2019 planning your year in wine

The question for 2019: How do you stay excited about wine, fit in ongoing learning, all while staying interested and avoiding wine ennui?  

I'm at that in between stage: post Diploma and considering the MW; definitely wanting to keep my knowledge fresh, and most importantly to stay curious and inspired about wine.

My planning for the year started with 1) travel (Porto, Paso Robles), added in 2) some wine festivals and seminars (Vancouver Wine Fest, will I see you there?), and sprinkled in a liberal dose of 3) tastings, 4) books, and 5) wine buying. That way there's something to look forward to on the calendar each and every month. There's still time to plan out your year, here's an outline of my plan to stay excited about wine this year, and how you can make your own plan too.


I start with travel so that it actually happens! If I leave things to later, invariably, things get ‘too busy’ or something or another comes up to thwart vague plans. This year, it’s a mix of big trips and closer to home mini-breaks (Bridget Jones ref here). That way I have trips to plan for and look forward to, and room for surprises too!

March - Walla Walla (returning to explore and see what’s changed in the past few years)

April - Lisbon, Porto, Douro (my dream trip, Port is my #1, the big one for the year), plus London to judge at the IWSC, Verona, & Bordeaux

June - Willamette Valley (Pinot hound here, ready to scour for the cellar)

Oct - Paso Robles (never been before, love the wines, looking for your recommendations)


Next, I look into the wine festivals happening through the year. My favourite is Vancouver Wine Fest (VIWF). It’s well run, brings fantastic wineries around the world, and also puts on top class tastings. This year’s theme region is California, and I’ve already registered for several seminars (hope to see you there!). I’ll also be attending Vinitaly in Verona this spring. If there’s a festival you think I should add, please comment below and let me know.


APR - Vinitaly


I attend a smattering of trade tastings and blind tasting groups, but starting in Feb, will be running a blind tasting group geared specifically towards Level 3 students. A good friend is taking WSET Level 3 online after challenging Level 2 (he’s a professional from outside the wine trade), and I’m organizing biweekly sessions geared to getting his palate ready for the exam. This is a great opportunity for me to buy classic wines and do some review too! I’ll also continue mock MW exams in the lead up to applying to the program in June > if you’re thinking of applying, please send me a message to be included in my pre-MW online study group.

Another option in this vein is wine clubs. Generally, I don’t like signing up because I don’t want too many wines from the same producer, but I do belong to Turley and Ridge (classic, and always welcome gifts and popular with guests).

FEB-APR - biweekly Level 3 tasting sessions

MAR-JUN - Mock MW exams to prepare for applying to the program in June


Are you like me in that you have a billion wine books in piles everywhere? OK, that’s hyperbole, but there are so many good books and only so much time to read them, plus it’s so easy these days to order yet another. I’ve set out a book schedule, that way it isn’t so daunting to see the stack, and here it is. Hope you’ll join in my ‘informal wine book club’ :)

FEB - Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste by Rajat Parr

MAR - Vines & Vinification by Sally Easton MW (the new WSET textbook)

APR - Volcanic Wines by John Szabo MS

MAY - The Wines of Burgundy by Silvain Pitiot

JUN - Bordeaux Chateau: A History of the Grands Crus

JUL - Champagne by Peter Liem

AUG - Wine Folly: Magnum Edition by Madeline Puckette

SEPT - Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise

OCT - Barolo & Barbaresco by Kerin O’Keefe

NOV - The Wines of New Zealand by Rebecca Gibb

DEC - Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup


One of my favourite audiobooks is by Brian Tracy. In it, he says that the number one indicator of success in any person is how far into the future they are able to plan for. That got me thinking about wine. A statistic commonly thrown about is that almost all wine is consumed within hours of being purchased. Not only does having wine on hand make it remarkably fun and easy to host dinner parties (Oh, you like Italian reds… would you prefer a Barolo or a Chianti, honoured guest?), and saves times during holiday rushes (no need to race to the wine shop), but there is real joy in researching and purchasing wine with the intent of cellaring it. Maybe this is old hat to you, but it’s only in the last few years I’ve started to do this, and with serious intent over the past two.

I can’t plot this on a calendar like I did with items 1-4 above, but I can share that I give myself leeway to buy two wine purchases a month! There are criteria though! The wine must be ageworthy for the next 10+ years, ideally come from a classic region (aka blind tastable), and a recognized producer. Bonus points for high value to price ratio (aka I’m not generally buying expensive Bordeaux, but I do like Port and Champagne). This means by the end of a year, I will have set aside between 6-12 cases of ageworthy wine within my budget.

To start, if you don’t already subscribe to your local wine importer or wine store newsletters, it’s a great thing to do. Some of my favourites are Somm Select, Kermit Lynch, and Sedimentary Wines. Not only are their emails fun to read with an eye to investing, but you pick up great wine producer knowledge along the way.

So, there’s 2019 all planned out and ready to tackle with aplomb! Cheers and thanks for reading! I hope you’ll share some tidbits or suggestions in the comments.



changes to wset diploma 2019

WSET have announced substantial changes to their Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4 programs. 

They're separating courses into three different streams: Wine, Spirits, and Sake. Here's a summary of what will be changing and when.

Changes to the WSET Diploma:

-The new Diploma program starts as of August 2019, focuses exclusively on wines, and includes 5 units. They are: D1, D2, D3, D4, & D5.

-Students currently in the Diploma have until the June 2019 exams to finish using the existing program structure. Those who have already passed Unit 4 and are transferred into the new program will still receive a Diploma in Wines & Spirits, as opposed to a Diploma in Wines. The June 2019 exams will be the last using the existing curriculum (for the Diploma Spirits unit, there will be a resit exam in March 2020 for those who failed in June 2018 to still achieve the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, see the notes at the bottom of this section). Those who are part way through the Diploma program after the June 2019 exams will be automatically transferred over to the new program, and will have credit for their units applied to the new curriculum units which launch in August 2019.

-Spirits is being carved out of the new Diploma, which will focus solely on wines (Level 3 Spirits will be a new, separate program, echoing the removal of spirits content from the Level 3 in Wine).

-Unit 3 Light Wines of the World will be of longer duration. I had asked WSET last year about whether they would split the curriculum into two shorter units, based on the low passing rates for Unit 3 Theory. They said it was a challenge in deciding how such a split would be organized, and have opted to keep the curriculum together but give students more time to study. The new unit will be called D3 Wines of the World. There will continue to be both a Theory and a Tasting exam, but these will be held over two consecutive days instead of on the same day. Students will now be given more time to complete the exams.

-Unit 5 Sparkling (new name D4) & Unit 6 Fortifieds (new name D5) unit exams will continue to have both a Theory (short answer open response) and a Tasting portion of exams. Students will be given more time to complete the exams than under current rules.

-A new 3,000 word research paper will be added, called the D6 Research Assignment, with subjects relating to current wine trends. Students mid-way through the Diploma who have passed their Unit 1 Coursework Assignment will receive credit for D6.

-The way the exam is structured will change for the Unit 2 Wine Production & Unit 1 Business of Alcohol units. These will become: D1 Wine Production, and D2 Wine Business. Both will have final exams based on short answer, open response questions. Students who are partway through the Diploma and have passed their Case Study will receive credit for D2, (as mentioned above, those who have passed their Coursework Assignment will get credit for D6).

-Students who completed the Diploma in Wines & Spirits will continue to use the nominal DipWSET, which will also be used by graduates of the new curriculum.

-From WSET's website: "The WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits will be permanently withdrawn on 31 July 2019, with the launch of the new WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines on 1 August 2019.  All students enrolled on the current Diploma will be automatically transferred to the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines in September 2019. 

Spirits will not be part of the new Diploma, but there will be one final Unit 4 Spirits examination for resit-only candidates in March 2020.  All students transferring with a pass in Unit 4 or who gain a pass in March 2020 will graduate with the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits upon completion of all Units."  

See WSET's video on the new program and transition information for current Diploma students here.

Changes to WSET Spirits Programs:

-New is a WSET Level 3 Award in Spirits - launching Aug 1 2019. The new curriculum will include Asian spirits: Baijiu, Soju and Shochu. The final exam will include both a blind tasting of two spirits, and a written paper (which will include multiple-choice questions, plus a short answer section). The pre-req to get into Level 3 Spirits is the Level 2 Spirits course.

Changes to WSET Level 2:

-As of Aug 1 2019, WSET Level 2 will focus solely on wines; spirits content will have been separated out to a Level 2 Spirits course.

How will this effect Wine Prep Courses?

I love working with WSET students, and will continue to support you as you study for your WSET Level 4 Diploma exams, using the current curriculum until the June 2019 exams (and until March 2020 for the Unit 4 Spirits exam). Students who are freshly embarking on the Diploma and those who are already studying Level 4 are welcome to enroll in the Prep Courses for each unit, and will continue to have access to the updated Prep Course for their applicable unit as the materials are updated after the August 2019 relaunch at no additional cost (aka enroll in Fortifieds Unit 6 Prep and continue with Fortifieds D5 Prep after Aug 2019).

Wine Prep Students in Level 3 Wines can continue to study via the current Level 3 Wine Prep course which was recently created for those in the new WSET curriculum.

Cheers & Cin Cin,



WSET Advanced to Diploma

Q: Dear Rachel, I am a very keen amateur. I love wine, I read Decanter and others, subscribe to Jancis, and just passed Level 3 with Distinction. But the more I learn the more I realise what I don’t know…

Would you recommend that one has read all of the source material you mention prior to the course starting? 

Is it OK to launch straight in to Level 4 or should I do something like a French Wine Scholar and/or Italian Wine Scholar and/or Spanish Wine Scholar first to deepen my knowledge of those regions and improve my tasting; or is the structure of the Level 4 course such that it’s perfectly OK to jump straight in?

Do you think I will need to organise/join a tasting group outside of the classes?

Do you have any sense of what the success rate is typically at Level 4, and should I take the January or June exam?

A: Great questions here! I’ll do my best to answer.

I felt the same way as you after completing level 3. Fascinated, wanting to learn more, but questioning whether the expense and time commitment would be worth the investment. It’s all about learning what you don’t know that you don’t yet know!

For source material, I re-read my level 3 textbook before starting, and did a leisurely read through of the Wine Atlas & Oxford Companion to Wine. I didn’t take any notes at this point, just a read-through to refresh my memory, and also to get a lay of the land before starting the Diploma classes.

I went straight from Level 3 into the Diploma. My instructor always said about the difficulty and amount of knowledge we would acquire moving through WSET: Level 1 is like jumping onto a phonebook, level 2 up onto the countertop, level 3 is the rooftop of a house, and level 4 is a rocket into space!

The leap between Advanced and Diploma was a bit startling at first, but I adjusted to the new workload quickly. 

The level of detail and command of facts at level 4 is a big jump from 3. That being said, I do not believe it is necessary to take additional courses before entering the Diploma (although I’ve heard positive feedback about the FWS/IWS and wouldn’t dissuade you if you’re interested in a particular field). My thinking was to get through the Diploma right away, learn as broadly as possible, then continue to learn about the areas I found particularly fascinating. Now that the Diploma is completed, my eyes have been opened to the regions and wines I find most interesting, and I feel I can make well informed decisions about investing in more education.

In terms of tasting, the changes in abilities at beginning and by the end of level 4 were huge. On day 1, our instructor poured us several flights of two wines. In each flight, one wine was high quality, and one was basic quality. By a show of hands, our class was to show which we thought was the premium wine. There was no consensus, and I remember feeling concerned that I couldn’t identify quality. Within a couple of months, and with more practice, this exercise became much more successful.

I strongly recommend a tasting group outside of classes. The students whose tasting skills progress the fastest and became strongest are those who are blind tasting in a regular group outside of class (either weekly or every two weeks). I think trying to taste on your own, or solely in the classes will put a damper on your progress, and in the case of tasting solo, can greatly add to the program’s expense.

I have looked at the individual unit pass rates for Level 4. In my Diploma class, which is admittedly a rather small sample, about half the students who started together passed together (about one third quit the program or paused their studies). The toughest unit is D3, previously called Unit 3 (theory), with the lowest pass rate, and the easiest to prepare for, in my opinion, is unit D1.

Here is an approximate average of pass rates for each of the units for the results of years 2010-2015:

  • Unit 1 CWA 88%

  • Unit 1 Case Study 75%

  • Unit 2 91%

  • Unit 3 Tasting 70%

  • Unit 3 Theory 42%

  • Unit 4 59%

  • Unit 5 73%

  • Unit 6 65%

Cheers & Cin Cin, Rachel

PS: do you have feedback on the FWS program? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


blindtasting for wset diploma

Q: Hi Rachel, I'm having some trouble with blind tastings in picking out primary, secondary and tertiary flavour characters.

For example, characters such as nutty I find difficult to pick out, and dried fruit could be be either primary, secondary, or tertiary. How do you differentiate?

A: The way I learn to pick up flavours and aromas I personally find challenging, is to taste examples that show very high intensities of that item.

For example, I was having trouble picking up on VA (volatile acidity), until I tasted a Chateau Musar red. Now I associate VA with that wine, and the scent of a freshly opened bag of dried fruit! Once you develop a flavour memory, it becomes much easier to identify that note in the future.

My rules of thumb when tasting, and deciding on primary/secondary/tertiary: if I’m getting mostly ripe fresh fruit, neutral, or citrus/floral character, it’s youthful/primary. If I’m smelling and tasting mostly winemaking notes (especially oak/oak spice/toast/vanilla/nutty, MLF/lees stirring/cream/butter) along with fruit I slot it into secondary/developing, and if it’s dominated by earth, spice, leather, nuts, tobacco, or faded/dried fruit, but no fresh fruit, it’s tertiary/developed.

For your questions on nuttiness and dried fruit, I’d start with an example that showed each.

Nutty notes: I often get this where oak or extended lees aging is showing up in the glass (secondary), an aged/oxidative style of white like white Rioja (tertiary), and often on fortifieds that have seen extended aging in barrel like tawny port, darker sherries, Rutherglen muscat etc. I sometimes taste a fresh almond quality in wines made from Marsanne (primary).

WINES: I’d try an Oloroso or Amontillado sherry, as I often get roast nuts on these wines (even though it’s a fortified, I think sherry is a good place to start for ID’ing nutty in non-fortified wines), and a white Rioja from a traditional producer.

Dried fruit notes: I pick up dried fruit in three main ways - where it’s dried out on the vine in a hot windswept climate (such as in Lodi) and some of the berries have raisinated, which can be primary in a youthful wine. Or, where the grapes have been dried for appassimento style wines which have a sweet raisin-y note (secondary), and in older or oxidized wines where what was once fresh fruit has faded to a softer earthier dried fruit note (tertiary).

WINES: There’s 'youthful' Amarone for picking up secondary aromas (winemaking) of dried fruit. A good quality Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel or McLaren Vale Grenache, which can have great intensity of primary wind dried/ripe fruit on the nose and palate. For tertiary dried fruit, I'd taste an older Chianti, or if you can get an older Amarone, that would make a great comparison with a younger vintage (secondary vs tertiary).



PS: Have a blindtasting tip for differentiating between primary-secondary-tertiary, or a new question for me? Comment below!


This year, I was lucky to participate in several mock exams and tastings with Master of Wine students.

Not only did it give an insight into the rigour of the program, but it helped immensely with my blind tasting skills (bonus!). Sitting around a table with a group of MW students, you learn a few things quickly:

They take wine very seriously. After 'hello's', it's right into pouring and writing the mock exam in silence: 12 wines, 2.25 hours. Chit-chat is saved for after the exam. The wines are chosen in advance by someone familiar with MW exams and the types of wines you'd expect to find. Even the corks are pulled ahead, or bottles can be decanted so there are no extra clues like bottle shape or capsules. Post-exam discussion is animated. Wrong or right, you have to swallow your pride and share what you identified a wine as, so that everyone can learn together. It's often when a wine has been incorrectly ID'd that I learned the most.

Bottles & a flight from one of the 12 wine mock MW exams

Bottles & a flight from one of the 12 wine mock MW exams

They are not messing around. No staring off into the distance to ponder the profundity of wine, these students are busy swirling, slurping, and writing. Some students use a shorthand to note the technical qualities of the wine, a quick way to jot down alcohol level, body, acidity, finish etc before they write their essay. Note: they are much more specific than Diploma students, for example, alcohol is not listed as a range, it is described as the %ABV, and residual sugar is noted in g/l. Flavors and aromas are noted, but not in a flowery or stylistic way. The aromas/flavours are used more as clues to what the quality, winemaking techniques and provenance of the wine are (for example, noting use of oak, lees aging, and minerality on a sparkling wine as evidence for Champagne).

They know their appellations and producers inside & out and use logic to identify wines. I really appreciated the MW students' detailed knowledge of appellations when we discussed the wines post-exam. This level of comfort comes only with extensive tasting, reading, studying, and travel.

Things like: knowing by heart the key sub-regions around the world for each grape or blend of grapes, the way a grape varietal manifests itself in those regions (such as expected alcohol level), the aging rules for quality wines, whether a style is fortified and to what level, how a particular sweet wine is produced (noble rot, passito etc), and key producers and their house styles for each area, and much, much more. It's like the WSET Diploma to the 10th degree.

This amount of knowledge can be intimidating, but it's the base level for passing the first year MW exam. Only by knowing what to expect in each appellation could you reasonably put a wine in its proper place (for example, I incorrectly guessed a wine was Mencia, when it was pointed out to me that the alcohol should have shown higher if that was the case).

When placing a wine where you know the flight is all made from the same grape, and you think it is either Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, you'd next want to list all the sub-regions each grape could be from. The next step is attributing each wine to the correct sub-region, using clues like the depth of color, alcohol, body, acidity etc. Very logical!

MW exams can now be written on a laptop, but my mind works best with pen & paper

MW exams can now be written on a laptop, but my mind works best with pen & paper

They use a different style/format than the WSET Diploma. The exams were in essay format, and regurgitating an analysis of the wine's acidity, flavours, and finish isn't enough to pass. The essays focused on the quality and provenance of the wines. Consider for example this set of questions on a flight of 3 sparkling wines:

Comment of the method of production, considering how this has influenced the style of the wine - Identify the origin as closely as possible - Comment on the quality level in the context of the region of origin.

While the group assured me you can pass without ID'ing all the wines correctly, you're much more likely to pass if you know exactly what wine you're tasting. These essays take wine from the theoretical into the practical too, so book smarts alone aren't enough to pass. The focus is very much on real life wine trade information, producers, sales figures, and trends, so having in depth current knowledge on the business of wine is very important.

It's been humbling and exciting to taste with a group of students at a level above and beyond the WSET Diploma. If you've been considering the MW as a goal, I highly recommend tasting with MW students. It has given great insight into the immense dedication, hard work, and significant expense in time and money (travel, time off work, buying wine) involved in this most challenging wine program. Will I apply to be an MW student next year? I'm thinking about it, but there's much more studying and tasting to be done!



PS: If you've had experience with the MW program or tasting with MW students, please share your wisdom in the comments!


Should I do the WSET Diploma or climb these mountains? Hmmm.

Should I do the WSET Diploma or climb these mountains? Hmmm.

I've been getting a lot of questions lately, for WSET diploma study tips and also from people considering whether to embark on the Diploma. Is it worth it?

Part of learning about wine, is the more you learn, the more you realize there is so much more to learn about.

When I finished WSET, I was in a state of being totally wine-humbled, convinced I knew less than ever (and I'm still there). A good thing for someone driven by curiosity and the need to learn more!

Before doing the diploma, I thought that the difficulty level would be a commensurate step from Advanced, just like moving from Level 2 to 3. What happened for me was the overwhelming realization that the Master of Wine program must be darn hard (the difficulty of Level 4 approached what I had mistakenly thought the MW program would be like).

The Costs:

Time and money are the key considerations here. Do you have them to spare? You'll need both.

Time: I'd say 15-20 hours a week to study as you prepare for each unit, more for Unit 3. More as you come up to the exam. Four weeks before each exam, it was closer to 30-40 hours per week. 

One of the hardest parts of the time equation for me, was missing out on fun. Christmas? Usually I'm in the kitchen all week beforehand, my idea of heaven. What do I remember from last Christmas? Studying. Studying while my family had rum and eggnogs and watched movies. The Diploma means devoting your free time to flashcards and tasting.

Money: Tuition, textbooks, and wine are expensive. I paid close to $10,000 in tuition alone. 

The wine costs above and beyond tuition for blind tasting can be high too. The wines you taste in class are not enough to pass, you'll definitely need to supplement with your own tastings. If you set up a tasting group, your pocketbook will thank you.

Ex: Weekly blind tastings of 12 wines at an average cost of $30/bottle = $360. If you can get 6 people that's $60 each per week, or $45 if you have 8 people. Ideally someone in your group has access to wines at wholesale or near wholesale prices. 

The Benefits:

There's nothing like the feeling of finding out you've passed the Diploma! Suddenly you'll have so much time to fill with fun activities! Also...

Respect: While the general public has little idea of what the WSET is ("so, you're a sommelier"?), your industry peers do know, and the Diploma is highly respected. 

Employers Love WSET: I've spoken with grads who found the Diploma was instrumental in standing out from other job applicants, and really gave them a step up in credibility and confidence, and others who decided post-grad to take the leap into wine entrepreneurship (check out my Wine Career Q&A Series around this topic).

Confidence: It's a big benefit of finishing WSET. The confidence to help others learn about wine, know when something you're told is incorrect, or to go out on a limb to note that a wine is corked or superlative. Most especially the confidence to delve even deeper into the world of wine, maybe even enter the Master of Wine program!

Appreciation: The more you learn about wine, the more you appreciate the effort that goes into each bottle. Your education will enhance the rest of your life, when you go out for dinner, entertain, or when you travel, you will get more out of the experience because of your wine knowledge.

Mad Skillz: By the time you finish, your friends will be getting you to do their new favourite party trick - pouring you a blind wine and making you guess what varietal it is. More than some of the time, you'll be right. You might also be able to name the region, vintage, winemaking techniques, and have a go at the quality level. Magic! Or, the benefits of blind tasting hundreds of wines!

In conclusion, I found the effort of studying and writing the exams to be worthwhile. When I consider what I knew before, and how much more I've learned it's amazing, and excitingly, my eyes have been opened to how much more there is to learn. 

If you're deciding whether to enroll, I hope this helped. Feel free to leave a question or comment below and I'll do my best to answer.

Cheers & Cin Cin,




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!


Do you know someone who’s signed up for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust WSET Diploma? Or is that person you?

It’s a big investment, and massive commitment. I’m approaching the final exam to finish it – Unit 3 – and I can’t wait to pop some vintage Champagne to celebrate!

I’ve been getting lots of questions popping up asking which books are worth investing in. For me, there are two indispensable books that you’ll read every day while you’re studying: The Oxford Companion to Wine, and the World Atlas of Wine. 

But… I bought at least 30 books while studying. Did I need them all? No way. But about a dozen were well worth the money and made studying much easier.

So I put together the guide I wish I’d had when starting out in my diploma studies, including: which books you NEED to buy, a full list of websites to bookmark for each unit, what specifically to do 90 days before, 60 days before, and 30 days before your classes start, what one magazine you should subscribe to, what one social media site to join and who to follow, and how to find people for a tasting group.



PS: The next enrollment for the Diploma Prep courses will begin in January 2017!


I hesitate to tally, pondering all the bottles, books, flights, and hours of studying, just what the total cost of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (or WSET) Diploma has been. However, the final exam looms four weeks ahead: UNIT 3, the exam that instills fear in the hearts of wine students around the world. Given a choice between the tallying and studying, I choose to tally (and dally) by writing a review of my WSET Diploma experience. 

WSET Diploma Costs

Here are the expenditures thus far, with the major caveat that I travelled to my course in another city and bought the lion’s share of wine for solo study:

Tuition cost for WSET Level 4 = $9,975 CDN* (covered 11 weekends of lectures, 30-60 wines poured in each lecture, field trip to Okanagan wine country, exam fees, official WSET texts, and DAPS preparatory exams)

Spirits bought for Spirits unit = $700 approximately 

Wine bought for Unit 3 Light Wines = $2,000 approximately

Fortified wines purchased for Fortifieds unit = $300 approximately

Sparkling wine & Champagne for Sparkling unit = $400 approximately

Coravin (to maximize my investment in all these wines) = $431 for the starter kit, and well worth it

Coravin argon capsules = $325 for 24 pack (one capsule lasts about 50 tasting pours)

Books for additional study (I bought way too many, see note below) = $1,000+

Total = close to $15,000 CDN

(*I was incredibly grateful to receive a scholarship from the BC Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier for $1,000 towards my WSET tuition, I highly recommend you apply for scholarships and bursaries for your WSET studies)

The Classes

I researched several providers offering the WSET Diploma, including the correspondence option, and ultimately decided to take the one run by Fine Vintage (owned by James Cluer MW). I chose this program because it had a condensed package structure of 15 months start to finish. I knew by signing up I would be taken through the material and exams at a fast clip.

James, in addition to leading a weekend tour of the Okanagan for us and teaching on both viticulture and Bordeaux/Burgundy, had arranged an incredible list of guest lecturers who included: Ian d’Agata on Italian wine, Philip Goodband MW on the Global Business of Wine and Spirits, David Lawrason on Southern Hemisphere wines, and Stephen Skelton MW on Viticulture/Viniculture. Our class was very lucky to have instruction from two very bright and engaging MW candidates: Lynn Coulthard and Jenny Book.

Like many people in our class of 22 students, I flew/drove in for the monthly lectures in Calgary. Students hail from Edmonton, Oregon, Kelowna, and Prince Rupert, and about 2/3 of the class are Calgarians. For this program, it was worth the trip, but the locals had a huge advantage when it came to forming study groups, something to consider when you’re choosing your provider.

About one quarter of the class are not in the wine trade, either hobbyists or looking to enter the trade. Some of the careers represented are: wine agents, those who work in/manage wine stores, sommeliers, entrepreneurs, wine educators, and writers. There was even a Canadian MP, who showed up once or twice then never came back. It’s a highly competitive and competent group of people, not unlike what you’d expect in an executive MBA class. The attrition rate is higher than I expected, of the 22 we started with about 17 people are still showing up (even though there are no refunds).


The pass rates are posted for each exam within the WSET portal, and about 12-16 weeks after we write, our results arrive. Thus far, knock on wood, I’ve passed everything.

The multiple choice viticulture exam is by far the easiest of the six, although some questions are very difficult. It was our first exam and everyone in the class passed. At the time, I thought it was one of the more challenging exams I’d face (ha ha, if I only knew). Grade = Distinction.

We then moved on to Fortifieds and Sparkling, which we studied simultaneously and wrote the exams on the same day. I loved fortifieds, as the wines are so distinctly coloured and flavoured that it helped immensely: Port in all its incarnations, Madeira, a rainbow of Sherry.

The sparkling wines, with the exception of sparkling shiraz and lambrusco, were rather more challenging to pick apart (is this clear, pale sparkling wine a Cava or Champagne, or a NZ or California?? Luckily I was able to pick up some last minute rubber tire notes on an exam Cava and ID it – it pays to always go back to your wine samples at the end).

These exams are each based on a blind tasting of three wines, plus a series of three theory essays. By far, the tasting is easier than the theory, at least in my opinion. There are relatively few points awarded for correct ID of a wine, so it’s possible to do very well by analysing your blind sample carefully even if you can’t place it. There is no faking the theory. Don’t forget, the examiners are from the land of Jane Austen, so specificity and style rule the day. Grade = Sparkling/Merit – Fortified/Distinction.

Next, we studied Spirits and Global Biz. Spirits, I loved studying, because of the variety of production, culture, and mainly history! If you love history, you’ll particularly enjoy this unit. Spirits, like fortifieds, are very distinct in colour and flavour. The exception may be some whiskies, as the subtle difference between a slippery and sweet Irish can sometimes blur with a Canadian blend. In our final exam, we were given a grappa (immediately identified by its soapy florality), Famous Grouse blended whisky, and a double bourbon cask finished Single Malt. That last one was a bit tricky. For theory, you need know the different methods of distillation inside and out, all the stages of production too: Single Malt vs Blends, Cognac, Gin, Vodka, Rums. Grade = Distinction.

For Global Business of Wine and Spirits, the first gauntlet is a case study. We were given the case three weeks before the exam. In our class’ case it was: The Négociant System in Burgundy. We had to research everything topical, newsworthy, historical, etc and be prepared to offer our informed opinion. I handed in seven handwritten pages, in what I thought was an epic (but upon reflection may have been a bit wobbly) style. Our class wrote this exam on the same day as spirits – a lot of handwriting. The second half of this unit is comprised of a paper of between 2500-3000 words on a topic chosen by WSET. Ours was The Gin Renaissance. We had a few months to put together a concise (it took me longer to edit down below 3000 words than to write the paper) opinion on the future of the gin market, history of the spirit, methods of manufacture, and why the resurgence of the last 30 years happened. Still waiting on the grade for this paper. Grade = Case Study/Merit.

Unit 3 Still Wines is the behemoth unit. We’ve been having lectures on this since July, and the final is in January. Synopsis: take every non-sparkling, non-fortified wine in the world, then study it. The exam is comprised of a blind tasting of 12 wines, in groups of three, plus three hours of theory paragraph and essay questions. The pass rate for January theory exams is unfortunately very low, around 30%, which suggests a few things: the exam is too hard, students are not prepared, and/or too much Christmas holiday relaxing is happening. I’ve been blind tasting several times a week for months, so the name of the game over the next several weeks is theory theory theory.

Is it worth it?

Yes. Yes, it’s worth it. Wine is my favourite subject, because the more I learn, the more I realize I'll never know it all. It’s the everlasting gobstopper of topics.

Take history, geography, food, agriculture, culture, travel, the pleasure of a good glass, endless variety, sharing with others. Once you get into the Diploma, you will know how much you didn’t know and if you love to learn, it will make you very, very happy.

(Fine print = you might drive friends/family a little crazy with all that studying)

The WSET Diploma is the direct route into the Master of Wine program, should that interest you. The Diploma itself is a respected program, highly recognized in the trade. If you say “WSET Diploma” to people in the wine industry, they’ll know right away that you work hard and know your stuff.

I’ve already seen it in the career progression of several classmates over the past 15 months: they’ve moved from employee to manager, from somm to owner, written books, are teaching new students, taken trade trips, it’s really quite impressive. I believe several of us will be applying to the MW program. The level of tasting ability is incredible. We went from not being able to pick out the best quality wine in a flight, to nailing Alsatian Pinot Gris and picking out Eden Valley Riesling blind with confidence.

In Conclusion

I should mention that the Diploma has been much more challenging than I anticipated coming out of WSET Advanced. It’s a huge leap in technical tasting, and memorization of SO MUCH INFORMATION. Now, when someone tells me they’re an MW student, I bow down to their chutzpah.

That being said, every level of the WSET is challenging and a bit nervewracking. Level 1, I was nervous in the exam. Level 2 I was nervous in the exam. Level 3 I was nervous in the exam… Whatever level you’re at, keep going – it doesn’t get easier but it doesn’t get harder than you can handle!

WSET Diploma Prep Checklist

If you’re going for the Diploma, I’ve put together a free checklist of what you need to do to get prepared 90-60-30 days before you start. I give you a list of the books and one magazine you’ll most use, along with basically all the tips I think you need to start off on the right foot.

PS – I’ve created a WSET Diploma prep course, with practice multiple choice exams and flashcards! You can find out more here. If you have any tips or suggestions from your experience studying, I’d love to hear. Find me on Instagram or Twitter.



I'm becoming rather fond of this peach pouf

I'm becoming rather fond of this peach pouf

April passed in a blur of rainshowers followed by glorious Vancouver sunshine. Birds are chirping on those sunny mornings, and the lilacs are in bloom.

I was in Vegas earlier this month, followed by a two day session in Calgary on the global business of wine led by Master of Wine Philip Goodband. The class is prepping for both the Global Business as well as the Spirits units of the WSET Diploma, the last exams we’ll need to take before the big final comes up in January.

To prep for the Spirits unit, I visited the biggest liquor store in the city armed with quite a list of spirits and liqueurs to buy.  These will be used for blind tastings to help me prepare for the exam. I now have the best equipped bar on the block, but a bit of a shame because most of it will be used for practice and not for enjoying in a cocktail.

Tasting spirits, I must admit, is not quite as pleasurable as tasting wine! You know when you’ve got a rum and coke, and towards the end it may be a little hot out, and the drink is now mainly rum and water… well that’s a little like tasting watered down rum. We pour it into our ISO glass, check out the color, then water it down about 50% before smelling and tasting, so that we don’t burn out our nose and palate. The water can help bring out some of the aromatics too (before we spit it out). Mmmmm, watered down vodka and gin! The plus side is that studying the spirits is fascinating, lots for history buffs to love.

The big news for the month was that I was honored with a scholarship from Les Dames d’Escoffier towards my wine studies. What a thrill to toast the news with a glass of wine among such incredible women.

A fun event to dress up for, the BC Wine Appreciation Society (BCWAS) held a gala to celebrate their 10th year. I recently posted some incredible BC wines and wineries to look out for after tasting them at this event. If you’re a Vancouverite, this is the wine society to join. They are active with holding tastings and events, and a very friendly, jovial group.

My weekly WSET tasting group has been meeting on Mondays to taste a series of wine, totally blind. Often we have no idea where in the world the wines are from – is this white a Riesling from Germany or Oregon? Is this a Rioja or a Rhone Syrah? It makes for some interesting conversation! Do we have the courage of our convictions to stand up and declare what the wine is? Check out my instagram for pictures from these tastings, and my picks of the best wines from each group.