The Future of Education and Skills: Teaching Fine Wine in an online, global, diverse world – In Conversation with Elaine Chukan Brown

What does the current crisis mean for Fine Wine education?

During the 2020 edition of Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines, held this July, international journalist and wine educator Elaine Chukan Brown led two international roundtables with fellow educator Tanisha Townsend on the future of wine education. The below interview is a condensed and lightly edited summary of the roundtables’ conclusions.

ARENI Global: The topic of ‘the future of education’ is a broad one. How did you manage to frame the conversations?

Elaine Chukan Brown: When considering the future of wine education, there are some key questions to be asked. With our groups, we decided to frame the conversation with three different levels of analysis. The first one – what does it mean to teach? – refers to the theoretical level of thinking.  The second one – how do we teach effectively? –  allow us to discuss the skills and tools applied to teaching. Finally, the last one – what is the experience of education? – refers to the framework or context within which education is operating.

ARENI Global: Considering those three levels, were you drawn to any initial observations?

Elaine Chukan Brown: Yes. Wine education has an insularity problem. It tends to be too small of a circle: wine ends up talking to itself. Wine education most often thinks in terms of facts, information and flavours, and forget to think in terms of access, audience, experience and context.

So the question we had to examine straight away was, how do we expand our thinking in order to go beyond facts, information and flavours, to capture access, audience, experience and context?

How do we expand our thinking in order to go beyond facts, information and flavours, to capture access, audience, experience and context?

ARENI Global: Let’s focus on access. What does it mean in terms of wine education, and how did the current Covid crisis impact that notion of access?

Elaine Chukan Brown: When talking about wine education, ‘access’ means access to information, access to people, access to places and access to wine itself. During the last few months, we’ve seen the extensive use of technology drastically improve access to information, people and place. Access to wine is still complicated though, and strongly limits how far wine education can go.

Covid or not, though, it is worth noting that when it comes to information, wine education tends to assume that technical knowledge is the paramount thing to study, though it doesn’t really match what is needed in a retail or restaurant environment. So we need to expand the notion of what we are teaching for. One of the suggested solution would be to expand [a] mentorship program, in relation to tableside experience or retail engagement (online or in a physical shop).

Severine Bonnie, Elaine Chukan Brown, Joe Fattorini, Amber LeBeau, Tanisha Townsend and Pauline Vicard at FM4FW 2020 From Home

ARENI Global: Speaking about technology and innovation, how do they relate to the notion of experience?

Elaine Chukan Brown: We explored innovation across a lot of different fronts, but notably innovation in relation to sensory experience itself. We particularly discussed music and sound and their impact on wine appreciation, or what it means to truly taste blind. Both could open up new forms of conversations and new forms of understanding wine within an education context.

ARENI Global: ‘Wine education has an insularity problem’ was one of your initial remarks. What can Fine Wine do to broaden its audience?

Elaine Chukan Brown: When talking about the audience of wine education, we first and foremost have to recognise that the three major institutions in terms of wine education (WSET, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the Institute of Masters of Wine), all have the same origins and 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; what we see as normal for the experience of teaching.

And we need to go further. We need to integrate an honest recognition of the wine industry’s history into our education programme. By doing so, it will allow us to make progress around the issues of implicit bias and the very reality of exclusionary systems that operate in wine. If we are more honest about the fact that there is a history of slavery and oppression fully integrated into wine and continuing today, it will help us to have a greater reconciliation, to actually reform how we approach 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. It doesn’t serve if we are just bringing more people into an oppressive system.

ARENI Global: And finally, expanding the notion of context.

Elaine Chukan Brown: Yes, ‘context’ resonates on very different levels. We have to integrate a greater understanding of the reality of things, what we called “the hidden cost of wine” i.e. the reality of vineyard workers or social sustainability within the supply chain. Increasing education around this would increase transparency in the wine industry and create a genuine freedom of choice for buyers and consumers, rather than the illusion of choice that we have now, and further undo some of the issues of implicit bias and oppression that we are operating in.

We also have to increase wine education around health and moderation, while decreasing inappropriate negative judgement around consumption. Hitting those two aspects simultaneously seems a good way to head off the neo-prohibition movements that we see flourishing in different parts of the world right now.

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