Monday, 15 July 2013

Wine qualifications

When getting started in industries, business sectors or trades, there is a requirement for either qualifications or experience. In recent times, pieces of paper with 'diploma' or 'degree' on them seem to be in fashion. I suppose that doing some sort of education course is one of the best ways to gain experience and learn knowledge. I should know i have 3 degrees! So apart from either, growing up on a vineyard or having a load of spare cash invest in a merchant business venture, what qualifications are out there to allow individuals to enter the wine trade? I've been looking in to this recently, and i thought I'd share some of my preliminary findings.

There seems to be a few ways to get into the business/trade of wine. It starts with an interest, maybe a hobby. Initially, one needs to obtain knowledge. How would you know you like it, without knowing something about it!? The internet is a great place to start. There are free and subscription websites focusing on wine. I've mentioned a few before, but the 'biggies' I've found are: Decanter, Purple Pages, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine anorak and the Wine Doctor. Great places to start on all things wine. Another source of information are merchant/store websites, they often have info pieces associated with the wines they're selling. Of course maybe the best, but very specific, sources of info are producer websites. Here, one can often find detailed information about how the individual wines are made and aged, and vintage reports for that vineyard.

The next font of knowledge involves getting out there and talking to people. Visiting merchants, wine shops, tastings and vineyards is brilliant. I'm always amazed at the detailed knowledge people know about wines they either make, sell or just really like! Don't be scared to talk to people and ask questions. I love asking vintners how they make their wines. One often discovers surprises, such as how long wine is aged in oak, or if it's a long maceration to extract tannins designed for aging, if it's aged on the yeast lees, or if it racked under nitrogen etc....

I've got a few books that i peruse from time to time. Some i read like novels, from front to back, and others i use for specific reference. There's no point in me going in to great detail here, there are thousands, maybe millions of books out there, so I'll just list a few i like. I started with Hugh Johnson's pocket wine book, from 2008. A fantastic reference text, it organises thousands of wines/producers by country and then alphabetically. It provides good info on each, including vintage reports, and also a star rating system so you can compare wines. I now have the updated 2013 version and will probably continue with future years, being an annual publication. The Oxford Companion to wine is a huge tome of information, listing everything wine-associated alphabetically. There is nothing missed out of this book. Next, the World Atlas of Wine, now in a concise version, is another brilliant book. This book concentrates on wine regions by their geography. It covers most of the main wine producing areas throughout the globe. Listed by country, it has detailed information side-by-side with detailed maps. A recent purchase of mine is Oz Clarke's guide to Bordeaux. A more specific book, this one covers everything one needs to know about the historic and world-renowned wine region. It has the usual information about big names and geographic relationship with terroir. What i like about it, is that you feel he's actually been there, that he's retracing his own steps in writing this book. There is really nice info about lesser known Chateaux also. As a science nerd, a book i would love to own, but unfortunately its price means it eludes me thus far, is Jancis Robinson's collaboration with Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz. 'Wine Grapes' is another tome. A massive text containing everything one would EVER need to know about wine grapes. This includes not only listing ever variety and their characteristics, but also genetic analysis of grape family trees. In this book, the authors link varieties and demonstrate their evolutionary history. These are just a few books from well known writers, there are many more out there that i don't know of, pick any of them and read them!

Now, to get a little further, more recognised qualifications are most definitely needed, depending on the level required. I haven't found that much out about this yet, but there does seem to be a a couple of things that crop up a lot. Short term, the first choice seems to be to go through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) training scheme. There are several levels to go through, and these can be done by anyone, in or out of the wine trade. These well-recognised qualifications are designed for individuals wanting to get in to the wine trade, most often in the service industry. They teach you how to recognise wine, the main varieties of wine based on regions and grapes, how to taste wine and how to pair wine with food. They also focus on wine service and sales. These are not cheap courses, but they are cheerful. They don't require much time commitment, at least to begin with, and are great place to get started. There are many small organisations who run the WSET courses. They should all be associated with, and accredited by WSET, and follow their curriculum and examinations. Examples of these include the various 'wine schools'. These are normally associated with a location, for example, there is a Manchester Wine School. The WSET qualifications are also often run by businesses and colleges as evening or weekend courses.

For the next level up, higher education courses are possible. Although not very popular in the UK at the moment, there are many Universities and Colleges around the world that run degree-level, or even higher-degree-level, courses. These are mainly found at institutions close to or associated with well known wine regions. For example, New Zealand, California in the US or Bordeaux University in France, among many others. As one might imagine, there are a plethera of different courses out there, studying every aspect of the wine trade. This might be a BSc degree in viticulture (growing grapes), or Oenology (study of wine and wine making), or combined viticulture and Oenology! There are probably also MBA business degrees specific for the wine trade (i don't really know, but there must be somewhere!).

Now, having said that higher education wine courses aren't common in the UK, I should come back and explain. There is one college in Sussex, associated with the University of Brighton, that is growing in reputation. Plumpton College describes itself as a college running "land-based" courses. One may have traditionally called it an agricultural college, now however, it is much more than that. Its newest faculty/division is that for the study of wine. It has a range of courses at different levels, spanning part time evening courses, up to Masters degrees. Again, like others, the courses cover the vast majority of the wine industry. It is pitched as running "the only higher education degrees in Europe being taught in English!" If I'm honest, I'd quite like to go there myself. But I've done enough exams, and now prefer to learn from books in my own time!

That'll do for now, apart from to say that if you're reading this and think you'd like to give the wine industry a go, a really good way to start to buildup experience, is to be a volunteer grape picker during the harvest! I don't think you'll get turned down, as long as you can see, use your hands and don't mind a bit of graft.

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