wine & spirit education trust


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.