The March issue of Sommelier Journal is dedicated to the topic of wine education, and (as always) is well worth a read for wine pros and serious wine geeks alike. It contains a great follow-up article by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser on the current status of the wine certification landscape, so the issue got me thinking (as it always does) about repercussions beyond the world of professional wine service, and into the worlds of wine writing and passionate wine enthusiasts.
And it got me thinking that YOU probably should get a wine certification. it also got me thinking about the remote area of Shompole in Kenya, where even in a place where you have to buzz the runway in a small Cesna to scare zebras off of it before you can land, they saw value in the WSET certification (more on that in a minute).
Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a passionate wine enthusiast, a wine professional, or a wine writer (or any combination of one or more of those). Actually, according to Alexa.com stats on my blog, chances are you’re a female between the ages of 25 and 44 with a decent amount of disposable income, living in the U.S. and surfing this blog from your work computer (shame on you!).
Anyway, I am growing increasingly convinced that wine certification suits 1WineDude.com readers, and is growing more and more applicable to a larger and larger audience of wine lovers. And I’m gonna give you three reasons why YOU should get a cert. And No, I don’t work for any of those certification bodies.
I know what you might be thinking, which is something along the lines of “Why do I need a certification to be an expert on how much I like or dislike what I shove into my mouth?!??” And the answer of course is that you don’t need a certification for that.
You need it for other reasons. Hear me out before you shut me out – first I need to take you to the hot salt flats of the Great Rift Valley in remote Kenya…
First thing you need to understand is that there are tons of wine certs out there, and most of them don’t mean bumpkis outside of the town in which they’re based. Gaiser’s article contains a table outlining some of the wine certification / education bodies that have the most clout, and while it’s still admittedly a bit of alphabet soup in terms of confusing multiple acronyms following people’s names, it’s a good place to start to find a cert. that will mean something to the world at large.
Which brings us to Shompole.
A few years ago, I toured through Kenya. The first stop (after landing in Nairobi and being escorted through security in what I now think might have been a bribery scenario to get us through customs… not sure…) was via Cesna to the remote salt flats near Mt. Shompole, where we stayed in a Zen-like resort structure built into the surrounding hillsides. The area consists of a) a Maasai village, b) Mt. Shompole, c) the resort, d) lots of intense wild animals that could kill you within seconds. In other words, it was amazing, but difficult to convey just how remote this place is. It borders Tanzania, and one day we drove through a dust storm to Lake Natron, which technically sits over the border in Tanzania. The border was marked by a small obelisk, and a lone male wildebeest grazed nearby. Dennis, my Maasai guide, turned to me and jokingly asked, “we are at the border with Tanzania – do you have your passport?” Borders mean nothing to these local people – or to the wildebeests.
I arrived at Shompole at the end of the “busy season” and had the entire place more-or-less to myself, and most nights dined with the proprietors. When I expressed an interest in the South African wine that we we sharing at dinner, they asked me how I knew so much about wine and I told them about my then recent WSET certification. They had heard of WSET and instantly invited me back to stay for a week, for free, if I was willing to come up with (and teach) a wine introduction program for their resort staff.
That’s the kind of opportunity that you won’t get without a certification – and it speaks to the power of the WSET brand worldwide.
So, apart from free lodging in beautiful, exotic, and dangerous remote locals, here are three other reasons you might want to consider getting certified:
Reason 1: You Will Taste Your Palate Off
If you want to get a bit more serious about your pursuit of all things gloriously wine, you need to taste. A lot. It’s the single most important thing that you can do to gain knowledge about wine, as well as to gain knowledge about your preferences in wine. A good series of wine certification classes will give you the opportunity to do both.
Reason Two: Everyone Else Is Doing It
Ok, it’s not the greatest of reasons and your parents warned about the whole friends-jumping-off-of-bridges thing, but the fact of the matter is that it is becoming increasingly more popular to pursue and achieve these certifications, to the point where they are becoming harder to get into and are changing their exams and evolving their curriculum to become more challenging.
Reason Three: Show You Know
Do you need more justification on this than my Shompole story? Really? Ok, how’s this – there are a lot of people trying to get into the wine industry right now, and thousands of wine bloggers. If you’re in either or both of those camps, then getting a well-recognized cert. can help you differentiate yourself in a crowded field.
Cheers (and happy educatin’)!
36 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Get a Wine Certification (A Tale from Remote Kenya)”
Though I do think wine certifications have their place, I don't find your 3 reasons to be particularly persuasive.
Reason 1: People can taste plenty of wines in other ways rather than these classes, and probably much cheaper too. There are plenty of free tastings where you can taste 100+ wines. Some of the pay events are inexpensive, like say $40-$50 for Wine Riot where you can taste 250 wines. Much cheaper than a WSET class.
Reason 2 & 3: They contradict each other. If in #2, everyone else is doing it, then in #3 you can't differentiate yourself because everyone else is doing it.
I would offer some of my own suggestions for why people might want to take wine certification classes.
A) A personal challenge, to prove your own knowledge of wine. These classes & exams can be tough and it can be personally satisfying to pass these tests.
B) Enhance credibility. It is true that passing these tests will enhance your credibility in certain circles. You may know tons about wine, but some won't grant you enough credit unless you have some type of certification.
My WSET education was very expensive and if you want to learn a lot about wine in a very short period of time, it is a great way to do it. Formal classes and laying down of cash typically force people to learn more than just doing it on their own. Have I gotten my "money's worth out of it"? Probably not, but that is difficult to measure since I don't work in the trade. I did for a while and the classes did help me get that job, but I don't see them as critical.
I think of them as I do MBA's…how many entrepreneurs have or want them? And, have businesses really benefited from their existence and proliferation?
Like Rich, I remain unconvinced. What I am convinced of is that the LAST thing the wine world needs is more certifications. In my opinion, certifications serve only to build walls & reinforce the idea that you need some sort of special education to enjoy wine. Horse hockey. Each person of legal drinking age already has everything they need to know about wine if they know what tastes good in their own mouth. All the rest is noise.
Thanks, Rich. I agree that #1 and #2 could sound contradictory, my point there was more to show that if someone wants to present themselves as a serious wine resource, then they may need a well-regarded cert. just to keep up (running to stand still, so to speak). It falls into the B) suggestion that you offered, I think.
I do agree with your A) suggestion – in fact, that's how I started down the whole wine consulting / blogging path in the first place.
In terms of tasting, it's worth noting that the events you described don't always offer systematic tasting approaches, which the good certs. do and which go a bit deeper than the "performance sprint" tasting format of the bigger events.
Dale, I *knew* I was gonna hear from you :-).
It's obvious that I disagree with your point about the certs. building up walls – it depends on how the certs are used, in my opinion, and it's the attitude of that use that determines whether the walls are building up or breaking down.
I agree with (and covered, very briefly) the point you mention about any one person being the best judge of what they are drinking and if they like it (or not). Let's put it this way: whenever anyone tells me they're embarrassed about enjoying a $9 bottle of wine, I tell them that they ought to be **bragging** about finding something inexpensive that they enjoy!
But if someone wants to present themselves as having some authority about the *topic* of wine, then certs. are a good road in my view because it's not just about tasting, it's about how the juice is made, how the industry works, the science behind it, etc. – quite a lot of layers to that onion.
I'm not big on certifications either. But then again, I'm not a female between the ages of 25 and 44 with a decent amount of disposable income, living in the U.S. and surfing this blog from my work computer, so what do I know? Anyhow, if WSET floats your boat, more power to ya! On to the MW!
AtlantaWineGuy, likening a WSET class to an MBA does a disservice to those who actually HAVE MBAs in wine. My friend Kerri Platt earned hers in Australia & my other friend Lindsay Morriss is currently earning hers in Bordeaux.
Tanks Steve – funny how much user info. is gleaned by these on-line traffic analysis tools! :-) I've not done the legwork to confirm if that demographic indeed makes up the majority of the 1WD readership, but if it does I am not gonna complain :). Cheers!
Thanks, AWG – good comparison. Interesting that the WSET helped you get a job in the industry. I've had conversations with some WSET Diploma students this past weekend, and some of them were lamenting whether or not they thought there was enough recognition of the cert. for all the work to be worth it in attaining it, which is when I described my Kenya experience and said "I think some of them are really worth it."
But you point out, rightly, that there isn't a single yardstick for measuring that worth for everyone – each person will have to have their own determinant on whether or not the investment will pay off. Cheers!
Exams are absolutely changing, the SWE's CWE exam now has a presentation requirement as well as a tasting format to be followed for the tasting exam similar to the WSET and requires a state issued RAMP certification for responsible alcohol management in order to sit the exam. The WSET Advanced will now require candidates to produce written tasting notes on two wines vs the previous easier test of matching the assessors marking key.
thanks Deb – proceed with caution (and let us know how it goes!).
I agree with this to a certain extent, the issue I have with this is that with so many bloggers and "wine educators" out there spewing information to people, there needs to be a way for people to know they are getting good information, versus information from some Joe Schmo. For me, being a 23 year old kid in the wine industry, I almost felt like I needed to prove myself by getting my CSW, so now when I speak about wine, at least there is someone else, besides myself, saying, "OK, this kid knows his stuff…"
Getting a cert for its own sake isn't meaningful, but spending time and money on knowledge because it's a personal passion is. My WSET diploma took two years of study, classes, starting a tasting group that met weekly and then those notorious day-long exams — it was grueling and took a kind of commitment you're only likely to find if you're doing for yourself. I made great friends in the process and deeply value the learning, whether it gets me jobs or not. But I would say it's shown a professional benefit.
Thanks, Mia – I've helped study groups like that, audited DWS classes, and am good friends with DWS grads, so I know (tangentially) the pain you speak of! :)
I thought I might add my own reasons to your reasons. Hope you don't mind…
Reason #4- Because saying "I'm a DWS" takes a lot less time than explaining everything you know about wine!
Reason #5- Because getting that certificate (and the little pin you'll probably never wear) feels AWESOME after what amounts to 3 years of study including the Advanced and the Diploma.
Reason #6- It has personally made me a better winemaker to understand how the rest of the world makes wine (not to say that you can't do this over years of personal study but the motivation that you have to take an exam really helps with your time management.)
Reason #7- Networking with fellow students! (The value of this is way underappreciated)
Being a wine expert does not really need any certification. My ancient grandfathers was known for being wine expert and they didn't take any certification. Although for the new generation, it might be a good requirement key in order to be called an expert. Whatever is the process as long as you can recognized which one is tasty and pure wine and which one is not, then I would say you're an expert. Thanks for the info. ;-)
Joe – I never thought about getting a wine certification — until I read your post. While I have been fortunate enough to do a LOT of wine tasting in recent years, I think that, at this juncture, I would really benefit from the structure and challenges that a certification class would provide.
Thank you for planting the seed!
Thanks, Mark – crap, there goes my plan to get the CWE anytime soon… ;-)
This is a very interesting post. What an amazing trip, I'm so totally jealous!! I've been considering wine certification for a couple of years now, but then there's that whole cost thing, I really need a sponsor. Then there's the fact that I'm probably more certifiable than anything.
I think your reason #2 , for me is more of a deterrent though and seeing the number people obtaining CSWs and CWEs and COWs (just threw that in to see if you were paying attention) grow somewhat devalues it. I think it's similar to how college degrees today are like high school diplomas were a few decades ago. I think the number of students studying for the Master's of Wine proves how these certifications are almost a dime a dozen these days (not to take anything away from anyone, I know how much hard work goes into studying for these). One's personal journey through wine can include all kinds of education to make them specialists. Study on your own and drink as much wine as you can.
COW… good one…
Dude, provocative topic. Back in the day (pre-blogs) wine writing depended mostly on a journalism degree and background, unless you were a doctor doing it for free so you could get into trade tastings. Other than the "impossible dream" of an MW – and do you really want to know the ins and outs of the British wine trade? – there were no meaningful degrees. These days, degrees are everywhere, and it's tempting for a grouchy veteran such as me to call bulls–t. But, having done the first three levels of WSET (in preparation for teaching the classes) I can say that I do see some value in being certified. The value is mostly as job preparation. Whether for writing about, selling, or marketing wines, I think it helps to have some initials after your name these days. But as for really learning about wine, I think you can learn just as much by working in a wine shop and tasting tasting tasting.
Thanks, Paul – you can probably learn *more* about wine appreciation by working in the shop, actually.
Anyone can drink and appreciate wine on their own, and through trial and error (and success!), they'll learn what they like. Taking wine education courses can help expand that appreciation, like learning how to play bass might help you better appreciate how integral John Entwistle was to the Who's music. Passing "certification" courses like WSET or ISG or Court of Master Sommeliers or CSW is proof (to the world at large, or to a potential employer) that you have formal learning about wine to a certain standard. The certificate won't be the only thing that gets you hired, but all other things being equal, it will help.____As a by-the-way, I would liken the MW to a Phd. Many study for it, few pass. I am in awe of those who succeed.__
Thanks, Dave – as a bass player (and Who fan), you had me at "Entwistle"!!
The BEST reason that I can think of for obtaining a certification is that, instead of building walls, you build BRIDGES to other like-minded people who share a passion. I started the CSW process with Society of Wined Educators last year to enhance my professional standing, as I'm ITB both on a wholesale and retail level. During the Certified Specialist of Wine course, I met a number of great people. most of whom were also players for other teams (think baseball). While we recognized each other's abilities and respected the teams (even though they might have been the competition), the best part was that a number of us formed a study group to get through the course. That group has morphed into a monthly tasting group that still meets and still has fun, while tasting some great (and not so great) wines. We also are comfortable enough to know that we won't bruise anyone's ego about the wine they brought (well. some good-natured teasing is usually part of the routine;), because we're all there for the same thing — good companions who know what they are talking about and tasting, doing so with a critical palate and the background for relevant context.
Seems like some good reasons for doing the certification thing — but then I've been certifiable for years!
30 years in the restaurant trade, didn't take certification courses until 5 years ago. 25 years pre-cert, travelled, drank a lot, sold wine, built wine lists, attended wine events. I appreciated wine on a sensory level – knew what I liked, and what I could sell, as soon as I sniffed and sipped.____Courses (ISG 1&2 and WSET 1-3) taught me to consider wine on a component level – allowed me to appreciate it differently. History, geography, geology, climate behind the wines, as well as the people making them, contributes to that appreciation – the story behind the wine might not make it taste better, but it sometimes makes the experience of drinking it a little richer.
As a woman between the ages of 25 and 44 who happens to hold one of these certifications (DWS, if you care), I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my 2 cents. As some others have mentioned here, WSET’s program is very expensive. I was fortunate enough to have an employer who bankrolled a good part of it, which is, frankly, the reason I did it in the first place. With the barrier to entry being so high, it obviously prices out a lot of people. I find this worrisome in terms of the diversity of certified wine pros. With respect to the cost, these certs do reinforce the notion that wine is only really for a select group.
That said, I learned a lot and believe that the education gave me a very solid foundation of wine knowledge. But, I feel like it’s just the beginning. I know I have a lifetime of wine learning ahead of me, and I’m eager to tackle it on my own.
Thanks, Ms. D (and I do care, btw!).
Do you think the WSET is overpriced for what it gives you? Just curious for your views on that (I do agree the DWS is expensive, which I suppose in part could be a deterrent to those who aren't fully committed?).
The real question, thought, is "have you bought anything through my website yet"? (kidding).
Our organization, which founded the CSW "training program" in 2007, thus putting lectures, materials, and focused, concentrated tastings (not just showing up at a free tasting) around a self-study, self-disciplined wine qualification, helped produce 25% of all CSW credentials in 2009. Here is what I have noticed about their impact on my "students":
1. The insecurity, sheer overwhelment, and frustration that many consumers have with wine is also shared by many in industry. To increase one's confidence around a subject lets one's inner wine-admirer shine through.
2. Credibility. MANY industry people have told me that suppliers deal with them differently (for the better) when the supplier knows they have earned a credential. IE. I don't need to wonder if you know sh*t about wine–the credential next to your name shows that you know more than something.
3. Wine is a life-long pursuit of knowledge-attainment, sensory development and pleasure. A serious, intense credential program shows many a person how much they DON'T KNOW. It provides not only a new-found respect for our craft, but also a humbling thirst to understand it.
Michael – thanks, and great point about the cert. programs showing you how much you may not know about wine (I certainly found that to be true). Cheers!
4. How many people out there still think there is a connection to wine quality and the "legs"? How many industry people STILL mispronounce Meritage, or Valdobbiadene or have no fricking idea what Gutsabfullung means? You wouldn't take up golf or tennis seriously without a lesson from a professional coach–and there is no substitute for formal wine education either. All professional musicians began with lessons. They built their creative offering on top of this foundation.
5. Insatiable learning never goes out of style. A wine professional, hunger for knowledge and answers, can achieve more in 3 years than a lazy wine professional who has been drifting through the business the last 15 years. I can't tell you how many consumers call us asking is the novice course right for me because I'm been DRINKING wine for 25 years. If they have not been taught how to think about the wine, or to properly (deductively) taste & evaluate the wine, they might has well have been slamming huge pieces of coconut cream pie in their holes.
I could go on with the soapbox routine, but I do wish to conclude by expressing how pivotal credentials have been for so many. I can recount consumers who have new found pleasures, consumers who now believe the wine industry is where they must be employed, and industry people who have either increased their standing in their company or have decided to go out and start their own retail or wholesale company. And while I have attained a great deal of knowledge in this field, there are so many others who's data-banks are much deeper, and it makes me feel good in a sea of 'it depends" and so many opinions about wine, that I can turn to a proven expert to help me understand the truths in wine. And it is likely this person has a credential.
To all. One of best parts is the people you meet some with creds and some without. I started on the cert path in 2000 having watched my friends one by one attain the CWE at the Society of Wine Educators Conference's in the late 90's. The sense of accomplishment these people felt rubbed off immediately on me. All were passionate about wine, still are and it continues. Unfortunately, I did all the the WSET and SWE certs on my own nickle and of course after I finished the winery started to reimburse a portion. Because of that we have had probably 15 part time, retail tatsting room staff members go though WSET Level 3. They saw the same thing I saw at the begining and said to themselves "go for it".
Shamelees plug, hope it's OK Dude (SWE conference in DC this year in July for those on the East coast 1st time back since 97')
Mark – you are certainly forgiven for the plug (god knows I'm no stranger myself to a much higher volume of shameless self-promo here! :-).
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