Certified Sommelier Exam

How to prepare for the CSW exam

The Story of the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) Exam

I first heard about the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam when I started working (part-time as a wine bar associate) at a wine bar called Grapevine near downtown San Jose, in the bay area. The owner of the wine bar at the time, suggested that this exam would a good comprehensive study of wines, its history, biology, chemistry, the various wine regions of the world etc. - especially for someone (like me at that time) trying to get their feet wet in the massive world of wine.

And so I dutifully took up the task of researching all about this exam. As the first step, I signed up with the Society of Wine Educators (SWE) to register for an exam date (and also signed up to receive their Study Guide). I spent $425 to register for the exam and purchase the Study Guide + $15 for shipping = $440 total

Next, I received email confirmation that the exam date was scheduled for July 24th, 2012 at an exam center near San Mateo, CA - along with a note that I can expect any materials  purchased (CSW Study Guide) to arrive within 7 to 10 days. Shortly after that, I received the Study Guide (about 250 pages - start to finish) filled with all the wine topics that needed to be mastered to pass the exam. I had about 4 months to do this...

I was excited! And so began the first day of several months preparing for the CSW. 


The preparation

When I first started studying for the CSW, I did not know what level of time commitment it took to prepare and pass this exam. 

Turned out, I spent 4 hours every evening for those 4 months reading and memorizing the Study Guide.

Based on my experience with the CSW and eventually the Certified Sommelier exam, my take about any wine related exam is, it takes a LOT of discipline to prepare and pass them. I draw the analogy that, just like it takes tremendous amount of hard work, discipline and persistence to turn good grapes in to great wine, studying for wine exams and certifications is no different.

Another irony that I observed was, everyday, I used to be able to unwind after work with a glass of wine. But since I started the pursuit of gaining theoretical knowledge of wine, I had to forgo that glass of wine in exchange for studying all about the wine regions of the world, viticulture terminologies and appellations :)

But the good news was, slowly and steadily I was making progress on completing the various units in the Study Guide. 



CSW Exam structure

As for the CSW exam structure, there would be a printed question paper with 100 questions and 4 choices under each question. We had an hour to complete this exam.

Candidates were asked to mark their final answers on a separate Scantron form. On this form, the selected answer (A-D) must be completely shaded in.

Pass percentage: Candidates are required to obtain 75% to pass the CSW exam.


Study materials

1. CSW Study Guide: I had signed up to receive the Study Guide while registering for the exam, since my research had indicated that a big part of the exam questions were going to appear from this guide.

2. CSW Lesson Plan: The CSW Lesson Plan is a workbook also available for purchase (which I bought also). It assists candidates in that it corresponds with the study guide itself, and asks questions specific to what is covered by the study guide. For example, it will tell a candidate to read specific units, and then the Lesson Plan lists fill-in-the-blank questions, blank maps and charts etc. to assist them in their learning and to point out areas which may require additional study.

 The Lesson Plan had questions on each Chapter with answers at the end which I thought were very useful. 

3. Flash cards: I am a huge fan of flash cards. I probably wrote down every word in the Study Guide on to Flash cards, but it was well worth the effort. The benefits were multi-fold, like

  • Being able to carry them anywhere.
  • I was able to register information both while writing it down once and reading from it, over and over again.


CSW - Some useful tips

1. Do you need to become a SWE member?

As a Professional Member of the Society, you would receive discounts on study materials, exams and Society events in addition to full access to their online wine academy. This online academy consists of 15 interactive modules, each covering a topic, with mini-quizzes and post-tests on each topic, as well as one full-length final exam at the very end.

When I contacted the SWE to find out more about this, I was informed that candidates purchase the online wine academy and lesson plan for different reasons. Some want a resource from which they can study without bringing their study guide with them wherever they go. For this reason they sign-up as Professional Members for the wine academy. They also like that there are quizzes and mini-tests for each different module topic. Others, however, prefer to purchase the lesson plan which helps them to better prepare as they go through the study guide itself. All exam questions are ultimately derived solely from the CSW Study Guide.


2. How important is it to memorize FYI sections in the Study Guide?

There are these sections called FYI scattered through out the study guide. These sections can be quite cumbersome and overwhelming to memorize. So I contacted the SWE officials to inquire how much time must be invested for these sections. And I received the following response: "Many of the FYI sections are indeed covered in the exam. Key topics such as grape variety aromas, vine metabolics, etc. may appear on the test. However, statistical data, i.e. # of acres of Chardonnay in a region will not. Accordingly, you should study those FYI sections that contain important information to be fully prepared for the exam.

We do not expect candidates to memorize the full list of DOCGs or the full list of all chateau classified in 1855. Likewise, the list of Burgundy Grand Cru. However, you should clearly understand the importance of the classification of 1855, which area(s) were classified and which were not. How the classification works compared to others, etc."


3. What NOT to wear for the exam? 

My exam registration form had the following statement "Candidates must refrain from wearing cologne, perfume or other scented products (i.e. powder, moisturizer, etc.). Any candidate who is found to be wearing scented product may be denied entry to the exam".

When I asked the SWE consultant about this, I was informed that, "Some of these exams do have a blind tasting component (namely their CWE Exam), and so, these fragrances can impact these portions of this specific exam. Also, somewhat surprisingly, it is possible for some candidates to have allergies or aversions to certain fragrances which can impact not only their ability to test, but may also be distracting for other examinees (i.e. if someone had an allergy and they were sneezing the entire time the exam was taking place)."


4. What to bring for the exam?

1. A form of photo identification

2. Several sharpened #2 (number 2) pencils for the exam

3. Black or blue pen.


5. Are there any other online resources available to better prepare for the CSW?

I found the following blogs (in no particular order) to be extremely helpful while preparing for the CSW exam and I highly recommend anyone preparing for this to read them too:

a. Dano's write up is a great read on how to prepare for the CSW exam. Through this blog, I have contacted Dano with questions I've had during my CSW and CS preparation - for which I am immensely grateful. 

b. Taylor Eason has an amazing blog about tips for taking the CSW exam. In particular, her brain dump is very useful for anyone looking for a peak in to the type of questions that can be expected in the CSW exam.

c. Jane Nickles' website and her Practice tests in particular in her website were my 'go to' resources the entire time I was preparing for the CSW. I was fortunate to be able to come across her work - because it is both mind boggling and so inspiring to witness her dedication to writing about wine, and her generosity with helping folks like me prepare and ace the various wine exams! For all of which I cannot thank her enough...


6. What kind of questions can we expect in the CSW?

Most questions in the exam were based on the Study Guide. However, there were some questions that were more intriguing than others, like:

1) Which grape smells like mushroom, tea, strawberries?

a. Cabernet Sauvignon b. Cabernet Franc c. Sangiovese d. Nebbiolo


2) What does adding sugar before fermentation do?

a. decreases alcohol content in the finished wine b. increases alcohol content in wine c. increases sweetness in finished wine d. decreases sweetness in finished wine


3) What vine metabolic process does not depend on ambient temp?

a. photosynthesis b. transpiration c. respiration d. translocation


4) Which of the following is true regarding acidification?

a. Cool new world regions uses this to increase acidity b. Is the process of adding citric acid to increase acidity c. Acidification rules vary from region to region d. Reduces acidity


5) Why blend non vintage sparkling wines?

Sorry, I don't remember the multiple choices for this question :(


Exam day

Finally, after months of poring over my flash cards, wine maps, re-reading the Guide, re-writing the Practice tests, the day of the exam arrived...

I had my pencils sharpened, formal shirt & trouser neatly pressed and ready to go.

When I arrived at the exam venue, as always there were several people huddling in small groups and 'discussing' the syllabus and their 'take' on how the exam questions might be. I stuck to my personal motto during exams - which is to stay calm, stay away from all the buzz and trust my own preparation before the exam can begin.

After a few minutes, we were all summoned in a huge exam hall with individual seats, a glass of water, and most importantly - the exam question paper turned upside down. And so it began, the first of many questions that was going to decide how I had prepared for the past 4 months..

As I started answering, I started to feel good about most of the multiple choices, and not so good about a few others. When I was almost done, I had mixed feelings - did I do well overall? Will I make the 75%?

Well, the good (and somewhat nerve racking) part about this exam is, after you are done - you have no choice but to wait for the results to arrive - which is usually 2-4 weeks later!! 

But thankfully, that year the SWE Program Manager announced that they were going to do something different. They were going to grade our papers right away and informed that for those who are local, we can come in person between 3-5 pm on Friday (that same week), and they will hand it over to us personally. And I swore to pick it up since the suspense was killing me already!


The verdict

Friday finally arrived and I was nervous all day. To top it all, I could not leave work that day to pick up my results! But, thankfully my dear husband could, and so I delegated him to do the honors. Now, I was waiting for his phone call....and finally he called! And....I had P-A-S-S-E-D! Not just passed but had scored 94% :) I was surely smiling ear to ear all day and it was a perfect ending to an otherwise long week.


Closing thoughts

After 4 months of preparing for the CSW here are final words on the Certified Specialist Wine (CSW) exam:

  • For anyone interested in pursuing a basic understanding of wine and related topics, this exam is a great start. It covers all the basic components of wine, viticulture and viniculture.
  • Since there are no other components to this exam except just the theoretical aspect, passing this will serve like a segway in to other more complex exams like the Certified Sommelier etc. which has several components to them - including blind tasting, champagne service, wine decanting etc.
  • Based on my experience, in order to pass this exam it is important to allocate a few hours each day (I studied for about 3-4 hours each day). This kind of practice help inculcate the discipline and time required to study and pass this and other wine exams.

That is it.

Good luck!