User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Thursday Thorns
Got Certification?

By Stephen Eliot

A couple of weeks back, I ran across a story in Harper’s Wine and Spirit Trade Review that addressed a topic that floats in and out of my thoughts a fair bit these days, that of the real value to found in wine credentials. While the article draws no conclusion and takes no position, it does at least bring light to what I believe is a significant debate. Formal wine credentials such as the Master of Wine (MW) and Certification by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) have for a good many years been important to the English wine trade, and have of late been joined by a lengthy and ever-growing roster of other “official” certifications here in the United States offered by one agency or another. I often wonder just who certifies the certifiers as I have encountered more than a few degree-bearing “experts” whose knowledge and appreciation for the subject were marginal at best, but that is a topic for another time. The one specially raised by the article was how vital such qualification might be to those in the trade, and by extension to those that blog about wine, and there is widely diverging opinion on both counts. Some argue that formal training too often leads to an inflated sense of self-worth on the part of the degree holders that results in a disconnect with “real” people. Not an uncommon circumstance, I would agree, but wine snobs in and out of the trade have been around long before the current avalanche of accrediting agencies. But, I also find accord with the notion that a bit of informed knowledge would be a welcome addition to what I read on line. There is some well-defined territory at stake in all of this as the classes, courses, degrees and certificates do not come for free, and the laws of competitive business are bound to make themselves known.

It’s a topic to which we will most assuredly be returning, and, while the Harpers article goes nowhere near far enough in exploring the issues and thus earns a grade of Incomplete, I am pleased at the questions it raises. They most likely will prove all but impossible to really resolve, but the debate and discussion they engender may well be the answers themselves.


Ode to Certs
by 1WineDude
Posted on:12/23/2010 11:14:57 AM

My expereiince has been that some formal education (and probably certs) would benefit many on-line, becuase the one thing that the on-line wine coverage world lacks at the moment is a healthy amount of people with tasting experience and background knowledge, able to pick out typical wine faults, for example.  Those skills can coem through formal ed./certs. and are needed if people are going to treat wine coverage with any seriousness, I think.

As far as learning the "correct" tasting methods, I'm not sold on the value but you do need to learn some rules before you can break 'em!


Happy Holidays!

by Sherman
Posted on:12/23/2010 9:19:09 PM

Like many other areas in life, there are standards to which we can all subscribe -- doctors with board certifications; lawyers with law degrees and specialty certifications; airplane pilots -- well, maybe not the best example ;)

Why not have standards of some definable sort when it comes to wine knowledge and how to implement it? Having been in the wine biz for a few years now (both retail and wholesale), I've seen wide extremes of wine knowledge being passed off as helpful information to prospective customers.

It's like the old saying goes -- "The more I know, the more I realize how much I *don't* know." It does open up your mind to the realization that there is so much to know and be able to relate in a way that it helps someone.

If someone is obtaining certification just to impress someone (unlikely that they would go through all that trouble but who knows...), well that's just another form of wine snobbery. 

Yes, I went through a certification program, with the goals being to learn, to be able to relay that information to people who need it, and to show some objective standards that I had achieved some level of competency (important within the industry, to varying degrees). It helps and I have yet to see how it might hurt; as long as I use my powers only for good and not for evil (wine snobbery), it's worthwhile.

The marketplace will eventually sort out how valuable the certification is to the sales person, his prospective boss, the wine writer, the blogger and the person in the store, looking with bewilderment at the "wall o' wine."

Standards and Odes
by StephenEliot
Posted on:12/24/2010 11:09:38 AM

Hi guys, and thanks for the comments. You both make good points, and they go right to questions that I think are worth asking. Dude, I cannot agree with you more about the need for knowledge and tasting experience in the on-line community, but given that my take on many of the certification programs is that they simply teach to a test, they strike me as first steps and that, well, experience is just that, experience, and so much of what makes for an educated palate is not something that can be learned for a clas or out of a book. I rather look at certification from whatever entity as more of a statement on the part of an individual is that they are serious enough and care enough about wine to do a bit of work..but it is only a beginning.

Sherman, can certification hurt? It can, as you say, if the goal is simply to impress, and sadly I have seen just that more than I would like. Should there be "standards"? That seems to me to be the very heart of any certification process, but there are so many competing programs that I wonder who will decide just what those standards may be. I also very much agree that the marketplace will ultimately decide that worth of just how valuable any certification will be, and I think we have a few interesting years ahead of us in which we will see how all this works out.

No Subject
by Sherman
Posted on:12/27/2010 1:26:17 PM

Hi Stephen -- as you stated, the market place will sort out how much the certification process is worth and whose program is the most valuable.

I can obtain a law degree (or two) from many different accredited schools, but the marketplace decides which is worth more IRL (in real life). Thus, Yale and Harvard are able to charge more for their programs than some of the smaller schools that don't have the reputation.


It's taken quite some time for those institutions to build their reputations and it will probably take some time for the sorting out of the marketplace to decide whether WSET, Intntl Court or SWE is the vinous equivalent of the Ivy League.


And, yes, experience combines with the certification process (which is just the starting point) to refine our palates and give us the context to become knowledge. 

Valued Accomplishment
by Julie
Posted on:12/28/2010 12:13:32 PM

I agree with a lot of the comments you both have made.  I think that there are a lot of people out there that are seeking a 'wow' factor from these certifications.

On the other hand, I see a lot of value in these certifications...

I am currently a marketing/public relations manager in an unrelated industry.  I have experienced extensive local and international wine tasting for the past few years and am currently trying to make the transition into the wine industry. 


I was recently named a CSW through the Society of Wine Educators, and will be obtaining my WSET Advanced in March.  For someone who does not have industry experience, earning certifications like this proves 3 things...

-I will work that hard to obtain something I know little about

-I am serious about wine

-I have confidence with my wine knowledge.

None of these things grant rights to be a wine snob, BUT, the wine industry can be intimidating to enter and having earned certifications like this can give someone the backbone of confidence that they need to succeed.

So all in all, I believe that others may take me more seriously about my passion for wine, and I have a lot of self-accomplishment.

These certifications most certainly do not guarantee a career, but it may be the extra boost to help someone achieve their goals.

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.