How to Prepare for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) Exam

As soon as I passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 Introductory Sommelier course, I set my sights on the Level 2 Certified Sommelier. I had heard that the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) is roughly equivalent to a Court of Master Sommeliers level 1.5, so I signed up to help prepare me for Certified Sommelier.

The CSW exam consists of a 100 question multiple-choice test. No tasting, no essays, and no service. The study guide and exam are about wine only – no beer, spirits, or saké. There is no CSW course, only a period of self-study before the exam. A study guide is available for $100. There are no secrets in the study guide you can’t find anywhere else, but there is a lot of wine knowledge out there and it makes life easy (and passing more likely) when you can study the material where all the questions are drawn from.

One thing that distinguishes the CSW from the WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers is the emphasis on wine chemistry and faults. You are probably familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux and Napa, but you may not be as familiar with the chemicals that make up or damage wine. Be sure to spend a lot of time studying these two chapters.

It’s not easy to memorize every detail of every region in the book, so where should you focus? Start off by being at least familiar with every chapter. Don’t spend so much time memorizing the tiny details of every Portuguese sub-region that you never even get to the chapter on South Africa.

As you read the book, have notecards and a pen at hand. If you see a fact you don’t know, make a flashcard. This is more effective than searching for someone else’s flashcards on the internet. Just writing out the information helps you remember it. Be sure to go back through all of your flashcards from time to time. As you are working your way through the back of the book, review the flashcards from the beginning to keep everything fresh in your mind.

As you take the test, you will come across questions you don’t know the answer to. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic.” It’s multiple choice, so cross out the answers you know are wrong. If you can narrow it down to two or even three, you improve your odds of getting the question right.

After I took the CSW exam, I went back through my answers to “check my grade” based on the probability of me getting the question correct. I gave myself points based on how many wrong answers I could cross off. If I crossed out three of the four possibilities, I gave myself 1.0 points. If I crossed out two possibilities, I earned 0.5 points. Crossing out one possibility was worth 0.33 points. A wild guess where I couldn’t cross out any was worth 0.25 points. You are required to earn 75% to pass, and when I tallied up my probability score, I had earned a 76% - just enough to pass! I got my results a few weeks later and my real score was 87%, so my educated guesses were right more often than they were random.

The average pass rate for the test is 50%, so it’s not easy, but with some time studying and making flashcards, you can definitely pass.

If you want to share your experiences with hopeful test takers, write about it on your blog and email me the link (dano@winekick.com) so I can point people your way. If you don't have a blog, email me your experience and I'll create a page for you on winekick.com.

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