Each month, Erica interviews a former WSET student and the article is featured here. This month Erica has interviewed former WSET Level 2, 3 AND Diploma Student – Mike Best.
When you signed up for the WSET Level 2 Award in Wine and Spirits course what did you want to have happen?
I wanted to find out more about wine. I was working in a pub restaurant and when the person that knew about the wine, (the general manager) left, I wanted to take over responsibility for that – so I Googled wine courses in York and it came up with the WSET.
It came up with the Northern Wine Academy and when I rang and spoke to them it was fully explained what I would do on the course. I, therefore, did the course and it was really insightful; it covered all the things that I wanted to know and I found it very interesting. It was about the main styles of wine, how wine is made, why it tastes different, and gave me a framework to work with.
Although doing the course wasn’t anything official with my job, I had more skills so I made it part of my remit, using things I had learnt from the WSET being able to talk to customers about wine. The owner noticed this and so gave me responsibility for the wine list. I was able to change the wines by the glass and able to meet with the wine suppliers tasting through their wines and chose some new wines for the pub.
A few months after my Level 2 course I was told that the Northern Wine Academy was holding a WSET Level 3 course. I was unsure about going for this because I was paying for it myself and it was a lot of money, but I decided to go for it anyway. I remember asking my Dad (who doesn’t work in wine) if I should do the level 3 now or leave it till I was older. He told me to get on with it! It was hard work. I remember learning about a lot of grapes, some that in fact I have probably forgotten now, but it was really fascinating. It was a really good group of people including some that worked in wine and in hospitality around York. I was starting to appreciate what wine really is, but also actually understanding why things happen – not just learning fact; the course gave me the tools to be able to apply the knowledge myself. Such as when you look at a wine that you never tasted before you have a much better idea of what it should be like. These tools, therefore, helped me put together wine lists to think about all different kind of flavours and styles of wine and not just what was popular. So now with the wine list we had some less commercial, more interesting and different wines, but still wines we could make work for the business. Wine that fitted with the menu, wines that I could talk about and explain all about to the regular customers. As by now I had been there a while and since being there had done my WSET Level 2 and now Level 3 I was building up trust. If hadn’t done the Level 2 I would never have even heard of some of these wines, and even though I was still only young, 18 or 19, the customers would trust what I was saying.
The owner saw that I had taken a real interest so he said he would pay for the Level 3 course, retrospectively, but this didn’t work out because I was then offered an interview for a job to work at ASDA head office in Leeds, working in the wine buying team. At the interview I spoke about why I was interested in wine and why I would be a good person to work with them because of my background in talking to people individually about wine; they didn’t have that inside experience and so they liked that in me, so I got the job. I wouldn’t have got that job without the WSET qualifications and also they had approached my WSET tutor to ask if she knew any of her students who would be interested, which is why I got the interview.
I worked at ASDA for a year and then I moved south to work for one of ASDA’s wine suppliers. I worked there for 4.5 years and did my WSET Diploma there as well. The Diploma was surprising in that it wasn’t so much harder in detail than Level 3, but it was a lot broader in information. What made it broader was, for example, having a whole unit on fortified wines, another on sparkling wines, which was covered much more briefly at Level 3; this also involved tasting a lot more wines of varying quality and price levels. It also focused on the commercial aspect of wine; there is a whole unit on the business of wine, which is not really covered much at Level 3.
Then I went to Australia and worked in a winery in Adelaide hills. I had really wanted to go and do that for a while but for one reason or another it didn’t work out, but then I was allowed a sabbatical to go to Australia. Also fortunately I got the position through a winemaker called Kym Milne MW who had done some work for my employer. The opportunity meant I saw first-hand grapes come in and wine go out. I met an international team of winemakers, people from Canada, California, Italy, and China; they were all impressed that I had the WSET Diploma because they hold it in high regard, whereby I was impressed that they had winemaking degrees. The Diploma really helped because having studied a whole unit on grape-growing and winemaking I understood what was happening. It helped me because I knew the stages in the process so when someone tells you to do something, or you know when a wine is in a certain state, you know what the next stage is so can think a little ahead.
After I had finished the vintage I went on a trip around other wineries in Australia; if hadn’t done the Diploma I would not have been able to have the detailed conversations with winemakers so easily and truly appreciate what they were telling me.
I now have a job at the WSET head office where I am Business Development Manager for the South East of England. I work with over 40 WSET Approved Programme Providers who vary greatly from multinational companies to very small one-man-band educators. They all need different kinds of support making the role a really good mix of using my wine knowledge, meeting new people, and using business skills. Working with Enjoy Discovering Wine I have to get to understand the local area, because I am not from Hampshire. I have to be able to add value to the teams’ whole process; that can either be through saving time, making things easier, being an extra resource, getting students to sign up that wouldn’t have otherwise signed up. Doing this through various means such as at the recent Wine Festival Winchester which was a really good chance to meet people and understand the location better and types of people who live there.
From my personal experience, if someone wants to learn about wine there isn’t a better way to do it that than through the WSET. You can go to a master-class on Champagne or Bordeaux, for example; or an evening tasting with a particular wine producer; or do a wine appreciation course; from that you will find out something particular to that wine area or producer. They are great fun, I encourage you to taste as much as you can and go to these events because they can be really good fun and interesting. But the WSET courses give you a good broad overview and crucially at all levels they give you the information that you can apply yourself. For someone working in the wine industry it is even more relevant for them. If you are a consumer you are perhaps not too bothered about the examination and having a qualification (although many are), but if you work in industry they are important benefits as it is also something which will appear on job advertisements as a requirement.
In my job now my favourite thing is to ignite the spark in people that someone did for me. It doesn’t matter if they are 18 or 80. I was introduced to this wonderful world that is all about flavour and fun. It is also really at the end of the day about people, individuals, unique places, traditions and rule breakers. Whether you want to immerse yourself in it or just enjoy your wine socially that’s what the WSET can offer you and that’s why I love it and why I do it!