Whenever someone asks me what I’ve been up to in my “wine life,” and I tell them that I’ve recently sat an exam of some sort, I invariably get asked the same question:
“So… uhm.. what does that do
for you exactly? Are you, like, a sommelier now?”
Now, it wasn’t all that long ago that I knew nothing about wine, or the various credential-chasing that would effectively allow me to take something I would come to love (drinking and sharing wine) and piss all over it by making it difficult and shoring up my free time with studying weighty tomes of wine knowledge. So I understand why people ask me that. The answer is even more complicated and usually boils down to this:
“Well… sort of…”
So, I thought that I’d try to take a few minutes to explain the wacky world of wine education in layman’s terms – a quick reference that I’d wished that I’d had when I was starting to “take this wine thing more seriously.”
Fortunately for me, the fabulous folks at i-WineReview.com have already done this for me, and they have a great page on their site that lays it all out in some detail. So, can you go to this page and have it all figured out?
Well… sort of…
In the world of wine, there are (more-or-less) 3 main educational/certification paths that you can take which are internationally recognized:
- Masters of Wine – This is the granddaddy qualification for wine peeps, and exists to recognize the best of the best in the art, science, and business of wine. Which means that theoretically anyone can achieve it, but in reality it’s insanely tough and there are fewer than 25 members from the U.S. Achieving the MW credential is a bit like a PhD on steriods.
The MW recommends, as a prerequisite for entry, the Level 4 Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is a bit like the Masters degree of the wine world, with 4 levels of certification covering a one-day foundation certification in wine / spirits concepts, all the way through a multi-year Diploma program. Each step gets significantly more difficult in the academic portion (multiple-guess and essay exams) and adds more difficult wine identification tastings. This is where I started (I’ve got Level 2 and Level 3 certifications, Level 3 being the first one to test you on tasting identification). WSET classes and exams can only be offered by affiliated organizations (e.g., PhillyWine.com in Philadelphia).
This path (WSET through MW) focuses on the entire world of wine & spirits, how they are made, with emphasis on tasting profiles typical for these beverages in the regions where they are made.
- The Court of Master Sommeliers – This is the granddaddy qualification of wine service. It focuses on the best-of-the-best in wine service and industry matters, and those that sit the final diploma exam also must pass a brutal (and fairly rapid) tasting. I know someone who is sitting this tasting by invitation, and she has been studying her a__ off for a month, mostly through ‘blind’ tastings (you identify the wine – type, age, and region – by tasting, without knowing anything about it until it’s poured into your glass).
- Society of Wine Educators – This group exists to promote standards of qualification in the education of wine. Their focus is on deep understanding of wine taste, identifying wine faults, and having detailed knowledge of the geography, science, and history of wine. Members (of which I am one) and non-members can sit two levels of exams to achieve qualifications that are meant to prove that you know what you’re talking about when you speak or teach on the subject of wine:
Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) – This exam is a bit like the Boards of wine: 100 questions (a bit more difficult than those of the WSET Advanced exam), 1 hour, 75% needed to pass.
Certified Wine Educator (CWE) – More difficult exam, plus two tastings to identify similar wines from different world regions and wine faults, respectively. I have met people that have failed these tastings multiple times – it’s brutal.
After that, come various certification and education programs around the globe that are local, and are NOT internationally recognized. These can be fun, local, and usually require no wine knowledge to get started. They’re a great way to learn more about wine. There are probably about a billion of these such programs, give or take several million. As an example, I’ve heard good things about the Wine Spectator School, which offers classes on-line. A quick search on the Internet will turn up all kinds of these, or varying difficulty and interest. Are these local things any good?
Well… sort of…
If you want to learn a bit more about wine, by all means seek out a local program near you and have fun. If that program asks for lots of your hard-earned dollars (I’m talking $1000s here) to give you what they tell you is a “professional” certification that rivals the three I have outlined above, then ***walk away as fast as you can***. And keep your hand firmly on your wallet and/or purse while you exit.
I had a pleasant visit at the award-winning French Creek Ridge Vineyards yesterday, checking out their annual sparkling wine tasting event. While there, I had a nice conversation with Janet Maki, co-owner and the winemaker at their J. Maki winery, discussing the most recent harvest (which by PA standards was just about perfect – warm weather, almost no hail or frost, short rains, and abundant sunshine). Their 2007’s should be interesting wines and could end up becoming their most balanced ever.
As for their more recent offerings, I thought they hit a homerun with their elegant Viognier, which has beautiful and fragrant nose. Their latest Gewürztraminer was also quite nice. If you had told me either of these wines had hailed from WA state, and not PA, I would have believed you.
The sparklers were a bit on the ‘leesy’ side for my taste, but opened up a bit given a few hours of air. (As for the Chardonnay – let’s just say they should have been paying me to sample it.)
An interesting wine tidbit that has been getting some good press lately (e.g., see this article at the Washington Post), is The Wine Century Club. The club doesn’t have many members (somewhere in the low hundreds), and it hasn’t been around that long (about a year and a half). But it’s got spirit, boy! And it’s the kind of venture that sums up everything I love about wine.
There are 1,000+ different grape varieties being made into wine, and that is in one country (Italy) alone. The full list is probably not known. And though most of the grapes being made into wine these days are thought to come from one progenitor (the Muscat of Alexandria grape), you could taste wine for a lifetime and never get bored.
The fine folks at The Wine Century Club understand this, and their group is devoted to exploring the fun of trying wines made from uncommon varietals. To become a member, you download their application and mark which wine varietals you’ve tried; when you reach 100, you’re in. Simple as that.
But it’s not really that simple – a staggeringly low percentage of those who have downloaded the application actually send in a completed copy. It’s not that easy to try 100+ wine varietals – thank god that blends count (so one blended wine means you’ve tried all of the wines in that blend – congratulations).
Between all of the formal and informal tastings I’ve been part of, my own penchant for trying new things and new wines over the years, and my prep. work for the WSET exam, I’ve been able to reach 100 (over actually, but I stopped at 100 because the piles of tasting notes I needed to reference to check which varietals I’ve tried were beginning to overwhelm my desk). I faxed my application in today, baby!
I’m not sure what I’ll get once my application has been accepted – except for bragging rights, of course. But you could spend your time in many worse ways than downloading the Wine Century Club application and starting to work your way through the varied and fun world of really uncommon wine.
And though it will usually get you two checks on the application, I recommend against trying Retsina… :-P
The September 3/10 issue of The New Yorker has a fascinating article penned by Patrick Radden Keefe (who frequently writes articles for the magazine, most dealing with the dark underbelly of commercialism in terms of con artists, fakes, etc.). This time, the focus is turned on the market for ultra-premium, rare fine wine.
Now, it’s a (relatively) well-known fact that forgery is rampant in some areas of the wine world (much more Georgian wine is consumed in Russia, for example, than could ever realistically be produced). This article explores the impact that fakes have on the highest end of the wine market, and raises some interesting questions about the authenticity of some of the rarest wines and most expensive wines in the world. Among the items in the cross-hairs:
- The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold could be a fake (a 1787 Lafite believed to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson in Paris while serving as America’s Minister to France).
- Intricate fakes of rare and older vintages of some of the top Bordeaux chateaus may have duped esteemed wine critic Robert Parker, as well as Michael Broadbent (who heads Christie’s wine department, is a Master of Wine, and the author of a fantastic treatise on wine tasting).
So – do we need to worry about buying fakes at our local wine stores?
Probably not. Unless you own your own island, you’re not likely to purchase any of these rare wines – and you’d have a difficult time finding them even if you did have the bankroll to support that kind of habit.
But – many of us who love wine will splurge from time to time (if you’re like me, you may splurge more times than you should…). It is highly unlikely that you will encounter a fake if you are searching for recent vintages of the top stuff. When you do feel the urge to go for that shiny bottle of grand cru or first growth to celebrate, it can’t hurt to start with a reputable local dealer, and it certainly is in your best interests to ask them how the wine has been stored and to ask about the sources where they get their premium wines. Any wine retailer that wants the few-hundred bucks you’ll drop on one of these bottles (and cares about your return business) should be willing to entertain those questions, and give you a decent answer (not to mention the requisite amount of confidence to drop the cash). If you don’t like the answers or still have suspicions after speaking with them, don’t make a big deal about it – walk away and explore another store or (if you’re lucky enough to not live in PA) on-line retailer.