The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, better known as WSET, is a world leader in wine education. Originally established in 1969 to increase professional knowledge and skills in the UK wine trade, it has expanded into every major part of the world. Their qualifications are generally recognized worldwide.

Increasingly, a lot of people take WSET wine classes. But the question is:

Is WSET right for you?

WSET reported that “in total, 117,000 students took a WSET qualification in 2021-2022,” representing an 8% year-on-year increase. Candidates took exams in 15 languages and 11% of courses were taken digitally. The US and UK remain the Trust’s biggest markets.

That said, for those who want to answer “what is WSET?”, it is a trade-back education institution whose courses are and always have been to train wine salespeople, buyers, tasting room attendants, and the like. Their qualifications, although recognized in the industry, have no backing from accredited academic institutions. And the curriculum, as you might guess, can be a bit boring . . . or worse.

WSET Insularity Problem?

The wine writer Elaine Chukan Brown, who has a PhD in philosophy and taught at the university level, said in a recent ARENI Global interview, “Wine education has an insularity problem. It tends to be too small of a circle: wine ends up talking to itself. Wine education most often thinks in terms of facts, information and flavors, and forget to think in terms of access, audience, experience and context.”

Fascination and Seduction?

Contrast that with what wine expert Robert Joseph says wine courses (for most of the population) should be about: “fascination and seduction.” He writes: “Those of us who wish more people knew more about wine should focus our efforts on introducing as many as we can to vinous experiences that, to use a quaint old Victorian expression, ‘catch their fancy’. We need to remember that the best teachers some of us were lucky enough to have had were the ones who didn’t say ‘this is what you have to know to pass your exams’ but said and did things that ignited flames that live on in the work we happily do, or the hobbies we happily pursue as adults.”

So, before signing up, ask again, “what is WSET?” and what kind of wine class is the best for you? To explore these wine classes further, let’s look at the WSET’s history.

History of the WSET

Wine studies as a publicly available, but trade-developed curriculum appeared in the 20th and 21st centuries. Before that it was mostly a matter of private knowledge transmission and apprenticeship.

Prior to the 1950s, for example, wine studies was notably absent as a topic in British newspapers. After World War II, however, popular interest in wine knowledge gained traction. In 1952, a shock-provoking Daily News headline read: “Children will be allowed wine.” The article stated: “School-children on organised visits to France will be allowed to drink wine. Bristol Education Committee were asked yesterday to impose a ban.” They refused.  Wine knowledge was gaining status.

By 1953, theTatler was printing columns on topics such as “The Noble Art of Cellaring” and referring to the importance of “a young man’s wine education,” although the article was written by a woman. In 1974, one article expressed concern over “the unsophisticated who want to begin their wine education” and Belfast had its Wine Education Trust. By 1976, “the Victoria Wine Education Scholarships, recognised by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust,” were publicized.

WSET slowly spread outside of the UK wine trade, mostly in fits and starts.

WSET Today

Today, WSET and Master of Wine qualifications dominate worldwide in terms importance for wine world job-seekers, with the Society of Wine Educators’ CSW and CWE post-nominals appearing mostly in the ranks of the United States wine trade, particularly favored (and backed), for example, by the commercial wine giant GALLO. So, if you wanna work in the wine business, WSET is a good option.

With this brief history in mind, let’s ask the important question:

What Do the WSET Wine Courses Offer?

A WSET education has the advantage of standardization, something emulated by the Society of Wine Educators, Wine Scholar Guild, and other programs. If an employer hires people with WSET Level 3 diplomas, then exactly what they studied and how they learned to evaluate wine is a known commodity. In the big picture, is this a good thing?

As wine writer and critic Tamlyn Currin noted in 2022: “Entire books have been written and courses (such as the WSET) have been designed to teach us how to taste [wine] and how to communicate what we taste. The format, common to most of these educational systems, is almost always rigid, prescriptive, pedantic and comes with a tacit understanding that there is a wrong and a right when it comes to tasting, understanding, experiencing, judging and communicating about wine.”

The WSET flagship school is in London, but the Trust now has over 800 approved program providers (APPs) across the globe offering the same standardized courses in both classroom and online education.

In 2014, sommelier Arvid Rosengren characterized: “The WSET curriculum is well thought-out and gives a comprehensive yet sometimes shallow knowledge of the whole world of wine  . . . but at higher levels it becomes apparent that it is geared towards what the British refer to as the “trade” (meaning those who work with imports, distribution, and retail) and not sommeliers.” This remains mostly the case.

What Does it Cost to take the WSET Courses

WSET programs providers are spread across the globe and each one determines the price offered to students. To give an idea, in late 2022, the Napa Valley Wine Academy charged $350 for the Level 1 online course; $724 for the Level 2 online course; and $1370 for the Level 3 online course. The Level 3 in-person course costs $1620. The first course for the Diploma, known as D1, costs $1,600–$1,749. Taking all courses and exams for the Diploma comes to around $9000.

WSET wine courses are not necessarily cheap.

What are the WSET Wine Courses and Levels?

WSET courses focus on the worldwide wine market, including wines from every major producing country.

Four Levels of Classes

There are four levels, each more difficult and advanced than the one before, but the focus is always along similar lines, going deeper with each level. There are five major emphases in each of the levels:

Grape Growing (viticulture):

Understanding how grapes are grown and what impact various natural factors have on potential quality and style.

Winemaking (enology):

Nature takes the lead on viticulture, but the winery can have huge impacts on the resulting product. From receiving the grapes after harvesting to the finished bottle of wine, the WSET looks at the major processes and decisions that take place in the winery and how it differs between major wine styles. The decisions made in the winery will have a profound impact on the style of the resulting bottle of wine.

Wine Regions and Styles:

A large part of studying in WSET courses involves linking the methods of production to worldwide realities. First, it´s learning the different names and grape varieties that define the world of wine. Do you know what the only permitted red grape variety is in Brunello di Montalcino? How does Margaux differ to Saint Émilion and where in the world are they? What’s the white grape that New Zealand has become defined by? At more advanced levels the curriculum goes deeper, to contrast and compare similar regions from around the world and to understand the differences between them.

Market Forces:

This really more solidly comes into play in Levels 3 and 4, but there’s no escaping wine’s commercial reality. It all comes down to marketing and the wine market.

Analytical Tasting Technique:

WSET courses focus heavily on learning the WSET way of tasting wine. Each region, grape and major point is (ideally) punctuated with a typical, relevant wine to help tie the theory together with reality. The most important element of WSET courses’ wine tasting is understanding how to accurately understand and communicate the experience of drinking a wine, as well as rating its quality, but as Tamlyn said above, this isn’t always so helpful in the real world.

The WSET developed its Systematic Approach to Tasting®, which has come to dominate the wine world. The Approach is indeed systematic as it’s intended to create a common language of wine, for passing exams, and for writing standardized tasting notes.

What Are the Best Alternatives to WSET?

One great WSET wine course alternative if you want, as Joseph says above, “fascination and seduction” and not, as Currin says, the “rigid, prescriptive, pedantic,” is the Bevinars wine classes of wine expert Mark Oldman, who the Aspen Times recently called “a showman like no other.” These virtual wine courses allow for personal interaction, wine tasting, substantial learning through memorable experiences, and lots of fun.

Author of three books on wine, Oldman says, “I try to give people the best information while making it uniquely fun.” For example, his recent Bevinar at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado, was “Pitch Perfect: How Music Enhances Great Wine.” Other online classes have included Insider’s Spanish Red Wine and Secrets of Argentina.

As is typical of Bevinars wine class tasting experiences, Oldman featured eight different wines in Pitch Perfect. The wine class had five parts: wine inspired by song; wine made by winemakers or owners who are musicians; wine associated with renowned musicians (and the stories behind them); wine made with music (or “sonic stimulation”) and how listening to music changes your perception of wine and music that was inspired by wine.

He told the Aspen Daily News, “I’ve written three books on wine and in all three of them I interviewed many famous people who are wine lovers and the most enthusiastic were the musicians. . . There’s this parallel between musicians and wine lovers.”

As you consider your journey into the world of studying wine, reflect on what matters most to you—whether it’s the structured, comprehensive approach of WSET courses or the dynamic, engaging experience of Mark Oldman’s Bevinars. Both paths offer unique advantages, but only you can decide which aligns best with your goals and learning style.

If you’re looking to ignite a passion for wine through captivating stories, interactive tastings, and a community of like-minded enthusiasts, join a Bevinars wine class, easily accessible online and not expensive. Explore the upcoming sessions and start an adventure with Mark Oldman today—because the best way to learn about wine is to enjoy it. Sign up now!

Charlie Leary

A member of the Circle of Wine Writers, Charlie Leary has directed restaurant wine programs in the US, Canada, Costa Rica, and France. In the mid 1990s, while earning a PhD from Cornell University, he made artisanal cheeses and counted among the first North Americans inducted into the Guilde International des Fromagers; he later planned, planted, and managed an IGP vineyard in Andalusia.

His book-length guide to worldwide wine education programs (Leary’s Global Wineology) was first published in 2022, in part based on his experience earning numerous wine certifications. His feature articles have appeared in Decanter magazine, Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux,, Sommelier Business,, and Tim Atkin MW’s website, among others. He recently consulted for the wine metaverse startup Second Winery and wrote a detailed report on the history of wine sensory analysis for the Wine Scholar Guild. Charlie now lives in Panama, where he offers wine classes, and is writing a book on the philosopher Montesquieu as an eighteenth century winegrower. IG: @bacopty