SAMsARA owner, Dave Szkutak, recently sat down with team member Miles Cotton for a little Q&A about completing the rigorous WSET Level 4 Diploma. The WSET Level 4 Diploma is one of the most advanced courses in wine study in the world and, in many countries, it’s a prerequisite for pursuing the title of Master of Wine.
Good morning, Dave. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your recent completion of the Wine and Spirits Trust Level 4 Diploma. What made you initially interested in the WSET certification and, ultimately, the Level 4 Diploma?
That is a great question. I think the main reason I pursued formal wine education is because I was seeking a challenging learning experience. When I have to study for an exam, whether it’s on wine or any other subject, I tend to learn it better so, that was the main reason I pursued the WSET. WSET, in particular, has a great reputation. There are other programs like Court of Master Sommeliers but I didn’t have the intention of becoming a sommelier, so the WSET program was the best fit for me.
Pursuing the Level 4 Diploma itself was just a progression. I started off at Level One which was pretty basic and just kept going.
As I understand it, the level 4 Diploma is a huge undertaking that requires the successful completion of six courses over a three-year period (Wine Production, Wine Business, Wines of the World, Sparkling Wines, Fortified Wines, and an Independent Research Assignment). Which of the six courses did you find to be the most challenging and why?
I think the most challenging is the Wines of the World course. As you mentioned, there are six units, but the associated course credits show about 50 percent of the total program is the Wines of the World field of study. The reason it’s so challenging is the topic is so broad. You’re basically studying all of the wine-growing regions in the world with particular focus on the main wine producing areas. It is a huge scope of focus where you have to learn the rules and the regulations, the way the people grow grapes, the way they make wine, and all the business aspects particular to each wine producing region.
The other reason it’s most challenging is the exam. What they call the practical/tasting portion of the test is 12 wines tasted blind over the course of 2 hours. After that you have a theory exam that’s about three hours that mostly essay format. It is quite rigorous and the pass rates that are pretty low.
Which of the courses or which of the sections did you find the most interesting and why?
I think again I’d say the Wines of the World section. It’s all about, “What are the factors that influence the style and quality of a wine?”. So, in all of these different areas around the world, there are some common things but there are a lot of different thoughts as that what grapes you grow and how you grow them, the different trellis methods, the climate, the soils, etc. Same thing with wine making. A winemaker has so many choices to make in the cellar, how they ferment the grapes, how you age the wine, and so much more. That was the part that I really found the most interesting for me and what I’ve learned will have great application to what we’re doing here at SAMsARA.
Well, that leads perfectly into my next question. How will you use the knowledge and expertise you’ve gained through this program to help guide SAMsARA going forward?
That’s a great question. Having gone through this program, I now have a much greater appreciation for what goes into making the style of wine that we produce. Our use of whole cluster fermentation, longer maceration times, the longer aging in both barrel and bottle . . . all these are choices that we make to create the cool climate wines with the full-bodied style that we’re going for. So, in short, the knowledge that I gained through WSET program helps me understand all of those things much, much better than I would have had if I had not gone through it.
It is great to hear that you’re able to apply your learning and knowledge each day at SAMsARA. Are you going to pursue the honors Diploma from WSET which includes a 5,000-word independent research paper?
To be honest, I’m not even sure they offer that anymore! But no, even if they offer it I’m not going to pursue the honors Diploma. Theoretically, in a year, I could apply to go into the Master of Wine program, but I feel like my time is best focused on what we’re doing at SAMsARA going forward. While the classroom work was certainly interesting, I really love helping to create exceptional wines and sharing them with people interested in them. It is a lot of work, but also super rewarding and a ton of fun!