In an opinion piece for Wine Spectator, wine writer Matt Kramer said, regarding wine certification, “Nothing about wine or — dare I say it! — accomplished wine service requires this pseudo-professionalization.” Kramer explains that wine certifications are as useless as they are elitist, and that too many professionals put emphasis on formal education over real world experience. However, wine critics like Do Bianchi have fought back against Kramer’s claim. Bianchi tells Kramer, “While you gaze upon your Matisse comfortably nestled in your cozy ivory (read Platonic) cave, a glass of Caymus Special Selection in hand, a new generation of wine professionals and their post-nominals are shepherding a throng of new wine lovers into a brave and thirsty new world of wine appreciation.”
Both Kramer and Bianchi call each other elitist for their opposing views on wine education; Kramer believes that formal education creates an elitist culture based entirely on exam scores, while Bianchi believes that formal education allows everyone to learn about wine, not only those who can afford to buy and drink the most expensive bottles. Neither writer is entirely wrong about the wine world’s inherent elitism. After all, some of the most-lauded bottles like Sine Qua Non’s Grenache the Line or DRC’s Grand Cru vintages sell for thousands of dollars on the market. But Kramer fails to consider the many potential benefits of wine education, elitist or not. The reality is that formal wine education is already having a positive impact on the wine world, not least for collectors.
Who Needs a Formal Wine Education?
While it’s true that more restaurants and wineries are hiring only certified experts, this creates a more informed wine market overall. Whether you’re a serious collector, a future restaurant sommelier, or a budding winemaker, a formal education can help you understand more about the diversity of the wine world than you could easily glean from a lifetime of informal wine tastings. It all depends on the quality of the wine education and your background.
For example, if you grew up in a diverse wine-loving household, as Kramer mentions, you will likely grow to understand and appreciate wine fairly organically. But what if your father only drank white Burgundy? What if your mother only bought Bordeaux blends for her cellar? What if your family couldn’t afford any fine bottles of wine at all? Informal educations sometimes focus too strongly on a particular region or varietal because that is all that is available to the drinker. Many people never get the opportunity to try a diverse range of wines because they were never organically exposed to these wines in their early tasting years. For these wine lovers, a formal education is almost a necessity to catch up with the rest of the wine world.
Off of the top of your head, do you know how South African Sauvignon Blanc tastes compared to Australian Sauvignon Blanc? Can you list some of the best Argentinian wineries that make Cabernet Sauvignon? Those who get formal wine educations are able to answer questions like these and many more, as they develop a greater understanding of wines on a global, rather than a regional, level. For wine collectors, a formal education often leads to greater variety in their own cellars. Rather than sticking with only the most common top picks, like Lafite or DRC, collectors can get a leg up on the market with unusual wine picks from lesser-known regions.
As restaurant wine lists in cities like New York become more homogenized due to wine laws that prevent restaurants from selling wines purchased from private collections, collectors can’t always rely on sommeliers for unusual wine selections. In this environment, it is in a collector’s best interest to become his own sommelier, able to navigate the wine world without help from wine experts. While online wine shopping enables a certain degree of independence in collectors, the information on the internet isn’t always high-quality, and can make it easy to buy wines that don’t fit your taste or aren’t good investments. When collectors get formal educations, they are less likely to buy wine online that doesn’t appeal to them, and more likely to buy bottles that make sense for their collections.
The Commodification of Wines
Kramer’s point holds water when he laments that wine has become a status symbol, rather than an enjoyable experience with deep cultural value. He says, “We now insist on a kind of professionalization that has less to do with the benefits of an education, and more to do with jumping through hoops held by others in order to acquire a diploma of some kind.” This much is true; wine certificates that teach students few real world skills are only useful as an achievement to flaunt in front of peers. Lauded wine titles mean nothing if you can’t use what you’ve learned in your actual cellar, restaurant, or winery.
Collectors should heed Kramer’s warning about the commercialization of wine education by avoiding spending too much time or money on certificates for basic introductory classes or glorified wine tasting competitions masquerading as educational courses. Collectors should consider signing up for WSET classes, since these offer real world wine experience that benefits passionate wine drinkers and wine professionals alike. WSET classes, especially Levels 1 through 3, are designed to teach students everything they need to know about wine without descending into the unnecessary and pretentious.
In general, the only wine professionals who should work toward the most-lauded titles in the wine world–Master Sommelier and Master of Wine–are those who seek employment as sommeliers, wine critics, or consultants to estates. That’s because true wine professionals who want to work in the top wineries or write for the top wine magazines need these hard-won certificates to prove they have the knowledge it takes.
Certification also helps collectors find the best classes to take. The best wine instructors will often have certificates to prove their expertise. To ensure that you’re not signing on to a class taught by a pseudo-expert, ask for a class syllabus that details exactly what you will be taught in the class, and request your instructor’s credentials or resume. Be wary of instructors who lack credentials, and ask about your potential instructor’s previous experience. Not all great instructors have certificates, but they should at least have previous work experience in the wine field.
Looking into the Future of Wine Education
In his critique of formal wine education, Kramer glosses over the impact that young wine drinkers are having on the market, and how education fuels that impact. Bianchi says, “Kramer, I’m sorry to break it to you, man: the world is changing more rapidly than you can -izize or -ism — the new wave of young people who may not have attended an illustrious college like you probably don’t have Picassos hanging on their walls.” Many young wine drinkers are using formal educations–rather than social status or wealth–to get a foothold in the wine world. They’re also using certification programs as a way to make sense of an increasingly globalized wine industry.
It’s not enough anymore to understand how Bordeaux and Burgundy wines taste. Wines from lesser-known regions around the world are becoming increasing popular, which means that Millennials need a broader knowledge base than did wine collectors 20 or 30 years ago. Formal educations help young wine drinkers navigate new regions in addition to older, more established terroirs. Millennials who have limited experience with wine (like those who are only just starting their collecting careers) are able to use formal education to get caught up with those who have been collecting wines for more than 30 years.
In this sense, formal classes are not elitist at all. Both the Court of Master Sommeliers and WSET allow their students to taste wine in introductory classes, including wines that many students would not have been able to afford by themselves. Many of the finest wine classes cost about the same as a class in an average U.S. college; WSET costs about $1,500, while the Certified Specialist of Wine course costs about $400. The benefit of formal wine classes is that they encourage young drinkers to stoke their passions for wine without feeling intimidated by the glut of information on the market. Ultimately, this open culture will create a more welcoming, better-educated demographic of wine buyers. Better education leads to more innovations and a greater awareness of wines from brand new regions. For collectors, this will mean fewer boring wine lists, and more diverse, fascinating vintages that excite the palate.
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