In America, the emphasis is wrong. You're educating the consumer. You should be educating the wine trade." This is the opinion of David Burroughs, of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, in a recent interview in London.
If he means that there is a need for education in our wine trade, perhaps David Burroughs is right. Consider how often you discover in a liquor store or supermarket that you will know more about the wines on the shelves than the staff who put them there. Of course, there are exceptions. But that there should be more widespread education in wine is not in doubt. For both the trade and its customers, there is always something to be learned from a subject as broad and as constantly evolving as wine.
In a nation as large as the United States, educating the consumer is an expensive and lengthy project.At present, the responsibility is divided between advertisers, national promotional councils (such as those of Italy and Germany), wine societies and journalists.
Such education has obvious disadvantages: The advertisers and national promotional councils have a natural bias toward their own products. The journalist probably does not reach a wide enough target area. Newspaper and magazine articles tend to be read by those who've already developed some interest in wine.
So the group that can best educate and influence the public is the people who sell them their wines. The relationship between a retailer and his customers is a continuous one, where advice can be given and comments returned to the long-term benefit of both. Furthermore, wine is becoming increasingly important as a consumer commodity. With inflationary prices, some professional help is needed to make investments. Yet, the wine trade in this country has no professional status. The trade itself can rectify this by setting standards for it members.
It is necessary to have a license or permit to be able to buy or sell wine at any stage in the distribution pipeline-- until the consumer is reached. And then, at that critical point, no credentials are required. There are no examinations, no diplomas, no qualifications needed for a retailer to prove his knowledge of the wines he is selling.
Success, for our retailers means financial stability and increased profits, which are usually the result of the buying judgement of the store owner. The rest of the staff have no such standards by which to be measured. Today, an in-store clerk or consultant is still a surprisingly Dickensian occupation: There is little in the way of employe benefits; the hours are long; the job is not well paid; and it demands a personality that can be split between physical labor and elevated discussion on fine wine.
A diploma system would allow the ambitious and intelligent young wine person to improve his position, aware that his achievements will be recognized wherever he wishes to work.
In Britain, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust is a non-profit organization that "sets standards of professional knowledge for all those engaged in, or connected with the wine and spirit trade." To assess and maintain these standards, the Trust conducts a series of examinations, for which it arranges instruction courses and tastings, plus providing a kit of printed material and recommended reading. The lowest level is the Certificate, which is described as being suitable for operative staff (supermarket and retail store assistants) and personnel under training for a higher exam. Above the general Certificate is the Higher Certificate, designed for supervisory and lower management grades. Once over that hurdle, the ambitious wine person can spend the next two years taking the Diploma Courses -- theoretical and practical exams, for which 30 hours of lectures must be supplemented by at least 150 hours of private study.
From there, the top is within sight: the justifiably famed Master of Wine. The training for the Masters is the responsibility of the candidate and, if there is one, the sponsoring firm. The time the training requires makes it virtually essential for candidates to have a sponsor, or a large private income.
Like the British, we import wines from all over the world and yet our consumption per capita is minimal compared with the major growing countries. It is up to our wine trade to encourage the public to understand more and to experiment more -- by education. But, first, we must educate the trade.