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.
Is taking a wine course for your career or is it just for your own personal growth?
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.
Sommelier based courses for those working in restaurants only
If you are only going to work in restaurants then a sommelier course is for you. Sommelier-specific certifying bodies usually don’t put as much emphasis on writing, but instead focus on quick recall of information. You will have to pair wines with different courses in a menu. 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.
Parts of the exams are written (multiple choice, short answers) however, much of it is oral or spoken. My understanding of these classes (I’ve only taken a Level 1 and 2) is that proper written grammar and writing skills are not necessary and won’t affect your grade.
Of course, blind tasting wines is also par for the course.
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 (in wine stores or for a department store chain, or as an importer/ exporter or for a winery), you should sign up with a non-sommelier wine course such as WSET (the Wine and Spirit Education Trust).
The examination for non-sommelier 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, you will need to know about excise taxes for wine export as well as everything that goes into an ex-cellars price (labelling, cost of shipping, refrigeration, etc).
And yes, you will blind taste some wines.
Most of the wine classes I’ve taken are through WSET (I’m a Diploma Level 4 graduate) even though I mostly worked in restaurants. So these courses are applicable here too.
Why did I chose this 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.
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. The sommelier specific courses and the non-sommelier courses (WSET and the like) are specifically meant for wine professionals especially as you move up through the levels.
In higher levels, you must memorize soil types of different wine regions, the vine trellising techniques and for WSET anyway, the costs involved in each wine regions (winemaking and viticulture) which goes into making the bottle of wine.
If you would like to know what is covered in WSET Level 1 or Level 2, you can read that here.
For most people, memorizing trellising systems and soils types 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 random places such as Croatia and you would prefer to focus on the regions and wines you already like and buy.
If you do fit in this category, see #5.
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 the class is for your career and you may transfer to a hotel in another country in the future, 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 who often transfer their staff to other hotel locations.
The course that has the most recognition worldwide is WSET (the Wine and Spirit Education Trust) as it is recognized in over 70 countries.
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, or if you have small children to look after at home for example. They are also wonderful if you 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 is for you. Finally, online courses are fantastic for people who work better 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! These classes could be slightly intimidating because you have to share your tasting notes with your classmates. This can be a terrifying prospect for some. However, 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 the wine courses 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).
But if they don’t, any wine course worth its salt will offer tasting exercises to compare wines. Furthermore, a suggested ‘wines to purchase’ list should be included. There’s no point in taking a wine class if it doesn’t offer you a way to test your knowledge.
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. Please refer back to the number 1 Most Important Thing You Should Know Before Taking a Wine Course to help you decide.
And keep reading for more options to consider.
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.
How far do you want to go?
How far along the levels do you want to go?
Of course, this may not be a question you can answer right away. Or more likely, your answer will change after you begin your studies. In fact, the answer to this may continue to change all along the course of your wine life.
It certainly did for me!
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.
For example, you can enroll in a course about France or Argentina. You could even pick courses on individual regions such as the Loire Valley or Mendoza.
The point is, once you start, a whole new world opens up to you and it is truly fulfilling.