Of Take-Out, Tissues and Index Cards: WSET Advanced Level Exam

(And Differences from the CMS Certified) 

A while ago I promised to tell you what I was doing while I was in hibernation at the beginning of the year.  Well, had you peeked in at me during the last weekend of March you would have found me in bed surrounded by index cards, tissues, and empty take-out bags lying around the apartment. Not pretty. The picture would have looked pretty much the same for the month before that . . . save for the tissues.

You might recall that about a year and half ago I took Court of Master Sommeliers’ (CMS) Certified Exam. After that, I decided I wanted to go further with my wine studies. However, even though I felt really lucky to get the opportunity to take the Somm class at the International Culinary Center, going further with the Court’s program didn’t seem right for me.  A huge focus of their exams is service and I don’t work in restaurants. My interests are nerdier than that. So, I decided to switch over to the Wine Spirit Education Trust (WSET) program because their program is geared a little more in that direction—it involves more writing and is a little more academic in structure, rather than being oriented towards restaurant work. (All in all though, to those considering doing both, I think the two programs help each other. I felt like I had a much better foundation for the WSET because I had done the CMS Cert, and I’m sure the reverse would be true. I even had questions on the WSET exam for which some knowledge of service was really useful.)

(NOTE: This post will have a lot of discussion of the two exams that might not interest those not planning on taking them. This might be boring to a lot of people, but I’m going to continue because I couldn’t find much on the subject in the lead up to my test when I was looking for it, and hope it'll be helpful to others. If you feel like you might want to read a little more, but want to skip all this technical wine geek stuff, free to scroll down to the *** mark.)

Whereas the Court’s program is almost all self-study, WSET’s program (which ultimately leads up to the Masters of Wine rather than the Master Sommelier designation) is structured around classes up until the last level. This makes the program potentially more expensive, but it’s helpful if you do well in a structured class setting—as I tend to do. So last fall I started taking the WSET’s Advanced level classes through the International Wine Center (IWC) here in New York City. The class met once a week for 15 sessions.

The material was very similar to the Court’s certified level with slightly different points of focus. In addition to the obvious shift from service, there was also more attention paid to vinification and viticultural practices and soil and climate variations.  I feel like the CMS class put a tiny more focus on appellation memorization, but either way you have to know them.

All of this leads up to a test of course.  The WSET exam has 3 parts, just like the CMS Certified.  Both exams have a blind tasting portion and a multiple choice theory portion. Rather than a service portion, though, the WSET’s exam has a more in depth theory essay section. (You can see a description and breakdown of the exam’s requirements here.)

I felt a lot better about blind tasting this time around. I wasn’t starting from almost square one like the last time.  In the lead up to the CMS exam I was basically building up a tasting memory library, which is like learning a language and training up an unused muscle at the same time. While blind tasting is still very tricky, by now I’ve had enough practice in this area to feel more comfortable with it. (And while I haven’t really discussed it here, I now work for one of the big wine magazines, which allows me amazing access to tasting a wide variety of wines, a lot of which I just couldn’t afford before.)

Beyond this though, I think the WSET Advanced Level blind tasting portion is a little easier than the CMS Cert’s.  In one way it is a bit trickier, because whereas on the CMS exam you’re given a grid with multiple sections of prompts to fill out in order to break down the components of the wine leading up to a final conclusion, on the WSET’s the grid you’re given is essentially blank. There is a section for sight, nose taste, etc, but there are no prompts within those. You have to memorize what you need to discuss in each section.

If you can memorize all that though, I still thinks it’s a little easier because on the CMS you always have a possibility of about 7 to 8 varietals each for red and white, and you have to try to determine the origin as well. For the WSET, it can be any varietal, however, you’re given three options that includes varietal and origin, so the playing field is vastly narrowed down for you. The tasting method both organizations teach are very similar though, and ultimately they’re both about building a case in your tasting grid that leads you to conclusion that should be consistent.

I knew and expected the theory would go more in depth, so even though I felt like had a good foundation from the CMS, from that WSET class, and although you only need 55% to pass each section, I studied my little butt off for the month before the exam. I am kind of nerd, after all. Outlines and index cards everywhere! Most days at lunchtime, I’d go someplace and review. At home, we ate a lot of delivery food during this time so I could use the extra time to study. I spent a lot of nights at home studying alone while Greg was out partying. *Sigh*

My exam was scheduled for April 1st, almost exactly a year after my CMS Certified Exam.  About a week before the CMS exam I caught a cold.  I was fairly on the mend by the day of the exam, but I was very wary of this happening again. I really tried to take care of myself and all seemed well. Then the Friday before my Monday exam, it hit.

The nastiest cold I’ve had in recent memory came out of nowhere and ran me down like a truck. There’d been no warning symptoms. Just all of a sudden, BOOM! And when I mean nasty, I mean just really gross. This was a sniveling, nose running like a faucet, mouth-breathing and snoring at night because I was so blocked kind of cold. Disgusting. I’d stick my nose all the way into a jar of Vic’s Vapor Rub and smell absolutely nothing. This did not bode well for an exam in which my sense of smell was integral.

Usually, I can smell this from practically across the room.

The exam was paid for though, and it was well past the cut off date for rescheduling, so if I didn’t take it I’d be out $250.  So I plowed on and hoped I’d be clear enough by Monday. I was light headed, but continued to go through my books and notes and quiz myself with my index cards in my half conscious state.  Now I was too sick to cook, and while Greg helped with this, we ordered even more delivery than we had been and the debris piled up. The apartment was starting to look like a scene out of Hoarders, with trash, tissues and books everywhere.

On Monday, I still felt awful and I called into work sick. However, on the plus side, cold-medicine actually had some effect on my ability to breath.  I could now smell the Vic’s! So, having nothing to loose, I figured I’d take the exam.  That evening, I took a double-dose of Day-Quil and headed to my test.

Luckily, the tasting portion is first, so I had about as good shot of being able to smell as I was going to have. I also caught a couple of breaks. The red was bright orange. Not a lot of varietals are that color besides Nebbiolo, unless they’re really old. Luckily, from the little I could taste and smell, the wine did seem like a Nebbiolo and Barolo was indeed one of the options. When I got to the white I thought I caught a faint whiff of oak from behind my blocked nasal passage, and that helps narrow the choices a lot.  (There’s a narrow field of whites that traditionally get put in new oak.) Seemed a lot like Chardonnay, and thankfully that was also a choice. PHEW!

I was feeling good through the multiple choice, and thought I did a good job of dodging some of the trickier questions. In comparison to the CMS Cert. I did think these were harder. The knowledge it was testing was the similar, but the questions were phrased in ways that seemed like they were more deliberately trying to trick you and it seemed like it would be more difficult to guess or reason your way to the right answer. The little details that are easy to miss when reading were more likely to make a difference here. But somehow, it seemed that some of information had seeped into my subconscious during my semi-delirious studying and floated to the surface in time for the test. I felt pretty good about this section.

By the essay portion though, I was feeling a little light-headed again, not to mention tripped about from the large dose of cold meds. I probably should have written this section first (you can do these two parts in whatever order you want) because my concentration was starting to waiver. The questions range widely, from topics like Botrytis (know all about Botrytis, it was all over the place), to effects of alcohol on the body, to wine pairings and alternate wine selections. There was even a question on Champagne service.

Even though I’m a good test taker, I am also prone to misreading questions and was even more vulnerable to that with my cold. I know it happened a few times. Of course, I didn’t realize it in the moment. Clarity comes hours later as my exam-induced dyslexia starts to decode itself in my mind when it’s far too late to do anything about it, and the knowledge serves no purpose but to haunt me.

And it definitely haunted me. The WSET is a British organization and for God knows what reason, the exams are sent back to Merry Olde England for grading, so it takes 2 to 3 months of waiting before you get your results. (I thought the hours I had to wait for the result from the CMS Cert were bad!) The mistakes I realized I made too late would surface in my mind to constantly replay themselves. Questions I missed because I didn’t know them are annoying, but I can live with. Questions I knew, but missed because I’d misread something would just keep replaying themselves over and over again to taunt me endlessly. (Yes, I realize this sounds a little crazy.)

I thought I’d done ok, even pretty well, but I would’ve believed anything of myself from how’d been feeling at the time of the test. I was really loopy by the end of it. Finally, after about 2 1/2 months of waiting, Greg and I got home after a late dinner out one night to find a big envelope from WSET waiting for me.  I was hoping that like with college acceptance letters, big envelopes meant good things.  The news was even better. I’d not only passed, but passed both the tasting and the combined theory portions with distinction! (The highest designation.)

My torment was over and I have to say I felt/feel pretty proud of myself. Maybe it’s good luck for me to take tasting exams with a cold? Still, I think I’d rather not try it a third time.

New pin! I kind of love that the figure drinking is a woman.




  1. Truly appreciate the step by step recital of both certifications. I sat for Certified last winter and am sitting for WSET level 3 in two weeks. Cheers!

    1. I apologize for not writing you back sooner--however, I think/hope I've got it just in time to wish you good luck!