Oh, look. It’s Alexa sulking in the corner of the room. She’s gone silent since The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia arrived. A new version of an encyclopedia beats the internet for authority and imagination every time, especially if you study for the WSET Diploma or Master of Wine.
Some people say the latest WSET diploma covers more knowledge today than the inaugural Masters of Wine in 1953. In those days, the highest wine qualifications needed an in-depth understanding of France – Bordeaux and Burgundy, in particular – and a smattering of facts about the new world if you didn’t choke on the words first. Now professionals in the wine world need to know wines from every continent—moreover, we find increasingly complex scientific advances and global business interests behind decisions in the wine world.
It sometimes feels as if you can never have enough books when you are studying for your professional exams today. You can pass the Diploma with the information WSET provides you; but, who wants a simple Pass? While most people start the Diploma with higher ambitions than Pass, many soon realize after the first set of exams, there’s a lot more work than they originally thought to achieve those Distinctions.
Recently the courier lugged up to my apartment a heavy slab from National Geographic. Written by Tom Stevenson, and edited by Orsi Szentkiralyi, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is a treasure trove of wine knowledge with imagery that blows most wine photography out of the water.
How can New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia help with your WSET Diploma study?
To give an idea of this encyclopedia’s scope, there are 798 pages in three parts. The last edition was published in 2011, which makes it ten years of research for this edition. When we are used to the notion of information being weightless as data on the internet, the weight of the book is significant; it’s almost too heavy for me to take down from the bookshelf. Instead, I’m keeping it on the coffee table, where it tempts us to read more.
Suppose you want to do more than Pass your Diploma. You want Distinctions all the way, baby. Oh yeah. In that case, you need to improve your knowledge of the business and marketing side of the wine regions you study. This is where the latest Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia comes in.
There are a few regions I know in-depth and very well. Since my Diploma, and through experience, I have a broad knowledge of nearly all wine regions. Even if my understanding of some of the re-emerging areas, such as Mexico, could be better.
I have a history working in Bordeaux and Burgundy and have recently become more involved with California. I also started my career in Australia, so I know these wine regions inside out. So it made sense to check the book with my own knowledge on these regions. And I was eager to see if there were new things to learn in this new edition. There’s always something to learn about when it comes to wine; the learning never stops.
Logical layout for studying WSET Diploma
Let’s look at the encyclopedia with the eyes of a student who is about to study their Diploma (Level 4), MW, or even Level 3: I open the section called “The Wines of the Americas”.
If you want to do well at the Level 4 Diploma stage, you need to have a deep understanding of the six factors in Level 3. What you will find very useful in the encyclopedia is the boxed out section called “Factors affecting taste and quality.”
It’s not the Six Factors for one state alone, but they have information for each region in the Golden state. It’s a convenient summary of information for students. For Mendocino County, for example, the boxed out section explains each of the factors which you need to know in Level 3:
Viticulture and vinification
These are near enough to the basics you need to know for Level 3. And you would get a pass if you knew these points when it comes to sitting your Diploma exams. If you learn the manuals that WSET gives you – and I mean know them inside out – you could pass on the manuals alone. But if you want to do better than pass, you must not forget to add what you learned in WSET Diploma Unit 1 – The Business of Wine.
Understanding the Business of Wine is key
Because the Diploma is a professional degree, the knowledge of the wine market is what distinguishes the Diploma level from Level 3. What makes the encyclopedia worth its weight (and it’s a heavy tome) is the business and wine producer sections. The business and marketing statistics are up to date and in-depth. If you are studying, and especially if you buy this book while still fresh off the press, you will be exceptionally grateful for the statistics.
But it’s the information on the large companies behind the wine industry that I found extremely useful. This is the sort of knowledge that will nudge you closer to a Distinction if you can show it in your exam essays. And it’s all in one handy space rather than multiple tabs on your computer.
In the chapter I’m looking at now, there are excellent stats on California’s grape varieties and crush volumes over the past few years. The introduction to each chapter, and the images and maps, also bring all the (often) dry facts you learn in Diploma manuals to life.
Useful facts you can use in WSET Diploma exams
For example, in the boxed-out section under North America, “Largest Wine Groups of America,” you have all the facts and figures, and history, of the biggest companies according to volume. This is insanely useful, just as it was with Tom Stevenson’s Christie’s Champagne & Sparkling Wine reference. Each of the producers are detailed with useful information and statistics.
Not to mention useful AVAs’ lists, the label vocabulary, or even the section on vine pests. There is even a picture of a sharpshooter, which was my favorite thing to say when I was studying: Sharpshooter! Even if it is a devastating fact for Californian vineyards. Well, I can’t explain why I found it so funny other than study madness.
WSET is wary of recommending more than what they want you to study. Right or wrong (and we could debate this until the whisky bottle is dry) the exams only mark what they need you to know – not much more. It is why I found it quite tricky studying because I would go down rabbit holes when something particularly interesting showed up.
Extra reading, outside of the curriculum, did not help me when it came to the exams. It is why I don’t want to tell you to read too much. Unless it’s worth your time. There’s so much information; you need to narrow down the amount of data if anything.
However, I would highly recommend the latest edition of The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia for students and wine lovers alike. Published in November 2020, WSET has recommended previous editions of the Encyclopedia; I would be surprised if they did not recommend this book. Especially now, as it is fresh off the National Geographic press with all the latest up-to-date information.
Final thoughts on The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and WSET Diploma study
The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia combines the best attributes of other resources needed by WSET diploma students in one hefty book.
You will find the maps and the winery knowledge the is located in The Wine Atlas, and even Tom Stevenson’s Christie’s Champagne & Sparkling book. If you referred to The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia with The Oxford Companion to Wine they give you, along with the WSET Unit manuals, you will be racing ahead of the pack before the exams. You won’t need anything else.
If only the book could help you with the tasting component of the exam. There is some good basic knowledge about tasting and assessment. It’s not SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting). Be careful here – stick to what WSET wants you to know before your exams; otherwise, it may become too confusing. But it will be helpful for keen wine amateurs, where amateur comes from the French for love (amour).
My husband and I both have a Diploma, and we’ve already consulted the book a few times in casual conversation over the past week alone. It looks good on my coffee table. Although it will be helpful for MW or Diploma, it’s not only good for studying. You will come to find it a joyful accompaniment to your wine knowledge – whether you are studying or collecting wine.
Five out of five stars
A tremendous tome full of the latest wine research by Tom Stevenson, and edited by Orsi Szentkiralyi, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, National Geographic (November 2020).
Photo by Damir Spanic on unsplash.com