For an overview of all wine certifications, including WSET, CMS, and NWS reviews, 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 typical grapes and their characteristics, core food & wine pairing concepts, and describing 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 various grapes and how environmental, winemaking, and maturation affect these wines. In addition, sparkling wine, fortified wine, and major wine regions are introduced. The exam has 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 building a career in wine. The course provides an in-depth exploration of 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 professionally.
The assessment consists of 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 can also use ‘WSET 3’ as 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 can also 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.
Levels 1, 2, and 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.
Levels 1, 2, and 3 in Sake
Like 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. The third level covers essential issues regarding the sake industry and export markets.
Whatever your industry needs, whether wine, spirits, or sake, the WSET offers incredible options. These qualifications are held to the highest standard and are great for any general wine or spirits industry.
WSET is a franchise organization that sells its educational programs’ rights to individual contractors. The content consists of PowerPoint presentations and wine tastings. These wine schools impart a thorough and detailed knowledge of wine at their best. At their worst, an elitist British attitude and an excessive reliance on repetition and memorization reign. The program is geared towards the restaurant professional, with modules on serving etiquette, spirits, beer, and cigar service, which may not interest all students.
For the best WSET education possible, we strongly recommend reviewing individual wine schools.
The best programs employ instructors at the top of their field to 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 wine education. The first is those who have not earned a college degree. The rigorous demands of the program ensure that these students can achieve high status within their chosen profession. In addition, while these schools lack 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. It has spent decades adapting its programs in emerging markets like China, Africa, and the Middle East. Its conservative nature and consistency are appealing to students who are working globally. In addition, WSET is well-known for its hierarchical structure, which may benefit these learners by providing clear steps for advancement.
Our research is unambiguous on one crucial point: wine education should not be unique or trendy. On the contrary, there is great value in offering a wine course that has been unchanged for fifty years.
But our surveys show some concerning trends. For example, 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 Wine and Spirit Education Trust
Wine and 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 widely 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 and Spirit Education Trust administration reports to a Board of Trustees with eight 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.
Before the Wine & Spirit Education Trust was established, the British wine industry had no key source of knowledge. People only learned about wine through hands-on training in the country where they lived. It’s one reason the British wine industry continues to have a profoundly regional perspective.
For example, a person from London could become an apprentice at an auction house or wine shop where Rhine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux wines dominate. This person may master these wines but not those sold in other locations like 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 initially intended for wine & spirit trade employees. The majority of students remain primarily restaurant employees. However, their programs are also attended by non-professional connoisseurs. The WSET further offers professional certification in the United States, with franchises nationwide.
How Much Do Exams Cost?
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.
Total Cost of WSET Exams: $9,100+
There are over one hundred WSET franchises in the United States. Unfortunately, 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. There was only a single wine school per major city in the past. That restriction is gone now. This has resulted in well-capitalized schools, Fine Vintage LTD dominating many towns nationwide.
Best Wine and 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 mediocre wine. It would help to closely read our reviews of individual wine schools before committing to a specific WSET school.
The critical point is ensuring the school’s teaching staff are certified wine educators.
Who is WSET America Trying to Fool?
What Wine and Spirit Education Trust America tells the IRS is not what they say to its students. Did you know 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, Wine and Spirit Education Trust America clearly states their only activity is the charitable “supplying education materials.” Link.
As a Private Foundation, Wine and Spirit Education Trust America must disperse all its income to charitable works in the public interest. Plus, they cannot give preferential treatment to people inside their organizations. Bottom line? Its only power is to give away money to people outside its organization. It cannot issue wine certifications or manage a chain of franchised wine schools.
Yet on its 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 developing and delivering 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 it’s funded by large donations and distributing those funds to good causes. It claims to be able to run wine courses and award professional certifications to potential students. These two claims are contradictory.
As it currently stands, Wine & Spirit Education Trust may not be legally authorized to issue professional certifications or qualifications in the United States. This is a dangerous game they are playing with the IRS. As a result, 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 outstanding WSET wine schools across America.
This company has a simple fix to make things right for its affiliated wine schools and their students. The best possible solution would be to reorganize it 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 permitted.
Wine & Spirit Education Trust diplomas 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.
Some standards need to be complied with for this type of certification. However, 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 now.
WSET does not require continuing education exams, which may nullify WSET diplomas in the future (this is not a problem in other countries or England, where the school is fully accredited). This is one of several significant issues with WSET wine certificates. Another is that WSET violated ANSI and ICE standards on professional certification.
Under U.S. standards, professional certification exams must be open to everyone, and the certifying body (in this case, WSET) has to be independent of the school. However, since WSET franchises its class material and tests to outside schools, it doesn’t pass the basic standards for professional certification.
Another potential issue is how the Wine & Spirit Education Trust runs its wine trade certification programs. Many states require professional courses to be held by a school accredited, licensed, or approved by the state. This can cause severe future problems 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 serious future problems for any WSET-franchised school, as it may run afoul of government agencies. Therefore, as of this writing, WSET is not accredited, licensed, or approved to offer sommelier certification in any state in the United States.
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 “Wine Qualifications.” While this sidesteps the legal issues, it begs the question: What is the point if Wine and Spirit Education Trust doesn’t offer professional wine certifications?
The programs are just so dated. I’m in my sixities and I find these programs to be outdated. I can’t imagine what someone in their twenties would think of this material.