Mon Apr 25, 2011
I asked myself that question about a year ago. Did it make more sense to try for a Certified Specialist of Wine certification (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators or should I attempt to go for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust's Advanced certification. (WSET-AC)
When I started this journey I hadn't heard of either of them but one day while searching www.winejobs.com I say a job posting from Trinchero Family Estates. One of the requirements for the position was to have a CSW or WSET Advanced certificate. I had just finished 2 years of courses at Napa Valley College and had received three AS degrees: one each in Viticulture, Winery Technology and Wine Marketing and Sales. But here was a well known company and they wanted something more !
I started looking around to see what CSW or WSET-AC were. Who were the sponsoring organizations ? What did the certification mean ? What would it cost ? How long would it take ? There weren't a lot of answers on this that I could find. Having now completed both of them, I can pass along some information to anybody else who was doing the same search as I.
I took the WSET Advanced Course before I took the CSW exam so I'll explain them in that order.
The objective of WSET-Advanced Course is ( in their own words ) "To provide a core knowledge of the wide range of wines and spirits around the world to equip those in a supervisory capacity with the authority and confidence to make informed decisions in a wide variety of trade situations". It is an advanced course and you really can't come into it cold. My time at NVC was a good preparation for this, but the AC has a totally different focus. You need to know about viticulture and the basics of winemaking ( and they teach you this ) but the focus is really on the "Wines of the World", the wines, the grapes, some of the terms, soils and particular characteristics of the major wine growing regions, and how they affect the wines produced in each region. You will also acquire basic knowledge about fortified wines and spirits and liqueurs.
You can self-study for WSET courses and save a fair amount of money, but fortunately I was urged to take the class offered in order to learn the WSET's "Systematic Approach to Tasting." I would recommend anyone to take the formal course as well just to learn how to create a formal description of a wine. "Bleah" and "Yumm" work among friends but really doesn't tell if the wine might be better with fish or steak.
The WSET has a very formal programme. It has 5 levels of classes from a beginner up to the final level which is the prerequisite for the Master of Wine candidacy. (Advanced is level 3). Each course has objectives, expectations, a formal syllabus, there is a great glossy text for the AC course that is laden ... dense with information. The program providers are all rigorously vetted by the WSET and try to make sure you have the best chance to pass the course. Some of the classes were taught by a Master of Wine, the rest by WSET Diploma holders. A note: ( and WSET will tell you this as well ) - you can NOT pass the course just by taking the classes. You have to read the manual, and do the work ). This is not a course you can slide through.
Although based in London, England, WSET has several program providers in some of the major US cities. Unless you live in one of these cities you will have to either travel for the courses or attempt them via self study.
Passing the exam allows you to apply to use the "WSET Certified" logo on your business card or letterhead.
The Certified Specialist of Wine is offered by the Society of Wine Educators located in Washington DC. This is also an advanced course, and one that doesn't have an introductory course, but one might be able to pass this test starting with basic knowledge and a lot of study. The SWE offers several exams a year in a number of cities. The text book is a loose leaf binder with 27 chapters and about 250 pages - also of dense material. It covers the same topics as mentioned above for WSET. You will get a well-rounded education in all aspects of wine. The level of detail is about the same between CSW and AC. Taking the AC course (and actually studying for it) and studying the text for the CSW should enable you to pass that exam with maybe only an additional 20-30 hours of work. ( It doesn't work in reverse, because WSET has included sections on Spirits and liqueurs and also has the tasting test which CSW does not )
There may be providers who offer course preparation for the CSW exam. They do generally offer review classes just before the exam, but this is really a self-study course. Like the AC above, you can not pass the test by just taking the review and thinking that is enough. This is not an easy test.
The CSW certification offers the privilege to use the CSW post-nominal after their professional signature. It is also the prerequisite for the Certified Wine Educator exam which is similar in level to the WSET - Diploma course in that expect you to have a very broad and detailed knowledge of wine in all of its aspects. As I have progressed, I am seeing more and more people who have gotten both certifications.
Some key differences between WSET-AC and CSW exam ... The WSET Advanced exam has 50 multiple choice questions, several short essay questions and a wine tasting exam that has you describe 2 wines, generally a white and a red. The CSW exam is just 100 multiple choice and no tasting.
The WSET exam will cost you more - even with self study. About $400 for CSW course materials and exam and about $800 for WSET AC. Part of the reason that AC is more is that there are essay questions that can not be graded by a scantron, and there is also the wine tasting part that adds some extra expense. Taking the full AC course will run 32 hours of instruction, you will taste and score about 60+ wines and it will cost about $1400.
For an additional fee, the CSW ( co-partnered with Gallo Wines ) offers an on-line tutorial to assist the students in their studies and offers some additional self study tests to gauge your learning progress.
Since the Society of Wine Educators us US based, USA students may find that there are more exams offered and that the Society itself offers a sense of community with an annual meeting and several events offered through the year. WSET offers more of an international cachet.
For more information go straight to the source:
Wine and Spirits Education Trust : http://www.wsetglobal.com/qualifications/23.asp
Society of Wine Educators : http://www.societyofwineeducators.org/csw.php
I have no problems recommending either of these courses for anyone who is serious about getting into the business.