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Training with the WSET: Climbing the education ladder

Published:  20 September, 2016

As most people in the trade will tell you, learning about wines and spirits is the Mastermind specialist subject you never stop prepping for.

With thousands of appellations, vineyards, distilleries and processes to contend with, even the wine world's 354 revered MWs would hesitate to say they know everything there is to know.

The constantly evolving nature of these factors is why education opportunities with bodies like the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) can be invaluable not only for newbies to the trade, but also seasoned professionals and general enthusiasts.

Now in 73 countries around the world, the WSET offers courses from beginner (Level 1) all the way up to its flagship Level 4 diploma, which requires a minimum of 600 hours of study time, including 118 hours in the classroom, to complete.

Often, students describe their motivation for undertaking Levels 1 and 2 as wanting to fill in gaps in their knowledge.

This was the case with recent Level 2 recipient, Scott Backhausen, now assistant manager at The Angels Share Hotel in Edinburgh.

Backhausen, who was sponsored by merchants Justerini & Brooks, took the opportunity to attend the course after he was asked to step out of his cocktail-oriented comfort zone.

"New management came in and the first thing they asked me to do was to come up with a new wine list. Wine was a weak spot for me. Level 2 taught me simple things like how to taste wine and explained why some are more prestigious than others. A lot of it was information that would have been difficult for me to find on my own," he said.

For Backhausen, the course helped him to diversify his knowledge base - an increasingly essential skill in an industry where bars and restaurants are asked to offer expertise on wines and spirits from a growing number of origins.

The WSET is responding to these demands, most recently by adding courses offering Sake education.

Having a broad knowledge base from which to draw has helped Backhausen to progress from duty to assistant manager.

"A lot of our guests have wine with dinner. It's still the done thing, so we need to be able to pair food and wine at the table," he added.

"One good thing about Level 2 was that we had such a volume of white wines to taste. I think we tasted 40 different whites, which has given me a much greater sense of purpose when it comes to recommending whites to customers."

For Harry Wilkinson, attaining Level 3 last year helped him to nab a job with Majestic Wines in the graduate management scheme.

Having already started on Level 4, the 31-year-old doesn't underestimate the power of qualifications like those offered by the WSET as a signal of commitment to potential employers.

Harry Wilkinson has recently joined Majestic Wine Harry Wilkinson has recently joined Majestic Wine

Speaking of his recent appointment with Majestic, he said: "As soon as I mentioned I was doing my Level 4, they were impressed. The WSET describes the diploma as an industry passport, and I think that's true. It's hard work, but worth it."

Indeed, there is a considerable step up from Level 3 to Level 4.

Level 3 can be done during an intensive week-long course, whereas Level 4 can take two years to complete.

With the Level 3 exam, participants learn to distinguish between appellations and characteristics by undertaking a test taste, then matching the wine with pre-written options describing the origin and details of the wine.

In June next year, when Wilkinson takes his first Level 4 exams, he will taste 12 wines completely blind, and have to determine a number of criteria, including the age, country of origin and whether it has aging potential, unaided.

"With Level 3, you look at the left and right bank of Bordeaux. By Level 4 you're talking about individual vineyards and slopes. Level 4 also goes more in depth about production. One of my teachers is in middle of an MW course, which is handy. He is infinitely more knowledgeable than me."

While Backhausen is enjoying experimenting with Gewurztraminer and half bottles of premium Bordeaux, Wilkinson is training to complete his diploma and become a store manager with Majestic.

After that, his ultimate goal is to some day be a wine buyer for the company.

"It's what everyone wants to do," he said. "Wine is grown in some of the best places in the world."

Coming from a background in sales, Wilkinson credits Borough Wines for taking a chance on him and giving him his first role in the wine industry with a part time in-store role.

"Borough Wines reminded me how much I enjoy interacting with people and got me interested in wine. From there, the WSET helped me fully make the transition and change career."