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It’s adapt or die for MWs, and the rest of us

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I read with the greatest interest this story in Decanter that  the Institute of Masters of Wine “is set to focus on expanding the London-based Institute’s global presence.”

I have been a “mild” critic of M.W.s over the years. I say “mild,” because I have no strong feelings against the IMW, and I count some M.W.s as longtime friends, for whom I have the greatest respect. I’ve merely poked some fun at how the organization as a whole can sometimes come off as a bit stuffy and ivory tower. This often happens when people have important-sounding letters attached to their names, like Ph.D. I’ve even seen people sign off with M.A., as if a master’s degree was particularly hard to get. Hell, even I have one!

So the new IMW chairperson, Lynne Sherriff, says the organization is spreading into China, Japan, India and Russia, in order “to promote the Institute to a wider audience.” And also, because “we’ve found that different cultures enhance the world of wine.”

I’m reading between the lines, but I interpret these moves, and Sherriff’s remarks, as indicating that she, and the IMW as a whole, realize that the group has been getting increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. In a world marked by the erasure of international borders and the rise of entirely new classes of wine enthusiasts, especially in Asia, the iron grip that the English long had on fine wine is a thing of the past. The world no longer looks to Great Britain to tell it what to drink, and the IMW — British born and based — understands  that, to their credit, and is attempting to deal with it.

I am currently reading A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, in which he writes (referring to his father, King George V), “He believed in God, in the invincibility of the Royal Navy, and the essential rightness of whatever was British.” This stubborn belief in their rectitude has been a source of Britain’s strength over the centuries, but also has resulted in a sort of insularity that manifests as a disdain for how other people think. Because the British have dominated the world of wine appreciation for so long, that attitude calcified, to the point where we had a group such as the IMW arise which seemed to anoint itself as the sole arbiter of wine knowledge and taste.

Well, of course, those hundreds of millions of Indians, Chinese and Japanese who are falling in love with wine never heard of the IMW and have no idea what an M.W. is. Which is why the IMW is now positioning itself in Asia: not because “different cultures enhance the world of wine” (a silly statement), but because Darwinian realities have forced them to. It’s evolve, or die; and if evolution means finding a future life in Asia, that’s where the IMW will go. It’s the same reason why Robert Parker has been busying himself there, carving out a presence in China, even as his influence in the West wanes.

It will be interesting to see just what the IMW does in Asia. Here in the U.S., they’re invisible to the average consumer. They have clout among a certain class at the corporate, collector and service level, but are still a rather elite peerage. They don’t particularly recruit, as far as I can tell, nor do they need to here; but Asia may be a different story. The IMW earlier this year held their first-ever master class in Hong Kong “for potential students of its education programme.” Their goal seems to be to get young Asian wine aficienados to try and become M.W.s. I’m sure they’ll have no trouble at all with that. When Sotheby’s auction house can set an auction record in Hong Kong, dominated by Romanée-Conti and Lafite, as happened the other day, that’s a sure sign that China is turning into a Happy Hunting Ground for the IMW.

The take home message is that all the old guard (and I count myself among them) has to work harder, and adapt to changing conditions, in order to remain relevant. The rise of Asia teaches us that, as does the rise of the wine blogging generation here in America. The deck is being shuffled, the top cards redefined. May the best writers and educators win.

  1. The impetus of many, who are not traditional wine drinkers, to take up wine appreciation is for enhanced status and self image initially. It is evidence that the individual is worldly and sophisticated and has achieved to the point of enjoying the finer things of life. The fear of wine, of course, is having the wrong label on the table. Asia should be fertile ground for a group of educators to tell newbies how they should enjoy wine and what they should and should not be drinking. Perfect job for Asian MW’s. The first lesson in China should be what is the correct food pairing with Three Penis Wine (aka Viagra of the East.)

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