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Are MWs elitist?

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Decanter has a story whose tease of a headline definitely made me want to read it. It’s about the new chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, Dr Josef ‘Pepi’ Schuller (himself an MW), and that inviting headline is:

New IMW chairman: ‘We’re not elitist’

As soon as I read that, all sorts of thoughts flashed through my head, beginning with: Well, of course you’re elitist, you Masters of Wine. Why would you say you’re not, with that name (masters), the way you put the letters MW after your name like MD or PhD, your official crest with its aristocratic flourishes, your London address, the fact that you have only 264 members in the entire world, and the feeling — never explicitly stated, but oh, so implied — that the MW stands above all other wine titles as supreme.

Well, I just re-read the above and decided it sounds snarky so let me get warm and fuzzy and say I have some MWs who are very good friends, in fact some of my oldest friends in the industry. I have enormous respect for them and for all the hard work they put in. Guys like Peter Marks and Joel Butler are incredibly kind, generous, hard-working professionals who, personally, are in no way elitist, and they know more about the world’s wines in their pinkies than I know all together.

But when Decanter itself is suggesting there might be something elitist about the IMW, you’ve got to wonder. Besides the headline, here’s a quote from the article:

Schuller rejected recent criticisms that the Institute is elitist and out of touch with its own students – but stressed that they would always reward excellence.

Decanter didn’t say where these “recent criticisms” came from, and I wish they had. Harpers had a story suggesting MWs were “old-fashioned, chauvinistic, elitist and out of date,” but that was more than 2 years ago.

But I want to get in a good word for elitism. Instead of rejecting the notion that the IMW is elitist, here’s what Dr. Schuller should have said. “Why, yes, we are elitist. We’ve studied harder to get where we are than anyone in the world. Few individuals on earth have as wide and deep a knowledge of wine as do MWs. There is no title that holds the cachet of the MW. And we’re not ashamed to proclaim this.”

Schuller did say that the IMW has to be “more relevant to the trade…We also want to form more partnerships with global wine industry leaders and find new sponsors.” I completely agree. If the IMW wants to be a factor in the rapidly democratizing, anarchic (and increasingly non-white) world wine industry of the 21st century, they are going to have to “mingle,” as the Royals say.

  1. Funny this is coming from Decanter, whom, to me, seem to practically require an MW to become a writer for their magazine.

  2. Why is “elitist” the new cross-ethnic N-word?

    Elite is a good thing. Elite is to be admired for accomplishment.

    Elite means “excellence”. You want an elite doctor when you are gravely ill, and elite lawyer when you are in deep legal s**t and you want an elite person in the oval office.

    Elite, however, does not mean snob, haughty or supercilious. Some in the elite of any field *are* snobs, haughty or supercilious. As your own examples prove, though, many of the elite can be humble, kind, and approachable.

    I don’t want to come off as pedantic over semantics. I just think that much of the negative reaction towards the elite in any field is driven by the non-elite’s insecurity and xenophobia. In such situations, it’s really not the elite’s problem.

  3. Virginia Winemaker says:

    Wine seems to be the only luxury item industry left where the consumers deem themselves the end-all of knowledge. This is epitomized in the IMW. Imagine these same people (trying to) speak eloqently about the movements in their Rolex or the steering mechanism in their yachts. Ridiculous, but they will tell you authoritatively that your grapes are on the wrong rootstock or that your oak barrels are centered too heavily in Allier instead of Nevers.

  4. I agree that elitism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, as a professional winemaker, I’m against the entire notion of “Wine Education” in the first place. It’s just a way of saying, “Wine is too difficult for you, dear boy. We’ll tell you what you like.” Wine is just a freaking beverage. Either the customer likes a given wine or she doesn’t. End of story. Organizations like the IMW etc merely serve to alienate potential customers by inferring that they need to be “educated” before they can drink wine.

    In the particular case of the Masters of Wine, I would like remind people that an MW is not a real Masters degree. Anyone that lists their MW as if it were is playing the elitist card pretty damn hard.

  5. It’s interesting that today I am reading this blog after having a discussion today with the operations manager of a large chain of liquor stores. We were discussing a former(now retired) employee, who at one time was a liquor store manager who also was a Master of Wine. His problem was relating to Joe or Jane consumer who were just looking for a nice bottle of wine to have with dinner or to take to a party. He had great difficulty separating his refined wine palate and the needs of an everyday consumer. It frustrated him so much he ended up just working stocking the shelves and being in charge of the back room and not helping customers. Too bad because he is a very likable person and did not act snobby towards people, but his sophisticated palate and his extensive wine knowledge made helping customers a chore for him.

  6. Jim, that is a really interesting insight. I hope the IMW sees it.

  7. I am with Arthur on this one.
    The MW exam’s are arguably some of the most difficult in the world of wine, although not recognized as a academic award such as a Mba or Phd.
    What I do find interesting is Salmonleap’s comment about him opposing wine education! Being a professional winemaker ( as apposed to a amateur?) I wonder what he would call it when he pours wines at a wineshow or tasting, telling people all about his product? Education?
    I will bet my bottom dollar he/ she wouldn’t be pouring the wines and blank faced tell the consumer, if you like it buy it, if you don’t, tough! Seeing that it’s only a freaking beverage!

    Granted there are some MW;s who are in desperate need of a personality or humility, but there are just as many winemakers, journalists, buyers, importers etc who rate themselfs as the be all and end all of wine.

    If you know more about wine in a world wine context than others, you don’t have to act elitist, it’s a given, you are elite above the rest. Period.

  8. Salmonleap is right in one regard: it is not a Masters. It is more like something between a Masters and a PhD in terms of the knowledge base and time/work involved. Such a great sound bite, Salmon, but like so many soundbites our politicos give us, rather inaccurate.

  9. Getting back Steve’s question about the origin of the ‘recent criticisms’, I guess it is from the latest issue of Wine & Spirit magazine (UK, http://www.wine-spirit.com) titled “MW – Access Denied”. Various comments in the main article of the magazine pointed to the situation where there is a lack of communication among IMW and exam students; and that dissertation standards are not transparent enough.

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