Many of my colleagues here at Lot18 are in the process of taking their exams with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, better known as WSET. They’re proud of the effort they’ve put forth over many months of tastings, classes and practice essay writing, and they’re excited to know that, in a very short time, they’ll be able to say with certainty that they hold a special mark of achievement. I’m proud of them, too, since I believe that everyone who learns about wine is actually developing a greater understanding of human history and culture – perhaps even of themselves.
Unfortunately, the best thing, I think, that anyone can do with a certificate or diploma of wine education – from WSET, Kevin Zraly or the dozen other organizations promising higher wine education – is to hold it to a flame. Don’t scrap what you know, but start, from here, to truly learn about wine – which you can’t really do in a classroom setting.
Wine is learned in liquor stores, in restaurants, by visiting wine country, by Googling unfamiliar regions or grape names or terms as you come across them and, to be honest, drinking far too much wine than doctors recommend in the company of people your parents would never have wanted you to hang out with in the first place. You drink, you discuss, you change the subject and tell silly stories about your past, come back to discussing the booze in the glass, then repeat. At least, that’s how I learned about wine, and while I don’t know everything, I am comfortable enough with the subject to make a bet:
Anyone at Lot18 who’s a true believer in formal wine education and has passed any level of WSET can have a great bottle out of my stash – say, a 2005 Bordeaux – if I’m not able to take the same level of exam you passed, cold, and beat your score. (While it’s been suggested to me that the WSET is a test of WSET knowledge, not wine knowledge — just as the SAT is a test of your ability to do well on the SAT, not your true verbal and math skills — I still think I can do it.) I might even drink a few glasses of wine before the test.
Anyway, what’s troubling to me is that instructors of wine-education programs haven’t clued themselves in on the fact that what they teach and how they disseminate the information is largely useless. A high-school diploma earns you something, as does a vocational degree from an entity that advertises on late-night television. But a WSET diploma earns you…mocking from me, at best. I’m not sure what else.
Indulge me for a moment. The following facts and experiences have combined to form my low opinion of formal wine education:
- - Passing grades on wine-education exams are laughably low. In many cases, if you get as little as 50 percent correct, you earn the diploma or certificate. Sure, the grading system is additive and the grading protocols strict. But as I recall, in high school, 50 percent was an “F”. With wine education, something’s wrong with the student, the teacher or both.
- - I once attended a blind-tasting wine class for restaurant professionals. Their manner of assessment for each wine – the one taught to them by the instructor – nearly always led them to incorrect conclusions. Step-by-step assessments of color and appearance are no substitute for simply sticking your nose in the glass and going with your gut about what you smell. Same for what you taste.
- - Many people I know who’ve taken wine classes have found them not only boring, the wines they taste in them are just plain bad. Rather than spending on a class and a cheap, uninteresting wine or two, these people would have been better off taking the combined expense, walking into a decent wine shop and saying, “I want to learn about Chardonnay. Please give me three bottles that will give me a good introduction to the grape and the different places where it’s grown.” People who work in wine stores love these kinds of customers, and are always eager to help them.
- - I’ve read or thumbed through dozens of pieces of literature about Burgundy. Know which one’s the best? The pamphlet that sits by the front door of Burgundy Wine Company in Chelsea. It’s free.
- - My roommate in college, a sociology major, took a semester-long wine class at our university’s hospitality school when he turned 21. The idea was to have a few drinks, but the class was not only his most difficult of the semester, it was a traumatically deep exploration of agriculture, geography, economics and history. I don’t recall having seen him touch wine since. That was more than 15 years ago.
- - I’ve attended scores of tastings for journalists, critics, sommeliers and buyers. By far, in the discussions at these tastings, the comments made by those who either champion or teach formal wine education have always struck me as the most uninformed and inaccurate.
- - I know perhaps a dozen Masters of Wine. Unless they were already employed as winemakers, critics, sommeliers or in some other wine-related discipline, their MW degrees don’t get them jobs the way that a PhD gets you a professorship or a research post. I can’t imagine that a diploma from Kevin Zraly or WSET will do you any better.
- - I’ve met dozens of people who learned about wine by watching Wine Library TV every day for the few years that Gary Vaynerchuk ran and hosted the online show. It was not only brilliant, it was innovative. It educated and enthralled thousands of people – for free. Read this if you want to better understand Gary’s impact and effect on the wine world.
- - I originally wrote a positive note here about the Court of Master Sommeliers, but a colleague said to me of that program, “Really? An insular club based on your ability to memorize wine trivia and make quick decisions on the provenance of wines without any true understanding of them?” I have no idea if this is true, but if wine professionals can’t even agree among themselves on the value of their advanced distinctions, how much value can they actually have?
Look, I’m not saying that formal wine education should be abolished like a dangerous political or religious terrorist organization. But it should be scrapped and rethought, like a failing, hyper-inflated currency. While plenty of people do find value in formal wine education, especially as an introduction, they usually learn more by exploring for themselves, from there. And, quite often, they find themselves questioning what they learned early on in those classes rather than relying on the information as they progress with their wine knowledge and experience.
That’s not to say that the intentions of wine instructors aren’t sincere. I believe they are. But over time they haven’t found ways to improve upon what they teach and how, so as to make their instruction invaluable if not indispensable. As soon as they do, and I meet a WSET graduate who truly uses the diploma to his or her advantage, sign me up.
Many members of the Lot18 team have gone through formal wine training and received high-level industry certifications. Check back tomorrow for the other side of the wine education debate!