Do we really need all these wine certification programs?
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.