The WSET Diploma qualification is the highest qualification from the British based Wine & Spirit Education Trust but what is it, who studies it and why?

This story was first published in NZ Winegrower magazine, August-September 2015.

Jane Skilton is tipping out spittoons, packing away glasses and pouring soothing messages of encouragement on students’ frayed nerves as she talks about her role as New Zealand’s sole provider of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 4 Diploma qualification.

The students have just sat one of the Diploma’s seven exams while Skilton is clearing up from the 29th exam she has hosted this year.

It’s a far cry from when she first launched the qualifications in New Zealand, in the mid 2000s.

“I remember wondering back then if there would be enough people here who even knew about the WSET, let alone wanted to study the Diploma,” she says.

That said, she has been pleasantly surprised to have had 10 to 15 students enroll each year in this, the highest of the WSET qualification courses. Many of her students have embarked on it once they have returned to New Zealand from working overseas where they gained the WSET levels 2 and 3. Others have taken their wine qualifications to the next level after completing levels 2 and 3 in New Zealand.

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust was founded in 1969 in London where it provides education to the wine and spirit trades but there are training providers of these courses who are based all over the world, with the biggest growth in the Asia Pacific region.

In New Zealand there are two main providers of these courses, which are Master of Wine Jane Skilton’s New Zealand School of Wines & Spirits and Celia Hay at her New Zealand School of Food & Wine. Skilton is New Zealand’s sole provider of the WSET Diploma qualification, which has grown to a steady intake of about 15 students per year – a number Skilton describes as “not bad for a country with a small population that is so far away from the rest of the world.”

She describes teaching as part educational, part counseling and part dictatorial, particularly when it comes to the Diploma – a degree course that is learnt mostly by self study, with indepth tasting tutorials led by her.

“I just have to tell my students sometimes ‘come on, you know it; you can do it’ because we’re so far away from where these qualifications originate that the sense of isolation you feel when studying at this level can be quite strong,” she says.

That sense of isolation can be profound because the Diploma is not only a long course of self study (spread over a minimum of two years), but its breadth of knowledge means that it is not for the faint hearted – nor for the time poor.  This explains why many Diploma students choose to defer one or more of the six units in this degree level qualification. It is well known globally, if not so widely known about in New Zealand, but more importantly, the WSET Diploma is the usual prerequisite for anyone wishing to study the Master of Wine qualification.

The Institute of Masters of Wine cannot insist that all of its students hold the Diploma prior to embarking on the MW qualification (the Diploma is not available in some countries), although this was the case at one stage, but Skilton says that those who do hold it are usually significantly better equipped than those who do not. And she is a staunch defender of its role as a strongly recommended prerequisite for the world’s top wine qualification.

“Cementing wine knowledge at a high level is a bit like spelling and writing; unless you know the foundation of how to spell and write, then it can be difficult to go on and do something really creative with it,” she says, having studied the Diploma herself, prior to embarking on the MW, which she passed in 1993.

Despite this, she does not market the Diploma as widely as she does the other WSET levels 1, 2 and 3 courses that she teaches.

“I don’t tend to market the Diploma the way that I market the other courses because the diploma is a big life commitment, particularly in terms of time.

This is potentially the biggest problem of all for diploma students, she says, because most people embark on the diploma when they have full time jobs, a family and children. In terms of her time, it was slightly more straightforward when she had her own humble beginnings in wine, and a WSET education. She was living in London prior to having had children and whilst working as a (self described) dogsbody for an exceptionally well stocked London wine merchant, La Vigneronne owned by Master of Wine Liz Berry. Skilton says it was a serendipitous moment discovering wine while working for Berry because she found herself doing something she really enjoyed.

“I knew I wanted to get something out of it. So I followed the WSET, which was a given in the English wine trade. I was lucky from the point of view that Liz funded me up to level 3 in the WSET courses, but after that it was up to me to fund it because the diploma is such a big undertaking.”

Berry remained a mentor to Skilton throughout the Diploma, which imbued in her a sense of purpose as a young person working in the wine trade.

“I feel quite strongly positive about that old fashioned mentoring thing. I look back on those times now and think it was such a privilege to be learning from someone who showed me very old Madeiras and other amazing wines that were building blocks, which helped me to understand how important it is to learn the groundwork before going off on my own.”

The reasons for undertaking the Diploma study can vary but, generally, Skilton says that it gives wine professionals an edge when travelling and working internationally. It also feeds the New Zealand wine trade with professionals who have a deeper understanding of the wines of the world. It can, therefore, also help to fuel demand for many of those wines in this small country. While the distance from London and access to a wider range of wines can be a challenge, Skilton encourages students to taste as widely as they can while studying the Diploma. But she also likes to warn students of its pitfalls; the lack of availability of wines in New Zealand and also the time commitment.

“I’d hate anyone to think they had the course pushed on them. It’s a huge commitment and a great achievement but you really need to want to do it.”

For these reasons, many people take longer than the minimum recommended two year study period, which is the time frame over which the Diploma exams are spread.

“For me, it’s professional development every single week tasting loads of wines with students and nothing is lovelier than going out and recognizing the students I have taught who are now all over the country.”

 

  • In the United Kingdom, the WSET Diploma is a certified British degree with OfQual, which is the English equivalent of NZQA.
  • The WSET Diploma has 60 credits, which are spread across six units: winemaking and viticulture, sparkling wines of the world, fortified wines of the world, the global business of wine, light wines of the world (the biggest unit – which incorporates 30 credits across two papers; a theory and a tasting) and spirits of the world.

Joelle Thomson is a graduate of the WSET Diploma.