Here are the 5 most important things to know before taking a wine course.
With so many wine courses out there, it can be hard to chose the right one for you. So far, I’ve attended 3 different wine schools (in Canada and Italy) and participated in umpteen amounts of seminars and webinars.
To share my wisdom and experience with you, I’ve come up with the 5 Most Important Things You Should Know Before Taking a Wine Course. Answer these questions below before making your choice.
Knowing why you are taking a wine course is one of the 5 Most Important Things You Should Know before Taking a Wine Course
Are you taking a wine course so you can stand out at work? Or is this a wine course that is just for your own personal interest?
If this is for work, then you need to narrow down which part of the wine trade you are going to specialize in.
Are you a) going to work in a restaurant or b) working in another wine related field such as a wine shop, wine importer or winery?
Sommelier-based courses for those working in restaurants only
If you are only going to work in restaurants and you want to run wine program, then a sommelier course is for you!
Sommelier-specific certifying bodies usually don’t put as much emphasis on proper grammar, spelling and essay writing. Instead, they focus on quick recall of information. Here much of the exam is oral.
You will learn to pair wines with different courses in a menu, for example. Furthermore, part of your exam will be in a mock-restaurant style where you have to serve unruly, rude guests. The examiners check your service skills and information recall under pressure.
Therefore, parts of the exams are written (multiple choice, short answers) however, much of it is oral or spoken.
Of course, blind tasting wines is also par for the course. As these courses train people to work in restaurants, you will learn sales techniques, traditional cocktails, and sometimes tea and coffee service too.
A prerequisite to attending a sommelier schools usually requires the student to already work in a restaurant. This means that wine enthusiasts are not allowed.
Broader wine courses for people in the off-trade (importers, buyers for department stores, wine shops) or the on-trade (restaurants)
However, if you are wanting to work more broadly in the off-trade, you should register with a wine course such as WSET (the Wine and Spirit Education Trust). ‘Off-trade’ refers to people who work in retail wine stores, department store chains, or as importers and exporters of wines. This could also include working in a winery.
The examination for courses such as WSET will be written and not oral. You will have to know how to spell foreign wine words and perhaps even write research papers (in the higher levels). Finally, learning appropriate excise taxes for wine export as well as everything that goes into an ex-cellars price (labelling, cost of shipping, refrigeration, etc) is expected.
And yes, you will blind taste wines.
Most of my wine education has been through WSET (I’m a Diploma Level 4 graduate) even though I mostly worked in restaurants as a server, sommelier and wine director. So these courses are applicable here too.
Why did I chose the WSET route?
Partly, that’s because I didn’t like the idea of having to serve tables in a mock exam setting. Equally, it is because I have an undergraduate degree and writing and research are my strengths. For me, I looked forward to the WSET Diploma Level 4 where we had to research topics and write about them. However, number 4 below also applied to me.
Wine courses for personal interest only
Otherwise, maybe learning about wine is simply for you and not necessary for work. In this case, a basic wine course that covers grape varieties and regions will suffice.
In this case, almost any introductory wine course will fit your needs brilliantly. This includes Level 1 or 2 from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). The Certified Wine Specialist course from the Society of Wine Educators (SWE) is also appropriate (online only).
Be aware that in the higher levels of any wine course, you must be familiar with details such as soil nutrition and soil types.
For most people, the higher levels can get quite tedious when all you want to do is learn to choose better wine that fits your taste. Furthermore, perhaps you don’t care to learn about every wine appellation law in the world. Instead, you may prefer to focus on the regions and wines you already like and buy.
Therefore, after taking a basic wine course to understand the overarching wine themes, you can then take a specialized course on a region or country.
The Wine Scholar Guild offers wine courses that specialize in the countries of France, Italy and Spain. After passing the French, Italian or Spanish Wine Scholar, you are ready to take a Master Level course on specific regions such as Chamapagne, Bordeaux or Rioja!
If you would like to know what is covered in WSET Level 1 or Level 2, you can read that here.
If you do fit in this category, see #5.
[Read this in-depth review of the all of the major wine schools in this One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses]
[Need help organizing your wine notes? Take a look at the 3 Best Free Apps for Keeping Your Wine Tasting Notes in 2021]
Do you need this course to be certified and recognized all over the world?
Deciding if you need a wine course that is recognized all over the world, is one of the 5 Most Important Things You Should Know Before Taking a Wine Course.
For example, if wine is your career, reflect on where you are going. Perhaps you may transfer to a hotel in another country in the future. To that end, check if the wine course is recognized worldwide. This is especially important for those of you who work for international hotel chains such as the Four Season’s Hotels and Resorts. Here management is expected to transfer to other hotel locations. International hotel chains tend to favour the WSET wine courses.
That’s because WSET (the Wine and Spirit Education Trust) is recognized in over 70 countries. Furthermore, within those countries, multiple regions and cities will have schools offering WSET classes.
However, sommelier courses are often localized to one country. For example, the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers is for Canada only. But CAPS is recognized by ASI the Association de la Sommelerie Internationale which is a global standard. If a school is affiliated with and recognized by another international arm, it will state so on their website.
Is it such a big deal if the school near you is not recognized globally? Not usually. If the course material and instruction is great your service and knowledge skills will be recognized easily by employers.
Are you going to take a wine course online or in person?
Knowing if you want to take the course online or in person is one of the 5 Most Important Things You Should Know Before Taking a Wine Course.
If you are taking a wine course online, there are WAY more options out there for you and choosing one will take more time.
Online courses are everywhere and are perfect for people who have sporadic schedules. They are also great if you have small children to look after at home. Many are still in Covid-mode. Whether that’s because the laws prohibit gatherings where you are or because you are still wearing sweatpants and don’t want to go back to looking presentable, an online wine course could be for you. Finally, working remotely is fantastic for people who work well on their own and want to learn at their own pace.
On the other hand, in-person classes are great because they always include the wine samples and instructor-led palate callibration. This is so important for learning to recognize high quality wines and if you want to excel in blind tastings.
You have to share your tasting notes with your classmates. This can be a terrifying prospect for some. Yet, having an instructor-led wine tasting should allow you to progress quickly – even if it is by learning all of the things you do wrong!
What does the wine course offer is one of the 5 Things You Should Know Before Taking A Wine Course.
If it is online, look at what the wine class offers you for support. Is there an instructor you can reach out to if you get stuck? Does the course offer a couple of live webinars so you can see other students and meet your instructor face-to-face? How many people will be in each webinar? If 500 people are in every webinar, you may not get any one-on-one instructor time.
Or, does the online course offer a facebook group where you can share your experiences with other students?
Furthermore, make sure the online wine course offers some actionable exercises for you to complete. Do they offer quizzes, additional readings, a textbook or e-book? Depending on where you live, some send wine samples.(Although given the current climate with wine shipping laws of individual regions, this is rare). The course should also provide a list of suggested wine recommendations after each lesson.
If you are taking a wine class in person, this will make your search much simpler. Not all wine courses are offered in every location.
Which courses are available where you live is one of the 5 Most Important Things You Should Know Before Taking a Wine Course
If it’s an in-person class you want, you may not have much of a choice. Search for the courses in your area and pick from what is available.
Often local colleges and universities will have their own wine curriculum. So if WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers doesn’t offer a classroom nearby, look there.
Furthermore, many wine professionals offer wine courses that reflect their individual expertise or most-travelled-to regions. Wine instructors are incredibly engaging when delivering subjects they’re passionate about. So don’t forget to check out independent courses or seminars. These are often delivered during wine and food festivals like here.
The way to begin is to just to do it. Go get your toes wet and take a Level 1 or Level 2 in WSET, or any basic wine 101 course you can find and just start. After you get the basics down, you may want to continue at a higher level with that same institution or, perhaps you want to create your own a la carte menu of wine courses.
The point is, once you start, a whole new world opens up to you and it is truly fulfilling.