Five ways to take wine education forwards

What does the future hold for wine education?

We dedicated several roundtables and Insight Series conversations to understand what it will take to create inclusive and enlightening learning experiences in today’s atomised and online world. Additional notes on mentorship will follow shortly.

Here are five ways to take wine education forward.

Understanding skills, knowledge, and information

“If you want to be an educator, you have to recognise that your skill is not teaching, your skill is your ability to encourage someone to want to learn,” said Dr Damien Wilson, the Hamel Family Faculty Chair of Wine Business at Sonoma State University.

The notion of ‘skill’ is a rapidly changing concept, with more than 700 definitions, according to Jeremy Lamri, Chief of Research & Innovation at Job Teaser, and author of 21st Century Skills. “When talking about the skill needed in an industry, we are referencing to set of knowledge –common information that we learn,” including the capacity to think and solve problems, “to reach a very specific action.”

The modern world has moved on from being a society built on qualifications, when having specific knowledge was vital, to a society where knowledge is ephemeral, and becomes obsolete quickly. As a result, people need to rely more both on their capacity to think and on their skills.

“There is a need for standardised programme like WSET, because you need to start somewhere and understand the basics of wine,” said Stevie Kim, managing director of Vinitaly International. “Classroom based education is a start, but after that we have to expand to other type of education and contextualise wine.”

This raises the question of how to move from fact-base education to an education that develops both rational and emotional intelligence.

“When you want to teach something to someone you have to first translate everything into information that they can process,” explains Jeremy Lamri.

Acknowledging history

In order to expand the audience for wine, and to make education more inclusive, it’s important to recognise that the three major wine education institutions – the WSET, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the Institute of Masters of Wine – all have the same origins, which can be traced back to Vintners Hall in London.

“We can’t expand our potential audience if we don’t acknowledge the fact that the social and historical norms of this founding group continue to form how we think about wine and what we teach,” said wine writer Elaine Chukan Brown.

The wine trade also needs to integrate its own history – warts and all – into wine education programs, including its history of slavery and oppression. This honesty will open up questions about the exclusionary systems that operate in wine and offer ways to reform wine education.

And finally, anti-bias diversity education needs to be integrated into wine programmes across the board. We have to extend our audience, but we also have to retain the audience. There is no point in growing the audience if we’re just bringing them into an oppressive system.

Looking beyond mere content

Wine education traditionally focuses on facts, such as geography and flavours. It’s time wine educators started to ask questions not just about the content, but about the teaching methodologies employed – too often, the teaching method is taken for granted, without asking if other methods could be more effective.

It could even be valuable to step back and ask: What does it mean to teach? What is the context in which teaching happens?

“If we fail to address these two questions as we are moving into an online and global world, we will get in front of multicultural contexts, but we will continue to pull forward the same content in the same way, and we are sure to fail,” Elaine Chukan Brown

 “Wine exists as a global entity and commodity, but it has to be processed through a lens that makes sense to the target audience — whatever that means in terms of its makeup. Just because something has a global reach doesn’t necessarily mean that the approach should try to be all-encompassing. Yes, there are baseline facts and pieces of information that are more or less universal, perhaps, but the next level of discovery might need to be addressed in a more tailored fashion,” said Adam Knoerzer, US wine educator and consultant.

“One of the things that I learned from medical training is empathy and listening: the most important thing when you see a patient is to wait for one minute before you talk. Ask ‘what brings you in today?’, then look at your watch and wait for 60 seconds before you can talk. The one-minute rule of listening is a fantastic discipline,” said Laura Catena, doctor and winemaker, Bodega Catena Zapata.

“We should not say, ‘treat others like you would like to be treated’ but, instead, ‘treat others like you think they would like to be treated. To do that you have to work at understanding what the other person wants. That is true empathy.”

Laura Catena

Put wine in context and build expertise

Too often, the focus of wine education has become all about information and nothing else.

“We act as if wine education was just about information accumulation,” said Elaine Chukan Brown. “We need to start pushing into all these other levels: What information is relevant to this context of wine? Proper education goes beyond mere information and gets the person to be a robust, independent thinker who can get information and do something with it.”

“When creating Vinitaly International Academy, we started from the exam, with the idea that the more difficult it is the better, [based] on the idea that the upper echelon of wine societies have dictated that the more difficult it is, the more prestigious. We only tested factual knowledge,” said Stevie Kim. “After three years of training what we called ‘ambassadors’, we understood that we couldn’t call them ambassadors if they could not present wines to others. So, we reshaped the programme to include group work amongst students. They are both judged on their capacity to produce a promotional video and their capacity to speak in public.”

“I think the MS & MW programmes have been marketed in such a way that it is not always understood that it is not about learning facts. You have to have facts, but the MS and the MW require you to go beyond that,” said James Tidwell MS. “What they impart is a method and a framework for study and self discipline, and they teach you to learn to know yourself enough to approach the exam as they want you to.”

“To get to fine wine, you have to start with wine, and it understand as a concept,” said Damien Wilson. “Too often people got into wine because they had an epiphany, a life-changing bottle that directed their attention to wine. So they have the motivation, but the problem with that motivation and passion is that they focus on wine as a destination and in so doing, they limit their capacity to think broadly or to put different concepts together.”

Don’t forget moderation

When teaching about wine, educators should always talk about moderation, and acknowledge that working with wine – even fine wine – means dealing with alcohol.

“Moderation is part of my love argument: when you love someone, you want to impart knowledge, but you also want to protect them. So I always, always bring moderation in the conversation when educating about wine,” said Laura Catena.

Embracing online and digital, and (re) learning to engage

“Our brains don’t need to adapt to digital learning – digital has been in our life for long enough now,” said Jeremy Lamri. “If anyone has to adapt, it’s the teachers. Too many teachers just deliver information, like in the nineteenth century, but don’t allow the brain to process and consolidate knowledge.”

He went on to say that successful online teaching modules tend to follow these steps: give some content and information before the class, then use the class to engage with students, and let them discuss what the information means. Finally, exams shouldn’t be testing whether the students could accumulate facts but should evaluate how they use that information.

“We are not looking at online the right way,” said Damien Wilson. “Wine is most often bought by someone that had to be convinced before purchasing. We always have to generate this motivation. And you have to convey something to them that motivates them enough to go out and buy the wine.

“In an online environment, we have to get the tasting part out of the equation. Online means we can explore new ways to motivate, invigorate, connect with people.”

Dr Damien Wilson

Our research, publications and events are only possible thanks to people like you. If you have the capacity to do so, please consider becoming a member.