Wine & Spirit Education Trust
Wine & Spirit Education Trust Qualifications
For an overview of all wine certifications, including reviews of WSET, CMS, and NWS, you can check out our Sommelier Certification 101 page. For online sommelier certifications, please review our online wine courses page.
Level 1 Award in Wines
For anyone just starting in wine, this qualification is ideal. The course focuses on introducing different types of wine by learning the deductive tasting method. Other topics include common grapes and their characteristics, core food and wine pairing concepts, and how to describe wine accurately. Upon completing a 30-multiple question assessment, a lapel pin and a certificate are granted.
Level 2 Award in Wines
The L2 certificate builds on the knowledge gained in L1 and introduces more in-depth topics. Students study a variety of different grapes and how environmental, winemaking, and maturation affect these wines. Additionally, sparkling wine, fortified wine, and major wine regions are introduced. The exam has two parts: a 50-multiple choice question assessment and a blind wine tasting. Upon successful completion, a lapel pin and certificate are awarded.
Level 3 Awards in Wines
Level 3 is considered a professional qualification, especially for those who are building a career in wine. The course provides an in-depth exploration into viticulture, fermentation, aging, and distributing wine. Sparkling, fortified, and still wines of the world are also presented. The tasting portion of this course is also thorough: students must evaluate and describe wine at a professional level.
The assessment consists of three parts: a 50-multiple question portion, a short written paper, and a blind tasting. To receive a lapel pin and certificate, all three sections are required. Students are also able to use ‘WSET 3’ as part of their professional signature.
Level 4 Diploma in Wines
This is the highest level of WSET Certifications. An L4 diploma is a six-part wine course imparting expert knowledge in winemaking, wine businesses, fortified and sparkling wines, and an independent research assignment. This wine diploma takes 18 – 36 months to complete, and upon completion, a lapel pin and certificate are awarded. Students are also able to use ‘DipWSET’ as part of their professional signature.
Apart from the wine qualifications offered by the WSET, there are also qualifications available in spirits and sake.
Level 1, 2, 3, in Spirits
These qualifications work similarly to the qualifications in wine. Each level builds on the knowledge of the previous level. The topics covered in these qualifications include producing the spirits, types of spirits, flavor influences, and how to analyze spirits’ taste.
Level 1, 2, 3, in Sake
Similar to the wine and spirits qualifications, each level forms the foundation for the following level. The topics here include types and styles of sake and how to serve and store sake. In the third level, important issues regarding the sake industry and export markets are covered.
Whatever your industry needs, whether it be wine, spirits, or sake, the WSET offers some incredible options for each. These qualifications are held to the highest standard and great for any general wine or spirits industry.
What to Expect From a WSET Education
WSET is a franchise organization, which sells the rights to its educational programs to individual contractors. The content consists of PowerPoint presentations and wine tastings. At their best, these wine schools impart a thorough and detailed knowledge of wine. At their worst, an elitist British attitude reigns, along with an excessive reliance on repetition and memorization. The program is geared towards the restaurant professional, with modules on serving etiquette, spirits, beer, and cigar service, which may not be of interest to all students.
For the best WSET education possible, we strongly recommend checking out reviews of individual wine schools.
The best programs employ instructors at the top of their field who can make a standard WSET program shine. For instance, the Napa Valley Wine Academy offers the best in-person experience for WSET classes in the country.
Benefits of a WSET Education
Drilling down on the data, we have found that two types of students will almost always prefer this type of wine education. The first is those who have not earned a college degree. The rigorous demands of the program provide an assurance that these students are capable of achieving high status within their chosen profession. While these schools lack a level of creativity, they meet the educational needs of an underserved market.
The second group of students who seem to prefer WSET to other types of wine education are those outside the U.S. WSET is the most recognized certification worldwide, and it has spent decades adapting its programs in emerging markets like China, Africa and the Middle East. Its conservative nature and consistency is appealing to students who are working globally. WSET is well-known for its hierarchical structure, which may also benefit these learners by providing clear steps for advancement.
Our research is unambiguous on one important point: wine education does not have to be unique or trendy. There is great value in offering a wine course that has been largely unchanged for fifty years.
But our surveys show some concerning trends. Many students have soured on PowerPoint presentations and are concerned by the lack of diversity within the organization. However, the program is so widely known and respected that many continue to earn their Diploma despite these drawbacks.
History of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust is an organization that arranges courses and exams in the trade of wine and spirits. WSET was founded in 1969 in London. The school opened its American headquarters in 2017.
Commonly referred to as WSET, it is commonly regarded as one of the world’s foremost providers of wine certification. It grew out of the Wine & Spirit Association’s Education Committee and was subsidized with the financial help of the Vintners’ Company.
In London, the original Wine & Spirit Education Trust administration reports to a Board of Trustees with 8 members; three from The Vintners’ Company, three from the Wine & Spirit Association, one from the Worshipful Company of Distillers (London), and another from the Institute of Masters of Wine. However, in the United States, there is no such oversight.
Why WSET Was Established
Before the Wine & Spirit Education Trust was established, the British wine industry had no key source of knowledge. The only way people learned about wine was through hands-on training in the country where they lived. It’s one reason the British wine industry continues to have a deeply regional perspective to this day.
For example, a person from London could become an apprentice at an auction house or wine shop where Rhine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux wines generally dominate. This person may master these wines but not the wines sold in other locations such as Italy, Spain, Germany, etc. Even people who lived in the French regions of the Loire or Rhone Valley would not understand wines manufactured in other French regions like Bordeaux or the Jura. This British-centric approach continues to this day.
Programs for Restaurant Staff
The courses given by WSET were originally intended for employees in the wine & spirit trade. The majority of students remain largely restaurant employees. However, their programs are also attended by non-professional connoisseurs. The WSET further offers professional certification in the United States, with franchises across the country.
How Much Do Exams Cost?
Either online classes or in-person seminars are included in the cost of a WSET exam. There are many WSET affiliates, and they all charge different prices and package the exams in unique ways. The pricing we have supplied is the least you will spend taking the exams. We do not include the cost of the Level 1 Award ($800+) in our calculations since it is not required to sit for Level 2.
- Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits $600+
- Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits $1000+
- Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits$7500+
The diploma includes the following sections:
- The Global Business of Wine
- Wine Production
- Light Wines of the World
- Spirits of the World
- Sparkling Wines of the World
- Fortified Wines of the World
Total Cost of WSET Exams: $9,100+
WSET Certification Versus WSET Schools
There are over one hundred WSET franchises in the United States. With minimal oversight, the quality of those schools is very variable. In our independent reviews, we have found that the instruction at WSET schools spans the gamut from excellent to disappointing.
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust has a unique business model. It franchises its educational material and certifications to independent contractors around the country. In the past, there was only a single wine school per major city. That restriction is gone now. This has resulted in well-capitalized schools Fine Vintage LTD dominating many cities across the country.
Best Wine & Spirits Education Trust Schools
With more oversight of various wine schools, their sommelier certifications could regain their place as one of the top wine education firms in the United States. If you are interested in WSET courses, we strongly suggest looking toward Napa and NYC. Otherwise, you may get an outdated PowerPoint presentation and a glass of middling wine. It would help if you also read our reviews of individual wine schools very closely before committing to a specific WSET school.
A key point is to make sure the school’s teaching staff are certified wine educators.
Who is WSET America Trying to Fool?
What WSET America tells the IRS is not what they tell its students. Did you know that WSET is not a school, an accreditation body, or a trade organization? It is a private foundation.
An expert on non-profit school classifications says this is a serious problem. Schools are not typically organized as a private foundation.
Private foundations are funded by an individual, family, or a corporation, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Ford Foundation. These individuals and corporations typically make large donations to the foundation. The foundation invests the donations. The goal of the foundation is to distribute the income from their investments to charitable works like universities or medical research.CAROL TOPP, CPA
The IRS goes further in publication
A private foundation is prohibited from allowing more than an insubstantial accrualIRS, PUBLICATION 4221-P, REV 8-2014
of private benefits, including non-monetary benefits, to individuals or organizations.
The intent is to ensure that a tax-exempt organization serves a public interest, not a
According to their IRS records, WSET America clearly states their only activity is the charitable “supplying education materials.” Link.
As a Private Foundation, WSET America must disperse all its income to charitable works in the public interest. Plus, they cannot give preferential treatment to people inside their own organizations. Bottom line? Its only power is to give away money to people outside its organization. It definitely cannot issue wine certifications or manage a chain of franchised wine schools.
Yet on their website, WSET claims it “provides best-in-class education and qualifications to inspire and empower the world’s wine and spirits professionals and enthusiasts…The Wine & Spirit Education Trust is an awarding body and registered charity devoted to the development and delivery of qualifications and courses in wines and spirits.”
This is a dangerous game they are playing. Let’s break this down. To the IRS, WSET America claims that it’s funded by large donations and distributing those funds to good causes. To potential students, it claims to be able to run wine courses and award professional certifications. These two claims are contradictory.
As it currently stands, WSET is not legally authorized to issue professional certifications or qualifications in the United States. This is a dangerous game they are playing with the iRS. WSET is at risk of being audited and shut down, rendering every WSET qualification null and void across the Americas. That would destroy the reputation of dozens of wonderful WSET wine schools across America.
There is a simple fix for this company to make things right for its affiliated wine schools and their students. The best possible solution would be for them to reorganize as a trade school. That would give people with WSET accreditations legal rights and protections. A lesser option would be to reorganize as a Trade Organization. While not optimal, at least the wine certification would be legal.
Wine Trade Certification
WSET diplomas are what are known as “trade certification” or “professional certification.” This is the type of certification all sommelier agencies offer. For an overview, we strongly recommend reading this overview: Sommelier Certifications in America.
There are standards that need to be complied with for this type of certification. We’ve covered them in detail in our reviews of the Court of Master Sommeliers and the National Wine School, so there is no need for those details at this time.
WSET does not require continuing education exams, which may nullify WSET diplomas in the future (this is not a problem in other countries, or in England, where the school is fully accredited). This is one of several major issues with WSET wine certificates. Another is that WSET violated ANSI and ICE standards on professional certification.
Under US standards, professional certification exams must be open to everyone, and the certifying body (in this case, WSET) has to be independent of the school. Since WSET franchises its class material and tests to outside schools, it doesn’t pass the basic standards for professional certification.
Trade School Certification
Another problem with how the WSET runs its wine classes and certification programs is state education law. Many states require professional classes to be held by a school that is accredited, licensed, or approved by the state. This can cause some serious problems in the future for any WSET-franchised school, as it may run afoul of government agencies.
The following states require any trade school (including wine schools) to be accredited, licensed, or state-approved to run classes. This can cause some serious problems in the future for any WSET-franchised school, as it may run afoul of government agencies. As of this writing, WSET is not accredited, licensed, or approved to offer sommelier certification in any state in the United States.
- West Virginia
- South Carolina
- Rhode Island
- North Dakota
- North Carolina
- New Jersey
- New Hampshire
- District of Columbia
One of the ways that WSET is getting around this issue is to change its nomenclature. A few years ago, WSET stopped offering “Wine Professional Certifications” and started using the term “Wine Qualifications”. While this does sidestep the legal issues, it does beg the question: if the Wine & Spirit Education Trust doesn’t offer professional wine certifications, then what is the point?
- Sommelier Certification
- Wine Trade Certification
- Quality of Instruction