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WSET and wine education: Does it develop a house palate?



I suppose it was inevitable that the wine industry would eventually develop something like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is to wine what community colleges are to higher education.

In general it’s a good thing to have a college-level curriculum for wine knowledge and then force aspiring students to go through it. They learn about the entire gamut of wine and spirits: basic to advanced knowledge and service, graduating from Level 1 to Level 5. This professionalizes the wine industry. WSET, which is based in London, recently announced they’re expanding to China.

Prior to WSET’s founding, back in 1969, the wine industry had no central repository of knowledge. People learned on the job, in the country in which they lived, which is why they developed regional perspectives. A Londoner, for example, might apprentice at a wine shop or auction house, where Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhine wines predominated. He would become a master of them, but not necessarily of wines that were not widely distributed in Great Britain, such as the wines of Spain, Italy or, much less, the New World, including California, South Africa and Australia. Even French regions like the Rhone valley and the Loire were little understood in London. This tended to maintain the supremecy of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It was a self-reinforcing, self-referencing business model that worked for its time and place, but was essentially unfair.

Which is why a fellow like Harry Waugh was so unusual. Harry was at the peak of his game in the 1950s and 1960s. Sitting on the board of Chateau Latour, esteemed as a stately and principled wine merchant and gadfly, he was the consummate Bordeaux and Burgundy man. So when he began visiting California, at the behest of a small group of Napans, this was seen as an oddity by his fellow enophiles. They assumed Harry’s new-found interest in barbarous California would quickly fade, after which he would return to the fold.

It was not to be. Harry found himself charmed at first by California wine, an enchantment multiplied by the worshipful treatment accorded him by the rich Californians who understood that he was an important factor in British, and thus European wine tastes. They flew him back and forth across the pond, provided his local transportation, took him to the best restaurants, served him their best wines and lavished their own personal bonhomie upon him and his wife.

Little wonder Harry quickly fell in love with California wine. Would he have done so had he experienced them under blind tasting conditions, in a dreary little room at Christie’s? Possibly. But to drink them under such lavish, friendly circumstances undoubtedly played a role.

At any rate, the tale of how Harry shipped California wine back to London and then coaxed his important friends in the industry to try it is now legendary. It was an essential part of why and how California wine succeeded in being viewed in the same league as Bordeaux and Burgundy, well before the Paris Tasting of 1976. (Indeed, it can be argued that Harry was at least partially responsible for Steven Spurrier including California wines in his lineup in the first place.)

Had there been a WSET back in the 1940s and 1950s, when Harry was coming of age in the British wine industry, I rather doubt he would have discovered California. He would have been confined to WSET’s curriculum, and had neither the time nor, probably, the energy to explore beyond it. All I mean to suggest is that formal education, in any field, can have its own set of internal restrictions. It’s important to students of wine to explore the world of wine on their own, developing idiosyncratic preferences (or antipathies) that may not be included in formal agendas of study. This not only opens them to new opportunities, it guarantees the wine industry an expanded set of palates. My main worry with the centralization of wine education is that it tends to develop a house palate that can be detrimental to differing styles. The wine industry should remain ever open to a spectrum of approaches to wine.

  1. Adam Chase says:

    This blog post, although well written, shows that the writer really knows very little about the WSET curriculum today or is really misinformed. WSET Levels continue to expand the information on California and the US wine industry in general. WSET gives equal weight to the US as it does France, Italy, Spain, not to mention Australia. WSET tasting exams routinely contain California wines and theory questions that relate directly to US wine. WSET also continues to grow in the number of US students taking its classes.

    The reason for WSET’s success is simple – it continues to innovate in what it covers and how classes are run. The result is that WSET consistently stays on top of trends not just in wine, but in education in general. Grape Experience Wine and Spirit School, which I run, is a major WSET program provider in California and we are often asked to make sure that US Wine is a core part of our offering by WSET leaders in the UK.

    Students who take WSET courses not only get a very deep and well rounded education, but they become part of a “global club” of like minded students who have access to each other and to events and offers that only WSET can provide. Far from being a “junior college,” WSET is the only true wine global education provider and a leading choice for international wine, spirits and now sake courses. I urge the writer and all readers to really look at the WSET offerings as they are today.

  2. Matt Mauldin says:

    I agree with Adam. I took WSET Level 3 in 2014, and found it very comprehensive not only in its scope of regions and topics covered, but also in the depth and the practical application of the subject matter. Among other things, the Level 3 program covers wine regions from all over the world in-depth, while avoiding over-weighting the curriculum to the most classic regions.

    In my opinion the opposite is true. Education through WSET, CMS, or Society of Wine Educators is far more likely to result in experimenting with wine outside of one’s comfort zone than in causing someone to develop a ‘house palate.’

  3. Bob Henry says:


    Can you favor us with the bibliography that WSET students are counseled tgo read in preparation for the Level 1 exam?

    Perhaps some examples of the questions posed on the WSET exam for Level 1 students?

    And the “pass” of the Level 1 exam for students here in the United States? [*]


    [*Purportedly, the “pass” rate for The Court of Master Sommelier exam is around 3 per cent.


  4. Chrissa Chase says:

    The Level 1 class is more for the neophyte, no serious student even bothers with it, they go directly to Level 2. I currently am half way through WSET Diploma, Level 4, and while WSET certainly has a “Strike Zone” students who are wine trade contend with far more outside influence. Wine is a vast subject. We all pick our areas of expertise depending on our level of intrigue and personal palates.

    Many candidates also seek Court Certification or Regional Certification such as French Wine Scholar. All these programs encourage independent study and enrichment trips. You can never really know an area unless you travel there, enjoy the food and learn it’s rich history. You know how the saying goes, “If you didn’t go to the concert then don’t wear the shirt”. Any formal education should be encouraged and the students who pass through those corridors should be trusted to know the differences. Perhaps if you fellows attended a class you’d have a real perspective on what their tasting grid actually is.

  5. Larry Kantrowitz says:

    I personally do not think much of the WSET, I think it started out as an educational tool but today it looks like anyone with $200 and free time can get certification. I read somewhere that 54k people passed last year. When I was getting into the wine business in the 1980’s I apprenticed with a Master Sommelier (there were 8 in the USA at the time) and some of NYC’s top retailers and self taught myself by reading and popping a lot of corks. I went to every trade show and pre-sale tasting I could manage, not to feel special or snotty but to actually learn as much as I could from people like Michael Broadbent, that hard work and years of dedication is much more valuable and always will be more so than a $200 pin or a title to gloat over. I am in the industry and know a lot people with advanced WSET and some barely know the difference between red and white wine as it is required by their employer to be certified because it appeals to the buyer who is equally certified. I read Alexis Lichine’s quote many years ago and it has stuck with me “There is no education like pulling a cork”

  6. Adam Chase says:


    Each WSET Level uses its own proprietary textbooks which are available to purchase through

  7. Steve, Here is the impact the WSET has,3CA2H,24R1ZG,BY7ZX,1
    I teach Diploma level 4 section 3 North America among other regions.
    We are required to teach about the climate, soils viti/vin, grape varieties, style and character of wines produced as well as tasting of representative wines from among other North American regions like Mexico, Okanagan Valley, Ontario, Hudson Valley, Long Island, Finger lakes, Santa Clara etc.

    46 years ago your premise is correct, today not so much

    Bob, The link does not work, CMS level one introductory course has a much higher pass rate than 3% more like 90%

  8. I am currently taking the WSET Diploma (Level 4 – there is no Level 5) and I have to study the wine cultures of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel, India, China, Japan, England, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada, as well as all the major wine-producing countries from France to New Zealand. I have also studied every spirit from Pisco to Calvados. Although the WSET can be prescriptive in its teaching and tasting methods, its focus is certainly not limiting.

    Harry Waugh wasn’t the only Brit extolling the virtues of California wine in the 1960s – Hugh Johnson was also writing about it long before the 1976 Paris tasting. Their equivalents taking WSET exams now couldn’t ignore California wine even if they wanted to.

  9. This article is well written, but that is a mere technicality, it is poorly researched.
    The history of the WSET and the IMW is so much more in depth than given credit for here. Also level, which is being withdrawn, was really an entrance exam for ongoing examination or study such as MW or even MS courses.
    I would also rather think that luminaries such as Olivier, Hugh, Jancis, Serena, Mary, D.C., not to mention many others who have taken some or all these examinations would beg to differ on the house palate.

  10. Bob Henry says:


    Not to sound boastful, but my work in the wine industry has garnered me friendships and friendly acquaintances with a high number of with Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine on both sides of The Pond.

    If there is a “through-line” to each person’s story, it is that they are autodidacts. Read every leading (and obscure) book on wine that they could.

    If there is a codified body of knowledge captured in textbooks endorsed by the organizations that award M.S. and M.W. credentials, I want to know about it.

    (Coming from a guy who doesn’t measure his wine library by the linear feet . . . but rather by the hundreds of pounds weight. The curse of the insatiable collector.)

    So thanks for the link:


    Just did a speed read of your website:

    Well-written with an eye for readable font and lots of white space (reminiscent of Apple print ads here in the States).

  11. Bob Henry says:

    A link to an older Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 Course and Exam white wine tasting grid:

    A link to the new (circa 2015) Court of Master Sommeliers white and red wine tasting grid:

    A link to the new (circa 2015) Court of Master Sommeliers deductive tasting format:

  12. Bob Henry says:

    The certified sommelier suggested reading list:

    (Aside: The “Grossman’s Guide” dates to 1983. That’s a human generation ago. Is there no contemporary trade guide?)

    The advanced sommelier suggested reading list:

  13. Here is the WSET Level 4 Diploma recommended reference list
    Go to pages 9 through 11

    Here are the WSET Level 3 learning outcomes
    Explain the key factors in the production of the principal wines of the world and describe how these influence wine style, quality and price

    Describe in detail the characteristics of the principal wines of the world

    Explain the key factors in the production of the principal sparkling wines of the world and describe how these influence wine style, quality and price

    Explain the key factors in the production of the principal fortified (liqueur) wines of the world and describe how these influence wine style, quality and price

    Explain the key factors in the production of the principal spirits and liqueurs of the world and describe how these influence wine style, quality and price

    Be able to provide information and advice to customers and staff about wines and spirits

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Thanks Mark.

    I did a speed read of the document.

    One immediate question: Given how much writing is involved (and the decreasing demands for handwriting long-form text in our modern society), do test takers get to use a computer to compose and edit their answers?

  15. Bob, Great question. The diploma is all written, in section 3, light wines of the world about 5 hours worth. Section 2 vit/vin is mc, units 4, 5 & 6 spirits,sparkling and fortified are all written as well. At this level they are training wine professionals and one of the main goals is the ability to communicate effectively. As a prerequisite to enter the MW program those who attain the diploma have at least a chance to make it through using their writing skills honed at Diploma level. Levels 1 & 2 are mc as is part of level 3. I do not think the writing aspect
    of diploma and MW will ever go away during exam conditions.

  16. Steve, when I took the Advanced WSET exam several moons ago (though not *that* many moons ago), there was an entire essay section on wines of the Pacific North West. Questions were asked there that were NOT covered in the class materials.

    I remember thinking “no problem, I know enough about WA and OR wines to do this.” But I also recall thinking “dang, if I’d taken this exam in Spain or London or Germany, I’d be f*cked!!!”

    Point being that WSET doesn’t ignore Left Coast wines; in fact, my understanding is that the curriculum tries to mimic the global wine trade, so CA wines for example do play a not insignificant part of that. So did Yellowtail, for example, when I took the Intermediate WSET courses in Philly!

    Finally, I’d argue that the WSET systemic tasting method actually helps prevent a house palate (it’s what I use, and if you’ll excuse a not-so-humble anecdote, I’ve had MWs mention me in their books citing my catholic palate; i.e., an ability to discern quality regardless of stylistic preference – which I can more humbly tell you is in no small part due to the tasting method taught in the WSET).

  17. Bob Henry says:


    Did you hand write your exam answers — or use a computer?


  18. Bob Henry says:


    Maybe WSET test-takers using a computer can write their answers in script emulating Jancis Robinson’s handwriting:

    “Want Your Writing to Look Like Einstein’s?;
    Computers Mimic Handwriting of the Famous
    Computer fonts mimic curves and flourishes of the world’s greatest thinkers”


    ~~ Bob

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