A sommelier’s day encompasses far more than roving between the cellar and myriad tables, decoding what their customers really want to drink, and spouting off astute suggestions to match with their dinner. There is also a vast inventory to manage, glasses to polish, and trade tastings to attend. For those who have their sights on earning the Masters of Wine certification, an ambitious road of testing looms ahead, with an infinite amount of information to memorize across late nights devoted to poring over books and maps.
One institution many of them turn to for such rigorous studies is the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the London-based grande dame founded in 1969. Gradually, it grew to offer certifications and qualifications, from a WSET Level 1 Award in Wines to a WSET Level 4 Diploma—there are also tracks in sake and spirits. Now, WSET’s presence is felt in over 60 countries, where some 50,000 examinations in 17 languages are administered through upward of 600 Approved Programme Providers.
Take the Grape Experience Wine and Spirit School, with locations in San Francisco, Napa, and the greater Boston area. For more than 12 years Adam Chase has been running the Grape Experience programs, including online self-study. He says about 10 to 15 percent of the 350 to 400 students who partake each year are eager sommeliers. Some of them, drawn to WSET’s interactive learning approach, take it in conjunction with a Master Sommelier course. Many refer their colleagues, “which for me is a mark that we are doing something right and that the program is valuable,” Chase adds.
Most of these sommeliers hail from “upscale, casual restaurants, setting the pace for food and wine in their locality,” he says. “They have a real desire to learn about what makes a wine taste the way it does, the brass tacks and the nuances. When we taste specific wines in class, they usually lead discussions about what the winemaker did to get a certain flavor or style.”
Even chefs are increasingly seeing the value in WSET, particularly in levels two and three. Chase thinks that investigating topics like farming and winemaking offer them broader perspectives on taste profiles and dining culture.
However, WSET, Chase believes, is especially alluring to sommeliers because of the confidence it fosters, which is essential to their conversations with customers, importers, distributors, and winemakers. “The breadth of information covered by WSET enables a sommelier to speak with some depth about wine styles and any region, even if they have never been to or tasted a specific wine from there,” he says.
This, he thinks, is the result of WSET’s dual learning and tasting method. The former explores wine through the lens of climate, soil, topography, viticulture, and vinification. The latter “gives sommeliers a way to compare and understand what determined that wine’s style and quality. In addition, it gives them a framework for talking about any wine without having to search for words. In front of a customer or seller this ability to dialogue, ask questions, and make recommendations with ease provides 360-degree confidence: The customer trusts the sommelier, while the sommelier feels confident about what he or she is saying. The entire experience is improved,” he explains.
Four years ago Joanna Wyzgowska, sommelier at the Clocktower inside the New York EDITION Hotel, was bartending at another restaurant when—at the suggestion of the wine director—she embarked on the WSET course. “I was interested in shaping up my wine knowledge since many of our bar guests asked questions about our extensive by-the-glass selection,” she recalls. She was eager to buoy her career, and WSET satiated her budding “curiosity to learn more about wine. How it was made, where and what kinds of grapes were grown throughout the world, and why these wines tasted as they did. I really wanted to find out why Chablis was so different from a California Chardonnay.”
WSET, she attests, was the best investment, “a springboard to career development. It provided me with a solid and focused foundation in wine education that helped me step into a role of a sommelier much quicker. Had I only relied on learning on the job, it would have taken me much longer to get up to speed.”
The most useful aspect of WSET, she says, was the combination of theory lectures and tastings, with an investigation of side-by-side vintages proving one of the most useful exercises to her growth.
Mark Guillaudeu, sommelier at the San Francisco location of sushi and Japanese steakhouse Roka Akor (there are locations in Illinois and Arizona, as well), grew up in a family of teetotalers, so his wine savvy was especially rudimentary. Upon abandoning a management position at a health club, he joined an organic grocer in Washington, D.C. “I knew if I wanted to make my way forward, I needed to find a way to differentiate myself,” he recalls. That’s when he discovered that WSET “had the best and widest standing in the world.” He took the leap, and a week after taking his first test he was promoted back into the management sphere.
“From the very beginning of my career in food and beverage, I’ve seen nearly immediate returns for every level I’ve gone up with WSET. In a market increasingly saturated with Court of Master Sommelier pins, at the certified level at least, WSET remains a mark of differentiation,” he says. “I found that for every dollar I invested in education through WSET, I saw a five- to six-dollar increase in my salary within nine months. That has held true for me at every step, from WSET two to WSET three to Diploma, and now as I begin my application process for the Master of Wine.”
Beyond WSET’s mandatory geographical and technical curriculum, Guillaudeu says, “The economic and trade studies it inspires [are] incredibly helpful.” To illustrate his point, he explains that during his Diploma exams he “was blinded on Lambrusco, white Zinfandel, and rosé Cava. These are all wines with substantial market share, but even though classic and recognizable, they fall outside what some would call ‘fine wine.’ They are therefore neither drunk nor studied, to the intellectual and gustatory impoverishment of all parties. The perspective I gained from the Trust to ask why a wine is how it is, and to judge its quality as a function of skill, expressiveness, and position in market, has been—and will always be—the most important thing I learned from the WSET. The scope the WSET requires is uncommon and immensely beneficial.”
This is exactly why Christine Parkinson decided to tackle WSET. She launched her hospitality career as a chef before moving on to the food and beverage realm. For the past 16 years she’s worked at the London-based Hakkasan Group, where she’s group head of wine. In addition to London, these dramatically designed Chinese fine-dining restaurants are found in Las Vegas, New York City, Miami, and San Francisco as well as in the Middle East and Asia. The portfolio also includes Chef Brian Malarkey’s Herringbone and Searsucker concepts, and Vegas destinations like Citizens Kitchen & Bar and Fix. Seeking advanced wine qualifications, she turned to the WSET 4 Diploma, a move she describes as life-changing: “You start the course as an enthusiast, and—whatever your job—end it as a wine professional.”
In an industry besieged by shortages of talented labor, WSET is one resource for keeping sommeliers focused and motivated. “I notice time and again that once people gain WSET qualifications, they tend to stay longer and progress further in the company,” says Parkinson. “Hospitality skills are vital, of course, but the knowledge you can get from WSET underpins them.”
Parkinson has been leading WSET courses for over a decade for her staff globally. That her training still impacts them is her greatest reward. “I’ve even had people stop me on the tube and say, ‘Do you remember I came to one of your courses?’” she says. “To see people develop careers around wine because of that [course] is truly priceless.”