One year later, or, Life without WSET

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Sep 24, 2018

It has now been, roughly, a year since I decided to drop my pursuit of the WSET Diploma. (A Parting of Ways…) In recently chatting with various people, and just thinking about wine in general, and this project in particular, it occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to stop and reflect. What has a year away from WSET taught me, if anything?  

The short answer is it’s taught me that my initial thoughts and reactions were correct. I mentioned in a previous post that one of my classmates had said people she had talked to who had done the Diploma said the main thing they took away was confidence. I’d agree with that. Granted, I don’t have the certification, but doing the Diploma, and the experience tasting that does with it, has made me more confident in evaluating wines. Or, more precisely, more confident in knowing how the WSET and those it trains would think of particular wines, which is not the same as what I may think. But not too confident. I did, after all, manage on my Sparkling Wines exam to evaluate and identify a vintage Champagne as an good, but standard, Prosecco.

Tasting-wise, I’m able to simply enjoy wine again. During the Diploma, one of the worse side effects was simply that one spent too much time having to think critically about a wine to be able to fully shut off and just enjoy a glass of wine. I can do that now. My calibration to WSET standards of alcohol levels, or tannins, or whatever, are probably way off. But my ability to evaluate yumminess is working better than it did during the Diploma.

What about more specific pieces of knowledge we had to learn and be able to spit back out for the exam? Actually, no. Very little of the specifics that we had to study and know for the various exams have stuck with me. Odd bits and pieces do – like the agave plant contains inulin, which needs to be converted to sugars before it can be fermented. But most of the classification stuff, the different wine regions of Chile and their soil types? Nope.

Can I tell you the names of the different Port regions, and their average rainfall? Sorry. Although in that case, I probably still do a vague description of trends in rainfall and terracing, and what-not. But in practice exams, at least, that wasn’t nearly good enough for WSET. I must admit, however, that I’m pretty sure if someone went in to a wine shop and wanted recommendations on Port, and was curious about the region, my descriptions would be as useful, if not more so, than being able to recite rainfall figures.

Doubtless, if you worked in the trade, more of this would have stuck with you than it did for me. But that would be because it was information you used, and so it eventually sinks in. In a similar way, many, if not most, anthropologists can give you the dates of key publications in our field. Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures? 1973. Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer? 1940. But that’s not because we set out to consciously memorise such information. Rather, it becomes ingrained through use.

In other words, the vast majority of what we had to learn is, for me at least, gone. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it was the same for most people I took the course with. Anyone who works with students, or was a student and is honest with themselves, could have told you that. Cramming numerous facts just to regurgitate them is, in many ways, learning trivia. It isn’t knowledge, it isn’t the ability to think with the information. And it almost never sticks with you.

In regards to my last point, I think it is telling that the sessions that stick most in my head from two years of the WSET – at least in a good way – are those where the instructor didn’t really do what was expected of them. They didn’t just show us the WSET-approved Powerpoints, and walk us through the exercises.

The one who brought in a 3D relief map of California to show visually how the mountains impacted wind and rainfall and what that meant for vines, instead of just telling us. The instructor who said in effect, ‘Well, I can tell you what WSET wants me to tell you, or I can tell you why I think this matters, and how it fits together.’ He did the latter, and everyone I talked to after found that much more effective in understanding the key points, and why things are done a certain way. My point here is that as an educator, I think that is more important. It is not only a better way to learn, but a better way to remember.

Let me be clear – I do have a great deal of admiration and respect for my friends and everyone else who did complete the Diploma. It really is quite an accomplishment. But I do ever think of going back and trying to complete it? No. Not in the least. And, in the end, I’m pretty sure that says what is most important about looking back a year after dropping out of the Diploma. I got out of the experience what I needed for my research, made some good friends, and even learned a bit about wine. I also learned that I don’t regret my decisions, either to do the Diploma, or to stop. Perhaps, most importantly, I remembered how to enjoy wine.

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