1WineDude TV Episode 29: Certifiable (or “How–and Which–Wine Certifications Really Matter”)

Vinted on March 16, 2011 binned in 1WineDude TV, best of, going pro

Do wine certifications really matter?  And which ones give you the most bang for the buck?  Watch to find out (well, to find out my views on it, anyway).  The moral of the story: experience trumps all, but certs. are a great way to enhance experience, gain knowledge, and help build that all-important network.

Mentioned in this episode:






  • ConstanceC

    Hi Joe-

    Having just (finally) taken my Advanced WSET exam, I've given this topic a lot of thought the past few weeks.

    At the end of the day, traveling to the regions and tasting a *shit load* of wine as you said is definitely the best way – listening to the background information, exploring wine and the topics you're really interested etc. However, most people don't have the opportunity to do this (myself included… at least not on a large scale) so that is where the idea of school comes in.

    I'm not so familiar with the other programs (though I haven't heard great things about others,) but here are my issues with the WSET:

    1. You only need a 55% to pass… at a 55% you do not know your stuff. Obviously the goal is to pass with distinction, but, unfortunately, much like many college degrees people think that just because they have earned the certificate, they are automatically entitled to claim themselves as knowledgeable.

    2. The information in the book is sometimes out-dated/about-to-change/misleading

    3. The information in the book is largely skewed toward specific countries. Call be biased since I work with many of the "underdogs," if you will, but if you're really going to KNOW about wine you have to know about ALL of the wine regions… not just what grapes they have in Chile and every detail about France (unless, of course, you're specialty and/or only interest IS France. However, that being said, to fully understand any region I think it's important to learn every region with some depth in order to make proper comparisons, etc.

    4. I'm just not a big fan of their specific style. I agree the tasting portion is good to some extent, but students were blatantly told they were wrong when describing flavors they were tasting and I'd venture to say it's very hard to be WRONG. Wine is too objective. Also the focus on the tasting portion was often mishmashed, unfocused and really brought no connection the information you just learned in the class/chapter other than you knew that these wines were from that place.

    I agree that they are good because they force you to study and if you are honestly interested in learning rather just receiving an accreditation because they are becoming more and more widely valued now. I think it's also important to note that the advanced exam is just the first step (I'll be the first to admit that the more I learn the more I realize I don't know)… though at the end of the day it depends upon your personal goal and/or interests. I can't speak for the diploma, I know it's a much more in-depth program and my hope is that if you're going to spend the thousands of dollars to complete yet another course you'd really be into learning everything.

    Just my two cents…

    • 1WineDude

      That's a pretty valuable $0.02, Constance! :)

      WSET isn't perfect, for sure. And it's very, very British. But I've had a different experience in my WSET studies, and never heard anyone told they were wrong in tasting, just guided as to how to describe the tastes in the WSET "way."

      As for the 55% – I agree it's too low, but we also have to take into account that the exams are not easy.


  • Jerry

    Great Vlog Joe- I'll definitely have to look into this certification thing. Thanks!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jerry!

  • RichardPF

    55%???? Frankly, that is ridiculous, and it doesn't matter how hard the test may be. So, in short, it is ok to know only about half the information you should know. How are people supposed to respect that? I actually had some respect for the WSET prior to this, but such a low passing grade makes it seem that the test is geared more toward making money than actually training wine knowledgeable people. You probably could learn just as much through reading a couple intro wine books. If the WSET is to mean anything, its passing grade should be much higher than 55%.

    And I talked before with Constance about one of her WSET sherry classes that claimed "vintage" sherry did not exist. Guess they have never actually been to the Sherry region and seen vintage sherries.

    • 1WineDude

      Richard – my point is not to defend WSET here, but one instance of someone being a douchebag (as seems the case in Constance's experience with her WSET instructors) does not obviate their entire curriculum as the feeder school for the MW.

      About the 55% thing – be careful about making too hasty a judgment based on that. The Advanced exam requires 55% to pass on EACH of THREE totally different parts. When I took it, that included a multiple-guess, essay and wine tasting. Let's say you successfully bluff your way through 55% of the multiple choice, however unlikely that is due tot he difficult questions (but possible because it's a finite answer set) There's almost no way you can get 55% on the essay and the tasting if you don't know the material and the WSET tasting methodology. NO F*CKING WAY – I can confidently say that because I took it and barely passed the tasting myself (I did better on the essay and ok on the multiple choice). So it's not like selecting all "Cs" and through total chance passing the exam.

      Now, I will TOTALLY agree that 55% is on the low side even if the exam is difficult (which it is for Advanced and very much so for the Diploma exams). But saying that it means nothing because of the 55% threshold is hitting the exam with too broad a sword.Nothing is perfect and none of these certs, organization or exams is perfect; but totally disrespecting the WSET based on that one item is going overboard. Research the stuff first, take some sample questions, *then* decide based on some investigative experience if it deserves respect or not.

  • Joe Herrig

    great info, Joe. You clearly saw all the banter lately on Twitter.

    First off, 55% is low, but wasn't CSW 60%? Oh well, some folks just don't test well, so some multiple choice questions perhaps isn't the best ultimate evaluation of their knowledge.

    Telling someone the aromas are flat wrong is extraordinarily British. I guess. Is that British?

    Seriously, though, I've been investigating what to do post-CSW. I think all 3 definitely have their strengths, so I'll probably try to get around to all eventually. I placed into WSET Advanced, so I'd like to bang that out once I can find a damn place in Atlanta that administers it (haven't found one yet). Have you looked into CWE? It seems pretty hard-core.

    Cheers! joe @suburbanwino (no need to stylize the "s" when not a work. yay!)

    • Colorado Wine Press

      The CSW passing score is 75%. The 60% you speak of is the overall pass rate rumor that is floating around the Interwebs. I too am deciding on whether to do CWE or WSET next.

      Dude, you beat me to the punch (well, as much of a collective punch my 20 readers pack) on this as I was about to write about certifications after realizing that I never did a post-CSW exam post. I'll try not to plagiarize you too much ;)

      PS – You don't wear your pin?!?!?! I actually found mine under a stack of papers on my desk last week. I think it is back under a different pile of papers now…

      • Colorado Wine Press

        The Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory, Certified and Advanced exams all have passing rates of 60% but the Master Sommelier exam is 75%; same as CSW and CWE (well that one is 76%). Check out my piece on certifications: http://goo.gl/e1YAZ

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, CWP!

  • RichardPF

    My comments were primarily about the 55%, and I really commented little about the actual content of the course. I don't think I am making a hasty judgment. And I never said it meant "nothing," just that I have less respect for it because of the low hurdle to pass. You essentially can get a "F" in the course and still pass. If that isn't ridiculous, then I don''t know what is. The WSET 2 test is only 50 multiple choice questions, so that is not really that hard. The Advanced has only 4 short answers and a single wine to blind taste. Again, nothing I see as particularly difficult. So a 55% score won't impress me. Want a hard test? Take the Bar exam and then you'll understand a truly tough exam, and with a much higher grade needed to pass.

  • Mark Cochard

    Actually the Advanced now has 2 wines that must be tasted as well as a changed format. The candidate must now write a tasting note using the sytematic approach as opposed to using a marking key where you checked off aromas and flavors which were then marked according to the assessors marking key.
    This was done along with the addition of short answer essay as to better prepare students for the Diploma.
    If one gets a pass at 55% this person is no way prepared to go on and excel in the Diploma.
    An aside a friend took the Advanced and was so upset on her performance she was crying (she ended up with a B, she is now one of the few American woman MW's.

  • Mark Cochard

    Sorry the software is telling me my post is too long so here is part 2 of 3
    I have been through both WSET and SWE programs.I have not taken he CSW.
    There are 2 types of people who take the these exams. One it is for people who only want to pass not necessarily learn. I had several in my classes who were like this. The others are committed to learning as much as they possibly can. The standard line for the WSET Advanced Certificate is everything you need to know is in the book. That is all well and good, but I think students should learn as much as the can. In my experience with the advanced was to read supplemental information on each region, taking notes as I went so had a much stronger foundation then those who only read the book. I knew I was going to go to the diploma so everything I did was for the good.

    No one has ever been accused of knowing too little. To me all knowledge is good. I am often criticized for talking about topics that are not on the test, but I feel it gives a more well rounded learning experience. Joe correct me if I’m wrong, you have probable heard this as well.

  • Mark Cochard

    Post 3 of 3
    As far as the 55% rate I agree it is too low, but the exams are very challenging when you have to factor in the enormous amount of material that is covered in only 10 or so weeks, viticulture, vinification light wines of the world, fortified wine, sparkling wine and spirits. In comparison the CSW’s is up to 75% on the multiple choice exam for the CSW
    In my opinion The Advanced is much more difficult than the CSW.

    Full disclosure: I am a WSET Diploma instructor, WSET Certified Advanced Cert tasting Assessor, Member of the SWE's Board of Examiners for the CWE exam.

  • Mark Cochard

    Joe, Another comment I'm, not sure you covered as far as Court of Master Sommeliers vs the WSET/MW Path
    The Court tends to be more reliant on verbal testing especially at the MS level where the WSET/MW path is all written assessment. One thing I find particullaruy daunting is in the MS tasting exam, it is done live in front of 3 MS' and you have 6 minutes per wine to describe, identify region, grape variety and assess quality. MW has similar paramters, but it is written. In the Diploma you have 12 wines in two sesions and basically 10 minutes per wine to write your tasting note.

    Also you did not mention, but as you know Mary Ewing Mulligan is Executive Director of WSET programs in the U.S, past president of the Institute of Masters of Wine North America and a CWE as well as an MW.

  • RichardPF

    Hi Mark:
    Maybe I just have a very different view of what is a challenging test. But, when all of the info for that test generally comes from a single book, I don't really see that as especially difficult. Especially if you have 10 weeks to learn it. Plus, it would seem to me that the wine lovers taking the WSET may already have at least some background knowledge of wine.

  • Mark Cochard

    Richard, I'm not disagreeing with what you have said. You would be surprised how many people stuggle with the certification and the exams. They get increasingly more difficult and the passs rates go down proportionately.

    Just so you know where I am coming from. I am not teaching for money and money has nothing to do why I teach. It is an avocation not a vocation. Just to be even clearer I am not a shill for either organizatin and crticize when necessary. Remember no certification process is perfect and both the WSET and SWE are constantly trying to impove there progrgams. The SWE has made great strides in the past 10 years.

    I see you have a sake certification what was that certification process like.

    And finally perhaps the only way to find out how challenging it is is to sit for one of the certifications out there and see for yourself.

  • RichardPF

    I am not denigrating the content of the classes, just the low bar for passing the exams. Do you know percentage of exam takers pass at each WSET level? At 55%, I would assume the overall passing rate is fairly high, with some decrease at each higher level. I think it would be easy for the WSET to improve just by raising the passing grade to 65-70%. I have 3 different certifications: Sake, Spanish Wine Educator, & Wine Location Specialist. The sake & Spanish were 3 day courses, and the WLS was home study. All had multiple choice exams, and the Spanish wine had a blind tasting component too (i believe 6 wines). I believe the passing grade on all of them was closer to 70%, if not higher. On the sake exam, I scored the highest in my class. Honestly, I did not consider any of them particularly difficult but personally worthwhile for me due to the intense detail of the course. But I am also a lawyer, and the Bar was definitely a difficult test, with easily over a dozen books to study.

  • 1WineDude

    I'd love to see WSET officially come in and comment here on the passing % and discussion around that,, but I suspect they won't simply because they don't strike me as social-media savvy. sigh…

  • Mark Cochard

    Richard. I am not sure, I think the advanced is in the 60 to 70% range at best. Diploma is constantly evolving. Here is a link to the Examiner's report for 2009/ 2010 go to page 3 for the pass rates by section for the last 6 years. http://www.phillywine.com/wset/diploma/diplomaexa
    I have the Spanish wine educator certification as well. It was not difficult, but I already had a great base to start from. So you are an attorney, I often thought of what the bar was like when stuydying for the diploma with 6-7 books open at a time, falling asleep with my head in the books.

    Joe, I sent an email to a friend at the WSET in London asking him to stop by.

    • 1WineDude

      Mark – thanks as always! :)

  • Antony Moss

    It also occurred to me that there may be a cultural education difference here too. In the UK, 55% might be considered a 'C' grade, i.e. the candidate shows a basic understanding of the subject, though perhaps lacking flair, or depth or breadth of knowledge. The percentage scale we would use for grades in school and university would start at zero. (I'm just thinking of some comments regarding Robert Parkers 100 point scale starting at 50, being based on American high school grades). Please tell me if I'm wrong about this. Clearly if our grading started at 50%, then 55% would be pretty feeble!

    That's it for now!

  • Antony Moss

    Hi Joe

    Mark suggested I should drop by –so (full disclosure) I am the Research and Development Director for the WSET, with responsibility for syllabuses, study texts, educator support materials, and involved in setting and marking exam papers.

    Joe -I enjoyed your video blog –a balanced discussion of the various main offerings in the USA, and also some good thoughts on the value of studying for a certification (beyond simply getting another qualification).

    Antony Moss
    Research and Development Director, WSET.

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Antony – THANK YOU for chiming in!!! I’m quite happy to eat my own words about WSET’s social media savvy, and am glad to have you chime in anytime. Cheers!

  • Antony Moss

    Now, the 55% thing. Perhaps it would be worth explaining our philosophy regarding exams:

    The WSET's origin is serving the wine and spirits industries by identifying the core knowledge and skills that people working in the industries need, then creating training programs to help those people develop the required knowledge and skills. Our exams are there purely to check the appropriate level of knowledge/skill has been achieved. 55% might be regarded as a low pass mark, but as a couple of earlier posters have commented, this is not easy to achieve in a sufficiently tough exam. Particularly with the mini-essay parts of the exam, each mark must be won through evidence of understanding: we are usually asking candidates to explain complex aspects of the wine world. This is a higher-level skill than memorizing a lot of facts (as tested in the multiple choice element) and we tend to find that somebody who is underprepared is more likely to get a mark on the 10-40% range than get 55% by lucky guessing.

  • RichardPF

    Thanks very much Antony. And I think you might have best explained the issue of the 55% by mentioning the cultural difference tween the UK and US. In the US, a 55% is usually a "F" grade, and 70% is a "C" grade.

    I would say though there is still some issue with the WSET 2, which is only 50 multiple choice, and which still has a 55% pass rate. Though someone might not be able to guess their way through WSET 3, it would be possible on the WSET 2.

  • houstonwino

    Just catching up after being on the road for a week, so I'm a little late to the discussion. Great video, Joe. As previously stated, it is very balanced and informative. Nicely done.

    As for the discussion about the various programs here in the comments, I would suggest that the worth of the programs when stylistic differences are set aside, would be determined by who the instructor is. My certifications come from one of the 'lesser' programs not mentioned in your video. They combined a lot of the service knowledge along with proper tasting technique. The instructor, while colorful, was an awesome teacher who loved wine. He has since died, and I have no idea if the participants in the program still are so lucky as my classes were, but I do know that I would never have begun writing about wine if it were not for that man. While I'm sure there are some people that sometimes wish he hadn't inspired me that way, I'm definitely grateful.

  • Juice

    Very interesting discussion about certifications here. From someone who took the WSET Level 2 exam last year and passed with distinction, I have to say the exam was exactly what I expected it to be. It's an intermediate course, therefore requires an exam which is in the middle of the spectrum. It wasn't extremely difficult but it was not easy either. I also studied my @ss off to pass since I had no prior experience in the wine and spirits world besides reading everything I can get my hands on and drinking, I mean tasting a lot. One thing that is different from all of your experiences is that I had an essay portion to the Level 2 exam in addition to the multiple choice. It's possible that this was created specifically for the school I was taking the course at in Montreal, but I am not certain of this.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Juice. An additional essay? Maybe the Canadians are= more demanding? :)

      • girl on wine

        I also took the WSET Intermediate course in Montreal. In addition to the standard multiple choice exam, our class had an additional essay, a short answer exam, and a tasting component where we had to write tasting notes as part of the exam. But those extra requirements were from the school (ITHQ), not the WSET. The ITHQ exam was harder than the WSET multiple choice, I found. But I'm taking the Advanced WSET course in a few months, and I think/hope this will have better prepared me!

        Great post that sparked some great discussion, Joe!

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, girl – and good luck!

  • Juice

    Also, I just completed the Level 3 exam last month, I was enrolled in the Home Study course through IWEG in Toronto for this exam because there weren’t any schools in Montreal that offered the course. Anyways the Level 3 course is a more in-depth course, and since it is the advanced course it is more difficult. The essay portion of the exam is very difficult, you cannot BS your way through this exam. In some ways it was harder than certain exams I had to get my finance degree. The information they are asking for is very specific and you need to know the material to get full marks. As for the tasting portion for the Level 3, the examination sheet is blank and must be filled entirely by the student. I was under the impression that we would have the WSET tasting sheet as a guide, let me tell you that was a surprise!!! Now I am waiting for my results, Antony can you please tell me how long it usually takes for the grading of the exams?

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Juice – it can take some time to get the results, though in my case it was months because the results were sent to the wrong country!

  • Matt

    Thanks Joe. I have been debating doing the WSET for some time now. I also checked into the SWE because of your take on it and I might as well do that one, too. I am not in the biznit, but I am, and have been, really into wine for a long time. Decades we'll say. I like your take on it. The learning part is what matters. I don't care about pass rates or any of that. Just that the learning is intense and I can defend myself against my wife and family who think I spend too much time thinking, talking, dreaming, reading, and of course, drinking wine. "Well, Honey, I have some capital letters after my name now, so of course I will be buying that Pomerol. :)

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Matt – thanks!!!

      Best of luck to you on the certs. And I'm sure you already realize this, but it's worth stating for those who might not yet have figured it out: you do NOT, of course, need the capital letters to justify the Pomerol… you only need them to convince the people giving you grief about the Pomerol that they shouldn't criticize your lavish purchase! ;-)


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