Opinion: The Alphabet Soup of Wine Education

Opinion: The Alphabet Soup of Wine Education

Tomorrow, I’m heading out to Napa for a week-long education seminar for MW candidates put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine. With less than 300 members, the institute may be among the most exclusive private clubs in the world–membership is restricted to those who pass the group’s notoriously difficult three-and-a-half-day written exam and successfully complete a dissertation. (Having sat the exam unsuccessfully last June, I can sheepishly testify to its challenging nature.)

Folks who join the institute are entitled to use the initials MW (Master of Wine; sometimes derogatorily referred to by nonmembers as master wanker) after their names, to signal membership in this elite club. But because of the stringent requirements and high caliber of current members, the initials MW are an international badge of honor that garners the holder instant respect in the wine business.

The MW was originally conceived as a trade credential, although its scope has broadened over the years to include members of the press (Jancis Robinson, for example) and even enthusiastic amateurs. Numerous other certifications exist in the wine industry, and I am often asked about many of them. “What is the difference between MS and MW?” is probably the most common one.

An MS (Master Sommelier) is someone who has passed the rigorous tests to join that club, much like an MW passes exams to become an MW. The difference is in the substance of the exams. An MS might be expected to memorize Bordeaux’s classification of 1855, while an MW might be expected to write an essay examining the economic consequences of that classification and analyzing its relevance in today’s wine market. Although both require tremendous wine knowledge, the MS must also answer questions about service (including wine-and-food pairings), spirits and cigars. Both sets of exams include a blind-tasting component.

Aside from the big Ms, you’ll occasionally see other sets of initials after names, such as DWS and CWE. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) offers courses that culminate in the granting of a Diploma in Wine & Spirits (DWS). In recent years, this has become a prerequisite for applicants to the MW education program, and even by itself requires a substantial commitment of time and money. A quick look at theInternational Wine Center’s Web site suggests a rough estimate of $9,000 and several years to go through the complete WSET program from start to finish. Ouch!

The Society of Wine Educators (SWE) has its own curriculum and exams that lead to someone becoming a Certified Wine Specialist (CWS) or Certified Wine Educator (CWE). The American Sommelier Association (ASA)offers a three-tiered series of courses that roughly parallels the MS curriculum.

Aside from the alphabet-soup organizations, there are zillions of wine classes offered by other individuals and groups, ranging from general introductions offered by experienced educators (Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course, Professor Stephen Mutkowski’s Introduction to Wines class at Cornell University) to high-end tastings tied to retailers or auction houses (The Wine Workshop, for example) and everything in between.

All of these can be great, but they don’t add letters to the end of your name. If you’re just interested in learning more about wine, it probably doesn’t matter much. Ask around at your local retailers, or search online for wine classes in your area. See if you can get the names of some people who have taken the classes and ask them if the classes met their expectations.

If you are in the trade (or want to be), you may want to explore the formal education programs that provide some level of certification. Above all, keep tasting and reading—classroom learning is no substitute for experience.

Published on February 20, 2009
Topics: Wine Certifications