Facebook recently reminded me that 8 years ago I received my first results from a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Diploma exam: “Diploma Unit 2: PASS WITH DISTINCTION.” (When I first started out on this path Unit 2 was a prerequisite for Unit 1 and I don’t know the reasoning.) So why do I still not have the title?
Facing this question pains me. I’m confident in my tasting abilities. They’ve served me well in the blind tasting portion of the exams. All told, I have passed all seven units of the WSET Diploma exams but one portion of Unit 3 – the Theory. It’s my academic equivalent of kryptonite. How many times have I had to resit this exam? Honestly, I’ve lost count by now, but it’s more than five. I’m nervous to share my story out of fear of judgement. But I’m going to delve anyway because it’s the truth and because I’m ok with being vulnerable.
I originally slipped into the wine industry through the back door. Four months into my first wine job at New Mexico’s most prestigious wine shop (we received the state’s entire allocation of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a highly sought-after wine from Burgundy), my boss abruptly quit. He had a dream of becoming a Master of Wine, and I had hoped to glean much knowledge while working together. That hope was quickly dashed and terror replaced it. I wasn’t experienced or knowledgeable enough to sell fine wines on my own, and I’m a very bad liar so “fake it till you make it” wasn’t an option.
A famous California winemaker visited the shop a few times. He once asked me about braille on a particular wine label. I gave him a weak response and he called me out on it. It was embarrassing but also a turning point. Shortly after I began my deep dive into wines of the world.
Often times I have become impatient wishing that I could just download the WSET information directly into my head. Why is this so difficult for me?
One reason is the sheer amount of information to absorb. We’re talking 500+ pages minimum covering wines from regions all around the world.
Test anxiety also acutely plagues me, along with the unbearable thought of no chance of a restroom break for three hours.
More introspectively, I’ve come to realize and am able to admit that in the past, my test anxiety bred other anxieties in me. While studying particularly challenging and overwhelming material, my mind would flash to difficult memories of traumas in my life. Abuse in my childhood and “me too” moments in my adult years flooded my brain as I tried to concentrate while rereading paragraphs for the tenth time. Studying did not come easy for me on many deep levels.
I finally sought assistance from a professional about seven years ago. With her help I learned tools to better manage my reactions to high-stress situations. This issue isn’t solved for me; it’s a work in progress. But one that I struggle with a lot less now.
Several of my study buddies (we called ourselves the Diploma Dames) started their path to the WSET Diploma later than me and already passed. Some are even in the middle of their journey to the Master of Wine title. I’m grateful to them for proving that it IS possible. I passed the sections on Wine Production, Wine Business, Sparkling Wine, Fortified Wine, Spirits (which we were tested on when I began, yet is no longer part of this certification), an independent research assignment, and even the tasting portion of D3, Wines of the World. I’ve come this far. I’m stubborn and I’m going to see it through.
Is it worth it? If it were not for WSET I wouldn’t feel comfortable in my current role being interviewed by foreign press or communicating with wine professionals in other countries. I would never have been qualified to judge wine in international competitions in Paris, Beijing, Spain, Bulgaria and Switzerland. As WSET students and graduates around the world we share a common vocabulary and way of assessing quality. It’s invaluable in my opinion.
In January I donned a mask and strapped in for another attempt at passing the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Theory exam. This time instead of honks and jackhammers emanating from across the street, there was an air purifier in the room offering a low comforting hum of reassurance and even a scheduled restroom break. Yes, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust has finally modified the experience to be more conducive for humans! There has never been a better time for learning.
That’s my journey so far, and I thank you for allowing me to share it. I’ll celebrate with you once I’ve passed.
Aimée Lasseigne New
NYC Brand Ambassador