Monday, December 24, 2007

Certified Specialist of Wine Exam - How I Studied for the Society of Wine Educators CSW exam

Advice, Tips and Tricks for Visual Learners - How to Study for and Pass the CSW, The Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Wine exam

By Kathleen Lisson, CSW

Though I grew up in Concord, CA, just an hour from Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, I didn’t really catch the ‘wine bug’ until moving to New York and going on a few day trips to Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley wineries. I read Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course and watched the accompanying DVD and got ‘hooked’ on learning about wine.

If you are ‘hooked’ on learning about wine, you are a good candidate for the CSW. If I did it, you can do it, too! I have no formal or professional background in wine and I passed the Certified Specialist of Wine exam in 2007 with a score of 95 after studying for eight months while working full time in an unrelated industry.

Here are a dozen tips that helped me pass the Certified Specialist of Wine exam:

Read, Read, Read. – I spent my spare time before I applied to take the test reading wine courses and books about different wine regions. This gave me the knowledge to dive right into the 200 + page Certified Specialist of Wine text. Look for more than just a study guide, prior reading is essential to your success in the CSW exam. The most important books I read were texts from the public library on French wines, grape growing, wine making and wine courses. I would have also benefited from a book of Italian Wines and German Wines.

Become a ‘Professional’ Member of the Society of Wine Educators – Professional members have access to the online learning modules for the CSW exam. While the modules were not a study guide, I studied for this test on my own, so the ability to switch between reading the exam text and learning interactively through the online course was essential.

Buy the Text Without Scheduling Your Test Date – I strongly advise purchasing the text, getting about a month into studying, and then honestly evaluating your progress and setting a reasonable date for taking your test. The Society of Wine Educators offers tests monthly across the US, pick the date that is the most convenient for you. I planned to take the test in the summer in New York City, but midway through studying I had to take two weeks off for a death in the family. Since I had not yet scheduled an exam date with the Society of Wine Educators, I was able to postpone my test date to October.

Be Scared – Let me be perfectly clear, the text and the exam are not easy. You will be responsible for an astounding amount of information. When you pass, you will have a full and comprehensive basic understanding of the wine industry. If you are a wine professional, you cannot skimp on studying just because you have On the Job Training. The Certified Specialist of Wine exam is not about being able to perform well at a blind tasting or recommend a nice bottle of wine, it’s about knowing complex wine law and the practices and skills of grape growing and winemaking.

Don’t be Scared – The German wine laws were the most challenging chapter for me. I remember sitting on my boyfriend’s bed in Columbus, Georgia absolutely convinced that I would never master the complicated wine laws of Germany. If you are a good learner and give yourself adequate time to study and absorb the information, you will eventually understand the entire text.

Study Every Day – Yes, that’s right, I studied German wine law while I was visiting my boyfriend at Fort Benning. Build an understanding of the text by studying at least a little bit every day, even on vacation.

Use Flash Cards – The easiest way for me to review the text I had read was by using flash cards. I would review flash cards as I was walking to and from work, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They were my mini study guide. I kept them in my purse and flipped through them any time I was waiting in line or delayed. I worked with about 30 cards at a time, storing them in a box after I had mastered them and moved on to the next chapter. A month before my test date, I took out that box and started a slow review of all my flash cards.

Use the Maps CD – When you just can’t read another word, switch to looking over the maps of different wine regions. I can remember at least three questions on the exam that a map would have definitely answered.

Use the Mini-Test at the End of Each Chapter – If you are unfamiliar with any of the questions, go back and read the chapter again.

Read the Entire Text at Least Twice – Even after reading slowly the first time, making flash cards and answering the questions at the end of each chapter, I still picked up new information when I went back and read the text cover to cover a second time. I finished my first reading about a month before the text and then read ten pages of the text every night for the next month as a review.

Read Wine Spectator and Go on Wine Shop Field Trips – I used the tasting notes in the back of issues of Wine Spectator to quiz and familiarize myself on wine regions, particularly Australian wine regions. I went to my local wine shop and looked at the different wine labels from around the world, particularly for Germany. The wines from those countries were unfamiliar to me, so the hands-on experience with labels and tasting notes helped me to learn geography and wine laws.

Practice your wine identification skills - have a partner read tasting notes from the Wine Spectator or another source and try to guess the Varietal and Country of origin. Try this online quiz from Wine Spectator here:,1189,,00.html

I received my letter and certificate in October 2007, about ten days after taking my test at Johnson and Wales in Providence, RI. Since obtaining my CSW, I have been studying teaching books in preparation for teaching a class on Wine and Food Pairing in Albany, NY. I also write a blog on wine and food pairing at
The knowledge I received as a result of studying for the CSW has given me the confidence to pursue my dream of helping others learn more about wine. Good Luck!

Fellow CSWs – Add your hints and tips in the comment section below!


Jason said...

I can't thank you enough for advice on the CWE/CSX exam. I've known more than a few people with the certification and I've always held them in high regard because it seems to me that the disconnect between the most erudite in the wine stratosphere and the everyday customer is bridged--a critical aspect of a healthy and growing wine connoisseur-ship.

Finger Lakes Weekend Wino said...

Kathleen, Congratulations on the CSW! That is a great achievement. I'm still working on my CSFLW - Certified Specialist of Finger Lakes Wine :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kathleen. One question: what is a "map CD?" I didn't see it on the online program ... marisa

Kathleen Lisson, CSW said...

I received a CD full of wine region maps from around the world. Contact the SWE if you didn't get a CD, at least one of the questions is based on remembering a map!

"The Wine Guy" said...

I would read as much as possible and focus on the grapes, soil, and geography. It is a great test of base info, but will not seem like base info while you are going over it. I took the test in Napa, and it was great! MDY PC CSW.

Kathleen Lisson, CSW said...

Here is a great way to study your Austrlian geography - listen to the Aussies talk up their wines on Wine Week. Their page is here:

Kathleen Lisson, CSW

Neal said...

Hi Kathleen- I'm a CWE from Philadelphia. Your list seems pretty thorough, especially for people who have to study on their own, without support of fellow students and a knowledgeable instructor in a course dedicated to the CSW. Such support has been lacking in CSW preparation (compared to, say, WSET, which has about 60 weeks of classroom instruction leading to their various credentials). But now SWE has certified a number of people throughout the U.S. as certified instructors for the CSW program. I was one of about 50 CSW's and CWE's who spent several days in Florida last spring being introduced to the CSW support materials such as photo slides and powerpoints, and being videotaped teaching assigned topics. We finally got our certificates of approval to instruct. I am affiliated with Walnut Hill College (aka "the Restaurant School") in Philadelphia, and we have been offering courses keyed to the CSW exam since September, 2006. Finally, we will have all the materials -- and the official sanction -- to teach the official classes.

SWE should be able to give people a list of names and locations of individuals/ entities that will be able to teach the official CSW classes.

Neal Ewing, CWE, DWS

chris said...


I had left you a comment on MySpace and now I have found time to do a bit of wine study info on my blog at so give it a read and a comment. I will be adding to as things come to mind that will help people studying for any of the lower level exams (not Master levels).


Joe Roberts, CSW said...

Hi Kathleen,

I've been getting a lot of questions on this topic lately, so I wrote another follow-up post on my CSW experience that might be of interest to any of the CSW hopefuls reading your blog.


Anonymous said...

Kathleen's comments are spot on. I recently sat for the CSW exam held in St. Louis and I can tell you, right or wrong, that the SWE study materials and the online training alone will not help answer all the questions on the exam. Where did those questions on Umbria and Italian wines come from?
One of the guys sitting next to me was on his third attempt. He also says it is much more difficult than the first level of the master sommelier program.
I'm a professional technical writer in the finance field and want to extend my abilities to writing in one of my favorite personal enjoyments, drinking wine. I think the CSW designation will help me get to that point.

Mark said...

I just took my test today 5/18/08. let me tell you. I can tell you anything you want to know about any region in the world, soil, climate, regions, villages, synonyms of grapes, AOC, DOCa,QmP, GI's, Etc.... This test was crazy!!!! My instructor said there would be a small amount on the chemical compostion of wine. Let me tell you the whole test was on that. The CMS test was much easier and acctually more about what a normal consumer would want to know about wine. Anyway, Study EVERYTHING!!!!! said...

Does anyone have a study guide for the CSW exam that they are willing to sell/loan?

Kathleen Lisson, CSW said...

CSW Study guides are available from the Society of Wine Educators -

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathleen, thank you for all the advice! I wanted to ask you if you think the training course offered by the westchester wine school is worth it for $700? Or do you think reading the book is enough?

Kathleen Lisson, CSW said...

I passed the CSW course by studying from the SWE materials only. I am a strong visual learner and gave myself several months of studying time. If you would like to also learn through discussion with others, taking the CSW class at Westchester Wine School would be a good choice.

Deep Red Cellar said...

Thank you for information. I hope to say I'm a CSW in the near future. Appreciate the informative write up.

Cbse exam said...

Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.

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