The call of the vine

Katie Mather gets serious about her wine education


The first thing I noticed after I started my “official” wine education was that I was drinking beer differently. I was lifting my glass to my nose, taking in the aromas, in actions usually reserved for judging panels and stagey photos. I sipped then sipped again, letting the precious molecules of flavour visit every hidden corner of my mouth. And I didn’t feel self-conscious about it. That’s the main thing I realised: I was not embarrassed to be enjoying my drink as fully as I could, no matter what any of my drinking partners said.

I decided to take the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (or WSET) Level 2 Award In Wines because I am addicted to education. I see it as a severe form of procrastination. Most people I know enjoy learning things at home (my husband just taught himself how to ferment a rainbow of vegetables and hot sauces over lockdown with a recipe book and a lot of motivation) but I do better in a class situation. I like being taught. I like feeling my brain creak with the pressure of trying to cram more information into it, of knowing I’ll be tested sometime soon. That’s probably why on top of my work and my writing I’m also taking a Spanish GCSE, a History of Art A Level and a poetry course. I can’t help myself. It’s a sickness.

That’s not the only reason I took the WSET L2 though, obviously. It’s also because I fell in love with wine. Unlike beer, I always found wine out of my reach, a friend’s intimidating older sister guarded jealously by her ruddy-cheeked entourage of sycophants. I drank wine apologetically in pubs, bought bottles based on snippets of information I snatched from Olly on Saturday Kitchen, remembered facts about flavours and aromas more knowledgeable friends had told me. For a while I only bought wine that was between £8.50 and £15 a bottle, because an Instagram advert had told me so. Wine is a difficult world to crack, I thought, and maybe it will always be mysterious and frustrating to me. 

The curiosity became too intense. I started drinking wine with people who actually enjoyed it, who wanted me to enjoy it too. I bought some books — Jancis Robinson’s 24 Hour Wine Expert, an old edition of The World Atlas Of Wine from eBay, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Adventures On The Wine Route by Kermit Lynch. I made some winemaker friends on the internet. Swept up, I flew to Mosel to volunteer on a vineyard, picking grapes. It turns out, wine is for everyone, including me, and once you get into it, you’re done for. 

Why I Chose To Start At L2

Speaking to people in the wine industry had given me a pretty good idea about what I didn’t know (almost everything) but also helped me to realise that I’d picked up a surprising amount of knowledge along the way. By strolling up and down supermarket wine aisles and reading a few articles a month on Wine Folly I’d learned more than I thought, and following Wine People on Instagram helped a lot too.

Level 1 is, I’m told, a good introduction to wine for absolute beginners, but I reckon if I can bounce straight into L2 after a bit of reading and research, so can you.

What The Course Entailed

The course has two main sections: tasting, and theory. My course was held at a local natural wine-led shop called The Wine Shed in Ribchester, meaning that I was very lucky to have a broad selection to taste, as well as being able to compare natural wines against more conventional ones. Being that this is a major interest of mine, it was ideal.

Tasting entails being taught how to drink using your whole mouth, how to use a spitoon (less glamorous than it sounds) and how to look for the intricate flavours and aromas in each wine that you might not have encountered or understood before. I also learned about the way techniques influenced the flavour of the wines I was tasting — oddly similar to beer in many ways. Especially when you get to talking about yeast autolysis or wood ageing.

The theory work at Level 2 includes learning about the geography of major winemaking regions (including weather and geographical features), and some basic geology to help you to understand the make-up of the soil in certain regions and how this affects the quality and attributes of the wine. I also learned about different wine making processes, for example the differences between large-scale and small-scale production, how sweet and fortified wines are made, and grape varieties and the types of wines they typically produce.

Level 2 is still a beginner-level course in the grand scheme of things, so the information learned is relatively basic compared to higher-level courses. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I still needed to study hard to remember regions, varieties and techniques. My advice: make flashcards!

What My Tutor Taught Me

My tutor Maureen was a patient and hilarious legend dressed in Boden prints. Together we screamed over fruity, floral Gewurtztraminers and mourned the lack of excitement in a particular Champagne we tried. She tried to understand my love for Riesling and my dislike of bolshy, aggro reds. My tasting notes from her lessons are full of exclamation marks and drawings. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the world of technical wine tasting.

When I started my lessons, I was worried about the references I wanted to make. I didn’t really know what a quince tasted like. I wasn’t sure that I was sniffing correctly when I caught a whiff of banana. Maureen clapped her hands when I finally told her that something I’d just sipped reminded me of strawberry laces, Haribo Goldbears. She taught me that whatever your point of reference is, it’s relevant and valid. So what if I’d never experienced the earthy scent of a Piedmont woodland during a truffle hunt? I’d been to Gisburn forest and breathed in the damp air alive with moss and uncurling ferns, hadn’t I?

Aside from literally everything in my theory handbook and more besides, Maureen also taught me that wine is worth getting excited about, and that my excitement is neither misplaced or childish. She taught me that everything I know about beer can be transposed to the wine world. The drink’s ingredients might be completely different, the production methods might not be the same, but the attitude and the joy needn’t be.

Who Is The WSET Award In Wines For?

The awarding body will tell you it’s for everyone, but you’d expect that, given each course costs cashmoney. 

They really are aimed at everyone because, get this, wine is for everyone. However, they are quite pricey which means they aren’t super accessible for everyone. Level 2 cost me £300 which is the lower end of the scale, it can be around £400-450 elsewhere in the UK; I paid in installments which made it a little easier to budget for. If you’re going for it, you want to make sure you pass first time too so you’re not out of pocket, which means making sure you’ve got enough time to study in-between lessons.

WSET L2 was something I really wanted to do for myself and for my career, and so I looked at it like an expensive hobby (how much did your last gadget cost you?). But, if you’re interested in wine and know this cost isn’t viable for you, there is plenty you can do to teach yourself what you need or want to know without shelling out. Google around, grab a few wine books from your local library, and pop into your local wine shop and pick their brains. This is exactly how I started out. Shoutout to Sam at Black Hand Wine for his book recommendations and for sparking my interest in less celebrated grape varieties, and to Tom and Matt at Whalley Wine Shop for always having the time to answer my endless questions and giving me tasters to open up my world (and for never saying a thing when I take beers home after speaking about Chablis for half an hour).

Is the WSET Award In Wines Essential?

No, not at all. I chose to study in a more formal way because it suits me, but there are tons of ways you can up your wine knowledge without shelling out for a course. 

Before I began my WSET journey I already learned so much from wine experts, growers and journalists on the internet. Instagram was a massively useful resource, and I didn’t even realise it! I recommend following winemaker and négociant Jas Swan who goes deep into technical wine making stuff as well as tasting and sharing winemakers and wine people’s accounts you should be following, and also Barcelona-based Rack And Return runs some great quizzes that really test your grape variety, region and general wine knowledge.

Will I Be Doing The L3? The L4 Diploma?

Because I found Level 2 so valuable to my personal development, I really hope to do the Level 3 Award In Wines someday, but it’s not cheap (around £700) and so I don’t know when I’ll feasibly be able to do it. It’s also a huge undertaking, with 50 hours of classroom time and 85+ hours of home study. Since I’m not planning to become a sommelier or wine expert, I doubt I will want to take my learning any higher than the Level 3, but should I change my mind and/or win the Lotto, my opinion is, why not? There will never be enough time to learn everything about wine in my lifetime. And that’s what I find so intoxicating about it.

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