There has been a bit of a maelström this past week on social media following the publication of Matt Kramer’s recent column in the Wine Spectator. Mr. Kramer has written for the Spectator for over thirty years and those times that I actually read the magazine, I invariably read his column first. I do not always agree with him (and no doubt he lies awake at night worried about that), but I usually find his articles interesting if not thought-provoking.
This month, his article did a bit more than provoke thought, I think it is safe to say that it incited a riot (well, as much of a riot as one could expect from a Chablis drinking “mob”). His column is not available online unless you are a paying customer of WineSpectator.com (which I am not), but I have read it and it took him about a thousand words to say:
Wine credentials are a bunch of hooey.
Of course he said it a bit more eloquently than that (although not much), but the fact that he came out and stated that those who pursue a a certification in wine were essentially wasting their time.
The response was swift and, at times, nasty as many people (most of whom either have some sort of credential or are in the process of pursuing one) called Mr. Kramer everything from an elitist to an idiot. [There were particularly poignant pieces penned by William Whelan and Jeremy Parzen.]
I have never met Matt Kramer, but I have read many of his columns and while I would probably agree that he is a bit of an elitist, I am fairly certain he is not an idiot.
More to the point, I am not entirely sure he is wrong.
Let me say right off the bat that I do not currently have any wine certification, but I am considering signing up for one in the near future (although I have yet to decide which one). I am considering it not because I think I will gain any vital knowledge, but rather, like it or not, it may lend some legitimacy to my writing, even though I doubt my writing will change all that much.
It is not all that different, at least in my mind, from my pursuit of a Ph.D. When I started my graduate work, I had been a high school teacher for a decade, but I decided I wanted to teach at the University level and, for the most part, that meant that I needed a doctoral degree.
Sure, through the course work and the writing of my dissertation I “learned” plenty during those eight-plus years, but how much of it was actually useful?
In fact, most of what I now use on a daily basis (I am not teaching, by the way, but I am a researcher at a university) I taught myself. That little “Ph.D.” at the end of my name, though, has certainly opened some doors and resulted in at least a bit of respect (although no one ever calls me “Doctor”), and cost me a lot of time and money.
My story in wine is not all that different. I have been hosting wine tastings for well over a decade and, hopefully, have helped at least a few people better understand and appreciate wine. Up until this point, however, all my “wine knowledge” has come through reading everything I could get my hands on and drinking a ton of wine. Do I “know” all there is to know about wine? Certainly not but some of the information that one learns in the wine credentialing programs is well beyond trivial.
Here are a few questions (from Decanter.com) that are “similar” to those that one might find on the Master of Wine (MW) test:
What does ‘Monoterpenes’ do?
- Used in Sherry production
- It is added to some wines to help preseve the aromas
- It is added to mass produced Port to enchance the flavour
- Contribute to the characteristic flavour properties of Muscat grapes
What is ‘Milgranet’?
- An Italian grape variety from vineyards south and east of Naples
- A special type of French oak barrel for Chardonnay
- The name for a particular method of bottling Champagne
- A rare French grape variety from vineyards north and west of Toulouse
What is ‘engustment’?
- A technique for removing wine from the barrel for bottling
- A process of fermenting without the use of yeast
- The stage before engorgement
- The state of ripening when aroma and flavour become apparent
(The correct answer for each of the above is the last choice in each block of four.)
In all my years leading bike tours, conducting and attending wine tastings, even reading about wine, I can safely say I have not come across any of those terms. I would also bet a large sum of money that most MWs rarely come across those terms either, except, wait for it, when they are studying for the MW exam.
So what, if anything, is there to take away from this episode? Well, the truth, no doubt, lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps Mr. Kramer over-reached a bit. Perhaps those seeking a wine credential have spent a ton of time and money striving for something that, in the end, they probably could have taught themselves. But like academia, many in the wine world have gone to great lengths to create a system of credentialing that certainly opens doors for those who go through it, while, not coincidentally, providing themselves with a nice income.