Preparing for the CSW Exam: What it’s like and tips for study!

Last month I passed my CSW Exam and can now add that title to my ever-evolving collection of certifications and wine knowledge. A year ago I became a Certified Sommelier, and the CSW exam, which was meant to keep my knowledge in check, helped me level up even more. The CSW exam is no joke!

What is this certification, why does it matter, and what is important to know? I cover it all for you here!

What is CSW?

I get asked this a lot (as many haven’t heard of this certification). It is certainly spreading and worth considering if you are thinking about a wine exam in the future.

CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) is a certification through SWE (The Society of Wine Educators). It’s not WSET or The Court of Master Sommeliers, but ANOTHER certification for wine knowledge! It is geared toward those that want to teach others about wine in various jobs. It’s great for retailers or those in any sort of education-based position. (Many distributors have their reps take this exam so they are able to have a working wine knowledge). Similar to WSET, you can do a lot with this certification.

CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) is the first level of TWO with The Society of Wine Educators. Although it is only the first level, it’s not a ‘beginner’ level by any means. It’s around ‘moderate’ difficulty and at a level comparable to WSET 3 and CMS 2 (Certified Sommelier).
(I share my thoughts on this vs my experience with the CMS exam at the end of this article).

The CSW exam is theory-based ONLY. It’s a 100 question (100 point) multiple-choice exam that you have an hour to complete. The next level up is known as the CWE (Certified Wine Educator) and includes a blind tasting and essay portion.

Reflecting on my exam experience…

I applaud this exam for the structure! It is really well laid out and systematic. I found it generally easy to create a study plan based on the materials they provided. SWE basically gives you everything you need to succeed, you just need to make sure you read and study it all (anything in the study guide and workbook is fair game for the exam)! There is also a prep course available and resources you can buy to study more in-depth (premade notecards, maps, practice quizzes, even a Facebook group with random tips when you sign up for prep courses).

I gave myself four months to study. Three of these months I spent taking the prep course, which consisted of an hour-long webinar on a specific topic/region every Monday. I would read the study guide and take notes the week before each webinar, so I could better understand the topic. The webinars were really inviting, and Jane Nickles (who is the Director of Education and leads each webinar), is immensely fun to listen to! I would find myself belly laughing often at the way she explained things. She also made all of the information easy to understand with all sorts of charts and photos. It was very approachable. I gave myself two weeks after the prep courses were over to review (cram) before the actual exam. Since I have a background in wine knowledge, I figured four months would be enough. Generally, it was, but if I could do it again and be less stressed out, I’d lengthen that time a bit. 

Once you decide you are ready to take the exam, you sign up at a Pearson Testing Center (they have venues all over the country and outside of the US). On the day of the exam, you go in, sit at a computer, and spend an hour gritting your teeth as you answer 100 multiple-choice questions. You also have the option of taking the exam at home, but with a camera on you to make sure you aren’t …cheating. I liked the option of getting out of my house/normal environment to take the exam.

Another great thing about CSW is you get your results right away! I’m talking immediately after taking the exam.

I really enjoyed it overall. Sometimes it felt like I was stuck in a round of Jeopardy for three months, though. There is a lot of memorization involved and I sometimes missed using the material in context. Overall though, I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to grow in their wine knowledge!

Some TIPS for passing…

#1 – Buy the study guide and the workbook on Amazon. Then look through these and decide how much time you think you’ll need to prepare. I spent four months preparing, but it was a LOT of cramming and late nights. Even with a CMS background, I wish I had taken 5-6 months to prepare and made it less stressful for myself. Also, I have kids and other work projects (so you have to factor YOUR lifestyle into this too)! It’s not a one size fits all!

#2 – Take the Prep Courses! These are a FREE resource once you purchase a professional membership with the SWE. Once you purchase the professional membership and an exam credit, you have a full year to take the exam. You can take the prep courses whenever in that year. (I believe the next set of prep courses start in February.) These are not only fun but helpful for condensing the important info.

#3 – Read the entire study guide and fill out the entire workbook! …Then go over your notes and the workbook questions MULTIPLE times!

#4 – Print out all of the maps SWE provides and write all over them. Make sure you know grape varieties, climate, and major landmarks for each.

How does this exam compare to CMS or WSET?

Both CSW and CMS Certified felt pretty comparable in OVERALL difficulty. I have heard that it is also comparable in difficulty to WSET 3 (but I can’t comment on that one, as I have yet to explore it).

CSW was way more intense for theory specifically, as it dived into topics and regions in more detail. However, the CMS theory portion included ‘fill in the blank’ and short answer questions as well, which can sometimes be harder than multiple choice. CMS also touched on producers, cocktail, and spirit knowledge.

As far as the structure…

CSW outlines the exam pretty well! It’s a lot, but they give you a book and a workbook and say everything you need to know for the exam is in the book!

CMS gives you “recommended reading” and bids you good luck with self-study (may the odds be ever in your favor).

So for theory knowledge specifically, CSW was more difficult/in-depth, but all things considered, they are somewhat comparable as far as the level they are at.

…and as far as how it compares to WSET specifically, I’ll let you know in a year!

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience with SWE! If you are interested in learning more or jumping into this certification check out their website below!

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A Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine with a passion for everything wine + beverage!