What Makes a Wine Expert?

It’s one of the most coveted titles in the world. It’s vastly difficult to obtain. And it gets you . . . nothing?

In the world of wine, the “Master of Wine” qualification, or MW, as it more casually called, is the holy grail of wine education. Year after year, hopeful wine “experts” strive to earn the qualification, sitting an intense four-day exam deemed the industry’s most challenging test of wine knowledge. There are less than 300 people in the world who can add the recognized “MW” title after their name, and fewer than 10 people have passed in any given year in the last decade (for reference, 75 people took the exam this year, which was given earlier this month).

I recently came across an opinion piece on the Master of Wine on Slate.com, which not only provides a thorough background on the qualification, but also offers some interesting insight into its inherent value (if there is any). Perhaps it hits particularly close to home for me, as I’m currently working toward a Diploma of Wine Studies (DWS) through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. The Diploma is considered to many a stepping stone to the Master of Wine, a pre-cursor if you will, to weed out the less serious candidates.

If that’s the case, I won’t be going for my MW anytime soon.

The Diploma is already a huge jump in commitment–of time, knowledge and money–from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s Intermediate and Advanced Certificates, both already vastly informative courses. On average, it takes two years to complete and is divided into six units, all of which are assessed independently. Each candidate must pass all six units to earn the title of DWS. The exams vary per unit, including multiple choice tests, essays, blind tastings, research papers, and case studies. It’s all very quantitative for something that is ultimately about individual preference.

Which leads me to my question: why does one need to be certified to appreciate wine? How can a topic so subjective, so personal ever really be assessed or quantified?

When we look at the so-called experts, the wine snobs who think they know it all, the sommeliers in nice restaurants, the wine writers and TV personalities and websites, we are constantly told how to drink. First you look, then you swirl, smell and sip. [Insert flowery description of what you experience here]. To the novice, it can sometimes seem forced, contrived, even phony at times (“You gave me a drink made of white grapes–how am I supposed to taste rose petals?”).

Yet, as someone who has come a long way in only four legal years of drinking, a more comprehensive understanding of wine–of the grapes that make it, the soils that foster it, the techniques that create it–leads to a far deeper appreciation of the final product in one’s glass. Before embarking on this educational journey, I knew little more than “that’s white” and “that’s red,” but now I can smell and sip and maybe even tell you what grape it is and where it’s from (sometimes!). Whether it’s fact or opinion, I have spent countless hours studying this topic–and I am more aware of my own preferences because of it. Dare I say, I appreciate wine better because I understand it better.

An MW or a DWS aren’t geared toward the average wine drinker. They are meant for the serious student of wine, for the type of person who hopes that by burdening him or herself with the nitty-gritty details, he or she can help others make better sense of this complicated and enchanting beverage. There are more elementary courses that offer a thorough foundation, but the MW and DWS aren’t meant to do that–they are meant to create the industry’s teachers. Doctors teach us how to take care of our health, chefs teach us how to cook our food–and MWs teach us how to drink wine.

True, after years of intense study, sacrifice of time and money, and enduring repeated failure, there may seem to be little reward for a newly-minted MW. The title doesn’t necessarily bring about traditional career or financial advancement. Still, it is a testament to a higher knowledge, to proving one’s commitment to making sense of the convoluted topics of grape-growing and winemaking. And, while the subject matter may certainly be one of personal taste, being armed with the facts can only help others in determining their own tastes and preferences.

After reading the Slate.com piece–and feeling disappointment for my work on the most recent Diploma exam I sat, the results of which are still to come–I have to admit that I began questioning my decision to embark on the qualification in the first place. Was it worthwhile? I suppose only time will tell, but in the meantime I can honestly say that I know and appreciate far more about wine because of the commitment I made.

Now, I just hope that whoever grades my exam agrees!

Sherry Stolar

Sherry's most memorable experiences have always been when she puts herself out of her comfort zone - she loves the challenge of a new place, a new culture, new people. First bitten by the travel bug during an internship with NBC at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, she then lived in London for six months, using the city as a base for exploring Europe. Following her graduation from Cornell University in 2007, she moved back to the UK and continued traveling extensively. An expired visa brought her back to the US a year later, specifically New York City, where she lasted in the hustle of the corporate world for two years before taking a leap of faith and moving across the country to Napa Valley to pursue a career in the wine industry. Currently, her day job is with a wine marketing agency, and she is also working towards a Diploma with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, from which she already holds an Advanced Certificate. In her spare time, Sherry loves to cook, specifically with vegetarian, healthy ingredients. She continues to explore new places whenever possible, even if it's something as simple as a weekend away or visiting a vineyard in the wine country she currently calls home, which she blogs about at www.coasttotoast.blogspot.com.

  1. Hi Sherry
    Nice article on the MW and I know exactly how you feel about the recent diploma exam…we wait with anticipation..
    Carl Mostert

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