Friday Rant: Matt Kramer’s Poop Storm

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.

Matt Kramer looks like a nice enough of a guy (from Wine Spectator)

Matt Kramer looks like a nice enough of a guy (from Wine Spectator)

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?

Not much.

rantIn 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.

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Philadelphia with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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31 Responses to Friday Rant: Matt Kramer’s Poop Storm

  1. Laura H says:

    I read MK’s article with great dismay. My older daughter recently passed her WSET Level 3 test with Merit (tasting with Distinction), and I thought it was unfortunate that MK used such a broad brush to color all certification efforts as being useless.

    Clearly, the MW exam and the WSET 8 week intensive course (and subsequent test) are two different things, apples and oranges if you will. But both fall under “certification” and I honestly don’t see how any effort to learn more about wine being made by someone can be labeled a bad thing.

    I know my daughter studied for this harder than she ever did during school and college. She said it was the hardest thing she has ever done. She attended classes while working full time as an assistant Somm in a high end restaurant in Melbourne, and often got up an hour or two early to study.

    So while there may be some changes that could be made to the certification process, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater here, and by all means, let’s not discourage people from learning more about wine!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that there are certainly benefits from most certification programs. I have never been through any wine cert program, but I have some passing familiarity with them. I think I see some similarities with the study of a foreign language. I studied French throughout high school and college (I was a French major), but I learned more in my first three weeks living there during my junior year than the previous seven years of school combined. While analyzing a wine methodically does have some merit, “experiencing” the wine (either through years of drinking wine or actually visiting the region where it was made) is perhaps a better “education.”

      Like

  2. Jill Barth says:

    I find this conversation so interesting. It’s poloarizing because everyone feels they must defend their identity & choices, humans are funny like that… but it’s compelling because wine (like art, religion, parenting…) is a passion you “learn” from experience. And (like art, religion, parenting…) everyone experiences it differently. It’s a pretty vast space, the wine world, and there’s room enough for anyone that wants to open a bottle: credentialed or not. The winemakers certainly hope newbie novices dig in too…

    I didn’t read the article but I do have the magazine. I’ll read, then make an educated comment when I’ve done my homework.

    I’ve no certification, but I’d love one…mostly because I love to learn, research & be curious. Until then, it’s drinking, reading & talking to wine people. Not the worst sort of education.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Got to agree, especially the line about drinking, reading and talking to wine people! Certificates can be a good way to force yourself to focus on learning but certainly a lot of the knowledge they demand is overkill.

      Like

    • I am pretty sure I agree with you on this one, Jill. Experience is the best teacher. For the ten years I was a high school French teacher, going through a textbook of verb conjugations and lists of vocabulary, I did not think that what I was “teaching” was really helping my students on the way to fluency. I knew that for them to actually “learn” the language, they would need to visit the country, experience the culture, and experience the “real thing.” Again, much like wine. Cramming for an exam about trivial varieties and obscure wines can be fun as an intellectual pursuit, but nothing will replace actually drinking the wines and, hopefully, visiting where they were “born.”

      Like

  3. Dame Wine says:

    100% agree…when you are studying for the credential, you are studying for the exam, not real life. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Laura H says:

      Actually, not always. Most people who bother to take these exams (especially at the higher levels), are doing so because wine is part of their real life. Many work in the wine industry, and as such wine is a part of their everyday life, as well as their passion.

      Like

    • I would venture to say that the majority of those who take the higher level exams are doing so because wine is indeed a part of their real life (work and/or pleasure.)

      Like

      • I would add that many of them might NEED to have some sort of credential either for their current job or perhaps the one to which they aspire. While I don’t agree that one NEEDS a credential to demonstrate a great knowledge of wine, many in the industry believe that a credential is essential or somehow sets one apart.

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  4. 1WineDude says:

    Just because Kramer writes well doesn’t mean that his opinions are well-formed.
    If he has offered data in support of his opinions on credentials, I have yet to see them.
    I would counter-argue that the “undesirable class differentiation” of which he speaks has been perpetuated far more over the last two decades by the staff of Wine Spectator than by anyone bearing a credential from SWE, WSET, or the MS and MW programs (the latter two containing the majority of wine experts that, from what I can discern, have done more to make fine wine more accessible to more people than any other group in the history of the product).

    If we happen upon methods and work ethics that mirror those taught by those programs, then we should consider that could be the result of both hard work and luck, rather than an indictment on the effectiveness of the programs themselves.

    Sorry, but I’m Kramer-ed out at this point. His take on this sounds like that offered by someone who has never done the hard work to obtain a professional credential in wine.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think there are two essential elements here. One is whether the knowledge gained in a credentialing program is more “valuable” than actual experience and Two, whether or not one NEEDS a credential. The first, it seems to me, is rather subjective. I am not a sommelier working in a New York restaurant where my clientele expects me to create and maintain a diverse and deep wine list. While I have been to Toulouse a couple of times, I have never come across Milgranet (as far as I know) nor will I ever (and certainly not in Philadelphia). So knowing that it is an obscure wine variety from outside Toulouse will never have an impact on my life whatsoever (even if I should ever become a somm in New York). In fact, I would argue that the only time one would ever need to access that type of trivia is when, yes, they are conversing with other MWs. Even for those full-blown, high powered MWs, I doubt they use even as much as 15% of what they learned studying for the exam. But that brings us to the second, less subjective question. I would guess that most high level restaurants in New York and elsewhere REQUIRE their somms to pass the MS exam. Whether or not you agree with the merits of certification, in many arenas it has become a necessity.

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  5. Joe Roberts says:

    Just because Kramer writes well doesn’t mean that his opinions are well-formed.
    If he has offered data in support of his opinions on credentials, I have yet to see them.
    I would counter-argue that the “undesirable class differentiation” of which he speaks has been perpetuated far more over the last two decades by the staff of Wine Spectator than by anyone bearing a credential from SWE, WSET, or the MS and MW programs (the latter two containing the majority of wine experts that, from what I can discern, have done more to make fine wine more accessible to more people than any other group in the history of the product).

    If we happen upon methods and work ethics that mirror those taught by those programs, then we should consider that could be the result of both hard work and luck, rather than an indictment on the effectiveness of the programs themselves.

    Sorry, but I’m Kramer-ed out at this point. His take on this sounds like that offered by someone who has never done the hard work to obtain a professional credential in wine.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. boozeguru says:

    Reblogged this on The Booze Guru and commented:
    Not coincidentally, the same can be said (and concluded) for the Certification for Sprirts Specialists. Still, those three little letters open some doors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are exactly right. I think the people who do the hiring don’t have the time (or the ability) to determine whether applicants have the necessary knowledge. It is much easier to just assume that if they have a WSET diploma (e.g.) after their name that they know all they need….

      Like

  7. Kat says:

    I’m in the WSET program right now. I’m doing it because I want to, not because I have to. While I know a lot about wine, it’s gelled expand my knowledge even further (keeping all the various regions straight is a tough one for me). The two biggest reasons I chose to pursue a certification is to, as you said, open doors and garner some tidbit of respect for me in the wine world/wine writing world and to also learn more about wine. On the rare occasion, sometimes you can “make it big” without one, but for the rest of us mere mortals, we have no choice if we want better paying jobs, respect, and more opportunity. Not to mention it’s helped me meet fellow winos. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Fiona says:

    You raise so many interesting issues, and for me, primary amongst them is the whole paper/letter chase thing and the perceived legitimacy all those things give one. It really irks me that experience and knowledge acquired in other ways, is negated. I can (and do) rant about this quite often.

    I was, a few years ago, accepted as a PhD candidate. There is a whole slew of reasons why I began going down that route including that I was working in/with an academic institution and because a Masters is the new Baccalaureate, and even though I have 20-odd years experience in research and in my sector, I didn’t have the former. My supervisor reckoned I didn’t need one. Anyhow, that’s a long way to saying that, eventually, based on needing to pay the bills, what the scholarship didn’t cover, and age and stage in life (and The Husband’s), the whole idea got canned. Am I sorry? On one level, yes. I was bucked that they believed I had the capability and the uni accepted me. Then I figured life was too short and that I was doing ok, and having more fun living and drinking wine without the letters after my name.

    Moving to McGregor has been much more fun!

    That said, I might do a wine course if the opportunity presents itself – also just for fun!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Beth says:

    I have taken WSET up to level 3 advanced. I did it more for myself than for career advancement, just like my doctoral degree. As a newbie to wine, the three courses I took helped me understand more about wine, winemaking, vineyard management, and how to better taste wine. I felt academically and personally enriched by the experience. I’m not sure it was necessary or is necessary for everyone, but I learned so much that I didn’t know. It’s more expensive the further one progresses, so that’s why I stopped after three courses, for the time being. All that being said, I learn well from tasting with friends and working at a winery, too. Real-life experience is also a great education.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Being that you are in the “biz” I am curious: how much of the WSET content would you have learned on the job? And how much of it is not particularly useful at all?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Beth says:

        I use what’s relevant to Napa Valley and I can explain why a wine has certain characteristics due to climate, vineyard management, and production styles. A California wine specialist certification is something that might benefit me where I am.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Wine Antics says:

    Great post! Thanks to a ridiculous amount of American Airlines miles (but not enough to get a free flight), I actually have a subscription to Wine Spectator. I have not read the article, but with these comments, I will go find it!

    I’ve gone through the CSW and up to WSET III certification classes and thought they were highly over-priced but world-altering for me! There aren’t many other opportunities to be in a wine learning environment outside of being in the industry. Of course, there are many local wineries and wine shops willing to put on a “Wine 101” or a plethora of information about wine on the internet, but what if you want/need a more hands-on approach?

    Certifications and even “on the job experience” can be “hooey” in any field. It’s the mixture of committed learning (in or out of a program) and experience that make us professionals.

    Cheers,
    Jenn!

    P.S. – I think this discussion just inspired a follow-on blog on Wine Antics! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just curious, of the two, which was more “valuable” the CSW or WSET?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wine Antics says:

        The short answer is: They’re both valuable, but for different reasons. I think it just depends on your interests.

        The CSW is much more technical, goes into the wine making process, and doesn’t include a tasting portion (AT ALL – argh, a wine class with NO wine!). Recommended for someone that is a winemaker, that wants to learn the complexities of wine laws, chemistry, ect or a very technical wine blogger.

        Going through the 4 levels of the WSET and gaining the diploma is said to set you up for the MS curriculum. It lets you both taste and go through the evaluation process of wine. Recommended for someone that wants to learn wine and wine tasting, hospitality professionals, someone who is considering becoming a Somm, and wine bloggers who would like some structured learning about wine!

        If I were someone that just “got bit”by the wine bug, I’d start with the WSET II. Its just intense enough to find your inner wine nerd but fun enough to enjoy the effort!

        Cheers!
        Jenn

        P.S.: I feel like I just wrote a blog post and didn’t mean to! LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the input–I’m still deciding which way to go….

        Like

  11. linnetmoss says:

    A credential establishes a baseline. It ought to be optional, but if you’re hiring someone, it’s an easy shorthand to know whether they have that basic level of knowledge. Clearly one can get that and much more from real life experience. I guess that’s what interviews are for 🙂
    Most of what I know about my discipline was learned *after* the PhD. But it gave me the tools to do that learning for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. joyofwine says:

    Life experience is important. As we get older, we have learned more and become better decision makers (one would hope). For me, the WSETdiploma is all about credibility and competence. In a former career I taught people about what it means to be competent, and part of that stems from education. The definition of Competence as I taught it was one who was “adequately qualified, suitably trained, and sufficiently experienced”. That includes the education bit. I know Mr Kramer is not alone in his feelings of wine education being hooey, but in many job postings( for work in the wine industry) I’ve read as of late, it is a requirement. Do I now know everything there is to know about wine now that I’ve done the diploma program? Of course not! The subject is a moving target, and I will continue to learn on my own now. What I DO know is that those with the MW or MS designations have prestigious jobs that we all seem to be reading about in some capacity. That being said, I have no desire to continue and become an MW.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Wine Credentials Are a Joke – Humble Wine Snob

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