Richard Hemming MW: Does wine education make any difference?
Educating consumers about wine has become such an ingrained objective in the trade that we never question its value.
The WSET programme is our holy doctrine; denying it seems sacrilegious.
The principle behind wine education makes sense: a consumer who is educated about wine will spend more on it because they will appreciate the difference. Accordingly, wine schools have been popping up all over the place like celebrity rosés, not just in the UK but internationally, and especially in emerging markets such as China.
I’ve been in the wine industry for nearly 20 years now, and I’ve got the dentist’s bills to prove it. With wine education having proliferated since I started, the trade must be in a much healthier position, right?
Over the past decade, overall global consumption has stopped growing as lifestyles change, especially in mainland Europe. An increasing percentage of younger consumers are avoiding alcohol altogether. Huge sectors of the wine industry remain worryingly unprofitable, especially at the production level.
There’s lots to celebrate about the wine industry, but we should also be realistic about the challenges we are facing, and whether staging yet another Introduction to Wine course is always the right answer.
As a relatively recent market for wine, China provides an interesting case study. The number of WSET students there has exploded in recent years, yet per capita wine consumption remains tiny, and is in fact now declining.
Some observers attribute that to a general slowdown in the Chinese economy, plus the effects of anti-corruption legislation that stopped the widespread practice of gifting wine. But for others, it shows that there is no positive correlation between the number of WSET graduates and the sales of wine in a country – in fact, if anything, it seems to imply the reverse.
Proving this either way simply isn’t possible, and I would add that the quality of WSET education is not in question. But we should acknowledge that wine courses, be they formal or casual, are not our only means to improve the prospects of wine.
One of the main problems is that wine education teaches knowledge and analysis, but in so doing reduces wine to a list of facts and adjectives. Riesling Kabinett is typically high in acidity and low in alcohol with off-dry to medium-dry sweetness, flavours of lime and honey with floral character, developing petrol notes with age.
This might be true, and can prove useful for inter-professional communication, but it’s hardly the most inspiring way of considering wine for the vast majority of drinkers. The assumption that these consumers should automatically care about such things is thoroughly wrong-headed.
A much more emotive way to evoke a response is to talk about how the Romans identified the best slopes in Germany by seeing where the winter snow first thawed, or that the Doktor vineyard is so-called because of its supposedly curative powers: because the real power of wine is not how it makes you think, but how it makes you feel.