Wine Education Made Simple: The Best WSET Classes for Beginning Wine Collectors

best WSET classes for collectors

Master Sommeliers have to pass a difficult exam in order to earn the highest certification in the wine world. Collectors can earn similar certifications to help them select wines for their own cellars. Image Source: Wikimedia user OneArmedMan

As a collector, how do you find the bottles that you know are going to taste amazing and gain value on the secondary market? The best way to make this happen is to learn all you can about wine. Like a Master Sommelier, you should know how to pick out the best wines in a lineup, and like a Master of Wine, you should know which wines are on-trend, and what makes them utterly unique.                  

If you’ve been thinking about getting formal education in wine, remember that it takes as long as three years or more to study for the Master of Wine exam, which only has 338 certified members in the world. It takes even longer to study for the Master Sommelier exam, and there are only 147 certified experts out there. But beginning collectors don’t have to reach for these lauded titles if they want a worthwhile wine education. WSET offers dozens of introductory classes that are designed to give wine enthusiasts a comprehensive education, without spending decades studying for a single exam. With these classes, collectors can create certifications that will help them grow their collection wisely and expand their knowledge of wine.

Level 1 Award in Wines

The Level 1 Award in Wines class is designed for people who know next to nothing about wine. Students learn how to pair food with wine, which varietals are most popular around the world, how to taste wine systematically, and how to safely store and serve wine. This class is offered online and in physical class environments, making it easy for collectors to coordinate it with their busy schedules. To pass the class, students spend about six to nine hours in class, broken into sections. At the end of the course, students take a 30-question multiple choice exam to earn a certificate. These questions are very basic, but they are an excellent primer for future classes. An example of a real exam question reads, “What style of wine is Chablis? (a) Dry white (b) Dry red (c) Sweet white (d) Sweet red. If you know the answer to this question, you should consider the Level 2, rather than the Level 1, class.

How Level 1 Helps Collectors

Instructors no longer teach this class with the expectation that students will use the information as restaurant employees in the future. It is the ideal primer course that prepares brand new wine aficionados and collectors for a lifetime of wine experience; the information in this class is unlikely to be new to most collectors, but it can be highly informative to those just getting into wine for the first time. Beginning collectors who are starting a new collection may want to take this class to ensure that they understand the basics of wine before investing in a large number of bottles. This is the course designed for those who want to know the difference between Premier Cru Chablis like Raveneau and Sauvignon Blanc like Vineyard 29. Both are dry white wines, but they are made using entirely different techniques, which dramatically transform the flavor. The Level 1 course is also perfect for collectors who wish to understand the basics of how to store their wine without allowing bottles to spoil. Collectors will learn which storage techniques professionals use and why.

For all of its benefits, the Level 1 class isn’t for everyone. Collectors who have been buying wine for years will find the information in this course far too basic. Those who know how to taste wine, how to pinpoint differences between common varietals, and how to store wine have no need to take this class. However, for some, it can be helpful to take a class like this to catch any blind spots in your knowledge.

Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits

The WSET Level 2 class dives in deeper than the Level 1 class, but is still perfectly suitable for beginning collectors with some real world experience. Collectors don’t need to pass the Level 1 class to take this course, so many will prefer to jump right into Level 2 and skip Level 1 entirely. The main goal of this course is to teach collectors all about the grapes that they will encounter most often as a consumer, including the terroirs in which they are grown and the techniques winemakers use to manipulate the flavor (like racking off the lees or using oak barrels). In addition, students learn how to read any wine label to guess exactly how a wine tastes without having to try it. The class requires about 16 hours of in-class instruction and about 28 hours of outside study time. To pass, students answer a 50-question multiple choice test, which includes questions like, “Which of the following words indicates that a wine has been aged for a period in oak? (a) Chenin Blanc (b) Classico (c) Côtes du Rhône (d) Crianza. If you have no trouble answering this question, you might consider testing out of the Level 2 class to move on to Level 3.

How Level 2 Helps Collectors

This is the course I recommend to most collectors, regardless of whether they are just getting started or if they have been involved in the wine world for years. The course provides essential information on every style of wine and wine region any collector is likely to encounter on a daily basis. Not only do collectors learn the difference between red and white wines on a basic level, the instructor talks about what specifically gives these wines these qualities and what they should look for in a wine label to better their chances of buying bottles with the qualities they most enjoy. Another bonus of the class is that Level 2 instructors offer students a long list of wines to try. This allows students to learn how to taste the difference between something like Southern Rhone Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape and Barossa Valley Chris Ringland Shiraz, by understanding what flavors make Rhone stand apart from other intense red wines. This is also the course we most recommend for collectors who consider themselves experts on a handful of wines, but who want to expand their tastes. It’s much easier to get into a new style of wine when an instructor walks you through the process and offers up connections to regions you already know and love.

Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits

The Level 3 course is only available to those who have passed the Level 2 exam (collectors can skip the Level 2 classwork as long as they can pass the final exam without assistance). While the Level 2 course is a comprehensive look at the wine market, the Level 3 course is focused entirely on wine quality and specific producers. In this class, students learn how to identify wines by a producer’s style (for example, many Napa Valley producers make jammy wines). Students also learn how to compare low-end and high-end wines purely by taste. Unlike any other course in the WSET roster, Level 3 students learn how to write effective tasting notes on a variety of wines.

To complete the course, students have to sit through 28 hours of classroom time, and complete as much as 84 hours of outside study. The final exam consists of a 50-question multiple choice section, a short answer section, and blind tasting notes for two different wines (identifying the wine and its price point). An example of a multiple choice answer reads, “Which of the following descriptions best defines the style of Alsace Riesling? (a) Dry with high acidity and petrol-like nose (b) Medium-sweet with low acidity and a petrol-like nose (c) Dry with low acidity and a honeyed nose (d) Medium-sweet with low acidity and a honeyed nose.”

How Level 3 Helps Collectors

This is the ultimate class for a collector looking to make the leap from a dedicated beginner to a serious wine collector. This is the class that will help a collector determine his own collection’s worth on the wine market without the help of a wine professional. Level 3 teaches collectors to look beyond the basics flavor profiles of grapes and wines, and learn how to analyze wines critically. With this course, collectors not only learn how to tell the difference between Jean Gautreau Medoc and Beausejour St. Emilion Bordeaux blends, they will learn why the St. Emilion bottle is worth so much more than the Medoc bottle on the secondary market. This kind of knowledge allows collectors interested in investment to learn which bottles are worth collecting, rather than chasing wines that are relatively common and not likely to gain much on the market. A collector’s tasting notes will also dramatically improve after taking this class, making it easy to enter quality tasting notes into apps like VinCellar.

Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits

The Level 4 Diploma course is considered the first stepping stone to a Master of Wine distinction. In fact, most of the Masters of Wine working in the wine world today have taken this course at some point in their careers. The majority of students who take this course are preparing for senior positions at restaurants or wineries, but it is also open to private collectors with a passion for wine. The course builds on everything students learn in Level 3, and all students must complete the entire Level 3 class before signing up to receive the Level 4 Diploma. The course offers six instructional units, and each unit requires either a short answer exam or blind tasting notes to pass. Throughout the course, students learn about the business of alcoholic beverages, winemaking techniques, light wines of the world, spirits of the world, sparkling wines of the world, and fortified wines of the world. Students take 60 credits worth of classes, which equals about 600 total learning hours.

How Level 4 Helps Collectors

This is a class that takes collectors into wine expert territory, teaching collectors how to become their own sommeliers by providing in-depth knowledge on nearly every wine varietal in the world. By the end of the six units, collectors will never have to ask a sommelier for advice on a wine ever again. This is by far the greatest benefit of the course: collectors may save money on their collections, since they no longer have to hire an expert to help them make bottle selections or maintain their cellars. However, the Level 4 course is close to being overkill for most serious collectors. Casual collectors who have no interest in becoming true, certified wine experts will not want to sign up for this course as it requires hundreds of hours learning skills that many people will never get to use. We recommend the Level 4 Diploma only to those who plan on switching to a career in the wine world down the road, or who want to become wine experts and offer advice or services to others. This is a grueling course that many students aren’t able to pass on the first try, so only the most dedicated collectors should consider it.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buyingselling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.

Leah Hammer is Vinfolio’s Director of Cellar Acquisitions, guiding private collectors through the selling process. When not on the hunt for amazing cellars, she competes in marathons and rehydrates with Champagne and Burgundy.