Victoria Burt MW: Why wine education makes a difference

Richard Hemming MW's recent article questioned the value of wine education, on the grounds that it neither boosts wine sales nor benefits the consumer.

As a fellow Master of Wine (MW) and a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) educator and employee, I want to present my own viewpoint. WSET is not the only organisation offering wine education globally; clearly, I can only respond from our perspective.

At WSET, we aim to inspire and empower the world’s wine, spirits and sake professionals and enthusiasts through our qualifications. The courses we offer are designed to build knowledge and skills so that student professionals are better placed to secure jobs and develop their careers. Our qualifications also enable them to be more effective, confident and authoritative in their existing roles. For enthusiasts, WSET courses enhance their passion and enjoyment of wine, through an unbiased approach that neither promotes brands nor individual wine regions or countries.

It’s true that our qualifications are based on knowledge and analysis – that’s the stated aim. Our qualifications provide a solid foundation of knowledge and transferable skills for industry professionals regardless of their job role or country of work. While WSET frequently refreshes the content of all courses to ensure that they remain relevant and aligned to the market’s needs, we are not heavily focused on the job-specific skills that are undoubtedly required for professionals to further excel in their chosen vocation. That said, our course providers can and do tailor our courses to their audience, for example, a wine retailer may wish to include some sales training within a WSET course for their staff.

Similarly, our systematic approach to tasting gives wine professionals a globally recognised structure and language with which to assess and describe any wine, spirit or sake; this is something of which we are extremely proud.  But it's not intended to be the magic bullet for communicating effectively with every consumer. The average wine drinker will enjoy a glass or two without reference to winemaking techniques or tasting systems.  However, for consumers who are real enthusiasts, our approach can give a deeper insight into the world of wine and a thirst for broadening their tastes and experiences in wine.

As evidenced, the main intention of WSET’s style of wine education is not, directly nor single-handedly, to make the average consumer spend more on wine although, admittedly, that can be a secondary outcome. In his MW Research Paper, Tim Jackson MW (2017) demonstrates that wine education can encourage UK consumers to trade up, but this shouldn’t be considered its only measure of success.

From first-hand experience, we see that our qualifications have the power to change people’s lives. They help students enter the drinks trade and/or to progress their careers. In some countries, WSET qualifications are a passport to better life chances.

Working with the International Wine Education Centre (IWEC), we sponsor students at the Pinotage Youth Development Academy in South Africa where gaining a WSET qualification brings the realistic possibility of a job in the wine industry, with improved earning potential and standard of living. The same is true for our Chinese students where, as Hemming says, our student numbers are rising steeply. WSET's chief executive officer, Ian Harris, reports being overwhelmed by people approaching him at industry events in China to thank WSET for the knowledge and skills that have enhanced their careers and livelihoods.

So, does wine education make any difference? Judging by the feedback that WSET receives, from individuals gaining employment in the industry and then operating in a more effective and enlightened way, through to consumers being more adventurous in their purchases, I believe it does.

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