The WSET: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Educational Institutions of a Wine People

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Mar 28, 2017


Last week was our last classroom session for the WSET Diploma. Alas, I missed it because of illness. But it seems a good time to reflect on my not-quite-finished two years of fieldwork among the WSET. (With apologies to Evans-Pritchard.) 

Like most fieldwork, it seemed at times interminable, and at other times, to go by in a flash. There was culture shock and disorientation. Who are these people? Why do they do these things? There were rites of passage: ‘So, what was wine number three?’ (Although I seem to be in danger of always being liminal: not quite an outsider, not quite one of them.) There were A-ha! moments, often leading to more questions. What I found intriguing and important often wasn’t what my informants thought was important. Or, to be fair, what I had thought might be important when I set out to understand this tribe.

I’ve been thinking about two general topics in regards to the WSET over the past few weeks. One, given how much I (and others) grumble about their exams and approach to teaching, is what I’d do differently, in an attempt to make it more effective, if I had a say. That’s a future post. The other is what has intrigued me the most about my time among the WSET.

I’m still not sure I can pick out one single thing above any others in terms of importance. But there is one I’m going to comment on here, and that’s something I keep coming back to, so my anthropological instinct suggests it is worthy of more attention. That one thing is the ambivalent relationship people seem to have with the Diploma, and the WSET more generally.

For non-anthropologists, please be aware that this is rather impressionistic. It’s a picture that has built up from casual conversations with people who have done the Diploma, or hold other WSET certifications, but refuse to do the Diploma. Anthropologists will recognise this as the sorting out of fieldwork stuff phase. This ambiguity seems to be something worth investigating in more depth, but quite when (if) that will happen remains to be seen.

What do I mean by ambiguity? Well, let’s start with the fact that WSET is the closest thing (at least in the UK) to an industry-standard training. This may well be by dint of being pretty much the only game in town, but the fact still remains. There is the sommelier track – leading to the Master Sommelier certification – but that has a different focus from WSET. Given this role, whatever one thinks of the WSET, you are probably going to encounter it at some level. If you look at wine industry jobs (again, in the UK, at least), many look for some WSET certification. These jobs are in the trade, or management – not in something like winemaking itself.

There’s an interesting post by someone in the US working on her Diploma, which reflects some of this as well. She describes it as composing of ‘rote memorization and testing,’ and the ‘cryptic and school-marm like remarks’ of the examiners. (Read the full story here). But she persists for the recognition it grants. That seems a decent summary of some of the tensions. I’d be a bit mischievous and point out that the certification isn’t necessary for the knowledge, and doesn’t always mean much. I think many Austrian wine-makers I’ve talked to aren’t familiar with the WSET. (Having said that – as an educator, I do realise the use and value of certifications / degrees.)

Others are much more explicit. Recently I ran into someone I did my WSET Level 3 (advanced) with. She had no plans to ever do the Diploma. When you’ve been in the trade as long as she has, she said, you realise that how WSET wants you to approach things is at odds with how you actually do things. She couldn’t unlearn – and didn’t want to – what she had learned during her career. Another time, I was chatting with an acquaintance who had, earlier in his career, done the Diploma.  Ah, the WSET, he said, as we were discussing my run-ins with fortified wine. ‘They can be a bit… odd.’ Others see it as in need of serious updating. Granted, orange and natural wines are my own interests, and otherwise a niche thing. But they are worthy of note, since they do seem to be catching on. And yet, they are completely ignored by the WSET. Similarly, in between the most recent set of exams, I overheard someone who had taken the fortified wines exam that day observing how they found it very odd that we still had to learn about Madeira, which not a lot of people drink these days, but learn nothing about vermouth.

Some of this can be put down to the universal past-time of students: complaining. Yet, I think there’s a lot of merit in these examples. I’ll cite just two more. At the end of our first semester of the Diploma, one of the students said she had asked her colleagues what was the most important thing they had gotten from the Diploma. They all answered ‘confidence,’ rather than any specific knowledge. The other point, more broadly, is that pretty much everyone has commented on how useless WSET-style tasting notes are. Pretty much any very good or outstanding wine is going to have lots of the same things written in terms of body, flavour and aroma intensity, and so forth. With a relatively limited vocabulary for describing tastes and smells, even at this level, they often read the same. I do understand the need for a core vocabulary to describe wines and their characteristics. I’m working on an academic piece to that effect. But nonetheless, when so many things smell like ‘red berries – raspberry, red currants, red plums,’ that doesn’t actually tell you much in the end. Even the instructors admit this. ‘Yeah, you’re going to be writing the same thing an awful lot,’ more than one of them has told us. 

And yet, we persist. We carry on, sniffing, tasting, writing ‘black fruits, some baking spices’ (which are then named) and so forth. I do think these points raised are more than student grumbles. My first examples were from people no longer doing the WSET, but who had done. Such comments often come unprovoked – except for the mention of WSET. I didn’t ask what they thought – just mentioned I was doing it. For an anthropologist, this is important.  Spontaneous comments are more interesting and useful than a response to a set interview or survey question. I’ll explain this to the non-anthro readers at some point, but not today. For now, I ask you to take my word on it.

Granted, a lot of my classmates are doing the Diploma to advance their careers. Perhaps for them it is just something to be suffered through. I would, however, still argue that there’s a very ambiguous relationship between WSET and its students (and, arguably, by extension, the wine trade). To me, as both a person interested in wine, and as an anthropologist, this raises many questions. Quite what the answers turn out to be, if I ever find them, is another matter. But my anthropological instinct tells me they are questions well worth exploring, and seeing where they lead. I’ll add them to my ‘to-do’ list.

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