we don’t need no stinking badges!

Friday, September 23, 2011

I’ve been enjoying Matt Kramer’s excellent collection of past essays and columns (On Wine) – a provocative, thoughtful and entertaining collection from a man who is truly at the top of the field.

An essay entitled “Does America Need Masters of Wine?” rang a particular bell for me. It was originally a column in Wine Spectator way back in 1994, but if anything, it has more relevance today than ever before. Kramer’s point, if I may be so bold, is that this is a British – not American – institution, deeply rooted in the British class system, here transposed to a particular industry. He calls it “a college of wine cardinals” and says, quite rightly I believe, we don’t need it.

The idea that a certain credential imparts special wisdom is no stranger to these shores either, and I think most of us want our doctors and lawyers to have the right training. But our sommeliers? Do we really need some anal-retentive wine nerd with a string of letters after his or her name to pop a cork for us?

The proliferation of wine “degrees” since Kramer wrote his column in 1994 has grown exponentially. There is certainly a need and a place for basic winemaking education, such as we see at the excellent program at Walla Walla Community College (recently named one of the top 10 community colleges in the country).

But again I ask, other than to another sommelier, who cares that so and so can identify a wine tasted blind? I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to restaurants and ask the sommelier to bring me an unknown wine in a bag so I can show off by guessing what it is. That is a parlor game and has nothing whatsoever to do with the enjoyment of wine. And that very parlor game is at the heart, the core of the MW certification and so many others.

People spend years and thousands of dollars guessing at the identity of wines in bags so that they can get these credentials. And then what? They get a job serving wine in a restaurant, or selling wine in a wine shop, or picking cheap and cheerful wines for some airline to sell for a ridiculous price to cramped, starved, stressed out customers. Who really cares about those letters after their names?

Not their customers. Not those of us who love wine, and study wine, for the pleasure, rather than the credential. If you enjoy the parlor game of guessing what wine is in the bag, then by all means, have at it. Put together a tasting group and rock on. But don’t think for a moment that it makes you a better taster, or contributes in any meaningful way to your enjoyment of the wine itself. The wine doesn't care that you can guess its "secret!" identity. The wine just is what it is.


Stephanie LaMonica said...


my guess is you know all the details about a MW program and what it entails, but you throw out something very interesting at the end, which seems to be quite assuming, particularly if one has not undergone the training. i'm curious, how does becoming a MW not make one "a better taster, or [contribute] in any meaningful way to [ones's] enjoyment of the wine itself"?

i don't know why this reminds me of the one story i know, of Chinese zen philosopher Zhuangzi (the only one i know, i'm not purporting to be an expert here!) where he comments on how happy the fish appear, and the other guy says "you're not a fish, how do you know what fish enjoy?" and the reply being, "You're not me, how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?"

or, maybe better expressed, how practical is a study in a PhD in comparison to a real-world setting? you still need that educational foundation that sends you onward, but your love of the subject is the start, and that has meaning that people outside the realm (pardon the British reference) might never understand.

help a fish out, will you?

PaulG said...

Stephanie, my comment at the end is focused on the parlor game of guessing wines in a "blind" tasting. Of course studying any subject should improve your knowledge, your technical understanding, and your appreciation for whatever it happens to include. But being able to correctly guess wines in a bag, and then to attach a credential to such a trick, and then to assume some sort of snobbish superiority, which I see over and over; that I do not subscribe to. Learning about wine is something that can happen quite effectively without any need for "official" accreditation.

MagnumGourmet said...

I am sure that you know a larger sample set, but your characterization of the MW creating a snobbish attitude seems to be about as far from the vibe given off from my exposure to the local MW's (Bob Betz & David Lake). Would you say that their credentials as MW's was solely based on parlor tricks? I think not!

Art said...

All this may be true . . . unless you're the HOSE-Master of Wine!

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