The Discerning Lush: Please don't call me a sommelier…you can call me, well, nothing

Holders of the WSET Diploma often have trouble explaining what title qualification they have obtained after spending two (or more) years of wine studies. For your pains, you get a little red badge and a certificate ! You could explain that you have been issued a Diploma by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of the UK. And then you’d also have to explain that it wasn’t completed over a Saturday afternoon at the local bottle shop, but really in addition to a mini-thesis, you sat 6 theory papers over two years and did flights of blind tastings in exam conditions on still, sparkling and sweet and fortified wines to pass. And how blind tastings aren’t some kind of “guess-the-grape” party trick but you are really expected to make distinctions between different quality levels of wines and pen a rational explanation. The fear of a blind Joven-Crianza-Reserva-Gran Reserva Rioja flight still makes me shudder.

Well, all that is a bit of a mouthful. Technically, the WSET Diploma entitles you to append the letters AIWS (Associate of the Institute of Wine Studies) behind your name. But in reality this is little used and it doesn’t quite have the same cache as appending “MW” behind your name. In addition, AIWS is more well associated with its medical abbreviation – Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. Therefore, I will probably eschew AIWS for the moment.

Friends will get even more bewildered when they realise that you have indeed done some intensive wine course for 2 years, but you are definitely none the wiser as to how to extract damaged corks from bottles, or the best way to pour without getting residue in the glass, or really why you aren’t an expert on decanting wine and making superb matches of cheese and wine, or even why you don’t know the magic temperature to set a wine fridge at.

Are you really a sommelier ?? No- in fact, not at all. Qualified and certified sommeliers are highly trained professionals, which I am not. The certified sommelier track is a professional qualification administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers with a focus on rigourous training in wine and beverage service and management. As they state clearly on their website, it was established to encourage improved standards of beverage service in hotels and restaurants. I often rely on the expertise of good sommeliers to advise me on wine and food pairings, as well as advice on decanting wines of different ages and service order.

BoffinThe WSET qualification track is administered by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust headquartered in London. It comprises levels 1, 2, and 3, followed by the 2-year Diploma which is the highest level. On the one hand, it is the most recognized qualification for wine trade professionals- think of it as a CFA type thing- but the WSET track also holds great appeal for wine geeks due to its particularly academic focus – especially at Diploma level. So whilst I am likely to lack practical skills and to be of not very much use or assistance to you, I would be very happy to discuss with you whether the unusually high level of spoilage yeast Brettanomyces in traditional style Cornas syrah is terroir or a barrel issue. Or why acidity saves Viognier from being akin to drinking aromatherapy oil.

The Diploma is regarded as a pre-requisite for the coveted MW (Master of Wine) qualification. The MW is however, administered by the Institute of Masters of Wine, which is a different organisation from the WSET. It has a highly academic focus and also a focus on the business of wine, and is renowned for its 2-4 years of intensive self-study, followed by a series of fiendishly difficult tasting and theory papers held over 4 consecutive days in London, Sydney and Napa, and then followed by a thesis if you pass all the aforementioned. Pass rates for those who reach the stage of sitting the exams are under 10%, with general drop-out rates being rather high. There are currently only 300+ MWs in the world, 2 of whom reside in Singapore and 2 in Hong Kong as of now.

For the rest of us who hold a more casual interest in wine but would enjoy a structured form of learning, there are actually many wine classes in Hong Kong these days, including L’Ecole du vin de Bordeaux, L’Ecole des Vins de Bourgogne, French Wine Scholar, A+ Australian Wine School etc. but probably the two most popular are WSET and the master sommelier track (which in HK tends to be favoured by those in the F&B and hospitality industry). The advantage of the WSET course is that unless you have a specific interest in a particular wine region only, WSET covers all key aspects from vineyard management and wine-making techniques to still, sparkling, sweet and fortified wines of virtually the whole world, and even some spirits. Even with WSET level 2 or 3, I  found it sufficiently informative to allow me to make informed choices in purchasing wine (and how to avoid getting ripped off), and gave me the confidence to select and explore wines beyond the Bordeauxs, Burgundies and Aussie wines that hog our shelf space in HK. If you prefer something to watch/listen to in your own time, wine personalities also have their own educational material, e.g. Burghound’s audio series, the Parker & Zraly Wine Certification Program, or Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course.