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

  • Just took the test in NYC and passed. Big thanks to Taylor for the brain dump –it played a big role in helping define my study strategy.

  • Shannon

    Congratulations!!! I totally agree with you about all of the information that Taylor shared. Made a huge difference in studying for the exam. I had actually called the SWE and asked them about the difference in some of the answers between the Study Guide and the On-Line Study Guide. Was told that none of the test would come from the on-line stuff. At that point, I just studied the Study Guide and Lesson Plans (and Taylor’s stuff).

  • Taylor Eason

    Aw shucks, ladies… Just paying it forward and so happy to help anyone spread the wine word. Congrats!

  • Rachael

    Hi, thanks for the great tips. I am just looking into taking this test. Are there any books that you can recommend me getting to start educating myself?


  • shannon

    I would highly recommend purchasing the Study Guide and the Lesson Plan from SWE. Maybe someone has used books you could purchase. All of the questions from the exam will come from these two books. I would also highly recommmend printing off all of the maps that they offer. The best advice I got was to be able to know each country’s map so well that I could close my eyes and see each one. Really helped. You absolutely will need to know the maps. Good luck to you!!!

  • Drew

    +1 with Shannon. Took the test a month ago and EVERYTHING was from the Study Guide. The lesson plan helped to reinforce a few things, especially with regard to the maps (although I did observe a couple of errors and incorrect answers that I shared with SWE), but the Study Guide is the key. I loaded all the maps into my iPad (a data CD containing the maps comes with the guide), and studied it often. And for my money, the online guide only served to muddy the waters a bit. There’s good information there, but a bit of it is at odds with the Study Guide. There is also a site out there that has some GREAT practice exams that helped me track my progress during my studies. Good luck!!

  • Taylor Eason

    Agree completely with Shannon and Drew. My experience was that everything was in the Study Guide. So, unless you want to expand your knowledge beyond the test (always a good thing but not necessary for this exam), you’re good to go with the SWE study guide. Good luck!

  • Anne

    I passed the CSW in October. First I did a lot of surfing looking for tips, but I found all the online flashcards and study sites to have info conflicting with the Study Guide, and it only confused me. I studied strictly using the Study Guide and the answers to what was contained in Taylor’s brain dump. I don’t know if I’ll ever put CSW on my business cards, but it’s a great sense of pride to have received a good score.

  • Fred


    Hello, and first off, CONGRATS on your accomplishments! Its great reading your postings and highly appreciative of you sharing with everyone/anyone in need of receiving their wine certification. I am soon to be hired on with a local grocery company as head Dept. manager for liquor/wine/spirits. It is required of me to become certified in Wine, exam scheduled later this year in October. Which material would be MOST beneficial for me too purchase… the CSW study guide, or SWE study guide???? I see you recommending the SWE in your comments, but isn’t that for the upper level EDUCATORS exam? I’d appreciate your response, Im limited on budget and dont want to buy the wrong study material. Thanks for your time and response in advance.

    Fred McMachan

  • Drew

    Fred…if what you need is the CSW certification, the CSW Study Guide (and possibly the lesson plan workbook) is all you need (I took and passed that one in December…EVERYTHING in that test was based on material in the study guide). The lesson plan workbook was superfluous for me, but others find it useful.

    SWE refers to the Society of Wine Educators, the organization that administers this certification. The higher lever certification at SWE is Certified Wine Educator, or CWE.

    Hope this helps.


  • Fred

    Drew, You answered my question, and I Thank you!

  • Taylor Eason

    Fred: I concur with Drew. The guide is all you need. Good luck and refer back to this blog thread for guidance and motivation along the way!

  • Fred

    Thank you, Taylor! I have your page saved on my computer for quick future access, I will definitely be following it. I appreciate your support! Best to you as well.

  • Laurie

    Just curious if anyone has taken the test in the last couple of months and if so did they feel like the questions were abut the same as Taylor’s brain dump. Also, do you have your own brain dump to share. I am such a horrible test taker and I am so nervous,

  • Shannon

    Laurie….I made sure that I knew every single answer from Taylor’s info. Also made sure I knew all the answers in the Lesson Plan. The best piece of advice I got was to make sure that I could close my eyes and see every map Studied. The only problem with that was when I was trying to go to sleep, I would continuously see the map I was studying. All Good…really helped. : )
    Also…I also found out that even thought they say the gray boxes are for “info only,” there were questions on the exam from those gray boxes. Don’t ignore them. I would not spend time on the on-line program unless you want to go back later and review. The answers on-line and in the book don’t match. You only need to know the book.
    I am not a good test taker either…so I went in very confident that I was going to pass and tried to relax. Take your time. Answer all the ones you know first and then go back to the others. You will do awesome….don’t panic. : )

  • Jared

    Has anyone taken the CSW recently? Any thoughts?

  • Ted Davis

    I have the Societiy’s CSW study guide,which I bought in late 2012, but used once,and didnt take the test,as I didnt go to Orlando this year,and they don’t offer the test near me. I decided at 75 years of age,and well enough versed on wines,that I didnt need to take a multiple choice,template graded exam,based on memory,and spend good money in the process.,having wasted $150 on the 3 ring binder,plus $15 shipping.

    Anyone that wants to pay me $100 plus my shipping cost,can have it,comes with the CD of maps,that I never opened up.

  • Ted Davis

    BTW my email is : ted.davis09@,or 210/828-1557

  • Tom

    How many hours of study should I plan, in order to pass this exam?

  • Taylor Eason

    Tom – it all depends on your current knowledge level. Since I had been writing about wine for about 10 years when I took the exam, it only took about two months to get ready. But there’s a lot of minutiae and map memorization (as you can read above) so keep that in mind. I’ve also heard rumors that the exam is tougher now but those are only rumors. The CWE folks just released a new study guide… Might be worth a look.

  • Garrell

    I know am late to this thread, but wondered if anyone has any comments on how the CSW exam compares to the WSET III? I just took WSET III and want to take CSW while the minutiae is still fresh in my mind.

  • Drew Matich

    Garrell–I did CSW first and WSET III second. I thought WSET III was a more intensive course than CSW (especially with the essay and tasting components of the exam). If you go to Jane Nickles’ Bubbly Professor page, she has several “mock exams” that pretty well reflect the types of questions you’ll see in the CSW exam.

    You should still get the CSW study guide and learn it in detail, but based on my experience, I think you’ll have a somewhat easier time of it.

  • Taylor Eason

    And I’ve heard the exact same thing. Good luck!

  • Dominic DelBalso

    Hello all!!!

    I too am late in this thread. However, I have taken and passed on WSET 1 and 2 levels as well as passed my level 1 sommelier. What can I expect going into the CSW??

    Any thoughts would be great

  • Taylor Eason

    Dominic: My understanding is that WSET is more challenging than the CSW but only you will be able to know for sure. Good luck!

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