WSET Diploma Unit 2: Grades and other Bits ‘n Bobs

50%?  That’s an F.

-My Dad whenever I told him that I’d halfway finished something

Growing up, I heard the above relatively frequently from my Dad.  Usually, it was regarding one of my household chores that I’d completed somewhat, but not fully.  Often, this was mowing the lawn.  It’s been 20-some years since I set foot in my childhood home, but in my mind the lawn was roughly equivalent to the 153 square blocks that constitute Central Park in New York.  In actuality, it was 1/4 an acre (I just Zillowed it).

Nonetheless, I could never seem to complete the mowing of our lawn in a single day.  I’d do the front, and maybe part of the back, before throwing in the towel and promising that I’d finish up the following day.  “I did half of it!” I’d tell my Dad . . . and then he’d come back at me with some variation of his zinger “Half?  That’s an F.”

The first time I said this to Hubs it was in response to him saying he’d done “half the laundry” – which really means just moving the wet stuff from the washer into the dryer. He replied “no it’s not, 50% is a C.”  We had a nice long debate over this until he came around to my way of thinking . . . but had he been British – he would’ve had a point.

British Grading System.  I recently started pursuing my Diploma through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).  When I found out their grading scale for exams, I was a bit surprised (more on that later).  Since the WSET is based in the UK, I did a little research on the country’s grading system as a whole.  Turns out – it is VERY different from the US.  (I promise I get to the wine portion of this entry shortly, but humor me for just a moment…)

As a rough guide, here’s how a Bachelor’s Degree in the UK would shake out: (and yes, I’m spelling it honoUrs because we’re talking about the Brits!)

  • First-class honours – typically 70% or higher
  • Second-class honours, upper division – typically 60 – 69%
  • Second-class honours, lower division – typically 50 – 59%
  • Third-class honours – typically 40 – 49%
  • Without honours – awarded an ordinary degree, sometimes known as a “pass”.

I am gobsmacked by this.  Does this mean that a bloke with a 35% gets a Bachelor’s degree from University and graduates with the rest of his mates?  If so – that’s a bit barmy.  (“Use ‘gobsmacked’ in blog entry” is officially checked off the bucket list!)

Anyhoo – onto wine specifics:

WSET Grading Scale.  The WSET somewhat follows the general UK system – here’s their grade range:

  • 75% and Above – Pass with Distinction
  • 65% – 74.9% – Pass with Merit
  • 55% – 64.9% – Pass
  • 45% – 54.9% – Fail
  • Below 44.9% – Fail Unclassified (read: you REALLY fucked up here)

So essentially, I need to get a 55% to pass each of my Diploma exams.  I haven’t mentioned this to my Dad yet, but I know exactly what he’d say.

I had some difficulties finding information on overall pass rates for the various Diploma Units – but the dreaded Unit 3 has a pass rate hovering around 50%Other sources put it closer to 32%.  Unit 3 is likely the reason why there are only 9,441 individuals in the world who have the WSET Diploma certification. And likely why this Unit is the last one tackled by most candidates.  (FYI: Unit 3 covers “Light Wines of the World” – which essentially means all wines in the world except for Sparkling and Fortified Wines as these are covered in other Units.   From what I’ve heard, it’s recommended that Diploma students take the Oxford Companion to Wine and put it to memory – because basically everything in that 900+ page tome is fair game on the Unit 3 exam.)

Believe me, I’m not knocking the material – I’m already studying a ton and there is a LOT of information to digest and learn/memorize. And I’m only taking the “easy” Unit right now!

And since we’re having a chin wag about grading scales (I could just keep going with this British slang!), for the record here are how a couple other wine certification programs rank their exams:

  • The Wine Scholar Guild (who runs the French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Scholar, etc. programs): Passing grade is 75%. Candidates scoring 85-90 pass with Honors. Candidates scoring 91-100 pass with Highest Honors.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: 60%. It doesn’t appear that there are honors or merit – just pass/fail.

Ok, enough about obsessing about the grades before I get the collywobbles (last one, I promise!).  Here’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks:

Unit 2 – Where it All Begins.  Yes, the entire program starts at Unit 2 rather than Unit 1 – just accept this as fact and move on (I’ve done the research and don’t have an answer).  Unit 2 covers “Wine Production” – so, basically all things Viti and Vini (aka viticulture and vinification).  This actually makes sense as it gives candidates a good foundation for the rest of the Diploma Units (which include Fortified Wines, Sparkling Wines & Global Wine Business). The Unit 2 exam is 100 multiple choice questions which I’ll have 90 minutes to complete.

There’s a study guide for Unit 2 provided by WSET and everything on the exam will come from this text.  So, I’m madly highlighting and outlining and trying to tackle a little bit each day.  WSET books

I’ve heard through the grapevine (pun seriously NOT intended but I decided to keep it in) that Unit 2 is used to “weed out” individuals who may not be ready to pursue the full Diploma.  Basically, if you can’t pass a multiple-choice exam where the answer is somewhere in front of you, you may want to rethink whether you’re ready to continue on to other Units (please don’t let me regret typing that last sentence).

My Unit 2 Class – Neptune School of Wine. My in-class sessions for Unit 2 were held on 3 consecutive Saturdays (approximately 6 hours per day).  Other WSET providers have different schedules – some meet for 10 weeks for 2.5 hours each session (International Wine Center in NYC) or there’s a (super) intensive weekend where you go all day Saturday and Sunday (Napa Valley Wine Academy).  I think my classes hit the goldilocks spot for me and was just right.  Now I’ve got 5+ weeks to self study before my exam on June 30th.

There were a total of 3 students (aka candidates in WSET lingo) in my Unit 2 class.  All ladies. 🙂  This was quite a change from my WSET Level 3 class where there were around 20 of us – and split fairly evenly between guys and gals.  With 3 students, there’s no hiding in the back of class (which is where I normally plant myself).  And there’s no ability to abstain from participating (which is also what I normally do).  So I was front and center – and I never thought I’d say this but . . .  it was kinda awesome.

Our instructor, Peter Neptune MS, is a wealth of knowledge and experience.  These classes were essentially getting one-on-one tutorials from a Master Sommelier – something that most wine enthusiasts would pay a shit-ton of money for.  In my previous wine classes, I didn’t often speak up for fear of sounding stupid or being wrong.  And I sure as hell didn’t want to sound like the the jackass who “corrected” my FWS instructor as to the distance between two areas in Burgundy when she said it was 13km (he annoyingly chimed in “ahhhh, I think it’s more like 12km.”)  Seriously – don’t be that guy.  Nobody likes that guy.

That All Sounds Fine & Dandy – But Did You Get to Drink Wine in Class? Even though there isn’t a tasting component to Unit 2, we did go through a fair amount of tastings in class to get a better grasp of the WSET method of writing tasting notes (aka the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine in WSET lingo).  The examiners want their notes done in a specific manner and the best way to do this is practice, practice, practice! 🙂

I enlist Hubs to blind pour me wine a couple of times a week.  However, I usually know which wines he’s pouring – just not the order.  Which is not the same as true blind tasting where you have NO idea what’s in the glass in front of you.  Going through this with Peter in class was eye-opening – and the results not completely surprising to me:

– I’m much stronger at French wines then Italian wines.

– I need to work on picking up oak aromas – in wines besides the typical California Chardonnay where it all but hits you upside the head.

– Expand my palate – move beyond Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Try to get my hands on some aged wines.

– Stop second guessing myself and trust my gut (and my nose, and my taste buds).

Thankfully, WSET is more concerned with you identifying characteristics of the wine (aromas, structure, quality) then they are with you identifying the actual wine itself.  I think you only get 1 point for correctly identifying the wine.  Although, of course, many people – including myself – often focus on this.

I feel fortunate to have been in such a small class because it really boosted my confidence and made me realize that I know more than I think I do.  But – there’s still a lot more that I don’t know. 🙂  So, back to the books and I’ll post an update on my WSET journey after my Unit 2 exam!  Keep your fingers crossed for me!  Cheerio!





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