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How To Study Wine: For Professionals and Enthusiasts

How To Study Wine, Studying wine is really a lifelong endeavor. But, it’s not that hard to round out your foundational knowledge about wine. This is the knowledge you’ll need to successfully sell bottles to others. This article will discuss several course-based options as well as an approach to self-study that will suit even the most eager wine learners and help you sell more wine.

Courses

There are a number of paid courses if you choose that route. We will cover the most well-known in this article. The courses listed here start at around $500 per course and go up to $1,500 per course.

WSET

The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) is perhaps the most widely accessible wine credential. The course is offered by franchisees in many larger cities in North America and Europe. You can also take the course online if you choose.

There are four levels of qualifications offered, but most wine consultants will likely start with level two and move up. Level two provides a comprehensive discussion of the major wine types, their characteristics and the regions where you will find them. Level three builds on the detail in level 2 and add also covers vineyard and winemaking activities. Blind tasting also shows up in Level 3.

The in-class courses offer much more student interaction. They also involve more tasting activities. I’ve heard that up to 40 wines might be tasted in the level 2 course.

Based in London, the WSET is heavily focused on European wines, and more specifically, French wines. So, if your primary interest is New World wines, you may be disappointed.

Additionally, for WSET quality largely follows national schemes for quality ranking. These are schemes definitely have a style bias. For example, a Tempranillo from Rioja gets a higher quality rating than say, a Bobal, simply because of the grape type. Rioja and Tempranillo are synonymous. So, it’s a good rule of thumb. But these schemes miss the non-standard, but high-quality wines that exist outside of the national labeling schemes.

Overall, however, the WSET is a solid credential and provides a great breadth of knowledge. I hold a WSET qualification myself and highly recommend it.

The cost for level two ranges from $600 to $800 depending on your provider. Level three will run you around $1,500. Online courses are generally cheaper.

Sommelier qualifications

While WSET qualifications do include a short wine service component, serving is a major component in the sommelier’s certifications. The International Sommeliers Guild (ISG), based in Canada, offers intermediate and advanced certificates. The intermediate and advanced certificates are similar in content to the WSET Level 2 and 3 courses, but the Advanced also includes beer.

You can take the course online or in a classroom setting using the course materials they provide you. The intermediate course is $500 and the advanced is $1000.

The Court of Master Sommeliers (CSM) offers perhaps the best known and most prestigious sommelier qualifications. In fact, there is a movie about candidates in this program called “Somm.” Watching it would give you a good feel for what it’s like to take the course. The higher levels are quite rigorous.

The introductory CSM course is designed to be accessible to beginners. But, three years of industry experience and one year of study is recommended for the Certified Sommelier exam, the next level. This is a true vocational qualification. And unlike the WSET and the ISG, this is a self-study course with proctored exams.  They don’t provide you with study materials.

Self-study

If the knowledge without the certificate is sufficient, then self-study may be a good option for you. It’s also a cost-effective option. While the introductory courses start at around $500, you can buy several books for one-tenth of that price. If fact, you can buy the level 2 WSET text online for under $30.

This book Windows On The World: Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly, is a great all-in-one wine book. It covers the major regions (and a few up and coming ones), the important grape types, how wine is made as well as how to taste wine. At over 350 pages, this book is a good bit more comprehensive than the WSET Level 2 manual, which is around 80 pages.

If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive read, The Wine Bible is the way to go. At close to 1,000 pages, there’s not much about wine that it misses. Also, the writer, Karen MacNeil’s is considered the best wine writer in the US. The style of the writing isn’t that of a dry textbook. She tries to bring the world of wine alive for the reader. It’s a pleasant read in addition to being informative.

You can devour these books over a series of cozy nights with your favorite glass. Or you can use them to set up educational tastings. Let’s talk about that next.

Educational Tastings

Here’s an easy way to set up an educational tasting. First, select one region from your text and focus on 8 wines from there. You can pair so that you have four sets of two wines each. You can use VineTutor’s wine tasting party printable so that guests can write their thoughts down about each wine.

I think it’s more interesting to do pairings of wines that are similar. For example, the same grape grown in two different vineyards or using two different styles. Try the exact same wine from two different years. Or try bottles with different grapes, but that were grown near each other.

You get the idea of the pairings, right? But, let the book guide you to what will be the most interesting pairings for the region you select. Also, don’t forget the palate type of your tasters. That will also influence the kinds of wines you select. For example, if most of your tasters like big bold reds, you should set up your tasting that they’ll be delighted. Don’t serve them light and neutral whites.

One bottle of wine can be used for tastings of up to twelve people. But, eight is also a nice sized group. It’s small enough that there will be a diversity of opinions. At the same time, it’s not so big that you can’t hear each other.

Virtual Wine Tastings

You can hold a wine tasting even if your friends aren’t nearby. It’s just like an in-person wine tasting. You’re drinking the same wine as everyone else. Except, you’re communicating through Twitter or Skype.

A virtual wine tasting is easier in some ways. You don’t have to provide space and dishes for everyone. But they often have prerecorded videos about the wine or the region that you might have to make. There’s also a good bit of material on YouTube these days. Either way, you’ll have the create the material or source it.

You will also need to ensure that every participant has access to the wines you will taste. In many of the virtual wine tastings I see, the wine is shipped. This makes it easy for wine drinkers to taste things they can’t get at their local store. 

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