Tasting exam tips to follow

Tasting exam tips to follow

My phone rings in the night...

It was 2 am in Verona, Italy. I was already on the phone when it beeped to let me know someone from Napa Valley was calling. Hmmm, telemarketer? Who do I know in Napa, maybe James Cluer? James is a Master of Wine who runs Fine Vintage, the school where I was enrolled for the Diploma.

I let the call go to voicemail. It had been a long exciting day already, with a test on Italian wine, an epic Amarone tasting, then a glass of Champagne after finding out I'd completed the Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador program. We had an 8 am shuttle the next morning, and I really was supposed to be asleep already, not chatting on the phone.

Right before drifting off to sleep, I remembered the voicemail. Curiosity aroused, I listened, and my heart sank as an English accent started to say, "Hello Rachel, it's James Cluer, calling to give you the results of the January Unit 3 Diploma exams".  

For the past 13 weeks, I'd been half dreading, and half sure what I was going to hear in this very message, managing only for short stretches to forget I was waiting for these exam results. 

Unit 3 of the WSET Diploma, only the hardest exam I've ever faced. Through university, financial planning, and culinary school, I've never felt as overwhelmed by a curriculum as I did while preparing for the final and largest exam of the Diploma. 

Unit 3 had already taken me through several stages in these past months: disbelief, as I reviewed the material (do they really expect me to memorize all these soil types, towns, grapes?), acceptance (yes they really do, must re-review), fatigue (do not stay up to 4 am on the night before the test), shock (opening the exam: why are there so many questions about Spain on this paper? Where are the questions on Italy, NZ, USA?), depression (oh my god, I've utterly and completely failed, what a waste, now I have to restudy and retake), before finally reaching acceptance 2.0 (it's ok, it will be good for me to review this material again, I'll pass it on the next try).

James' voice continued, and I closed my eyes, preparing for the news I'd felt so sure of these past months, dun dun dun: that I'd failed the theory exam. Instead I heard, "Congratulations, you've passed the Unit 3 exam tasting portion, and... you've passed the theory portion too. You've completed the WSET Diploma". 

I played the voicemail again, in shock. A gaping hole suddenly opened up in my plans for the foreseeable future, which I'd already mentally filled with more 8-hour daily study sessions to prepare for a June exam resit. Could this even be possible, is this real life? I felt a rush of excitement, possibly euphoria, that kept me up till the sun was almost rising, pure happiness tinged with relief. I was finished the WSET Diploma.

Preparing for the Unit 3 theory exam

Now that I've had a couple weeks to process the news, I thought I'd pass on some tips that I hope you'll find helpful in your studies towards this exam. 

Create your study area

I made a mission control study station desk, atop which, in what I like to think of 'Jancis' corner', were my trusty copies of the Oxford Companion to Wine, and the World Atlas of Wine. A hefty stack of blank cue cards, pens, highlighters, coloured sticky flags, my spiral bound WSET curriculum, laptop, accordion file of blind tasting and lecture notes, my cat Egregious, and a glass of water. The only thing missing: actual wine! 

Try to make a spot dedicated to your studies, away from distractions, and make the chair a comfortable one. You're going to be spending many hours here, your back will thank you.

Make a study schedule

I didn't have one at first, and my progress suffered because of it. My goal was initially to read through all of the Oxford Companion and the World Atlas a second time for every country on the curriculum. Which is great, but when I found myself re-reading the same page on Austrian wine for an hour, I knew it was taking too long - I had just a couple of months till the final, not a year to study at a glacial pace.

Decide how many hours a day you can give to studying. As my mentor said, "Netflix doesn't exist. The news doesn't exist. Any form of fun, doesn't exist". I'm joking a bit, and paraphrasing, but the core truth is that to be successful, you have to become a bit of a wine hermit, at least until you've written the exam. One good thing about writing in January: no chance of a new Game of Thrones season released right before the exam!

Sitting down with the curriculum, I plotted out all the countries into three lists based on their relative importance within the program: high, medium, low. 

In the high column: France. 

France is where you should start studying. It forms the backbone of your studies, and if you start with it, that means when it comes time to re-review, you'll work through the material at least twice. Don't start with a country from the low category, like Japan or Greece. Yes, they're very interesting, but you've got to be strategic with your time.

Odds of France being on the final = 100%. Odds of Japan being on the final = ? This is the way you need to be thinking about the material, like backgammon or blackjack, games of skill and chance. The skill is learning as much as you can about the curriculum, the chance is how lucky you are with the questions that show up on your particular exam.

From France, I made a list of the sub-regions I'd need to cover and put those in order of importance, with Burgundy then Bordeaux at the top. Oh no, it doesn't stop there. From Burgundy, you'll make a list of the key topics you need to know: how the appellation rules work, the most important crus and villages plus what makes them unique, and the flavours you'd expect to find in their wines, the negociant system, the grapes, the terroir, the winemaking. Don't forget a couple of stats, and a key producer for each area.

This is where a spreadsheet is your friend. I made a giant spreadsheet, a page for each country, broken down like I describe above. I then started filling out the columns with key notes for the most important region, in the most important sub-region, of the most important country, working my way down the list.

Cue cards are your friend

Once my spreadsheet, aka the spreadsheet of doom, was compiled, I started in with the cue cards. By the time I was finished, the pile could have been used as trivets for 200 hot pans, or laid end-to-end to reach the moon. At least, that's how it felt.

My theory with cue cards, is that I won't necessarily use them to test myself, but that writing down the information onto them helps my brain retain all these facts. Handling this huge volume of data in as many ways as possible is going to help you remember it. Whether that's via typing into a spreadsheet, handwriting cue cards or notes, touching the information multiple times is going to help.

While reading is the bedrock of studying, it's passive. Sometimes I read things and realize I can't remember much of what was on the page because I was on autopilot. Writing things down is active, and once you've finished the required reading, active studying is how you're going to pass this test!

Time to test yourself

Actively recalling info from your studies is a challenge, but it's the best way to find out where there are gaps in your memory and knowledge.

You can use the past exam topics to practice writing essays and paragraphs. I have to admit, making myself write out practice essays was a bust. I didn't find it very fun, and it took forever to write then check my answers. But for some classmates, this was one of their key study techniques, and they found it worked like a charm.

You can have a friend quiz you from your cue cards (best to be a fellow WSET student so you can both learn at the same time, and take turns). This is really helpful, and you'd be surprised how much you can retain just from quizzing other people. Something about making up the questions just makes the info stick.

There's also the WSET DAPS program, which we had included in our Diploma tuition, where you have to send in an essay or tasting sample each week, and it gets graded by a real Diploma marker online. This is worth paying for, but only if you're committed to sending in the homework each week (many of us didn't).

I tried to find a way to self-quiz myself online, but most of the quiz sites were other students' key notes, similar to what I had on my spreadsheet. I decided to make my own prep quizzes when I had more time (it's what I used to pass the Italian Wine Ambassador program).

Review Review Review

I ran out of time, or I would have loved a chance to review the course materials a third time. The exam date which loomed off on the horizon as I started, crept closer slowly at first. Oh, don't worry, I've got a couple of months! Then it was, OK, I've got a solid month left. Then: don't panic, there's two weeks to get this review done. Full blown panic cramming started at about T-10 days.

You should aim for at least two reviews of the curriculum. I estimate on my own time, not including tastings, classroom lectures or reading the material, that I actively studied for 250 hours. Add 100 hours before that for doing just reading.

When to write

You've probably noticed the huge gap in pass rates between the June and January exams. WSET told me part of the reason January has a lower pass rate is that students who wrote unsuccessfully in June, tend to try again in January, and have a lower pass rate then too. I personally think studying through Christmas holidays is neither easy nor fun. I'd rather be decorating gingerbread men and drinking a rum and eggnog than excusing myself from festivities to study off in a corner.

If you have a choice of when to write your Unit 3 final, I'd recommend June.

Take care of yourself while you study

If I could go back 15 months in time to give advice to myself, it would be this: take good care of yourself. It's a cliché, but I would take the time to eat right, get 8 hours of sleep a night, stay hydrated (I'm talking water here LOL), and most importantly, to exercise!

I gained a goodly amount of weight during my time working through the Diploma, that I'm now working towards shedding. Not from tasting wine, but from stress and not taking enough care of myself. I hope you'll heed my advice as you work towards your WSET designation, and remember that although it feels like you don't have time to take a long walk, a bike ride, or go to a yoga class, getting exercise and having some fun time off is key to managing the high stress that comes from passing these exams.

Think positively

As I put down the pen at the end of the exam, I started to shake my head. Jenny, our invigilator, came by to collect the exams. I smiled, "I think this one got the better of me". She said, "Don't count yourself out, think positively". She was right. 

I've always tried to picture the moment I successfully complete the Diploma to help carry me through this rather challenging program, and still can't believe it's here. I hope that you'll think positively about your studies, have fun envisioning your own success, and that one day we can commiserate and celebrate together over a glass of wine!

PS: I've created Theory Prep Courses for Unit 3, 4, 5, and 6. You can find out more here!