouilly-Fume Sauvignon of the Loire, added oak to his wines. These days, however, the name “Fume Blanc” can be used as a label for any Sauvignon Blanc wine – whether it sees oak or not.
I would guess that most people who love Sauvignon Blanc prefer the crisp, pure fruit driven style. Oak often can get in the way of the delicate aromas. Concours Mondial de Sauvignon decided to explore how, if at all to use oak in this varietal wine and their findings make for interesting reading: http://cmsauvignon.com/en/are-sauvignon-aromas-incompatible-with-oak/
This article is great reading for anyone interested in the science of winemaking. WSET Level 3 and Diploma students in particular should take a look as well.
In my wine tasting journeys I have found that most oaked Sauvignon suffers from too heavy a hand. There are some incredible Dagueneau wines that see a touch of oak from Pouilly-Fume. Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc from Napa – of course along with Mondavi Fume Blanc – show the American style of oaked Sauvignon at its best and are worth sampling.