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Study inspiration from top-scoring Diploma graduates

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For the second year running, unveiled during our annual graduation ceremony, scholarships were awarded to the top-performing Level 4 Diploma in Wines graduates from each of our four key business regions: the Americas; the UK; Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA); and Asia-Pacific (APAC).

It takes a positive mindset, hard work and determination to complete the Diploma, let alone score the highest mark regionally across all units. We caught up with these inspiring graduates to ask how they felt about winning the scholarships, their experiences of taking the Diploma and their top tips for anyone considering enrolling in the qualification.

Regional scholars:

  • Marc Bloom (pictured above) winner of the Napa Valley Asia Pacific Scholarship, studied at Sydney Wine Academy, Australia
  • Cory Marx who won the Decanter Americas Scholarship, studied at Grape Experience, USA
  • Kristel Balcaen was awarded the IWSC EMEA Scholarship and studied at WineWise, Belgium
  • Peter Bland won the Vintners’ UK Scholarship and studied with WSET School London, UK

What (or who) inspired you to begin learning about wines?

Marc: Over the years I became a dedicated enthusiast. I am a deeply passionate learner and took every opportunity to discover and learn as much as I could. I immigrated to Australia 16 years ago and was inspired by the plethora of different styles available. I’ve gone to umpteen tastings, read fervently, visited numerous regions in Australia and around the world, and am a member of several tasting groups. I wanted my knowledge to be more than superficial. I wanted to be able to speak with authority.

Cory: I first became interested in learning about wines as a homebrewer. During college, I became serious about beer brewing and started competing in events around the USA. I originally started my WSET Level 2 Award in Wines to push my palate as a brewer, but instantly became hooked on wine studies after enrolling.

Kristel: My uncle, who was also my godfather, loved classic French wines and travelled to France each summer with the family, where they would go taste at different wineries. He bought small casks of his favourite wines there, to accompany weekday meals, while for family gatherings he would get a special bottle from his cellar. When my uncle returned from his travels, my brother and I would help him and my cousin out in the cellar to fill the bottles. Those really are my first wine memories: the lovely smells of cellar dust and young red wine. My uncle unfortunately passed away many years ago, but he would have been proud of my wine journey since.

Peter: Many years ago, as part of my economics and maths degree, I did a study of the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux Wines. That initial interest in the history and economics of wine quickly progressed into a love of the product itself which has become a lifelong passion.

Feeling inspired to begin your own WSET Diploma journey? Find out all about this life-changing qualification today.

Marc Bloom winner of the Napa Valley Asia Pacific Scholarship

Tell us a bit about your background. Where do you currently work? How does having the WSET Diploma impact your working life?

Marc: I work full time as a clinical psychologist in private practice. I’ve worked in this profession since qualifying in 2001. Sadly, I’m not working in the wine world at the moment. Winning the award has validated that I have something of value to offer. I’d be very keen to tie in whatever I do with my background in psychology. Although wine and people are not the same, I adore delving into and deconstructing what is in the glass. Psychology is very much an art and a science. I think the same can be said about wine. 

Kristel: I loved a good glass of wine with dinner, but I only really got bitten by the wine bug about 20 years ago. My father-in-law took us to our first wine fair, which led my husband and I to take an introductory wine course because we wanted to be better informed. The rest is history: we enrolled in the three-year Sommelier-Conseil programme here in Belgium and in Suze-la-Rousse, in the Rhône Valley, and continued with the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines right after.

Since obtaining the Diploma, I’ve started teaching WSET Level 3 in Wines for our Benelux course provider WineWise, I got a wine column in an international magazine and – a happy announcement, since it has been several years in the making – my first book on food and wine pairing will be published in October this year.

What motivated you to do the WSET Diploma?

Cory: The WSET courses were in many ways the biggest influence on my decision to make an early career change. I fell in love with wine studies and was obsessed with trying to improve my palate and world wine knowledge. I enrolled in the Diploma because I wanted to continue to challenge myself and learn alongside talented students and coursework providers.

Kristel: After teaching about wine for several years, and then obtaining the Champagne Ambassador and Wine Lady of the Year titles, I felt the depth and width of my wine knowledge was no longer where I wanted – and needed – it to be. The WSET Level 4 Diploma was the logical next step, in part also because I secretly dream of taking on the Master of Wine studies one day.

Kristel Balcaen was awarded the IWSC EMEA Scholarship

What’s the best thing you’re going to take away from your experience of studying for the WSET Diploma?

Cory: My tasting abilities were greatly bolstered by the WSET Diploma. Having tasted such a wide range of wines critically, I feel like I have a leg up in the business of wine production and can draw from a broad range of experience to inform my decisions and opinions.

Marc: The friends I’ve made. Soon after starting the components of the course that involved wine tasting, I took the initiative of forming a tasting group. Initially we met fortnightly, and as the course progressed, we started meeting weekly. There was always a theme which referenced the structure of the exam. That is, the same grape, country or region. Even though the course came to an end, these friendships have persisted, and we continue to see each other often. We still get to enjoy fabulous wines together.  

Having completed the course, nothing will ever be the same again. I feel changed. WSET has well and truly set the stage for my ongoing wine learning. I have a very different image of myself having completed the course. 

What was your biggest challenge in studying for the qualification, and how did you overcome it?

Peter: I was worried that acquiring the tasting skills would be the hardest bit, but like many Diploma students I found the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary to complete the theory papers was the biggest challenge. I tackled this by making connections between regions with similarities, for example in climate or wine styles, and focussing on common themes that are relevant across the wine world.

Cory: The Covid pandemic was difficult for everyone. It was a challenge to stay sharp and retain learnings with an uncertain timeline for test dates. The only way to overcome this was to remain diligent and set a study schedule that was adaptable to a sliding calendar.


Cory Marx who won the Decanter Americas Scholarship

What would you say to anyone thinking of doing the WSET Diploma but having doubts?

Kristel: First make sure you can fit it into your life, because it is a big commitment. But when you really want to do it, you will find a way. You will however need the support of the people around you. There will be many times, especially around the exams, that studying wine theory and tasting will take up most of your time and mental space. Yet looking back, it has all been worth it – and more. I’ve learnt so much, and connected with so many wonderful people.

Peter: For me it is easy to recommend the Diploma as I have loved every minute of studying for it. If you are having doubts, I would say it is hard work and you have to commit to that, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. However much you think you know about wine there is so much more to learn.

Feeling inspired to begin your own WSET Diploma journey? Find out all about this life-changing qualification today.

Peter Bland (centre) won the Vintners’ UK Scholarship