These days, in a highly competitive industry like wine, certifications are increasingly valuable for wine professionals to differentiate themselves and prove the knowledge they bring to the table. There are several paths to choose, but it can be a challenge to know which one is right for you. As a wine educator, who has been through almost all of the major wine certification programs, and also teaches most of them, I get asked a lot about how to determine which one is right for you, and how the relevancy, and difficulty level of these different options compares.
Just to give you an idea of my qualifications to assess these programs in comparison to one another, I have been through all the WSET levels, and am an authorized instructor for all WSET levels, L1-L4, I hold the CSW, and the CWE, I am the program provider for the French, Italian, and Spanish wine scholar programs, and have completed many of the Wine Scholar Guild Master Level certifications as well.
In this article, I will compare the difficulty level of each major certification level, and make recommendations for each program, based on certain factors a wine student will likely be grappling with in making a decision about which path to pursue.
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust is the world’s most respected and recognized wine education and certification body. The certification levels are known and respected around the world. Advantage: these certifications prove a well-established level of mastery of wine knowledge the world over. The organization also holds a high standard for their program providers and their online learning as well, so if you choose this option you are good to go, internationally. The materials are excellent, but can be rather dry. WSET certifications are a solid choice because they are globally recognized, include expert instruction, and are wonderful because they are absolutely not geared towards any specific job.
The certification levels:
L1 (for beginners). The exam is 50 multiple choice, and is fairly easy
L2 (Intermediate, but also suitable for students with some specialized knowledge who need to get the big picture). The exam is 100 multiple choice and is more rigorous. Level 1 is not a prerequisite.
L3 (Advanced) really synthesizes the information presented at an advanced level. The exam includes 100 multiple choice, several short answer written answer questions, and a systematic tasting note. Level 2 is not a prerequisite.
L4/Diploma is the highest level in WSET, and is often considered a stepping-stone for those who wish to pursue the Master of Wine distinction. Level 3 is a prerequisite. The Diploma in Wine and Spirits is really similar to a university Master Degree program; one should expect to take 18-24 months of straight study to complete the program. There are six units/exams, which include: tastings, written essays and an independent research paper.
Where to study:
Once Covid is over, I recommend students seek out their local program provider (in Seattle, in-person WSET classes will start again in Winter 2021 through the Wine and Spirit Archive, where I am a regular guest lecturer)
For distance learning, I recommend the Napa Valley Wine Academy, who ships wine samples with all their online WSET courses. You can use these links to learn more and register:
WSET Level 2 Online https://napavalleywineacademy.com/product/wset-level-2-5-week-online-course/
The Society of Wine Educators is the oldest American wine certification body, and has two excellent programs. The SWE certifications are well regarded and recognized in North America. The SWE has two levels of wine certification, the CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine), and the CWE (Certified Wine Educator). Although one can find independent schools where CWEs offer a CSW prep-course (I offer a prep-course in Seattle), these certifications are primarily self-study/online learning. The CSW offers an excellent online learning academy, which is expertly put together to provide self-paced study. I am also extremely fond of the CWS Study Guide (and work book), which is actually one of my very favorite reference books on the wines of the world (in fact I use this book as a textbook for the college-level Wines of the World course I have been teaching for the past 5 years). Jane Nickles (aka The Bubbly Professor) is the Society’s Education director, and the author/editor of the Study Guide, and she is incredibly dynamic person (and I recommend you check out her blog, linked above)! The Study Guide is updated every year, and is always accurately and clearly written, which is no small achievement. I recommend every student of wine buy this book no matter which certification path they choose.
The Society of Wine Educator certifications are quite economical since there is no classroom learning or tasting involved, and provide a wonderful flexibility of study for self-motivated students. Learn more
The certification levels:
The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) is an intermediate/Advanced level certification course, which addresses study of wines of the world at a level similar to the WSET L3. The exam includes 100 multiple-choice questions and can be taken at Pearsons Vue Testing Centers, flexibly. The exam does not include a tasting component, or short answer questions, which is probably why many people put this certification somewhere between WSET L2 & L3 when it comes to difficulty. This is a really great option for self-motivated students who are good at pacing their own study. This certification is not geared towards any specific job in the industry.
The Certified Wine Educator (CWE) is the Society’s highest level of certification, which tests the candidate at a required knowledge level similar to the WSET Diploma, as with the CSW the main reason for putting this certification at a slightly lower level than the Diploma lies in the exam format, not the level of knowledge required. This is a self-study program, without a formal instruction of any kind (no online learning academy). The exam consists of two tasting parts: a blind varietal identification of 6 wines, a faults/imbalances identification of 6 wines, a 100 question multiple choice, a long-form essay, and once the candidate has passed all of these exams, the final exam is a demonstration of teaching skills in front of a panel.
This is a great certification for educators, and professionals who need to present at a high level.
The Court of Master Sommeliers includes 4 levels of certification. Although certifications through the court are geared towards service, they include the same theory requirements as WSET, and SWE certifications.
Introductory – roughly equivalent of the WSET L2
Certified – roughly equivalent to CSW or WSET L3
Advanced – Roughly equivalent to the CWE, or WSET Diploma
Master Sommelier – Roughly equivalent to the Master of Wine
If you are interested in these programs, I am happy to connect you to local Sommelier educators, or learn more by visiting their website
The Wine Scholar Guild is a wine specialization certification body, offering the most in-depth certifications in the world for the wines of France, Italy, and Spain, as well as extensive Master Level courses in regional subjects from France (with more to come from Italy and Spain). These certifications are offered either by distance study or by Program Providers across the globe. The certifications are widely globally recognized, and the program providers are highly vetted (most holding either the WSET Diploma, CWE, MW, or MS).
French, Spanish, and Italian Wine Scholar Certifications: These programs are suitable for both enthusiasts and professionals alike who are deeply passionate about wine. Although it is certainly possible to specialize before you generalize, a basic knowledge of wine is recommended as a pre-requisite. These programs are also great companions to other Advanced level studies, such as WSET Diploma, SWE’s CWE, and the Court’s Advanced Level certification. These programs are life changing; time and again, I see doors open up for people in their careers, and personal pleasure through these programs. The exam is a 100 question multiple choice.
Or Register NOW for the Fall 2020 cohort of the French Wine Scholar Certification Program with me!
Master Level Study Regional Studies in the Wines of France: The Master Level study is for the serious wine student, and gives an intimate and in depth look at a single region. These programs are rigorous and require a deep passion for the region of study. The exam includes 50 multiple choice questions, 3 short essay questions, and 10 map identification questions. These courses are offered online as a self-paced study.
I hope this helps, and if you need more guidance in selecting a course of study, assistance with exam study strategies, or other mentoring you can book a session here.