Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We need teachers, not testers

The wine education system in the country is broken, and it never worked in the first place.

Now that I've been in the Wine industry for 13 years, I feel like I've learned a few things. Can I recite all of the Grand Crus of Burgundy off the top of my head? No. Have I ever needed this skill? No. But I do know the style differences of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. I didn't learn that from reading about it either, I learned it from tasting and discussing. Memorization is learning for 2nd graders. Blind tasting? It's a parlor trick. It's training for the day when some one's 10,000 bottle cellar somehow loses all of it's labels, but the wine remains in tact. Then, if you have this skill, you will be airlifted in. Otherwise, it's as useful as the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon game (which, incidentally, I'm really good at). Sure, you can argue that blind tasting really just exercises your tasting muscles and is one of the only quantifiable ways to determine some one's understanding of wine. I suppose that's a fair argument, I just completely disagree with trying to test it.

There are plenty of organizations that host testing, and most people throw around the term "Sommelier" without any regard for what this means. First, it translates to "wine mule". Think about the glamor of that little nugget. Second, a Sommelier works in a restaurant. Period. I worked in a restaurant, and I passed the first level Court of Master Sommeliers in 2000. I held the title of "Sommelier" at a great restaurant that utilized the position. MS Madeline Triffon, has been know to say, you can can call yourself a Sommelier, when you are a Sommelier. Today, I am reluctant to use that term, mostly because it's flat out confusing for consumers,and they are immediately intimidated. This is problematic when trying to open people up to new ideas and discussing their tasting experiences. The only other title available is "Master Sommelier". There are plenty of other of organizations that offer similar titles such as "Wine and Spirits Professional", etc. Here is my big knock on these organizations: They are really good at holding tests, but very few offer genuine education. Further, the testing is suspect from a practical standpoint. Most of what you learn to take these tests is memorization (theme alert), which my 8 year old could do. Very few of these courses offer real world, practical experience. Last I checked, very few Universities offer much in the way of majoring in wine education either (obviously aside from the usual suspects).

Don't get me wrong, if you are a Master Sommelier, I have tremendous respect for the work you have done to get there, I could never do it. For the rest of us, what is the point in chasing all of these letters, if they don't really mean much? These letters sort of create more problems by their sheer existence. Wouldn't it be worthwhile to actually sponsor textbooks, courses and seminars absent of any testing. I remember when I took my exam, the 2 days of classes were more about trying to figure out what questions they were going to ask, rather than comprehending the material. Again, memorization.

What we need is an industry-wide, real world, practical education curriculum. Most of the people in the wine industry are lousy educators. We should enlist actual educators to help us develop courses that are engaging and promote a true understanding of wine. Right now, the testing organizations feel exclusive, if not outright, simply by the sheer existence of the silly letters. They should be resources and feel inclusive to the novices. Testing should be saved for the end of each course only used to gain access to the next level. There is no reason for someone to hold 5 different accreditation that all basically teach and test the same thing. It's like saying "I passed English-101, five different times". Right now, it's easy to find a tester, but next to impossible to find a teacher.


  1. Adam, I concur! Though a long time member of the SWE
    I have gained much more from tasting and discussing with you, Walt and the winemakers from the stellar producers you represent.

  2. OK. So I am a culinary educator, CIA grad, certified exec chef,etc. and completing my Diploma with WSET. Most wine education jobs are with distributors and are really sales jobs, not education jobs. Whose is to host these jobs?
    Many state colleges forbid the use of alcohol in the school. Here in GA the entire state U. system is like being back in prohibition. We actually have two years colleges where the culinary program is not allowed to even have wine on campus.
    So what's an educator like me to do, who loves food and wine and would like to do more, to do?

  3. Really interesting post. I think that this same problem exists in a lot of arenas. We are so preoccupied with accreditation and certifications, that true education is often neglected. Excellent points!

  4. The choice to follow any of these paths is up to the individual. Some of us enjoy the challenge of knowing the most trivial of wine information and challenging eachother. In a professional capacity these organizations are what you make of them. The Court of Masters as well as the WSET offer great contacts throughout the world and when you have completed their testing you will in fact be armed with PLENTY of information. Blind tasting is no parlor trick, it's more like playing pool. If you do it every day for years, you will improve your skill and technique.
    As far as offering education prior to their testing, it is up to each person to seek out like minded folks in their community to study and taste with. each organization lists a curriculum of books and a sylabus as well as publications to follow. It's not easy and it's not for everyone, but for some of us, it IS worthwhile.

  5. Hi Adam - I am working on a new and very different educational project that you might find interesting. It involves the development of a very cutting edge perspective on understanding the physiological and neurological variables that shape our experiences, opinions and ultimately our wine preferences. It is called 'why you like what you like' and we are putting together a new module to stand as a foundation for learning about your own preferences and the preferences of others: how Let me know if you would like to learn more. There is a worldwide team that includes a cross section of top wine educators, MS, MW and research professionals involved.

    And anyone else out there is invited to weigh in as well. BTW - there is a lot of controversy blowing around the Web about what I do - here is a clip showing someone going from totally dissing the ideas to wanting to teach it from Wine Lovers Page:

    David C.: "some stuff and lots of nonsense. one or two trivially true ideas, plus a host of bad ones...so you've traded being condescending* and dictating to the masses and wine drinkers and now do it only to us?"

    To THIS from the same person: "tim - thanks for the info on the categories of tasters. do you mind if i print it off to use in my wine classes? or is their another source that you would prefer i use?"

    For a lot of background and the wild discussion go here:

    Tim Hanni tim AT hannico DOT com

  6. H-Town,

    I'm as geeky as the next guy (or gal), and I've definitely been able to follow my own educational path. And yes, you can get better at blind tasting. But the fact remains that the important stuff isn't taught anywhere. And as an industry goes, we tend to be pretty exclusionary, rather than being inconclusive,and I think that speaks first to how we approach wine education.We need to simplify and develop how we educate in order to perpetuate the sophistication of the American consumer. Wine is hard, we shouldn't be making it any harder. It sort or turns into Survivor:Sommelier after a while.

    Thanks for reading and weighing in!

  7. By the way, the photo of people wearing blindfolds and tasting is silly and gives a very misguided representation about the process of blind tasting.

  8. Good points, all. The teaching that exists for CWE, WSET, MW and MS vary. The WSET (I'm in the Diploma program now) can be challenging. For instance, the Advanced exam includes one wine tasted blind and 4 essay questions in addition to the multiple-guess questions. The Diploma is almost entirely theory & blind tasting except for the unit 2 exam. You have to be able to pull up everything you know about a given subject and apply it, as in 'account for the success of Chile as a wine producer and exporter'. Of course, this type of training is probably not for the basic wine drinker. What do they want to know? Basically how to choose wines on their own that don't suck. Classes catering to this type of student are few and far between unfortunately. Is this a need looking for an enterprising entrepreneur? Oh, and Tim, I know the person you cite from WineLovers group very well. We could talk.... :-)

  9. Thanks for the comments Jen! I definitely applaud the professionals that go far in their wine education. My gripe is that entry level professionals are the demographic that needs help. If this group is helped along, our talent pool will be deeper,and they'll be in a better position to help educate consumers. And I do love good wine theory btw :)

    Thanks again for commenting!

  10. Here at Cal Poly U. in San Luis Obispo, CA, not only do we have a thriving undergraduate wine and vit program, but also a less rigorous Extended Ed program, where I teach classes like "Sensory Evaluation of Wine" and tasting classes such as "Best of the Central Coast." Many of the students work at local wineries who value having an informed staff. The mantra here is "learn by doing" and I'd say that 18 years in the biz of selling wine and judging major competitions honed my palate more than any books or classes.

  11. Ron-That's a great example of how a hands on wine community can help each other develop their expertise. This is a phenomenon I'm familiar with and Cal Poly SLO should be commended. You'll see this up and down the West Coast, it's exactly what we need more of in the other markets.

    Thanks for the comments!

  12. I agree. It is time for a new era in wine writing. We need truth, not sales hype. RS in wine is RS, not "fruit forward". Oak is for long-term ageing, it is not supposed to be a flavor component. Before buying more on an ongoing basis, the consumer needs to learn basic truths. Labels ought to tell something useful. Reviews should be inclusive, not exclusive. "This is the wine to buy" should be banned from wine literature. Being able to communicate in English to the consumer is the most important skill that someone in the wine industry should have, other than growing grapes and making wine itself. And all those anonymous non-winery brands & labels from big producers like E&J and KJ, that come & go in the night, do not make for a better market or a better consumer. Just ask the Aussies if big volumes of cheap semi-sweet wine and critter labels helped the business.

  13. Let me also say, that blind tasting is a good learning tool in a school type setting. Learning to id the low acid from the high, the low sugar from the high sugar, the high oak from the low or no oak, the malo vs. the lactic, are all skills that are important to learn in order to evaluate wines. But blind tasting for its own sake or as a parlol game is a waste of time.

  14. Love this post. Adam you make a very solid point about wine education.

    How about a Please touch school for wine. no books, no tests no certificates. just grape touching and grape juice tasting.

    some classes could be:

    Grapes. growing & tasting.
    Carbonic Creations; grape soda anyone?
    growing yeast cultures as pets. (better than a rock)
    barrel making; from seedling to stave.(grow a tree, hug it and burn it)
    artisan glass blowing (beats giving mom a coffee cup on mothers day)
    Grape squashing; punch down & pump over.(a sticky sweet experience)
    wine spinning; taking the fun out of the wine.
    cork making(7 to 10 year commitment needed)

    the sky is the limit.

  15. when, blind tasting wine, make sure you are in a clear room with plenty of ligth, so you can familiarize yourself with the color or the wine. students must have passion first.

  16. Training your palate to blind taste wines from around the world teaches you to recognize and appreciate terroir - and I'd like to believe that you know the style differences between Puligny and Meursault, but is it in your head or your palate? Musicians can be born with perfect pitch or study eartraining for so long that they can get close. Why wouldn't one try to learn more? I think some of the higher credentials are their for those that have cared to become better. Put the effort in or stop knocking those that are staying in the game.

  17. Hi Anonymous (3/19/10),

    Thanks for your comments. I'm not suggesting eliminating blind tasting all together, it is valuable once you've really progressed in your education. I'm suggesting placing less emphasis on this particularly specialized learning technique. As it stands, this is the thing that intimidates, and becomes the obsession of the novices. But instituting a more curriculum based system, where this isn't introduced until much later, we use our educational energies more wisely.I see too many rookie's trying to blund guess wine without any basis for their guesses. This is counterproductive and discouraging. We need to explain that this is a a VERY difficult, and probably final step in their education. Do not attempt.

    Thanks for your take,and for reading!

  18. I disagree that blind tasting should not be attempted by novices. They will have a hard time going at it alone and I would recommend that they first blind taste in a classroom setting but I do not believe in waiting to blind taste. It is a very difficult skill to develop, few master it and no one is right all the time. Blind tasting provides plenty of opportunity to get things wrong and it is in getting things wrong and realizing why that one learns. I agree with Charmion that blind tasting is the best way to learn how to judge the structural components of a wine, it is the best way to try and figure out the differences between medium and medium plus or medium minus acidity/tannin. Do please attempt to blind taste, just don't forget about the sense of accomplishment that should accompany all of your mistakes.