Tips for taking the Certified Specialist of Wine exam

test and pencilJust two hours ago, I emerged from the Certified Specialist of Wine exam, the first level of certification for the Society of Wine Educators. 100 multiple choice questions, one hour, 3 “number 2″ pencils and a whole lot of anxiety filling the room. I met a few of the 20 or so people sitting for the exam, mostly industry professionals like wine buyers for retailers and restaurants or wholesaler/distributor reps who sell wine and often must take the test.

I voluntarily endured it to boast three letters following my name and, well, feel good about myself for passing it. Although it’s kinda strange to think that after 13 years of food and wine writing a 100 question exam legitimizes my credentials. But, like a true wine geek, I sheepishly admit to enjoying the intensive study for the past month or so. I enriched my brain with newfound appreciation of the depth of grape varietals in Italy, a refresher of the Grand Crus of Burgundy (not on my test, by the way… I went overboard) and the grapes of Greece (on the test).

This is a test that the vast majority of the people who take it — no matter how long you’ve been in the industry — will need to study for. I even heard pre-test, break room chatter about a 50% fail rate. So, for those interested, here are some tips that I hope not to get in trouble for printing:

1) Become a member of the Society of Wine Educators and buy the most up to date exam book – it gives you access to the practice tests that contain many of the actual questions presented on the test. Yes, it’s freakin’ overpriced but suck it up. You won’t regret it.

2) Study the minutia. It’s on there. Even if you think it won’t be.

3) My brain dump on what I was tested on: pH of wine and its acids, which grapes have the highest tannins, Brix calculations for alcohol level, the wine regions of Australia (one I can remember: which state is Adelaide Hills found in?), grapes used for Amarone, which region is Lombardy found in,  Salice Salentino – which region, where is Taurasi made, serving temperatures for various wines, fining agents, region of New Zealand known for Chardonnay, signature grape of Austria, name of mountains in Washington State, characteristics of Riesling, know the difference in regions in Argentina versus Chile (they totally try to trip you up on that one – I fubar’ed), know the hell out of Sherry and Madeira (soil in Madeira?), Vin Doux Naturel, sweet wine in Greece (and its grape is?), quality levels of all the European countries (know them!), diethelene glycol scandal was where and when, Bordeaux regions and grapes, where was the vine first planted in Australia, synonyms for true Riesling (screwed that one up), levels of quality for Marsala, regional AVAs in California and their counties, know the pests and diseases for the grapevine + nutritional requirements, labeling regulations in the U.S., regions in the Rhône Valley (produce white, red, etc),  DOCG and DOCa wines, carbonic maceration, sturm, Wachau classification (Austria), what is cadastro, ripeness levels in Germany, rivers in Germany (yes, it’s on there), South Africa regions, terra rossa soil, climate in Argentina, different types of botrytis affected wines, largest producing (and most important) region in Argentina, the healthy compounds in wine, which grapes are prone to mutate, labeling threshold for sulfites in wine, the first year vines were planted in various countries, other names for Blaufrankisch (I knew this one, but really? How important is that?), synonyms for tempranillo, most widely planted red grape in Portugal, dates for Prohibition, what is pinot noir called in Germany, photosynthesis, Rueda – what grape, what AVA in the U.S. is formed of non-contiguous vineyards, grapes in Cava, what region produces Frascati, levels of dosage/sweetness for Champagne.

If I think of any more in the middle of the night (during a nightmare), I’ll add them. And if you’ve taken it, feel free to add to the comments.

Although I painstakingly outlined the entire study guide on flash cards, I found this pretty awesome study guide available for free. (They took it down and I didn’t download a copy. Bummer.)

Next up? Certified Wine Educator exam but that’s a longer-term study process. I heard there’s only a 12% pass rate for that one. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at taylor at tayloreason dot com.

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70 comments to Tips for taking the Certified Specialist of Wine exam

  • jodi d.

    Wow! Congratulations Wine Goddess!! Keep it up! xo

  • mrshyguy

    I took the CSW exam last October and needless to say, “missed the cut” by 2 points. I studied for about 3 months, recorded notes on every bottle of wine I drank travelling the country (and the world!), and realized the exam was harder than I thought! I guess not being directly in the wine industry (far from it!), made it difficult for me to be in the right “state of mind”. I’m just a wine lover that happens to be a Nerd:-)

    Hopefully I get through it better next time around. Congratulations Taylor for getting through it!

    Any interest in taking the Court of Master Sommelier Courses and Exams?

  • Taylor Eason

    I’ve heard that same story from a lot of people who took the CSW, and who knows, I may not have passed either! The 6-8 week waiting time to find out feels torturous.

    As for the CMS, I’ve thought a lot about it. The reason for choosing the CWE route (CSW is the first stage of that, for those who don’t know) is that it’s traditionally (and I say that tongue-in-cheek since it’s not that aged of a certification) it’s for “educators” and not necessarily for people who “serve” wine per se. CMS is most definitely designed for people in the business of serving wine to customers… it even includes a service segment where (among other things) you have to be able to haul a tray carrying a bottle of Champagne in a ice bucket with 4 tall flutes… so I’m told. That said, I might try for both, if this certification goes through and I’m not dejected.

    Good luck to you if you decide to endure it again.

    Taylor

  • I also took the CSW exam at the end of August. I agree with your tips and would add one other. Enroll in the online Wine Academy on the SWE website. It provides hundreds of practice questions that the actual exam is based on. I am guessing that I score 85-90 and would not have done as well (I hope) had I not used the Wine Academy!

  • Taylor Eason

    CWP: Wish I’d know that before the exam but hopefully still passed!

  • James F

    CWP: do you have to pay the $500 SWE fee to access the online wine academy?

  • James: I have a student membership to the SWE and paid the $10 Wine Academy fee. If you pay for the Professional SWE membership you get access to the Wine Academy for free! I’d recommend contacting Carla Williams and discussing the best option for you. To me, it sounds like the Professional membership would be best. For more info on the CWS, check out my blog: ColoradoWinePress.com!

  • Ross W

    Tried to access the “pretty awesome study guide available for free” that you mentioned using to get ready for the CSW exam, but the link/info wasn’t availble. Anywhere else you can recommend that I access the free study guide? Thanks!

  • @Ross it looks like they took the guide down…

  • Taylor Eason

    I think they did take it down. Bummer. I guess all I can suggest is to suck up the cost of the “official” study guide that includes a bunch of sample tests. Pretty much ALL the questions on the exam come from these sample tests. It might be worth the $$. Colorado Wine Press has the best idea.

    I did pass, by the way. Made an 85.

  • Ross W

    Thanks for follow up. Free is always good – so at least worth a shot, but I will suck it up and buy the “official” version. Congrats on passing the test!

    I’ll start following you and the Colorado Wine Press. I am in Texas so I hope you get the opportunity to try our wine too. Thanks again!

  • Taylor Eason

    I tried some great Texas wine a few years ago but haven’t been able to get any since. Florida has some decent alternative “fruit” wines but they aren’t of Texas’s quality. Good luck to you and let me know if I can help in any way.

  • Ross W

    Thanks Taylor. We area start up vineyard/winery, so we can use all the luck and well wishes we can get. If you ever make it to the Austin, Texas area let me know and we’ll provide you with a good Texas-sized welcome and lots of good wine.

  • I thought that I mention that I did pass the CSW exam with a 91.

  • Taylor Eason

    CWP: Congrats!!

  • Patrick

    Interesting… I am employed by The Melting Pot. They have a joint program with E & J Gallo Wineries and the Society of Wine Educators online which I’ve been tediously working through. I’ve read a few other blogs and the online program seems to give a more in depth and much more practical presentation. I am on the 3rd and final module, and very soon, will be taking the pseudo-CSW exam they have online. I still feel strongly that I should spend the $315 for the actual materials and test. My goal, is to have earned the certification by Thanksgiving 2011. Anybody know about the Introductory Course for through the Court of Master Sommeliers? I am planning on enrolling in this by either September, or just wait until 2012 when the new “season’ starts. Also, would an agricultural degree give me an edge? Thanks!

  • Taylor Eason

    The $315 will get you all the exact questions for the exam. Verbatim. So if you want certainty that you won’t be tripped up, that’s the way to go. Although I haven’t taken the test, I heard the intro for CMS is much easier than the CSW but the “fun” begins after the 2nd level.
    Can’t speak to the agri degree, ‘cept that knowledge might help you understand the vineyard practices questions.

  • The Gallo online academy offered on Gallo customers is only a small subset of the entire SWE online wine academy. If I remember correctly there were something like 18 modules. Taylor is correct, the intro CMS is nothing compared to the CSW. However, the SWE online academy does not give you all of the questions verbatim. I think I remember something like 20-30 questions from the academy on my exam. There were definitely question on the actual exam not covered in the online academy, but I still think it was definitely worth having access to!

  • James F.

    I PASSED! 88! YESSSS! Thanks to anyone who commented or left suggestions.

  • Taylor Eason

    Congrats!

  • Shannon

    Taking the CSW Exam on 12/10. Scared to death. I really don’t want to take this over again. I am not in the Industry, but plan on working in the Paso Robles area in 2012. I want this certification to be the way to a better paying job. When you say the questions are “verbatim” are you talking about the tests in the Lesson Plans? I have been spending alot of time on the On-Line Academy and now think I should be spending this time on the Lesson Plans questions.
    Thanks for all of your recommendations.

  • Taylor Eason

    Shannon: Yep, I’m talking about the questions from the lesson plans and the online academy. If you have those down, you’re truly golden. Really. Good luck!! If yuo come to Sonoma County, look me up. I work at a winery in Healdsburg.

  • John

    Congrats to all those who’ve passed the CSW exam. My question for you is if I’m studying via the online academy at SWE, would you also suggest taking a prep class, or do you think the online Wine Academy will suffice? Thanks!

  • Shannn

    John..you really need to study the Study Guide. That is where 95% of the questions come from. Make sure you know all the maps. All the tests are different,but the folks at SWE told me that ALL the questions would come from the Study Guide. Sadly, the on-line academy and the Study Guide don’t match. Some of the information also conflicts. Good luck to you…. : )

  • Taylor Eason

    John: I concur with Shann. ALL the questions are found in the Study Guide.

  • John

    Just so I’m clear—you’re referring to the $200 CSW Study Guide on the SoWE website, yes?

  • Shannon

    Yes it is! I called the SWE to discuss some of the answers that didn’t jive in the book and the On-Line Academy. Was told to spend my time on the Study Guide because that is where the exam would be taken from. I did not even do the CSW On-Line Exam.

  • Garnetgirl

    Thank you all for your suggestions! 10 weeks to go until the test in Napa. I am hoping I will be ready! I did purchase the lesson plans. Did anyone find those helpful?

  • Shannn

    The answers to the lesson plans come right out of the Study Guide. That will help you alot. Know your maps! Be able to close your eyes & see each Country and the important appelations; important red and white grapes. Hot, warm & cool growing areas. Know the minutia. Some questions you go, “Really?” Good luck to you!!!

  • Susan B McHenry

    There are several review quizzes covering the different chapters from the SWE study guide on the Bubbly Professor’s Blog. I tried all the review materials I could come across and hers were by far the best (and they are free). http://bubblyprofessor.com/2012/02/21/the-ultimate-wine-review/

  • Ms.Incognito

    Folks,
    I have my CSW exam on 7/24/2012. I have been studying for about 4 hours a day for the past few months and I work as an Engineer in my day job.
    But I am very passionate about wine and would like to start my own establishment with wine as the main theme in the near future. So CSW is my first step to gain the knowledge and I also started interning at a wine bar recently.
    That said, I have a copy of the Study Guide and Lesson Plans. I am also making my own flash cards for each chapter. I revise using the flash cards in parallel while I am also trying to finish the chapters that are still remaining. I just finished Eastern/Central Europe and am about to start the Chapter on USA.
    So please pour in any advice/comments you have so I can pass this exam (if possible in flying colors) as I am not afraid to work hard!

    Many thanks and greatly appreciate your time.

  • shannon

    Ms. Incognito..you sound like you are doing what I did. I also worked a full time job (not in wine industry) while studying for this exam. It took me a year to get ready. Don’t spend time on the on-line academy. All the questions are from the Study Guide and Lesson Plan. I took my exam in December. The pass rate was not very high, but I think that is because people did not realize it was going to be as difficult as it was and many just studied the on-line academy. Go back and do that after you pass…good info, but also some of the stuff in the book does not match the on-line stuff. Confusing! Make sure you know the minutia. If you Google CSW Exam, there will be stuff from folks who took the exam and give lots of info. I studied everything that Taylor has in his e-mail from his exam and it was right on. Make sure you know all of those answers. Let me know if you want to touch base, in person. You will do awesome!!

  • Ms.Incognito

    Hi Shannon,
    Thank you so much for the prompt response! Appreciate it!!
    So now I am convinced, I am just going to stick to the Study Guide and Lesson Plans and leave the Online Academy alone for now.
    I am racking my brain trying to absorb as many minutia as possible (as many hours as I can per day).
    I am loving all the knowledge I am gaining, but I don’t want to just work hard and now work smart. But your advice helps tremendously, I’ll continue to do what I am doing.
    Also, I’ll make sure I know every single this in Taylor’s list.

    I would love to touch base with you, do you have an email I can contact you through?

    Many thanks,

  • shannon

    You can reach me at smwyzard@hotmail.com

  • Chandni Patel

    Taylor’s list is still fairly accurate as I just took the test in NYC this August – thanks to her notes, I passed!

  • Jonj

    Taylor asked that I add a brain dump to the thread to help future test takers. I took the exam recently after self-studying for about three months. Like many people have stated, the material covered is from the Study Guide. I also purchased the Lesson Plans from SWE, which helped a lot. The Lesson Plans allow you to focus on the most important facts. However, there are questions on the exam that are not in the Lesson Plans so it doesn’t eliminate the need for the Study Guide. Everything in the Study Guide is fair game. There’s no way to know which questions you’ll get and the process of elimination is much easier when you know the answers that definitely aren’t correct. For example, if Jujuy is listed in one of the answer choices for Chile you can immediately eliminate that answer choice if you know Jujuy is in Argentina.

    Following are some topics I remember from the exam. Rainwater Madeira? This is mentioned at the very end of the section on Madiera in the Study Guide. So, just when you think the information at the end of the sections isn’t as important, think again. The average rainfall vines need annually. If a bottle of sparkling wine is spewing foam after opening it, what do you do to get the foaming to stop? The fact that Burgundy has much less vineyard acreage and production than Bordeaux and the types of organizations/people who own the vineyards. I found studying the grapes and regions of Greece to be pretty difficult. I’m glad I forced it because Moschofilero was on my exam. Know the pradikatt levels in Germany and Austria. Also, the Study Guide states that the FYI sections are not covered on the exam. In my experience that’s GENERALLY true but not ABSOLUTELY. For example, Bergwein was on my exam. It is only mentioned in the Study Guide in an FYI section for Austria. I missed this question, damn it. Robertson is a wine region in South Africa. Know the Chilean wine regions and their location relative to each other. Know the regions of Argentina. Know the maps, not just the regions mentioned in the text. Know that La Mancha is the largest growing region in Spain geographically but does not have the highest yield per acre. Know the most popular DOCG’s of Italy. Know the sub-zones of Chianti. Know the sub-regions of Rioja. Know the main grape of Rias Baixas. Know that Penedes is the home of Cava, although it’s made in many other regions. Know cuvee, taille, and rebeche. Of course, know the US wine regions, their climates, and the grapes/styles that are most popular.

  • Taylor Eason

    Thanks Jonj and good luck on the results!

  • I must’ve had the same test as jonj. I know I missed at least 10 questions (especially the one about Rainwater Madeira–I’ll probably never drink it in my entire life!) But I think that’s all I missed. Pretty confident. I only purchased the study guide and am glad I didn’t pay the extra money to get the workbook or join SWE.

    Bubblyprofessor.com is the way to go. I am also using it to keep going for my CWE which I will hopefully take a year from now. It saved me. I did those practice tests relentlessly until I had every fact memorized. The first time I took the tests, I cheated and looked up the answers as I went. It helped me learn and retain the information. Pretty soon I had facts memorized in my head and still do.

    The tests get changed up every few weeks so it’s a great way to refresh what you’ve learned. I plan to keep using them to further my wine education.

    It’s been 9 days since I’ve taken the test and am just dying to get my results back. I hope it’s soon!

  • Taylor Eason

    CellarMistress: Stoked that everyone is rocking this exam since I heard a few months ago that they are trying to make it harder to pass. Obviously doesn’t apply to those who bust their butt to study. Cheers!

  • shannon

    I had also heard that they were trying to make it harder to pass. I can’t even imagine. I thought it was hard enough as it was. I am going to take my Somm1 exam in November and wish I would have taken it right after my CSW Exam. Mostly review…don’t know the Spirits stuff…more studying. If you study absolutely EVERYTHING that Taylor says to study,you will pass. Be able to close your eyes and see the maps; main regions and grapes. Know the smaller regions and grapes of Italy. My exam had nothing about the main regions. Rivers in Germany as well as the Quality levels (that is a given). Even though they say there will not be questions from the stuff in the boxes….there is. Make sure you know that stuff, as well especially in the Italy Chapter. Good luck to all of you. As Taylor says, “bust your butt.”

  • I got my results back in 10 days and I passed with a high score and I am so thrilled! And now I have the momentum to move forward on the CWE, which is a LOT harder even. I am busting my butt!! But the greatest thing that has come out of all this? A whole new appreciation for every aspect of this industry. I love it all and my passion for it will be even greater now! Congratulations to everyone who wants to take that next step and further educate themselves!

  • Terry J. Brown

    I took the CSW exam a few days ago and don’t know if I passed so my opinions may be worth less than a single puttonyo. Anyway, I found the online study guide to be extremely useful. There were a few discrepancies between that and the written study guide from the SWE. They were rare and if you happen to find one that’s glaring, simply learn the one in the written guide. I used Exploring Wine, 3rd Edition as a referee and sometimes found a third explanation. I also found that if there was a discrepancy or something confusing from any single source, I’d research it more and ultimately learn the subject better than by rote memorization alone. The maps in the online guide are far superior to the black and white, overdrawn, and often confusing maps in the written guide. They’re even better than the maps on the disc that comes with the written guide. The information is the same. The different regions/AVAs/DOC’s are in different colors online as opposed to black and white which is a definite plus. The material on fortified wines fleshes out what’s in the written guide and the online charts help simplify this complex subject that seemed to receive inordinate exposure on the exam. Not using the online material as an aide is to deny yourself a useful resource although it does provide a handy excuse for understudying. If learning about wine is a chore, you have to seriously ask yourself why you’re taking the test in the first place.

  • Ted Davis

    Is the online study guide a SWE sponsored one? I bought the notebook,a stiff $150 plus shipping,and noticed the SWE site had some online information starting with Chile/Argentina,but found out that this info is only sold if you want the full online guide,and the guide is crafted by Gallo. The SWE gets the last dime outof you,incl $200 for a one hour machine graded test.

  • Drew

    Took the test in LA this weekend. Although I didn’t have a lot of what was in your “brain dump” on my exam, your advice was spot-on. While reading the first time through, I created typewritten notes in outline form (about 80 pgs worth) for future study, then actually did Ihandwritten notes on the regions on my second read through of the guide. That part really helped with memorization. And actually having most of the wines covered in my cellar helped too :). I feel pretty good about how I did, but I’ll wait for the results before I spike the football. In retrospect, I found the online guide superfluous to this exam. Too much conflicting and different information.

  • Taylor Eason

    Drew: congrats on getting to the CSW finish line! Those notes will prove valuable in months/years to come. I actually refer to mine more frequently than I thought I would for my writing. And so glad my advice helped… completely the reason I wrote this post.

  • Terry J. Brown

    I think Gallo does have a hand in the online study guide but they do an admirable job of keeping the company out of it. It’s a hard test and I don’t think there are worthwhile shortcuts. Just find the study method that’s best for you and spend the time. Lots of time. Hey, if it’s a subject you enjoy, that’s not such a bad thing.

  • Drew

    Taylor: Just saw my score online this morning. 96. Very happy about that, obviously. Just need to figure out what to do next…

  • shannon

    Drew…congratulations!! And I thought I did good with a 92. You Rocked. So I took my CSW exam last Dec. The week before this Thanksgiving, I took my Sommelier 1 exam and felt that with all of the knowledge I got from CSW (and especially the maps), I was able to do really well. If you took that exam in the next month or so, you would kill it. I am going to go for my Certified Sommelier and then stop. I don’t plan on going into the service industry. What a great way to end the year! : )

  • Drew

    Thanks Shannon. Will look at that. Taking an entry exam into a WSET L3 program on Monday.

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