WSET Diploma Unit 2: The Results Are In!

Well, I have officially cleared my first hurdle in my WSET Diploma pursuit!  Now there’s just four more exams and a research paper.   :-/  As I mentioned in my previous post on the Diploma, Unit 2 is required to be taken before any of the other five Units are attempted.  But, once you pass Unit 2, you’re free to move onto whichever Unit(s) you choose.  (Editorial Note by Hubs:  Ms. Noelle passed “with Distinction” – a designation akin to summa cum laude for this particular Unit – the highest honor awarded.  The dogs and I simply couldn’t be more proud of her!!)

As I look back at my studies for Unit 2, there are definitely some habits that I will continue as I move forward with my Diploma pursuit (the “dos”) – and others that I absolutely will not (the “don’ts”).  Now, anyone who grew up reading Glamour back in the day probably recalls their fabulous back page of DOs and DON’Ts.  Although it wasn’t particularly PC – it was absolutely my favorite part of the magazine (admit it, yours too!).  So, without further ado (and with a similar lack of PC) here are my WSET Diploma Unit 2 DOs and DON’Ts:



Unit 2 DOs

DO read the suggested readings.  Even though all questions on the exam come from the actual Unit 2 textbook, I found the supplemental readings invaluable.  Specifically, Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW and Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird MW (future book review/blog post forthcoming!)  BooksBoth of these books cover similar information as the Unit 2 text, but they go into more depth and detail.  Being able to read about concepts such as the effects of nutrient deficiencies in a vineyard, or SO2 limitations in wine, in plain English helped me get a more fundamental understanding of the subject matter.  As I might’ve mentioned before – I don’t “science” very well.   😉

DO study every day – even if it’s just a little bit.  Some days I dove into the text for a few hours, and others I just reviewed my outlines and flashcards.  But I honestly don’t think there was a single day in between when I had my first Unit 2 class and when I took my exam that I didn’t study for at least a short while.  I wanted to keep what I learned at the forefront of my brain so it was easy to recall, because believe me, at 45 I have amassed a lot of useless crap in there. (If anyone wants to know the lyrics to any song on The Smiths “Louder Than Bombs” album, or the chronological order of deaths on The Walking Dead, I’m your gal).

Studying in between flights at SeaTac’s Vino Volo!

DO practice the sample questions in the Unit 2 textbook.  I won’t go into too much detail as to specific questions on the exam, but let’s just say that some of them were eerily similar to the sample questions in the textbook.  Review these.  You won’t regret it.

Unit 2 DON’Ts

DON’T get stuck in the minutiae.  When studying, I have a habit of trying to learn – and memorize – everything.  I tend to get bogged down in the details . . . sometimes at the expense of moving forward.

With Unit 2, I spent a lot of time memorizing types of vineyard pests and learning which rootstocks do best in which types of soil.  And no, this wasn’t because I was fascinated with grapevine yellows or Vitis rupestris.  I was just totally struggling with these areas and thought that if I memorized as much as I possibly could about them that I’d do better on the exam.  So, I spent an exorbitant amount of time on these topics and, while there were a couple exam questions on them, there were more questions on quality control and herbicides – areas that I hadn’t spend much time on because I’d been so in the weeds (pun intended) with others.

DON’T overthink the exam questions.  This advice came to me courtesy of after her experience with the exam, and it was spot-on.  Come exam time, you’ve learned so much that you’re likely to overanalyze the test questions and wonder if the examiners are actually asking you something else or trying to trick you.  (Answers: they’re not, and they’re not.)  The Brits might be strict and reserved, but they’re a fair lot.  Feel free to remind me of this quote when I don’t do well on one of my upcoming exams.

And finally, DON’T overdo it. Although I mention above that studying every day is a DO, it is possible to go overboard. Like accessories, sometimes less is more. So if you’re practicing flashcards while getting a bikini wax – you’ve probably taken this too far. Purely hypothetically, of course. :-/

My next WSET class is in a few weeks – I’m tackling Unit 5: Sparkling Wines of the World.  And yes, I’m already making my way through the recommended reading.  But, lesson learned, I’m leaving the book at home before my next appointment at OC Wax.

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!





Book Review: Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW

I recently finished reading Viticulture: An introduction to commercial grape growing for wine production by Stephen Skelton MW.  Like many of my friends, I assume your first response may be “Why?!?!”  Well, the book is recommended reading for WSET Diploma students, so way back in October  – well before I could even register for the Diploma –  I ordered it.  Anyone who knows me is probably not surprised by this fact.  However. . . I’m embarrassed to say that it took me until the end of January to finish Viticulture.  At 123 pages, this means that I averaged just about one page per day.  A fact I’m not particularly proud of.

Viticulture is one of the densest, most information-packed texts I’ve ever read (yep, this includes my three years at law school) which might help explain why I went through it at such a snail’s pace.  Another excuse explanation is that a lot of this stuff was new to me and I wanted to absorb it slowly.  My only other academic exposure to this particular subject has been (i) my WSET Level 3 course last Spring; and (ii) my current enrollment in Northwest Wine Academy’s Viticulture class with Sparkman Cellars’ winemaker, Linn Scott (who is incredibly knowledgeable and has an awesome ability to make the subject matter more interesting with tons of personal stories and experiences.)

Yet another reason why this book took awhile for me to get through is because, well, . . it deals with science.  Much to the disappointment of my metallurgical engineer-working, astronomy-loving Dad, I’ve just never taken to science ever since I got a D+ in Life Sciences in 7th grade (thanks a lot, Mr. Santner!).  Even today, it’s just much easier for me to memorize the 10 Crus of Beaujolais, or the 13 permitted grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, than for me to learn the different types of rootstocks or soil pH levels.

Even though Viticulture is a science textbook at heart, the author thankfully writes in a humane and comprehensible manner.  Overall, I found his writing style to be straightforward and educational, a fact that is greatly appreciated by those of us who are scientifically-impaired.  I also enjoyed the occasional personal anecdote or opinion – particularly on the topic of biodynamic viticulture.

Trellising Systems

What’s this book about?  The book covers everything from the annual cycle of the vine, to site selection, to canopy management.  As with most viticulture texts, several pages are dedicated to phylloxera, its history and its “solution” via rootstock development and grafting.  Viticulture digs deep (pun totally intended) into the various soil layers and their characteristics.  And there are two entire chapters on diseases, viruses and vineyard pests.  The author goes into such detail about these various insects, larvae and bugs that I found myself getting the heebie jeebies.  (Sidenote: surprisingly, the heeby jeeby is, in fact, NOT a vineyard pest – but the ever popular Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer is.)

Saint Joseph granite
Granite from the Northern Rhône

Who’s this book for?  This is neither a light, nor particularly fun, read.  So I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s just curious about viticulture and is looking for some general information.  Pick up The Oxford Companion to Wine or The Wine Bible instead.  Viticulture is way too intense and detailed for the lay person merely looking for a broad overview on the subject.

However, if you’re studying for a higher level wine certification, or working in the wine industry, or you’re my Dad, then this book is perfect for you.  Just give yourself plenty of time to digest the subject matter – this isn’t a Dan Brown page turner.

At this point, I have no idea whether this book covers more (let’s hope so!) or less than what I’ll need to know for my first WSET Diploma exam in June.  But I do know that having finished Viticulture I’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on the subject that I simply didn’t have before, so for that Mr. Skelton, I thank you.  Viticulture will undoubtedly do wonders in helping me with my never-ending pursuit of wine education.  Now let’s just hope that I can do a little better than a D+ on the exam! 😉



I recently found out that my first WSET Diploma Unit classes won’t be starting until May, 2018. This is totally fine, as it gives me plenty of time to prep . . . but maybe too much time. I can’t see immersing myself solely in all things viti and vini for six months.

I’ve decided I need something else to occupy my brain during this time as well – so I’m going to register for the Italian Wine Scholar certification thru the Wine Scholar Guild.

Italian wine scholar

I’m definitely not as confident about Italian wines as I am about French. I don’t drink a lot of Italian wines and when we visited the country in 2010, I was just beginning to have an interest in wine beyond California and Washington. If I’m going to successful in the WSET Diploma, I need to have a better grasp on Italian wine regions, the DOC/DOCG system, and all those obscure grapes that you don’t see much of outside of Italy!

So, I’ll likely be putting together several outlines in the upcoming months that are Italy-centric. I’m also going to try and teach an “Intro to Italy” class at my store sometime early next year . . . because I learn something best if I’m actually having to TEACH it to someone else. 🙂

I wouldn’t call Soave (or the grape it’s made from – Garganega) “obscure”, but it’s definitely not found much (if at all!) outside of Italy.  I’ve had some good Soave, but have yet to drink one that rocks my world.  Here’s the outline on Soave.

Viticulture: Crossings

My best friend sometimes calls me Tracy Flick. Coming from her, it’s meant as a term of endearment (I hope) due to my “go getter” attitude when it comes to wine studies. But anyone who has seen the movie Election knows that Tracy Flick was not a very likable gal – she had an annoying and incessant ambition that rubbed people the wrong way.

Tracy Flick
Me in my WSET class?  Let’s hope not. :-/

While her persistence (nevertheless) 😉 got her ultimately where she wanted to be, Tracy’s know-it-all attitude and hyper-preparedness bugged the crap out of almost everyone along the way.

Admittedly, I can see a hint of Tracy Flick-ness in me. Case in point: I’m registering for the WSET Diploma next year. I’m just waiting for the schedule to come out at the Neptune School of Wine and then I’ll decide if I want to head down there for classes, or do the first units online. In the meantime though, I’ve already started in on the “recommended reading” from the school’s website.

Right now, I can FEEL your eyes rolling at me.  And I totally get it.

Am I prematurely popping the cork on this? Perhaps. But I’ve never taken a viticulture class, so a lot of this material is relatively new for me. By doing advanced reading (and outlining, of course!) I’m hoping all this information will sink in my brain better.  Then, when it comes time for the actual Diploma classes, I won’t be cramming all this in because a lot of it will already BE there. 🙂

One of the first topics tackled in the textbook (Viticulture by Stephen Skelton) is vine crossings. Something that intrigues me, and baffles me (the latter usually is the case with anything remotely science related). Recently in the wine community, there seems to be a renewed interest in exploring vine crossings (also called vine breeding) due to climate change and an increased focus on organic and biodynamic farming methods.  The primary goal of most vine crossings is to produce vines that are disease resistant, can be grown with little to no chemical intervention, and that are capable of thriving in more marginal climates.

But just because we CAN create new varieties with these traits – should we? I have such limited exposure to crossings (although I have yet to meet a Zweigelt I didn’t like!), that I’m not going to opine on this.  Very un-Tracy Flick like, I know.

However, I did find this piece on Jancis Robinson’s website quite interesting . . . it was written by an MW after sampling several wines produced from newer vine crossings:

“But my real conclusion was that I didn’t really want to drink any of them that much, whatever level of scientific knowledge and endeavour had gone into the breeding of them. Maybe I should be more concerned about the environment and less hedonic but it seems like an awful lot of work to produce not very exciting wines. If a site is not suited to the production of existing varieties with high quality potential – because of climate restrictions or disease pressure or both – perhaps it is better not to try to grow wine grapes there? They may make it possible to produce wine, or different styles of wine, in marginal climates, but that doesn’t seem sufficient reason to go to all that effort to produce wines that are drinkable but not exciting.”

I think it will be interesting to follow the development of vine crossings and hybrids and see whether they gain acceptance in an ever-changing wine world.  I’d be more on board with giving these a chance since they have valid and compelling reasons for their creation as compared to something utterly ridiculous like, say, blue wine.  Now I’M rolling my eyes.

Here’s the outline on Crossings for a little more information.