When 2020 happened, I found myself stuck indoors with no restaurants to loiter at, so I did what any Wellesley alumna who fears being alone with her thoughts for months would do: I went back to school. An online course in the Wine and Spirit Education Trust's Level Two certification in wines, to be exact.
It was an online portal of quizzes, a thin textbook organized by grape varietal, and me. True to form, I went into overdrive, making stacks of flashcards, finding bootleg practice exams, and attending Q&A video sessions, only to be rewarded with an email roughly three months later that effectively read: "You studied way too hard and passed with flying colors, for which you get … exactly the same piece of paper as if you had scored 30 points fewer!"
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You know how sometimes you'll add chiles to a dish, taste it, and think, "Well, this is fine," and then foolishly add three more? That's what going from Level Two to Level Three of the WSET—which is what I did next—is like. There's tons of material not just on grapes I'd never heard of, like Teroldego and Viura and Grechetto, but also chapters upon chapters of everything that should or even could happen to those grapes, from basket-trained vines to cold pressing to carbonic maceration, not to mention even more esoteric subjects such as fortified Muscat and Tokaji sweet wine laws.
There was no way I was going to be able to retain all of this information through brute memorization tactics (my Level Two approach). There was also some question of whether I needed to retain all this information. I'd enrolled originally in the hopes of defogging restaurant wine lists and gaining the vocabulary to intelligently interview winemakers for my writing, but a future working in wine was not really in my plans. Essentially, when it comes to wine education, know your goals. Studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers might make sense if you're angling to work in hospitality, whereas the WSET Level Two is more than sufficient for enthusiasts (like me) whose goals don't include a career writing or educating about wine.
My own journey took place in COVID times, which meant that remote education was necessary but also tricky; the WSET Level Three exam involves a blind tasting of two wines and a multipart essay portion. It's frankly hard to learn tasting through a screen, and I struggled to synthesize how climate, geography, and winemaking factors might impact a particular bottle without an actual classroom discussion setting. Still, I wasn't about to quit. I knew I needed a set of rules that could help me fake it until I made it when presented with a question like, "Describe how a Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige differs from one from Friuli." My toolkit contained rules about climate, altitude and aspect of vineyards, soil types, and average rain levels. Sure, that meant remembering that Alto Adige is in northern Italy, but once I recalled that information, I could make reasonable assumptions about a vineyard in that part of the country—cool weather, higher altitude, dry climate—and how those factors would translate into the grapes in the form of higher acidity, lighter body, and lower alcohol levels.
Three months after sitting for my exam, I finally found out that I passed, and I'm not even going to pretend to be blasé about how proud that makes me. But even if I hadn't, would I regret the hours spent cramming my brain with wine trivia (or vital wine facts, depending)? Definitely not. Do I think you should do it, too? Well, that depends entirely on your goals, patience, and masochism. Cheers!
Both virtual and in-person wine classes abound. Here are a few of my favorites.
On this impressive online platform, you'll join winemakers to taste wines from top wine regions, plus answer live questions against other students in a uniquely gamified approach. vivant.eco
I took my WSET Level Two course remotely through Boston-based wine and spirit school Grape Experience and learned a lot from the Zoom Q&A sessions in particular. grapeexperience.com
Great Wine Made Simple
This online class from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson includes interactive Q&A sessions, tastings, and quizzes to ensure that you leave knowing the basics of wine. andreawine.com
Rebel Rebel Wine School
If you're looking for an informal "hanging out at a bar learning from the somm" approach to wine education, Rebel Rebel in Somerville, Massachusetts, hosts online classes on Cabernet Franc, sparkling wine, Beaujolais, and more. rebelrebelsomerville.com
MasterClass Wine Appreciation
Maybe you don't have time to do a multipart course; one quick start is MasterClass' Wine Appreciation course, hosted by noted wine critic James Suckling. masterclass.com