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What to know before taking the CSW exam

If you’re trying to decide if you should take the Certified Specialist of Wine exam, you’ve come to the right place! I took the exam March 2024, and not to toot my own horn (but honkin’ toot toot, baby!!) — I passed with a perfect score. So I wanted to write a guide while it was still top of mind that covers if this is the right wine certification for you, how to best prepare for the exam, and all the other information I wish I knew before taking it.

What is the CSW exam?

CSW stands for Certified Specialist of Wine and is a wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators. It’s a multiple choice exam with 100 questions that you can take online or in person, and you have to score 75% to pass.

I took it online, which was a simple process through PersonVue. You have 80 minutes to complete the exam, which is more than enough time — I finished it in about 40 minutes. Those who pass the exam can use the CSW post-nominal as part of their signature.

How hard is the CSW exam?

Even though the CSW exam is only multiple choice, it’s considered one of the most rigorous wine exams in the world. It’s entirely theory based, meaning you’ll spend a lot of time learning about the science and chemistry behind winemaking, viticulture, and geography. This sets it apart from other certifications, which include theory, but are generally more geared toward careers in wine service, pairing, and tasting.

While the SWE hasn’t publicly stated the pass rate, from everything I’ve read the it’s anywhere between 48-70% for first time exam takers.

Full disclosure: I was terrified to take this exam. Even though I had a strong background in French wine going into it because I lived in France, worked with a French wine importer as a sales representative, and taught classes on French wine, I knew almost nothing about any other wine region, winemaking, or viticulture.

BUT, don’t let all of that scare you. If you study diligently, you can pass it no problem.

Who the CSW certification is for

The CSW certification focuses on viticulture, the science of winemaking, and the world’s wine regions instead of wine in the service industry. This makes it ideal for hobbyists looking to expand their knowledge, or those wanting to pursue a job in wine education.

That said, it would be beneficial for any wine professional — whether that be a server, sales representative, or retailer — because it’s EXTREMELY thorough and considered the best course in terms of format, materials, and educational resources.

CSW vs other wine certifications

The other most popular wine certifications are through WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) and CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers).

The CSW certification is generally thought to be equivalent to the WSET 3 and CMS II certifications, and it’s by far the cheapest and shortest exam of the three. So if time and money are a consideration for you, CSW is a great deal that will put you at the same level as a more advanced certification from the other programs.

In terms of the actual content of the exams, CSW is the most theory focused of all three. And as I’ve already touched on, even though it’s a multiple choice test without a tasting component, it’s considered one of the hardest wine exams to pass.

WSET and CMS are more focused on the service industry and wine pairing. They also have tasting components and open response sections, which definitely add a level of difficulty you don’t get with the CSW. If you work at a restaurant or bar, these exams might be more relevant for your purposes.

The Society of Wine Educators also offers a level above CSW, which is the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) program. This exam is even more intensive, and includes a multiple choice exam, essay exam, tasting exam, and fault and imbalances identification exam. You also have to give a presentation in front of an audience on a specific topic. This track likely goes beyond the aspirations of a hobbyist, and is best for those who want to pursue a career in wine education.

How to prepare for the CSW exam

Looking back, I scored 100% because I essentially memorized the entire textbook. That was overkill, though — you definitely can pass without memorizing every minute detail of the book. And although it’s a tough exam, the CSW has fantastic resources. If you’re diligent about using them, you should have no problem passing. That all said, here are the resources I used to prepare!

1. Read the textbook and fill out the workbook

The textbook and accompanying workbook are some of the best wine learning resources out there, and they’re going to be your best bet when it comes to passing the test. I read the textbook twice and took extremely detailed notes — basically, I re-wrote anything important from the textbook in a Google Doc — and filled out the workbook as I went through the corresponding chapters.

The workbook is a mix of map exercises, fill in the blank, true/false, and multiple choice questions. Before taking the test, make sure you can answer EVERY single question in the workbook accurately and that you’ve memorized the maps of the wine regions. If you can’t list every appellation in Napa from North to South, I wouldn’t take the exam yet.

2. Use the free SWE course

After you purchase a $135 yearlong membership through the SWE (which is required to take the exam), you’ll have access to a free course that’s basically the same information as the textbook, but presented in a different format.

It’s more of a slideshow with quizzes after each chapter, and there’s some information that isn’t in the textbook, so I took detailed notes when going through this as well. It also comes with three 100 question practice exams, which you should absolutely take.

If you only have time for the textbook or this course though, I would stick with the textbook and workbook but still take the practice exams since they’re free.

3. Get the flashcards

After you’ve read the textbook, filled out the workbook, and finished the SWE course, the flashcards are a fantastic way to synthesize all of the important information and help with memorizing the behemoth of details. It costs $19 for 1000 flashcards, which I went through twice. I also wrote down any that I got wrong so I could go back later and will the information into my brain.

4. Buy the practices quizzes and tests

What’s another $19 when you’re already doling out a healthy stack of moolah on the actual certification? My tip is to wait until you’re confident you’re ready to take the exam, and then buy the practice quizzes and tests to see how you do. There are five 25 question quizzes with specific topics (i.e. geography, varietals, etc.) and three 100 question tests that you can take either timed or untimed and simulate the real CSW exam.

The content is VERY similar to the actual exam, so if you pass with an 80% or more on the practice quizzes/tests, you should pass the exam without issue.

That’s everything I personally did to prepare, but they also offer free virtual seminars taught by the renowned Jane Nickles that I wish I had taken more advantage of. People absolutely RAVE about her, and she’s considered one of the most brilliant wine educators in the industry. So if you can make the time, absolutely sit in on as many seminars as you can.

How much time you need to study

As far as actual studying hours, I spent 4 or so hours a week studying over the course of 8 months, which was more than enough time. I’m glad I waited until I was 100% confident, but realistically I could’ve taken the exam after 4 months and passed without issue.

That said, the amount of time you need will depend on how much you know coming into the program. I already had a good grasp on French wine and geography, and that’s by far the hardest country to learn. Two weeks before the exam, I also ramped up my studying significantly.

So it’s hard to say exactly how long you need to study since everyone is different, but once you’ve memorized everything in the workbook to a T and can pass the practice tests with 80% or more, you’re likely ready.

All in all, the CSW is widely thought to have the best educational resources of any wine certification program out there, and I would have to agree. You’ll come out of it with an incredible breadth of knowledge and high level understanding of wine in every category. So I highly recommend it for anyone looking to become well-rounded and super knowledgable in this area!

What other questions do you have about the CSW? If I missed anything, drop your thoughts/questions in the comment section below!