Exceeding Expectations: WSET Level 4 (Diploma) in Wines & Spirits

Graduating after any period of study is a great time to reflect on what has been learned, and gained, as a result of the years of toil.  Was it worth it?

So here are a few thoughts about a journey that began in September 2015 and ended with graduation in January 2019 – from which future students will note that the diploma might have a far greater impact upon one’s life than expected.

September 2015 saw me as a partner in a law firm in Gloucester.  I also gave wine tastings as a cheeky sideline.  Wine kept me sane – so why did I listen to my husband encouraging me to take the diploma course?  Total madness, looking back on it, but fearing my tasting ability would diminish with age, it seemed to be a case of now, or never.

The course itself, run by West of England Wine School, exceeded expectations in many ways.  Our viticulture and vinification lecturer was Martin Fowke of Three Choirs, who allowed us access to both their busy winery and beautiful vineyard during the harvest, which was an unforgettable experience, as was joining in the harvest at Aldwick Estate, which I have happily done each year since.


All the lecturers were experts in their field, and included several MWs.  Our fortified wine lecturer was none other than Javier Hildago – one of the greatest characters from the sherry universe.  He very kindly signed my copy of Manzanilla which he co-authored with Christopher Fielden.  From him I learned, among other things, that sherry must be enjoyed in a white wine glass, not a schooner!  Also that he enjoys a Manzanilla pasada each lunchtime…..

Some aspects of the syllabus were really tough.  Not being from the trade, the unit about the global business of wine was tricky as it is largely self taught and I didn’t have access to many of the trade publications and research.   I knew from this that if I was to pursue a career selling wine, I would have a lot more to learn!


All the tasting exams were hard – there never seemed to be enough time, and it was all too easy to charge into the tasting notes forgetting all about the structured approach and producing illogical conclusions as a result.  “Let the wine tell you its story” said my wine mentor friend (Kelli Coxhead of The Wine Shop Winscombe) – but did I listen?

My brain physically ached as I crammed into it the vast breadth of knowledge required to get through the dreaded Unit 3 exam – Still Wines of the World.  The news footage of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower was on TV in the hotel lobby as we waited to sit our exams.  Whatever our exam fears were, this horrifying event put everything into perspective.  Quite possibly it was because of this that I took myself in hand and knuckled down, and this was probably the first tasting exam where I began to apply properly what I had been taught.


The big challenge was spirits.  Fearing this would be my undoing, I went overboard and tasted until I had virtually no tongue left – and anaesthetised what was left of it during the tasting exam.  While I enjoy a wee dram or two of Scotch, the wider whisk(e)y and spirits world was largely unknown.  However, what started out as something I had to do to get the diploma evolved into a whole new voyage of beverage discovery of its own.  I have been to some amazing spirits tastings, and I even like gin these days – I now know that it’s tonic I don’t like, and I am now quite content sipping gin neat with ice and/or water!


As it turns out, I seem to have a half decent spirits palate, and I plan a separate piece recording my exploits as a result of winning the Worshipful Company of Distillers’ prize for my spirits exam result.  There will be more to follow as I plan my spirits inspired travels – for my prize is to study a spirit producing region……many thanks to WSET and WCD for that.


I should also thank the West of England Wine & Spirits Association for generously awarding me their John Avery Award for my diploma results.  The genuine encouragement from local and national wine trade leaders has been evident throughout my studies.  The late John Avery MW was one of my Level 3 lecturers, and receiving this award from his daughter Mimi was very special, as was receiving my diploma certificate and award from Stephen Spurrier, with the likes of Jancis Robinson MW in attendance.  It was also lovely to see Susan McCraith MW at the awards ceremony in London, a friendly local face in otherwise daunting surroundings.

Part way through the diploma course, Kelli approached me about becoming a WSET tutor for the Level 1 and 2 awards in wines (and spirits for Level 2) for The Wine Shop Winscombe.  I was also approached to give wine tastings for contacts made in the legal profession.  All of a sudden, my life was veering off into the direction of wine education and events.  So by the end of the diploma course, I had left the law and was a fully fledged WSET educator.  How did that happen??

I have therefore achieved plenty more than I had ever believed possible when I started the diploma course.  I have evolved from a lawyer and wine hobbyist into a wine educator and spirits enthusiast, I have made new wine and spirits loving friends, including students I have taught, I have fellow wine student friends from around the globe, including a lovely lady with her own Bordeaux vineyard, and I have my own wine and spirits events enterprise.


I take this opportunity to thank those who have encouraged and supported me in my studies.  In no particular order: Tim Johnson & Lys Hall (West of England Wine School), all the WoEWS lecturers, WSET tutors on the Educator Training Programme, Kelli & Matthew Coxhead (The Wine Shop Winscombe – Kelli’s advice and support kept me going throughout), my long-suffering husband Andy, seen here at the pre awards ceremony sherry reception (not drinking sherry – boo!), and my daughter who relished lining up my blind tasting samples – even if she did almost bankrupt me and pickle my liver with enormous measures – see above!