The WSET: Explained

by Catherine Bugué

Perhaps you’ve heard people talking about the WSET, calling it ‘wee-set’ or sounding out each letter ‘W-S-E-T’, or maybe even using its grand full name ‘Wine & Spirits Education Trust.’ Or you may have come across the WSET whilst searching for wine classes online. What exactly IS the WSET and why should you read this article? 

For anyone interested in learning more about the wines and wine regions of the world (or spirits or sake); what’s happening in the vineyard and cellar; how to professionally taste; or for those looking to enter the wine or spirits business, or to advance a career in the food and beverage industry—the WSET has set the gold standard for global beverage education. 

Go to the famous Chateaux in Bordeaux, and they revere the WSET; head over to Italy and Spain, or to Chile and Argentina, and they too know the WSET.

While the WSET’s mother ship is based in London, and the organization was established in 1969 as an educational resource to the UK wine trade, the WSET has far outgrown those borders and has approved individuals and schools offering their educational programs across 70 countries and in 15 different languages. 

The individuals and schools who are awarded the right to offer the WSET programs are called APPs, or Approved Program Providers, and gain that ability through a rigorous process of requirements and training. 

Because different schools can offer the programs, you may find that when searching for a WSET course, you see different URLs for the same offerings. While the courses at the various schools will have some things in common due to the WSET’s strict guidelines, different schools do things better or worse when it comes to preparing students for the qualification exam, choosing WSET-recommended wine categories, providing customer service, or having engaging teachers on their roster who can help students understand complex concepts or how to assess the acid, tannins, and other structural components of wine in a thoughtful way.

The WSET itself has a school in London which they run separately from the program-creation and exam qualification part of their organization.

As for the WSET course offerings, they are available in a series of levels, from beginner to professional, which allows the learner (individual and companies) to advance their knowledge and expertise to their desired level. 

Each course culminates in an exam, and successful recipients can then add that qualification to their business cards and resumes as well as use their learned skills to advance their careers in a diverse number of food and beverage-related careers. Or simply impress colleagues, friends, and family with their newfound knowledge. 

In fact, a growing number of WSET students are taking the programs for their own personal growth, answering individual passions for continued learning and knowledge.

We’ve mentioned here that the WSET offers certification programs in wine, spirits, and sake. (A beer certification is on the way!) But what if you only want to know about wine? Do you have to study spirits and sake as part of your course? The good news is: you do not! The programs for each type: wine, spirits, sake, are taken separately. 

It used to be that spirits were combined with wine into one course (i.e. WSET Level 3 Award in Wine & Spirits), but that is no longer the case. The wine programs start with Level 1 and go through Level 4, the latter of which is also called ‘Diploma,’ yet Spirits and Sake don’t each have the same four levels. 

Students often ask if they have to start at WSET Level 1. This is a foundational level, with no previous knowledge necessary, and is recommended if you are new to wine, spirits, or sake—as in brand new. Not only does it provide the student with key starter information and create the building blocks for continued learning but it also introduces the WSET’s systematic approach to tasting, which instructs the student on how to professionally taste and assess the quality of the beverage being studied. 

Each level adds further learning and skills to those previously established. If you are in the beverage industry and already have foundational knowledge, you may start at Level 2 or the next level offered. If you are unsure of where to start, talk to the Napa Valley Wine Academy or your desired school. A good school will have staff on hand to answer your questions and help you on the right path for your personal goals.

Choosing a school is an important decision. At the foundational level, when starting with WSET Level 1, you want a school that will offer strong building blocks for your journey. As you progress to the intermediate (i.e. Level 2) and Advanced (i.e. Level 3) levels, you’ll want to ensure that your school provides you with all the tools for success. 

There is much to learn and many concepts to grasp. Once you gain the knowledge and skills, however, the world of wine (spirits or sake) will be fully open to you. 

Peruse a wine and liquor store aisle of a large shop, or review a restaurant beverage list, and you’ll not only have the confidence to choose the right beverage for any occasion but you’ll be able to speak confidently about that choice as well.

Students should know that the WSET courses are offered both in-person and online, providing great flexibility when it comes to gaining a WSET certification. Yet not all schools offer both. It is up to each APP to choose how they will deliver the programs.

Deciding whether to take an online or in-person course is an early decision you will make. Do you have limited time off from work, or do you want to go to an acclaimed school that is not in your area? Online could be a great option for you. 

Talk to your school about the benefits of each, as well as how they help distant learners feel connected with their classmates, and what tools they provide for learning success. Your school may offer special iterations of WSET Levels. The Napa Valley Wine Academy holds virtual courses with a live instructor over Zoom or in-person boot camps where the in-class learning is augmented by wine country visits to instill the learning. There are even exam-prep workshops that can provide structured learning in-between a course and an exam date.

So, let’s talk about those exams. Each level has an exam that, when passed successfully, earns you the certification title of that level. Currently, the WSET certification exams can be taken in-person or online for Levels 1 and 2 only. Online exams are not available for Levels 3 and Diploma Level 4 due to tasting portions of those exams. Be sure however to check with your school, to see how they run their exams (any in-person? How often are they offered?). See if your school has an exam officer whom you can talk to so you get all of your questions answered. 

Feel like you know the WSET a little better now? We sure hope so! The course descriptions on our website can give you detailed information on what knowledge and skills you’ll gain at each level, should you wish to keep learning about the WSET and its offerings.

Don’t forget that when traveling to almost any wine country in the world, mention your globally-renown WSET studies and certifications! You are a part of a strong community of wine professionals and enthusiasts; you never know the new connections and friends you will make through the mention of just four little letters: W, S, E, T.

See some WSET testimonials from the Napa Valley Wine Academy:



I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the first webinar. You are interesting and engaging—it was very refreshing (I am a little “over-zoomed” these days). You really packed a ton of great info into the hour, and delivered it clearly.
You’re definitely appreciated!

– Joelle Casteix, WSET L1 with Jean Cox

“Enjoyable and engaging course. The videos tie in quite well with the textbook, and the virtual tastings with Jean included overviews of textbook and tasting note materials, in addition to live interaction, which was on point and also fun. Very well done class overall! I did my WSET Level 1 with another provider, and the Level 2 with Napa Valley Wine Academy really set the bar much higher for quality of instruction, preparation of students, and interaction during a “virtual” class. Kudos!”

– Heather Shannon, WSET L2 graduate with Jean Cox

I had the distinct pleasure of checking my email towards the end of my work day this last Wed to learn that I had passed the WSET Level 3 certification with merit.
I just wanted to thank you and all of your staff helping me achieve my goal to pass this exam. You Harvest Class at the end of Sept was superb and a fantastic interactive learning experience. I am sure the course was invaluable in my success in passing the test.
I intend to continue my course experience with the Napa Wine Academy. I just enrolled in the food/wine pairing course with Peter Marks. I am sure I will add other courses soon. Who knows, a Diploma course may be in the future.

– Matthew Zarka, WSET L3 graduate with Monika Bielka-Vescovi

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