Last Updated on November 18, 2020 by Jeremy
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If you've spent any amount of time on this site, you're likely well aware that we like wine. Not only do we have a quest to check out the best Pittsburgh wineries, but we're also visiting all the best wine bars in Pittsburgh too.
But perhaps one of our favorite experiences in Pittsburgh comes from the wine education company Palate Partners with their informal First and Third Friday feature which includes several wine samples, education about the grape and region, all at a fairly attractive price point.
We knew that Palate Partners offered many wine classes beyond these, and their offering of the multi-week Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses caught our eye. This is an international, standardized wine program (with four levels) and the folks at Palate Partners are certified to teach the first two levels (plus bringing in a guest instructor for Level 3).
Our favorite wine instructors teaching an international wine course that is highly regarded the world over? Sign us up.
But in being ones who always like to go big, we skipped Level 1 and jumped straight into the eight-week Level 2 course. While challenging, we also had a rather great time in this one.
What Comes With the WSET Level 2 Program?
At its core, the courses from WSET are structured to teach you how to think about wine over simply teaching you facts you can regurgitate without fully understanding what they mean. Our instructor from Palate Partners made this rather clear in an early lesson when pointing out that Level 2 teaches you “what you don't know you didn't know about wine” which, in retrospect, is spot on.
To put it simply, there is a lot we all don't know about the world of wine, and the courses from WSET are designed to help connect the dots to put it all together to allow for a fuller appreciation for wine at large.
To give an example of this in action, I have had an intense love of Riesling for years. In this course, we learned a great deal about the varietal including the countries where it grows, many sub-regions within those countries, the climates of those regions, flavor profiles associated, labeling terminology for the various styles, and more.
One region that I always regarded as my favorite for this variety was Alsace, France, but I really had no idea why they produced such great Riesling. In the course of the class, we learned about the geography of the area, how it is a warmer climate in France despite being fairly far north (thanks Vosges Mountains), and how that affects the growth of grapes which ultimately translates into flavor.
Prior to this I never thought about how the growing temperatures of the region could express different flavors in the grape, and after learning about the aspects of Alsace I have a much more robust understanding of why I like Riesling (and to be honest, most white varietals) from this particular region.
This was repeated with 29 more grape varietals (with tastings of several at the in-person class), and, while an intense amount of material over the eight-week course, really helps connect the dots over all the things that occur to bring about the flavors in the glass of wine sitting in front of you.
Going beyond learning about grapes and their respective growing regions (which we do admit is the bulk of the class), we also learned a fair bit about systematic wine tasting, wine and food pairings, how wine is made, the different stylistic approaches producers can use, as well as a brief introduction to sparkling and fortified wines to name a few. As was mentioned earlier in this article, there is certainly a lot you didn't know you didn't know about wine!
Having a Great Instructor is Key
As you can imagine, the WSET Level 2 class is quite robust and really starts to go down into the rabbit hole of wine. This is why we think having a great instructor is key and why we loved taking the course at Palate Partners.
While the reading material and workbooks are structured to be the same for all students in any given year, it really is up to the instructor to present the information in a way that is easily understood. Even with seven ~2 1/2 hour lessons (plus the test), we could only cover so much in class. As such, part of the skills of a good instructor is conveying the approach of how to think about the wines such that you can easily transfer this to studying at home (of which we did a great deal to prepare for the final exam- you'll need it!).
As we were quite fond of the teaching structure of the informal First and Third Fridays, we appreciated that a similar, approachable format was given during the course- albeit with much, much more information.
Perhaps we're a bit biased here, sure, but if you have a favorite instructor and want to dive into the world of wine with WSET, you'll be in good shape if they're also the ones to teach it. And at Palate Partners, we got just that.
Overall, the WSET Level 2 class was as robust as it is intense and really helped us improve our understanding of the world of wine at large. We were fortunate enough to be decently versed in wine topics ahead of this class that allowed us to jump into Level 2 without missing a beat (we also took a Level 1 practice test to confirm this). But if you consider yourself a novice in wine and want to look at things fresh, you would likely do well starting with Level 1 as the course is shorter and (we're told) a fair bit less intense before moving on to Level 2.
At an extreme worst case, that just means you get more wine to drink!
No matter what you do, if expanding your understanding of wine is something you think you'd find interesting, taking one of the WSET classes at Palate Partners (or elsewhere, if not Pittsburgh based) should most certainly be on your radar.