WSET Level 4 Diploma: The Leap from Level 3, and Why the Diploma is Worth Doing

woman pouring wine with logo

I’m lucky that as the Program Director of our WSET Diploma program, I get to hear all the amazing success stories of our graduates, so I recently asked some of them to share how completing the Diploma has benefited their lives and careers.

But first, if you’re one of those curious Level 3 students, let’s compare how similar topics might appear on the Level 3 exam vs. a Level 4 exam. 

Like WSET Level 3, the Level 4 Diploma requires you to know a lot of facts about wine. For example, in Level 3, you learn that a white wine may be aged on its lees to add textural richness and some extra flavors. In Level 4, you build on that knowledge and also learn that these effects come from the decomposition of yeast cells, also known as autolysis. You also learn more details about the specific effects: lees aging can increase a wine’s biological stability, can add “autolytic” notes of brioche or bread dough, and also potentially promote the formation of volatile sulfur compounds that can add aromas ranging from an intriguing just-struck match to horrible rotten eggs. 

However, the Diploma also goes a step further, and students should expect questions asking them to analyze situations, compare options and explain why a winemaker might make certain decisions. 

Continuing our example above, in the D3 exam of the Diploma, which covers most of the major wine regions in the world, students might be asked to explain why the white wines of Burgundy have such a high reputation and what could threaten that reputation. The complexity added to wine from lees aging could form part of the answer, but much more thought and context are also required. History, terroir, a focus on high-quality grapes and winemaking, supply, and demand, and other factors could all be relevant. This is in line with one of the official goals of the Diploma program: that graduates are able to “understand how the growing environment, grape growing options, winemaking options, wine law and regulation, and wine business influence the style, quality and price of the principal wines of the world.” 

If that sounds like a lot, it is! But remember that the Diploma program takes about 18 months to two years to complete, so your knowledge is built gradually over that period. You’re not expected to know everything immediately! 

If you’re intrigued, you may also wonder about other benefits beyond knowledge. WSET courses aren’t cheap, and the Diploma is especially pricy, so it’s important to consider what you’re hoping to gain from it.

Stacy Briscoe, a NVWA Diploma graduate and instructor who is also the senior editor of Wine Enthusiast print magazine says that figuring out your goals, whether they are personal or career-related, is an important first step in deciding to pursue the Diploma. She adds, “If you’re more interested in actual winemaking, maybe your time would be better spent learning the craft on the job, traveling to different parts of the world. If you’re looking to be a sommelier, there are other programs more suited to that kind of training. But if your goal has anything to do with communication or education, or your dream job maybe requires you to have a global understanding of wine culture and wine business, or if learning to assess wines is an essential component of your job or dream job—I say go for it.”

Avenues to take with a WSET Diploma education  

If you aren’t already working in the wine industry, but are hoping to, think about how your current skill set could translate to a job in wine. The WSET markets its courses as “product knowledge” certifications, meaning that they will teach you a lot about wine but may not be enough to get you a wine industry job by themselves. While jobs in winemaking, tasting rooms or sales immediately come to mind when people think about wine jobs, the wine industry also needs accountants, lawyers, graphic designers, HR staff, marketing consultants, event coordinators, social media experts and more. Always remember that your existing experience can be at least as valuable as a wine certification, and it’s absolutely possible to get a wine job without a formal certification. 

Ben Van Antwerp, a NVWA Diploma graduate and winemaker at Ken Brown Wines in Buellton, California, says that if you want to work in the wine industry, the current labor shortage means “there is no easier time than right now. Work a harvest, job shadow, teach a class. You’ll make connections, you’ll study better being able to connect to real-world experience, and you’ll figure out quickly if the hours, pay, and responsibility work for you.”

However, certifications like the Diploma can smooth the path toward a wine industry job, or sometimes lead to better opportunities. The broad understanding of wine regions and the global wine industry gained via Diploma studies can be beneficial in various ways. 

Personally, I was working as a distributor sales rep while going through the Diploma program. Balancing my job and my studies wasn’t always easy, but as I progressed, I found myself increasingly able to meet any of my customers on their level. It didn’t matter if they were managing a liquor store or running the beverage program of a five-star hotel. I could explain shifts in the market, describe how wines tasted, make global recommendations based on other wines that had sold well, and understand nerdy winemaker presentations at sales meetings. I started the Diploma program to further my own knowledge but was somewhat surprised at the various and unexpected ways it made me better at my job. 

Kelly Prohl, a NVWA Diploma graduate and owner of the Texas-based wine retail, distribution and education company Double Decanted, says that finishing the WSET Diploma “enhanced my wine-buying skills by diversifying the wines I source and recommend to customers. My wine tasting ability improved significantly, which makes me a better buyer, educator and more effective communicator. The Diploma program also exposed me to current topics and trends impacting the wine industry like lower alcohol wines, sustainability, and consumer trends, which enhances my ability to meet customer needs and offer relevant products.”

Sam Schmitt, another NVWA Diploma graduate, was working at Adelsheim Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley when he started the WSET Diploma. He now works as the General Manager of Folded Hills Winery in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, and he says that during the interview process for his current role, “I believe [the Diploma] was a factor in my being asked to join Folded Hills’s management team—I hadn’t quite completed the Diploma program yet, but I only had one exam (D3) to complete. Since then, it has given me more opportunities to speak at conferences and guest lecture at several California universities with wine management programs.”

Considering the “MW” credential? WSET is a key stepping stone 

The WSET Diploma is also one of the accepted certifications for entrance into the Master of Wine program. While the Diploma is expensive, it is still less expensive than a bachelor’s or master’s degree in viticulture or enology, which are other accepted entry requirements. 

Tony Elsinga, an NVWA Diploma graduate who works as a wine importer in Texas and was accepted into the MW program last year, says, “The Diploma’s ‘Systematic Approach to Tasting’ is absolutely vital to capture the elements necessary to succeed in the MW program. Further on the theory end of the MW program, I would have had no chance of even being admitted to the MW Study program had I not done the Diploma first. The Diploma units on vineyard management, winemaking, post-production procedures, etc. gave me the tools to make a convincing MW application. At least from my perspective, the Diploma is like a ‘preparatory’ course for the MW and many elements of the MW program will feel familiar to the Diploma student.”

Van Antwerp, another current MW student, agrees. He says, “I’ve been kind of blown away by how the Diploma, and specifically NVWA’s laser-focused program, has given me a leg up on the MW. I have a good framework for deconstructing wines and exam questions as well as synthesizing answers quickly, concisely, and logically. A lot of the mental models formed to pass the Diploma, I can just copy and paste to my MW studies. Not to mention the great relationships I’ve formed with other NVWA students in the program.”

When considering any wine certification program, it’s important to research whether those potential benefits align with your personal goals, and always be aware there’s likely more than one way to achieve your dreams. The WSET Diploma has a lot of benefits, and if you think it’s right for you, it can help shorten the path to reaching your goals.

As Briscoe says, “If you are just a seeker of wine knowledge and feel, as I did, that WSET Level 2 and 3 only scratched the surface of your curiosity, then Diploma is for you as well—so long as you’re able and willing to give it the time it will require, don’t deny yourself the joy of a wine education.”

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IN-PERSON COURSE & WORKSHOP REFUNDS & TRANSFERS

Cancellations of confirmed in-person course enrollments and workshops are accepted up to 60 days before the start of the course. An administration fee of $50 plus the full cost of the study materials and exam fees will be deducted, and the remainder of the course fee refunded to the payee. Separate WSET exam cancellation/transfer rules apply.
Transfers of a confirmed enrollment to another course are accepted 60 days before the course start date with an administration fee of $50.

Cancellations less than 60 days before the in-person course start date or course no shows forfeit any refund/transfer options unless students can provide medical documentation. If medical documentation is provided, students can be transferred to a later course. No refunds will be applied.

Course Transfers cannot be carried forward to the next academic year (which commenced on January 1).

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