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Analysis: How vital is a wine qualification?

Published:  18 November, 2010

Insider: Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine has been looking at how vital a wine qualification is in the drinks trade. While wine professionals still see it as essential, the blogging community has different views.

How do you get a foot on the ladder in the wine trade?

"If you're looking for new staff to have a WSET Certificate or Diploma already, then you're fishing in a very small pond," says Bibendum managing director Michael Saunders.

"We try to be as open as we possibly can and to recruit from outside the business."

This sentiment is echoed by Giles Cooke MW, marketing and buying director at Alliance Wine, who says it's more important to find someone with the right attitude. "We value attitude over knowledge. You can have too much knowledge and not know how to apply it in sales roles. People have had issues with not being able to listen to the customer," he adds.

So what options are there?
If you Google "wine course", you will find about 14.8 million results. But for the trade, and increasingly the consumer, too, the most popular options are the courses offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

But aside from WSET courses, those with a thirst for knowledge are also considering Wine MBAs and the Academy of Food & Wine Service Skills.

Nick Scade, chairman of the AFW, says: "We have seen a huge growth in the past few years for front-of-house training. As customer knowledge and interest in wine grows, it's important that staff, whether in a gastropub, chain restaurant or a fine dining establishment, can talk knowledgeably about the wines on their list, including provenance, method of production, taste and the food it is best matched with."

The academy offers an entry to wine knowledge course for food waiters, along with two jointly badged qualifications with the WSET - Introductory Certificate Level 2 and a Certified Sommelier Level 3. It can also link into the Court of Master Sommelier courses.

Why are the WSET courses held in such high regard?

WSET chief executive Ian Harris says: "We are the go-to place in the UK, we've been around for 41 years. Pretty much every job advertised specifies a WSET Certificate as either desirable or essential."

Last year, 27,500 people worldwide completed a WSET course, 9% up on the previous year. About 35% of those courses were held in the UK and 80% of students already worked in the industry.

The not-for-profit organisation now operates in 55 countries and offers companies bespoke courses. "Our syllabus is global," adds Harris. "It's the same exam in London and Hong Kong, but we can tailor it to different companies. For example, we can upweight the Australia teaching for a firm focused on Australian wines. But the exam will remain the same.

"We've also added a module on basic selling skills, which each company can have tailored to suit them."

How do individual companies train their staff?

Over at Bibendum, Saunders says its training budget allows staff to go down two pathways. It has "sophisticated in-house training" or they can do WSET Certificates up to Intermediate.

Individuals can then choose whether they want to pursue MWs, MBAs or other further education.
Saunders adds: "We help pay for vocational training, for example one person wanted to be a journalist, another wanted to do sports therapy massage. We try to look at it holistically."

Richard Hitchcock, marketing and operations director at Bottle Green, says training is "fundamental" and "covers product as well as business skills; neither alone is good enough". All its employees either have or are studying for the WSET Intermediate qualification. "Many then have the WSET Advanced on top and a smaller number have the WSET Diploma. Of course, we also have one MW - David Gill."

Meanwhile, Tesco head of BWS Dan Jago says: "The authority that the MW title conveys is recognised and valued by customers."

What about the blogging community? Do they need formal qualifications?

Robert McIntosh, who runs and is one of the founders of the European Wine Bloggers Conference, thinks not. "It's a question that's being continually asked and no one can agree," he says. "I don't think bloggers should have a qualification. The wine trade is really small, but so standardised when it comes to wine communication. One thing that puts consumers off is descriptions of wine that don't mean anything to them - the average tasting note doesn't help them understand.

"I personally never finished my WSET Diploma, but I don't think that's made a big difference to my life, other than missing out on contacts.

"The WSET tells you there is no right tasting note for a wine, but when you're examined on a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, if you don't tick the box "gooseberry" and instead write "it's like being slapped in the face with a bunch of grass", you won't get the marks.

"I'm not trying to do down the WSET, I'd definitely recommend it to people. But if a blogger asks me if they need to do it before they start blogging I'd say no, do it your own way first. If they want to get into some more technical stuff later, then by all means."