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Do we really need all these wine certification programs?

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The issue of wine education always has lingered around the edges of those of us lucky enough to make our living, one way or another, through wine.

The question boils down to this: What sort of formal certification, if any, ought to be required? We all can agree that knowledge is needed, whether you’re a sommelier, writer/critic, merchant, or working in some other corner of the industry. But how should you get that knowledge?

Through most of history knowledge was acquired in informal ways. In the old days, if you wanted to work in the wine trade, you apprenticed with people older and more experienced than you. (Indeed, this is how people like Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh got started.) Later–as my generation matured–you could self-educate yourself, through the many books and tasting societies that sprang up across the U.S.

Then wine became big business; and like all things when big money is involved, the rules began to change. As competition for jobs increased, employers felt they could tighten up the requirements. In the 1990s, it became evidently more important to have some sort of title: a Master of Wine, or a Master Sommelier. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the 21st century that certifying entities themselves began competing to attract candidates and their tuition dollars.

Today, I’ve lost count of how many different certifying entities there are. I hear from them all the time. In addition to the M.W. and M.S. programs, the Society of Wine Educators has their Certified Wine Educator and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications. The Culinary Institute of America runs several certification programs, and then of course there’s the well-known WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) program, which offers multiple levels of certification. (Jancis Robinson  recently promoted it at a speech in New York.) I could list many other similar programs, but the point is that, to get a job these days in the wine industry, most likely you’re going to have to possess at least one certification.

I’ve long had mixed feelings about the process. I recognize the importance of certification for getting a job: it’s similar to the need for a college degree if you want a career in a profession. So I can’t blame anyone for doing whatever they have to do to work in the wine industry. At the same time, the proliferation of certifying agencies raises the prospects that some may not be the path to the gold ring they claim to be. After all, when everyone has some kind of certification, employers will just raise the bar even higher.

Jancis made a very interesting remark in her speech. “Without [certification], you just tend to stick to those regions or varieties that you personally like and you risk never being in a position to discover new things.” I agree with that, to a certain extent: All of these certification programs, as far as I can tell, educate the student about all the world’s wines, so that you come away with a catholic [small “c”] understanding of wine. Nothing wrong with that, but is a universal understanding of the world’s wines necessary for a job in the wine industry? Possibly for some sommeliers and merchants, it is. But I’d wager that 90% or more of jobs in the wine industry don’t call for a universal knowledge of wine. Many, perhaps most writers and critics do focus on a single region (I certainly do), and I don’t think that makes us less effective in our jobs. One could argue it makes us more effective: Perhaps not as broadly conversant, but more deeply knowledgeable than a universalist like Jancis. Let’s say you end up taking a job with a winery or wine company as, say, a brand manager. You don’t need a worldwide understanding of wine: If you’re marketing a California winery, then a knowledge of South African Chenin Blanc isn’t necessary. It can’t hurt, but it’s not integral to your job.

I’ve long watched the increasingly unaffordable cost of college tuition and wondered why this country doesn’t go over to a different form of career preparation. If someone wants to be an auto mechanic (actually, a pretty good job these days), or a lawyer, or a diplomat or clergyman or computer programmer or winemaker, is it really necessary to do four years of undergrad (learning about stuff you will never, ever have to use), not to mention additional years of post-graduate study, plunging the student ever deeper into debt? I don’t think so. The old concept–liberal in thinking, generous in outlook–that the model citizen ought to be widely educated in all areas of human knowledge necessarily is being replaced by a reality-based paradigm in which specific, vocational-based education is seen as more viable and affordable. In the same sense, I wonder if this new cottage industry of wine certification programs is really good for the industry. In my view, we’d be better off going back to an apprenticeship system where the ambitious young student finds herself a mentor in the area she wants to work in (and, vice versa, where a mentor is looking for a good mentee). If additional study of the world’s wines is needed, there will always be ways to get it. But I can guarantee you that, in most cases, it won’t be needed–and, if you do get certification, within a couple years you’ll forget three-quarters of what you paid for anyway.

  1. GrapesRGreat says:

    In the world of winemakers, you still seem to see a lot of “apprentice” type resume building (such and such worked at Latour, or with Henri Jayer, etc.). The issue I see with this for winemakers as well as anyone else in the industry is breadth of knowledge. Not that you need to know everything about all regions of the world, but if you apprentice under one California retailer, sommelier, or winemaker, it is akin to relying on one Wikipedia page to write a research paper. That one person or company you are counting on for knowledge has their own ideas and perceptions about everything, let alone the possibility that they are factually incorrect about something.

    Employers requiring some kind of certification is an unfortunate byproduct of the system, but I think the proliferation of wine study programs is a good thing. When I was studying for my CSW, the materials were all fact based, mostly regarding laws, production methods, and geography, leaving the passion and opinion portion to the student.

  2. Steve – What “gold ring” are these certifications promising? I don’t know of one wine certification that promises anything beyond personal accomplishment. And as for cost and going into debt, SWE programs are only a few hundred dollars – study materials and exams included.

    As for forgetting most of what you learned – shame on you, have you never heard of life-long learning, and keeping up with your beloved industry?

    I personally like my wine “experts” to have some sort of certification, if only to show passion and commitment to the craft.

    Susan B.

  3. A California winery producing chenin blanc better know about SA steen, just as CA cab houses better know about Bordeaux, Aussie and Chilean cab. If you only only have a deep understanding of CA wine, you have know understanding of where it fits into the global market place!

  4. Steve,
    If all those certificate programs exist – there must be a need for them since folk are paying outrageous amounts of money and have to put quite an effort to obtain them (OK, some of them.)

    As is the case in winemaking (and probably Architecture, Journalism or anything else) no school can magically transform you into a professional. A good school will give you all the tools you need to teach yourself so you can ‘break into’ a profession.

    You are absolutely right in saying that many of those certifications are only good to get a first job with a corporate employer. Smart employers could not give a damn about diplomas, they look at your abilities, but more than that – they look for the “spring” in your step, for the fire in your belly. And that has not changed since the beginning of time.

    Maybe the good thing about having all these programs in place is just so eventually a unique seed can have a chance to germinate, pretty much like those TV shows like American Idol and X-Factor. Once in a while they enable something magical.

  5. I agree with Steve that a certification for wine appreciation does seem superfluous. But a couple here have commented on winemaking, which requires (at least) a general understanding of chemistry. While apprenticeship is a great way to learn how to make wine, a winemaking education will teach you what is happening inside your wine, and why you do the things you do. Perhaps some of these wine appreciation classes teach the chemistry of wine as well?

    Contrary to the person who mentioned “breadth” of knowledge, a winemaking education gives you “depth” of knowledge. You may learn as an apprentice that adding bentonite to your wine can prevent it from getting cloudy, but going to school teaches you how bentonite binds to proteins to make wine heat stable, and why you have to add it a certain way to get maximum effectiveness.

  6. Charles Bader says:

    I’ve always considered the MS a horribly overrated endeavor. Aside from the (Michael Broadbent’s words) “parlor game” of blind tasting, the MS is essentially not much more than several years of rote memorization.

    The MW, on the other hand, does require a great deal of critical thinking skills, independent analysis and most importantly the ability to conduct, complete and present an authentic and original piece of scholarship. I think that’s why one finds MWs to have a much firmer and broader formal education prior to embarking on the program than one does with the overwhelming majority of the MS crowd. Consequently, I’ve always found an MW to be a rather broadly educated and engaging person while the average MS has come across as something of a dullard.

  7. I have 60 college units solely devoted to wine. I took each one separately, and devoted about 20 hours a week studying for each course… Do the math). I have 21 years solely devoted to the wine industry, and another 11 devoted to broadcast media.

    My certification is ONLY my experience.

    I don’t need any certification to know what I know, at this point. If people don’t “get” my experience, we’re better off not working together, because I don’t enjoy arguing when a point is already proven.

    However, someone in South Dakota (for instance), who doesn’t have the opportunities I’ve had by living, studying, and working in wine country, but has a passion for wine and wants to be professional, needs a base. And, whatever is available in that outlying area works. (That depends on those who have gone before a newbie, and are willing to educate… So, MS MW, Society of Wine Educators, etc., whatever there is will do the trick (or treat).

  8. As someone who teaches WSET certification courses, there’s bound to be some bias in my observation as my conviction is directly linked to a paycheck. Nonetheless, I spend a considerable amount of time spelling out the pros and cons of the many trade certifications that my students have to choose from. The demographics of my WSET classes also reveal why enrollment in trade certification programs is continuing to grow. The majority of students giving up their weekends to further their grasp of the global business of wine are already working in the industry. They’re enrolled at the request of (and with their tuition often subsidized by) their employers.

    Some companies, Diageo for instance, have their own internal WSET-certified instructors who teach the curriculum to employees across the organization. Clearly, industry employers believe their organizations benefit from this type of continuing education and sending employees off to get it at the hands of a credible third party relieves them of the task. The value of continuing education extends well beyond the individual; it becomes an asset to the organization itself.

  9. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: Just out of curiousity (and as a UC Davis grad) why no mention of Fresno State, UC Davis, Napa Valley College, etc.?

  10. We don’t *need* them at all and, whilst I can certainly appreciate and applaud study for the sake of knowledge and personal accomplishment, the strange awe and elevation that surrounds them.
    I see the MW as sort of an academic degree, so the level of rigor is, in a sense, just an abstraction of the folks who set the standards; MW is less problematic

    MS, on the other hand, seems absurd to me. MS, it would appear, is meant to be a practical “degree”, which in and of itself, is fine. The problem (and source of amusement for me), is that the exam seems arbitrarily difficult.

    It would seem that the level of difficulty for an exam/certification, for a practical “degree” should align with
    a) The raw level of difficulty of the subject matter
    b) The degree of precision required to practice the profession for which the certification exists
    c) The stakes of having less skilled and intelligent people working in the field.
    d) The profession is one of such high demand and small # of positions, that only the very top of the top can practice as a career (e.g. pro sports, performing “soloist (concertos, recitals etc)).
    e) Some combination of the above.

    Being a sommelier meets none of those
    a) The subject matter is not, inherently, difficult. It is voluminous – which makes the amount of memorization difficult – but not terribly complex. Blind tasting may be a difficult skill, subject to the ups and downs of the talent pool and other variables, but it would seem that it’s a skill which can be practiced and is, in many ways, much like ear training (more “dictation” than sight singing). However, whereas ear training is vital to musicianship, “blind tasting” is just a bit of competitive wankery.

    b) This seems to speak for itself, as does c). We are not talking about physics, engineering, medicine, etc. To be sure, you need to have a very good knowledge of the subjects and skills to be an effective “somm”; however, it does not require massive amounts of rigor to practice the profession effectively.

    d) This clearly is not the case. Which, of course, isn’t to say that there aren’t extremely bright and talented people in the profession. I’m sure there are. More that the realization of prodigy as a factor in being a sommelier is massively irrelevant to quality of job performance

    Now it’s certainly fine to have a very difficult exam solely for the (arbitrary) prestige of having passed. But let’s not pretend in this case it is anything more than that

  11. doug wilder says:

    Steve, This is an excellent post.

    I agree that learning about the subject is vital yet needing to study the entire world of wine isn’t neccessary to be a specialist in a smaller subset. I have often said that niche writing is the way wine bloggers could establish more credibility by ‘owning’ a region or genre. Like you, I spent my entire career in wine focused on the west coast, but predominantly California. I cut my teeth working the sales floor of a high traffic San Francisco shop on the weekends. The buyer started including me in tastings and my sphere of knowledge expanded. Even though I went to Bordeaux, Burgundy and Port tastings I recognized early on that the center of the American Wine universe was just over an hour away and there was no need to be “everywhere” in order to make an impact. I recall asking a wine critic friend if he thought it would be worthwhile for me to get certified through CIA. His response was that I coould probably teach the class. After that, I didn’t give it another thought.

    With certification programs rolling out thousands of graduates, it seriously dilutes much of the value people attach to it. Most employers look at experience, ability and personality. A newly minted CSW without that background may find themselves working a first job as just another warm body in a big corporate tasting room, (where CSW means Current Spitoon Washer) for several years before they can prove themselves worthy of something else. The rigorous M.S., and MW tracks are something completely different and are in high demand.

    Finally, I don’t know of any wine critic out there who is certified, do you?

  12. John Jacob says:

    Ah, the old education vs. experience debate -raging like crazy amongst professional chefs, photographers, somms, and other “creative professionals.” If I had to vote, I would say “how about a varying combination of the two?”

  13. Doug Wilder, I suppose a couple critics are certified (Jancis is an MW).

  14. Kurt Burris: Because I’m not talking about a degree in V&E or something related, I’m talking about these certification programs.

  15. Steve, the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel page shows that Anne Krebiehl, Andrew Hoover and Anna Lee Ijima all tout their certifications…

  16. Great investigative journalism there, Kyle. Woodward and Bernstein would be proud!

  17. doug wilder says:

    Steve, Of course, Jancis, yes. I tend to think about those who regularly operate here in the US and are independent.

  18. And it took all of 30 seconds! I agree, generally, with your premise Steve. While you list the three meaningful ones (SWE, WSET/MW and CMS) there are lots of other certifications that approach meaninglessness. But as long as there is a demand for such a variety of credentialing organizations there is a purpose. Heck, even WS has a wine school with a certificate.

    As Deborah said, many people take the courses because of their jobs. Others, like me (I did CSW), take them to add structure and a deadline to self study. Finally, a lot of people do it just as a hobby or personal achievement.

    I think the proliferation of these certifications just means that more and more people are interested in learning about wine. And that is a good thing. Just as with selecting wines or wine reviewers, choosing the most appropriate and meaningful credential is up to the consumer.

    I still think that a solid foundation in the world’s major (and not-so major) wine regions is necessary for an expert on a single region.

  19. Steve,
    I will agree with you that most bachelor’s degrees are not worth much, maybe the first two years of general Liberal Arts is good for ‘broadening your horizons’, but most people would admit that their BA in history, or marketing, or …. was just an excuse to not start a job in the real world for 4 years. God knows my BFA in Communications was 4 years of fun.

    But, like those students who study real subjects (usually the sciences, or teaching or something you can use), learning about more than just your appellation really can help you relate to your customers. I’ve met a number of winery reps who can’t really talk about anything except their wines. It’s almost like they don’t want to learn. I once had a winery owner from Walla Walla remark that he ‘used to drink Chablis, but it was mostly from California’. He wasn’t being funny or ironic.

    I don’t have any extra letters after my name, but there are times that I think the experience would be good. Having sold wines from all over the world for over 18 years has made me pretty well diverse in my knowledge and tastes.

  20. I have a Level II wine certification and am working on a Level III class. I am the dumbest person always in each class because I am merely doing it for fun. If I really wanted a job in the wine industry, I think I would try to find a winery in which to apprentice. They might pay me to work instead of me paying to go to class!

  21. All these certification programs mean NOTHING if you can’t impart your supposed knowledge. Too many of these people wear their certification like a Purple Heart, as if we’re supposed to be impressed that they spent all this time studying the DOs in Toro or can spit off the 13 grape varieties in Chateauneuf du Pape.

    It’s not what you know, it’s what you impart. The MW program stamps out wine robots. Very few, like Jancis, impart what they know. The rest flaunt it.

  22. Ed, this is why the Hosemaster of Wine has the letters HMW after his name. It’s to poke fun of the alphabet brigade.

  23. Dear Mary, I’m sure you’re not dumb! I hope you get your III and enjoy tasting and learning about all those wines.

  24. Dr is correct. The MS is something of a joke. Just look at the majority of them…no college or maybe a degree in hospitality management from UNLV. These are not sophisticated and educated individulas. These are restaurant managers with a certificate.

    Now, co yeast that with the MW where virtually every holder has first received a broad, high quality education at a well respected university….often named Oxford or Cambridge.

  25. Heather Unwin says:

    Not everyone in the industry can, or should be, a veteran of umptytwelve years. But a baseline of knowledge for any industry at least means that there a shared vocabulary so newcomers with new ideas and veterans with experience can keep the industry moving and expanding.

    Speaking from the “non big business” side of wine, I think there are at least two reasons why the number of courses, and of people taking the courses, are increasing.

    There are more wineries in more wine regions making and selling wine. Small wineries make wine; they don’t have the time or expertise to train staff. A baseline of training of how wines are made, varietals, and regions means that staff will be able to understand terminology and provide appropriate customer support (the Chablis comment above made me cringe but didn’t surprise me).

    Secondly, many of the new wine regions may not be in areas where there is ready access to the wines of the world. An organized program of tasting, with context to accompany the tasting, provides an opportunity that often doesn’t exist outside large metropolitan areas. It is goofy to say you are pouring some of the best wine in the world when you haven’t tasted much of it.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I have taken WSET certification classes and teach at the Intermediate level in eastern Washington state.

  26. Jon Campbell says:

    I had some third year viticulture and enology students in a zin field the other day that didn’t know what second crops looked like so I do question a lot of degrees and certifications sometimes……….don’t get me started on somms and masters of wine………as my old boss used to say come shovel grapes out of the tank for a few months and tell me everything we don’t know about wine

  27. In many cases it’s just people trying to make a business out of “education”.
    I’ve seen it in Mexico where the wine industry is taking off…. There is hundreds of “sommelier schools”. We used to get group visits to the winery, (coordinated or organized by the mentioned schools)and it was so sad to see that the teachers had no idea about wine basics, but they still held a teaching position, because they had gone through some sommelier certification course in a school that no one knows about.
    A lot of people are in it to make money out of “educating” other peolpe.

  28. All – there’s an enormous difference between local, one off educational wine programs and bodies like wset and swe, which operate worldwide, have consistent invigilator/curriculum/certification/testing processes, are viewed favorably within the wine industry globally, and are recommended by well-regarded people within that industry. If you aren’t able to identify the differences between those types of programs (or among the better programs), it’s more likely that you haven’t researched them well enough yet then it is there are stops flaws in the benefits of those programs.

    As for people inappropriately (outside of simply mentioning them resume-style, which they should since some of them aren’t easy to attain and are thus part of their career differentiators) flaunting their qualifications from the best of these programs, I’ve yet to meet one person who has done that.

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