I believe that wine is inherently subjective and difficult to quantify. Therefore, I am skeptical of formal wine courses and certifications.
However, I am trying to write honestly about the subject of Italian wine. I’m also always interested in meeting people who irrationally care about wine. I figured a course would be a place to meet a few other Italian wine nuts and taste some great wines. I also hoped to glean a few insider tips and tricks on how to find value at a good wine shop.
After scanning the wine credentials and courses available, I settled on the Wine and Spirits Education Trust Level 2. I chose Level 2 because Level 1 is basic, with no knowledge of wine expected. You can pick up the basics covered in Level 1 by reading any good wine book and save yourself the $300.
The cost of the Level 2, at $795, seems high. The class was a mix of enthusiasts and beverage professionals, some of whose employers likely paid the fee for them. This dynamic probably accounts for some of the high price tag. It’s hard not to imagine the wines I could have purchased with that money. But I enrolled anyway, viewing it as an investment in my enjoyment of future bottles.
I took the course at the Wine House, a very large wine shop here in West Los Angeles. WSET is a global institution making the curriculum the same across the world, but the instructors are local. I was very fortunate to have Monica as our instructor. I was not surprised when a few days after the course, she was nominated to be WSET’s Wine Educator of the Year.
Monica guided us through the curriculum beautifully. She was disciplinarian enough to shame the group of four up front who incessantly talked over her lectures. But she also had fun with each wine, telling us a story about her experiences tasting it around the world. A knowledgeable person speaking with passion on the subject of wine is easy to like.
But when the wines were poured and the tasting began, a bit of the magic faded for me. WSET teaches its own systematic approach to tasting and evaluating wines. I understand the intent. Through a system, you assess each wine objectively and consistently. The group could agree on the core primary (fruit), secondary (winemaking), and tertiary (aging) aromas and flavors in the wine and its overall quality. As much as I see the commercial and organizational value in doing that, it strips the wine experience of its joy.
I’ve always wondered how wine critics write such detailed and specific notes on wines. I realized partway through the day that professional tasting notes use the same general approach that WSET teaches. They just add some literary flair and a 0-100 score. After tasting about 25 wines each day, I was exhausted at the thought of the pros trying to get through 100-200 Napa Cabs in a vintage report.
I did learn some valuable lessons from this experience. Tasting more than 50 wines, ranging widely in retail price, will demonstrate quickly the challenges facing a motivated wine shopper. There were just as many delicious and interesting wines with low price tags as there were disappointing ones above $50. I suppose that’s the nature of human expectations. Any bottle that makes me cringe looking at my visa statement will be held to a higher standard.
The WSET course was enjoyable, but I cannot recommend every wine enthusiast run out and sign up. While I now better understand the origin of those 99 point scores on the shelf, ultimately the course did relatively little to help me consistently find Italian wines of character at a reasonable price. And that’s my whole objective here.