I decided to do a WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) course on a whim. I felt restless at work and in need of a new challenge.
But what could I learn? I’d already sunk myself into astronomy books and photography magazines; martial arts was an ongoing trip. I loved travel and food writing, but everyone was doing that. I needed a niche… and suddenly it seemed so obvious. I could combine my thirst for knowledge with my thirst for wine. I’d always loved wine, but what did I know about it? Not very much, if I was honest.
A quick search revealed WSET to be the globally recognised, industry-standard qualification to have. The Level 1 looked a bit too basic even for me, but the intermediate Level 2 could be done in a few weeks and only cost a few hundred pounds. I booked myself onto the soonest available course in my area.
Within half an hour of turning up I realised I was probably the least knowledgeable person in the class. There were about 20 of us, and quite a few already worked in the drinks industry, albeit in entry-level positions. The tutor told us he hoped we would all pass, with seven or eight getting a merit and two or three a distinction. I realised this was going to be tougher than anticipated, and set the merit as my goal.
I soon realised I had a good nose, but at this level that wasn’t much help. What you really need at Level 2 is to be good at tactical revision. And this is a skill I’ve always had. At school I always seemed to get good marks in exams, despite being a bit of a slacker throughout the rest of the year. This wasn’t down to good memory or because I was particularly smart; it was because, I believe, I was adept at picking out the most relevant crumbs of information from the text books.
The problem, I realised, with some of the “brainy” kids was that they were trying to learn everything. My natural laziness had led me to always try to get away with learning the smallest amount possible for the highest returns. And I reckon that’s why I developed the ability to revise tactically.
So… in the WSET Level 2 course there’s a lot of tasting done in class, which is great fun and really useful, but most of what you’ll need to learn doesn’t come pouring from a bottle, it comes from poring through the manual at home. And the tactical revisor’s most precious tool is… the highlighter pen.
You get two books on the course: a work book and a text book. The main things in the work book that’ll help you in the exam are the maps. They’re pretty basic, as you can see from the poor-quality scan I’ve attached. Attack these with your highlighter for a good visual overview of the places you’ll be talking about in class.
The text book is a lot more detailed and includes every fact you’ll need to know. All of the answers to the exam questions are in there. It’s pretty dense, but you don’t need to get 100% to get a distinction, so don’t sweat it. Actually, you need 85%, which is a bit weird because there are only 50 questions, so you need to get at least 42.5 right. As there are no half marks, it’s impossible to get 85%, so you can effectively afford to get seven answers wrong to get a distinction.
Also bear in mind that, because it’s multiple choice, some of your educated guesses will turn out to be correct — so you only really need to “know” about two thirds of the answers. For the record, I got 90%.
So… just highlight the most relevant bits, especially any parts your teacher has told you are important, and leave out anything you already knew or which seems self-evident. I also tend to leave out some of the more obscure, hard to recall facts and write them off as collateral damage.
If possible, cover each section BEFORE you’re due to do it in class. So if, for example, you’re due to learn about wine production in your second class, make sure you’ve already read that section at home beforehand. Then, whatever you learn in class will be a consolidation of what you already knew, rather than a load of overwhelming new facts and figures. You’ll also be able to make a list of pertinent questions to ask the tutor in advance.
And once you’ve got busy highlighting the book, you can go back and skim-read it in a quarter of the time it would have taken you to read it all the way through. Here’s a shot from my book, after I’d splashed it with the Yellow Pen Of Knowledge.
Visit www.wsetglobal.com/where-to-study to find a course near you. They’re great fun, and it could land you a job. I ended up getting some shifts in my local wine shop. Click here to read about how that went.