How do you pinpoint the moment when you decided to turn your passion for wine into something more than a hobby? For many WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) students, that point can be found in the divide between WSET Levels I, 2, and 3 and the Diploma program. Levels 1 and 2 cover basic wine knowledge for beginners who want to learn in a structured setting and Level 3 is the first glimpse of the gauntlet, which makes it a good time to evaluate how far you want your wine education to go. The first three levels scale up conveniently time-wise, too: WSET Level 1 is a one-day course, WSET Level 2 is two days, and WSET Level 3 is five to seven days.
The difference between WSET Level 3 and Level 4, however, is somewhat akin to the difference between between taking a swimming lesson and signing up for a triathlon. Where Level 3 provides an outstanding multi-day intensive wine education, WSET Level 4––Diploma––is at least a two-year endeavor in the United States with six exams and a paper. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re considering one or both courses, with some of my advice as a current Diploma student who also took Level 3.
How much time do you have?
WSET Level 3 is a five-to-seven-day commitment, with an exam at the end––it’ll require time off work and potentially travel, but not a whole lifestyle upheaval. Then there’s Diploma. Whether you’re studying online or in person, however much time you think Diploma will take, double it. Seriously. They’ll start you off relatively gently with a multiple-choice test on the science of winemaking, but from there it’ll be essay questions on a time limit, blind tastings, a theory paper, and an entire world full of material in the beast that is Unit 3. If you can’t devote at least a good hour a day to study, as well as time to taste wine (ideally with a group; see below), and you aren’t prepared to put your social life on hold during the weeks before each exam, Diploma isn’t for you.
How much will it cost?
WSET Level 3 at NVWA starts at $1345 for the course (add in catered lunch or the Spring Break immersion trip and the price goes up). Scholarships are available. Diploma is more equivalent to a master’s degree in wine, and priced accordingly; figure around $6,000 to $8,000 for all six units over around two years, varying depending on whether you go online or in-person and what course provider you use. If you work in the industry, consider whether your employer will help sponsor your education; I know of at least a few very supportive employers who covered half the cost or more.
Will you take the course online, and will you have a study group?
If Diploma is offered in your area, great – you may be able to take the course in person and benefit from tasting with other students in a structured environment. If you’re like me and lived in an area without Diploma course offerings during registration time, you have two options: travel to a Diploma provider for weekend intensive classes (check with your provider for options) or take the courses online. If you choose the latter option, you’ll have to be self-disciplined about creating a study area and dedicated time, making use of the WSET global campus website, and following along with any group activities your online class may be doing. In addition, I highly recommend having a tasting group that meets regularly in person to blind taste and talk about wine. Use social media, gather coworkers, make your friends and family get into wine with you––whatever it takes.
What’s your game plan?
If you’re currently in the industry, you may already have a sense of what level of wine education your desired path requires, but it’s still worth talking to mentors, coworkers, or friends in wine careers. I can say from experience that Diploma will provide an absolutely comprehensive level of education that would be helpful in any wine field, but be sure to talk to several professionals—and read interviews with them on this blog!—to get a sense of how the various certification programs are viewed in your company and community and what kind of coursework they took (or wish they’d taken). Just like with grad school or trade school, this is a major time and financial commitment and you’ll want to make sure you know what you’re getting into and why.
As for me, after talking to someone I look up to in the wine world, I chose the WSET program over others because the academic focus suited my interest in a career in wine education, because I enjoy writing and research, and because I hope to pursue a Master of Wine certification someday. Studying for the Unit 3 exam this summer was one of the toughest challenges of my life, but I wouldn’t trade the Diploma experience for anything.