CSW® stands for Certified Specialist of Wine and is a test administered by the Society of Wine Educators® which tests the candidates knowledge of the world of wine. It’s one of many certifications available in the industry such as the more common Certified Sommelier® (by the Court of Master Sommeliers®) and the WSET®. Anyone is eligible to sit the exam and receive the certification upon successfully passing the test.
In this article, we’ll give you a complete overview of the entire process from start to finish and give you some insights into what you should study.
The CSW® is a sought-after certification that is typically taken by those that work in the wine industry, mainly in production or distribution. However, anyone is eligible to take the test.
On the other hand, the Certified Specialist of Wine® exam is the most difficult wine test in the industry.
Step 1: Purchase a Seat and Register for the CSW® Exam
The first step to becoming a Certified Specialist of Wine® is to go to the Society of Wine Educators® website and purchase a seat at the exam. Currently, the cost is $850 for those who are not members of the Society of Wine Educators® and $525 for those who are members. That’s a pretty big difference in price ($325) for members vs. non-members.
Now, becoming a member of the Society of Wine Educators® is quite simple, as all you need to do is purchase a membership for $135. By becoming a member, you also get additional benefits before and after taking your exam (more on that below). But aside from the benefits, if you do the math, it makes sense to purchase a membership and then purchase a seat for the exam, as your total cost including membership would only be $660 as opposed to the $850 you would pay as a non-member.
Once you make your purchase, you will receive an authorization code via email within a couple of minutes.
With the authorization code, you can schedule a date to take the exam within one year at a Pearson VUE testing center. You can schedule yourself through Pearson VUE’s website using the instructions provided on the Society of Wine Educators®’ website.
Pearson VUE has multiple testing locations around the U.S. and in almost every major city. If you’re not near a major city, that means you’ll have to travel in order to take the test.
Step 2: Study for the CSW® Test
When you purchase a seat at the exam, you’re not given any study materials or classes to attend. No guidance is provided at all. Instead, you must purchase additional study resources from the Society of Wine Educators®.
At a minimum, you need the Study Guide, which is basically a comprehensive textbook that covers everything on the exam. This is the most valuable study resource from SWE® that you can get your hands on. Several years ago, they would include the Study Guide when purchasing a seat for the exam. But they now require you to purchase the textbook separately. The cost of the exam also used to be cheaper 🙂
Although SWE® writes the Study Guide, in order to purchase it, you’ll have to buy it on Amazon, as you can’t purchase it directly from SWE®. The 2020 Study Guide for the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam® can be found on Amazon here.
The book is similar to a textbook and although it contains a lot of information, you won’t be tested on everything. So you have to be smart about what you spend time on memorizing. This is where it gets tough.
There are some sections that contain a lot of detail such as data tables of sugar levels for each label/category of Champagne. Then, there are those sections that seem unimportant such as the name of the mountain range in Washington. You’ll be tested on both of these.
The only guidance with regards what to study for within the textbook that you will receive is at the introduction of every chapter. The questions on the actual test WILL reflect the guidance provided in these sections. On the other hand, the guidance covers 80% each chapter’s material and not all information given as guidance will be included in the test. All in all, it’s not going to be that useful for you. So trying to memorize as much of the book as possible or signing up for our CSW® Practice Exam is going to be your best bet.
In addition to the CSW® Study Guide, there are a couple of additional resources you can purchase from SWE here. These include:
- CSW® Workbook – $39
- CSW® Flashcards – $19
- CSW® Practice Exam and Quizzes – $19
All of your options above are just additional study materials that provide different mediums and ways to study through the textbook. A lot of test takers ask if purchasing the flashcards and using them will provide insight into the type of questions that will be present on the exam. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the case.
Step 3: Take the CSW® Test
The test itself is 100% theory (written exam) and there is no tasting component.
When you arrive to take the test, you will be given 100 multiple choice questions on a computer with 4 choices for each question and one hour to complete it. A passing score is 75% or higher.
That doesn’t sound very difficult to pass, but it is. The passing rate for first-time test takers is quite low and you can expect numerous questions on the exam that may seem like the only way someone might know the answer to the question is if they memorized every minor detail of a chapter.
An example of a question might be: “Which famous sweet dessert DOCG wine is produced in the region of Lazio?”
Answer: Cannellino di Frascati
Each exam is different. For example, the person sitting next to you will have a different CSW® test than the one you have, as test questions are randomized and rotated between each individual.
If you fail the exam, you’ll have to purchase another seat as a “Retake” participant through SWE and pay $650 (for non-members) or $450 (for members).
Step 4: Become a Certified Specialist of Wine®
When you finally complete your exam, you will be notified by mail within several weeks whether you passed or not. If you’ve passed, you’ll receive a certificate and a lapel pin that identifies you as a Certified Specialist of Wine®.
The certification is valid for your entire life and does not require renewal like the Certified Sommelier® exams.
How to Study for the CSW® Exam
Of the three schools for certifications in the wine industry (WSET®, Sommelier, and CSW®), the CSW® is the most difficult exam to pass. Though there is no tasting component and it is 100% theory (written exam in the form of multiple choice), but the theory is a lot more difficult than other tests.
In the wine industry, candidates are commonly advised to first get their Certified Sommelier® certification before attempting the CSW®, as the theory portion of the Certified Sommelier® exam is a good “introduction” to what you can expect on the CSW® test. Don’t let that dissuade you from attempting the exam though. There are many individuals every year that attempt the CSW® first, as it carries more weight for resumes. And it’s definitely possible with the right study resources.
Some of the topics that are always covered on almost every variation of the CSW® exam consistently are:
- Characteristics and profiles of certain grapes such as Riesling and Cabernet Franc
- Sherry and Madiera
- Bordeaux regions and grapes
- Grapevine pests and diseases
- Labeling regulations in the U.S.
- DOCG and DOCa
- Ripeness levels in Germany and Austria
- Wine regions in South Africa
Free Resources For Studying for the CSW® Exam
SWE®’s blog hosts monthly webinars that are open to the public and are 100% free. Though the live webinars are not created around the exam itself, they’re very useful and will help you really learn some important concepts/topics in the wine industry if you have the time to sit for the webinars on a regular basis. You can find more information about the webinars and register for them here.
SWE® features a guided 12-week course that are free to members of the SWE®. These courses are very helpful in preparing you for the exam and if you purchased a seat as a member as mentioned at the beginning of this article (You should have), this should definitely be something you take part in. You can find information about the course and register for it here.