Over the past year, an influx of entrepreneurs has entered the wine industry. Through job losses or reduced working hours, industry changes forced wine pros to find new ways of making a living. With restaurant shutdowns, many sommeliers moved to virtual spaces, where they live-streamed tastings and seminars, and cultivated social media brands. Consultants transitioned from curating restaurant wine lists to online wine clubs.
To navigate these new ventures, wine professionals must stand out, and credentials can help establish authority. But with a wide variety of certificates and courses, how does one make sense of the most appropriate options to pursue?
The wine-sales industry is split into two general categories: restaurants/hospitality (on-premise) and retail/distributor (off-premise).
On the retail/distributor side, a credential from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) or the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) can help get a foot in the door. Vancouver-based Barbara Philip, MW, is a category manager for BC Liquor Stores, where she’s responsible for European wine selections. She says that credentials help set a baseline for potential consultants who come in for an interview.
“I know right away that we can have a certain conversation and that candidates are going to understand certain things,” says Philip.
Some self-employed wine experts believe more initials after their last name can lead to certain expectations of qualification. Boston-based wine educator Erika Frey has earned more than 25 certificates in wine, spirits and saké, which includes her WSET Diploma. Despite these achievements, she says there’s an underlying pressure.
“As an educator, I feel like I always have to be one step ahead,” says Frey.
For Brianne Cohen, a consumer wine educator and communicator, the journey to complete her WSET Diploma helped her establish confidence and credibility. But she argues that knowledge is knowledge, no matter the source.
“Would consumers know any different if I was street trained versus book trained?” says Cohen. “Nope, not at all.”
Cohen is unique. She doesn’t plan to pursue additional credentials, but she sees their appeal.
“The wine industry is full of overachievers and Type A personalities, and these certifications play into that,” she says. “It’s a topic that you never truly conquer, or you never truly know it all… It’s a bit addicting.”
To become a sommelier, most students study through the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) or the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). But lacking institutional credentials isn’t always a deal-breaker.
As beverage director for JF Restaurants in New York City, Amy Racine says she never specifies a certain credential in a job posting, nor does she make a request during the hiring process.
“I am very clear about this during the interview,” says Racine. “What we do seek is a desire to continue education. Programs aren’t for everyone, so we simply encourage a desire, and an action plan, to grow in the world of wine. It’s all about personal mindset and hunger for knowledge.”
Racine encourages coworkers to band together. “We encourage tastings organized by the staff on almost every property,” she says. “They blind-taste and form their own self-study. We offer our space, stemware and even buying off the list at discounted rates for the cause.”
Virtual learning platforms have made it easier for people to self-study. The Wine Scholar Guild reported a 29% jump in registrations for online wine courses between 2019 and 2020.
Lisa Airey, education director for the Wine Scholar Guild, says that most people she sees enroll aren’t likely “credential collecting.”
“I’m sure some do, but most people who spend money on certification are doing so to empower themselves,” says Airey.
Some people might want to improve knowledge for their job. Others who hope to enter the wine industry could believe a credential might help them get an interview. Airey says she notices a desire from students to specialize, which is where the Wine Scholar Guild offers a niche.
“Our students are constantly asking ‘What’s next?’ ” says Airey. She says that 38% of students take more than one course.
That mentality is engrained in wine lovers. Barbara Philip’s journey to complete her Master of Wine took 12 years. But she recalls the passion that hooked her from the day she enrolled in WSET Level 1.
“I think that happens to a lot of people,” she says. “You have no idea that there’s so much to know about wine. There are so many different facets, whether it’s history or chemistry or microbiology or sociology, or the science of tasting. There are so many places you can go, and the knowledge can be so deep.”
For Frey in Boston, she believes that wine draws people in because of how it focuses the senses. “For those few moments while wine tasting, the purpose is to figure out what it’s saying in the wine glass,” says Frey. “There’s such a focus on seeing, smelling and tasting that it’s impossible to multitask.”
The wine industry is like a spiderweb. It’s almost impossible to say which educational pursuits are worth it and which aren’t. Aspects of each avenue can benefit people in different ways, which is part of the reason why it’s appealing to strive for higher knowledge.
As Cohen says, it’s that addictive mentality that allows for success on social media. In our current, pandemic-altered world, there are near-infinite ways to share wine expertise. From YouTube channels or Instagram Live broadcasts to blogging or newsletters, all that seems to matter is that the content is free and easily digestible.
Sometimes, a credential can boost a professional’s number of followers, viewers or subscribers. But for some people, it doesn’t take long for a well-established following to become the credential itself.