On Twitter, you will find some wine people using the initials "CSW" (Certified Specialist of Wine) after their name. You can also find some wine blogs where that certification is given a very prominent position on the front page of their site. The certification sounds very impressive, providing an appearance of credibility, an assumed warranty of wine knowledge. But what does being a CSW actually entail? Should readers view this designation as a guarantee of reliability?
I am certainly in favor of wine writers attaining certifications, which I see as a way for writers to expand their own knowledge. I don't see it as a necessity but more a strong recommendation, a way to challenge yourself and expand your mind. I have received a few certifications myself, choosing certifications that allow me a more in-depth study of specific topics, such as Spanish wines, Champagne, Port and Sake. In addition, I believe certifications are merely an additional step in a greater learning process. There is always much more to learn and writers, in all fields, should continue to accumulate knowledge and experience.
The Society of Wine Educators is responsible for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) certification, which consists of a self-study course and exam. There are no classes a person needs to attend, no instructor to guide your education. The exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and you have one hour to complete it. You only need to score at least 75% to receive your certification. Personally, I don't consider that to be a particularly difficult burden. It is all multiple choice and there is no tasting element. And 75% would usually be a "C" in any school course, passing but not particularly impressive.
The exam covers a wide range of topics, including: "Physiology of Taste, Wine Composition & Chemistry; Faults; Viticulture & Enology; Labels, Laws & Wine Regions; The U.S. Wine Industry; Wine's Contribution to Health; Wine Etiquette & Service; Food & Wine Pairing; and Responsible Beverage Alcohol Service." Wine Regions occupy the majority of questions, from 12 questions on France to 3 questions on South Africa.
Frankly, this wide extent of coverage should be considered more of a Generalist than a Specialist. So, the proper designation should be a CGW (Certified Generalist of Wine) rather than a CSW. You can't really be a specialist of all wine, as there is far too much information for any single person to know. And the small amount of questions for each wine region do not provide sufficient evidence of a specialized knowledge of that region. Thus, the CSW designation is not really accurate, and the general public is misled as to the true extent of the certification.
I also consider a CSW certification to be more of an introductory education, and not something indicative of advanced knowledge of wine. It is more of a wine overview than an immersive depth of understanding. So I don't understand a desire to use the initials after someone's name. In some respects, it seems like it could be a sign of insecurity, trying to convince people of your wine knowledge with some initials rather than showing your knowledge in your writing. For some, it might seem pretentious twaddle.
A PhD or JD after your name is indicative of a true achievement, of rigorous education and testing. For wine, a MW (Master of Wine), is also indicative of a similar effort and achievement, a worthy addition to one's name. But a CSW doesn't carry a similar cachet. Even if you are able to add the initials to your name, that doesn't mean you have to do so, or even should do so. Ask yourself why you use those initials and explore your motivation. Is it really necessary? I don't think so.