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Alex Tsui's journey to the Vintners' Cup

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Each year at our graduation ceremony, the Vintners' Cup is awarded to the graduate achieving the highest mark across all areas of the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines. No mean feat, and a remarkable achievement! 

This year's winner, Che Chun Alex Tsui, completed his Diploma with Neptune School of Wine in the USA. We interviewed him to learn more about his introduction to wine, his study tips, and how he views wine education. 

Who or what inspired you to start learning about wine?

I don’t come from a wine-drinking family, so my wine journey really started during my university days. London was the first city I lived in since moving abroad, and my favourite pastime as a student was to save up for a great feast. Naturally, I quickly realised how intimidating it could be when presented with a wine list. This knowledge gap was what motivated me to learn more. WSET was on my radar since then, but I only started enrolling in courses when I started graduate school.

What do you think makes WSET’s flagship wine qualification so special?

As with all WSET qualifications, the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines is incredibly well-structured. I’m glad I began the Diploma after the major revamp in 2019. The current syllabus is written in a way that’s suited for both trade professionals and serious wine enthusiasts. There’s also a focus on explaining “why” a certain wine tastes that way – it’s the skills of analysis, evaluation, and creation that make the Diploma a challenging qualification. Last year I took the Master of Wine Introductory Course, and I felt very strongly that completing the Diploma lays all the groundwork for the entry into the MW programme.

How did you feel when you heard that you won the prize?

Honestly, I still find it unbelievable that I was awarded such a coveted accolade after so many famous names in the trade, including 19 now-Masters of Wine. While the Vintners’ Cup may have demonstrated I have a mastery on the Diploma materials, I am fully aware of the ever-changing nature of wine world. I will hold on to this attitude of learning as I venture further into the wine world.

Alex Tsui holding a trophy, standing next to Ian Harris and Laura Catena.

Che Chun Alex Tsui receiving his award from Ian Harris,  MBE, from The Worshipful Company of Vintners, and WSET's Honorary President Dr Laura Catena.

How did you experience the leap from the WSET Level 3 Award in Wine to the Diploma?

I actually found the leap from Level 2 to Level 3 a starker change. Level 2 was about understanding wines based on grape varieties, while Level 3 and the Diploma have a focus on the growing environment and winemaking. Most of the regions and countries in the Diploma course were already touched upon in Level 3, therefore I appreciate very much how coherent Level 3 and the Diploma are. Notable regions only at the Diploma level include Jura, China, and Madeira. I haven’t had any Madeira prior to doing the Diploma, and now it has become my favourite style of wine! There’s a six-fold increase in terms of both the length of the materials and the suggested learning hours going from Level 3 to the Diploma – making a study plan is crucial in making the journey manageable.

What did you enjoy most about studying the Diploma? Were there any topics that you enjoyed more than you expected?

As a scientist by training having no formal business education before, surprisingly I enjoyed the Wine Business unit very much. Acronyms such as SWOT and PESTEL are now stuck in my head, which I am able to apply outside of the wine world. I also enjoy comparing and contrasting classification systems and wine laws across different countries. It gives me great joy to explain German wine laws! The research skills developing through studying the Diploma also motivated me to keep my eyes open for developments in the industry, as well as emerging regions.

Why do you think wine education is so important?

The understanding of the ingredients, environment, and the processes involved in wine production enables us wine drinkers to appreciate the product even more. Though perhaps the most important aspect in wine education is the ability to assess a wine objectively – and that’s what I love about blind tasting. With education also comes the ability to articulate all the sensations while tasting a wine, and I also understand my own tastes a little bit better!

Any top tips for the current diploma students?

Discover your own learning style early on – some students prefer visual aid like maps, other prefer audio aids or writing your own notes. Doing the Diploma is like running a marathon so it’s important to pace yourself so that you won’t burn out. Especially for the massive Wines of the World exam, it’s a good idea to build in essay writing in your study routine early on – so you could be more confident in how to structure a good essay. Aside from forming tasting groups, consider also forming study groups where each takes turn to introduce a topic, and discuss or critique each other’s written work. Studying in a group makes it a collaborative process, and you could identify your own strengths and weaknesses as well. I owe a huge thanks to all the study groups that I’ve been part of! Lastly, the Facebook Diploma students study group (open to all Diploma students) that I manage is such an open and friendly community, where many students and graduates share their own tips or even their own study resources. So join us if you haven’t!