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Getting a proper wine education – enough to drive you to drink

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News just in is that Harry Melck has been appointed as the head of the Cape Wine Academy (CWA), this educational body founded in  Johannesburg in 1979 as part of a Stellenbosch Farmers Winery marketing initiative and its highest qualification, Cape Wine Master, instituted in 1981. Melck, a chartered account by training, graduated as a CWM earlier this year and will have his hands full revitalizing an institution which has lost quite a bit of relevance over the last decade or two.

Since 2011, locals seeking some sort of qualification in the subject of wine have had also the option of taking Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course. WSET, founded in 1969, is today the largest global provider of wines and spirits qualifications in the world with 72 171 students taught in 73 countries last year. In South Africa, the International Wine Education Centre (IWEC) headed up by the irrepressible Cathy Marston, MW in training, is the approved programme provider.

Back in the 1990s, before a career in wine writing had even crossed my mind, I took a few CWM courses but dropped out when it all became too academic – sitting through seemingly endless slide-shows of soil pits from around the world or trying to memorise the different German Prädikat designations in order to pass an exam just wasn’t what turned me on about wine. What did turn me on was staying out late drinking the stuff with the wrong sort of people…

Of course, academic qualifications exist in order to bestow some kind of expertise on whoever holds them and the more time and effort required in acquiring this or that qualification, the more authority the holder can claim. The science and business of wine are essentially fact-based and therefore teachable by conventional methods but I do wonder if the art of wine is something that can be instructed quite so easily?

I’m in awe of those who excel in blind tasting competitions, that is those who are able to use just their palate memories to identify variety/style, country, appellation and vintage of a wine tasted totally blind but I’m not sure that’s the point of wine appreciation. At least, it’s not the point for me.

I’m far more interested in qualitative matters – making a discrimination about one wine relative to its peers as to how pleasing it is to the senses, and most importantly, then being able to justify that position. Here, the issue is not merely being able to describe aromas and flavours, the structure and length of a wine but deciding whether these all combine to good or not so good effect and then being able to communicate this to an audience, whether this be the person sitting opposite to you at the dining table or the public at large.

Understanding the aesthetic issues of the day is important and this can probably be taught in a classroom to a degree but developing your own aesthetic and being able to order an argument so to defend it is something that I think only comes with time.

Pull enough corks (or twist off enough screwcaps, as the case may be) and what slowly dawns on you is that great wine is not always perfect wine. In South Africa, as wine country with a somewhat fragile wine culture, I think those who pass judgement, are often too inclined to look for fault, absence of defect being considered the ultimate quality consideration. The problem is technically correct wines can often be boring. Great wines are rather those that stir the soul and in any sphere of life, not just wine, you typically have to unlearn a lot of stuff before that can happen.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Christian – a well written newsletter. I studied at both of the institutions, and I have a very clear opinion of where I benefitted the most (which I will not pass in public), but I do feel you dismiss (maybe too strong a word) their relevance. You do get taught how to taste, how to critically assess and how to form an opinion on what is in the glass in front of you (at least at WSET), but the exposure to international wines and styles are what makes both qualifications so worthwhile. You cannot compare SA’s great wines without understanding and knowing what the rest of the world is doing/producing/tasting. And as much as pulling the next cork (hopefully no TCA) or twisting the next Stelvin (definitely no TCA) exposes you to so much more, the old mantra of the more you taste, the more.you learn is only relevant if you unserstand what you are tasting through academic investigation.

  2. Hi Christian, thanks for the mention of the IWEC and the WSET courses we offer. We’re not the only people who do these courses in Africa as others will no doubt mention, but we were the first and we are certainly the biggest WSET course providers – you might like to know that SA now ranks in the Top 20 list of countries in terms of student numbers which I’m pretty chuffed with.

    For a man who makes his living out of rating and allocating a bland, numerical value to a wine, I think (as always) there may be a teeeny bit of argumentativeness in your article – which is fine and is what makes wine fun. But I would just say that your 6th paragraph, where you describe how you like to view a wine from a qualitative point of view could have come directly from a WSET statement of aims. We teach wine, sure, but we teach it to communicators – to people who either have to share their view of wine as part of their jobs or people who want to share their view because of love of the product. Understanding what’s gone on in the making of that wine and why, only enhances your ability to communciate and to get excited about a wine. I study so I can be a better teacher and can help my students learn more, but I also do it to connect with people around the world and keep my love of wine constantly refreshed and renewed by the many brilliant, curious and questioning minds in our industry. Cheers to that.

    Oh and PS – the numbers of people studying WSET last year is now just shy of 95,000. Must update my website – thanks for the nudge!!

    • Having worked in tasting rooms in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Darling, I have seen first-hand how important some kind of formal wine education is to the people who work there (a great personality is a must-have, but don’t tell my visitors that “this wine has the same RS as a rosé”…). Drinking as many wines (not as much wines) is vital, I agree, but how can you do informed comparisons if you don’t know what to look for and what language to use?

      I fact, after many years in the wine industry, I am joining the legions at WSET to complete my level 3 in October this year. Can’t wait!

  3. Dear Christian
    As Chairperson of the ICWM, I have read your article with interest. In the heading you suggest that getting a “proper” wine education, is frustrating and difficult. You are missing the point. Education is offered at many levels and through many institutions throughout the world. And I am of the humble opinion that a “proper” education might very well include knowledge of soil pits, and the German Prädikat designations, to fully grasp and enjoy the amazing wines of Germany and Austria. Many CWMs play vital roles in the wine industry; from wine making to distribution and research.
    But should it really be about “getting a proper wine education”? We, as wine lovers and industry role players, should always strive to educate, help, assist and instil our love and passion for the product of the vine in/to all South Africans. It is only through education, whether that happens at the Cape Wine Academy, at WSET, MW level in the UK, the various Sommeliers Associations or “staying out late drinking the stuff with the wrong sort or people” (whoever they might be) that a wider wine drinking audience would be effectively created in South Africa. The Americans and many other countries are so far ahead of us, with a broad segment at least having some knowledge of at least the different varieties. I fully agree with you that South Africa has a fragile wine culture, but sincerely believe that this can only change with knowledge and education, education, education.
    We would like to encourage all educational institutions in South Africa to carry on with the good work they are doing to support our industry – both in the classroom and by assisting new drinkers developing their “aesthetics”. Enjoying wine is not always about “being able to order an argument so to defend it”, Christian. For the soul to be stirred, you need to be in a position to know what stirs the soul and why. And for this to happen, you don’t have to “unlearn a lot of stuff”.
    We extend our congratulations to Harry Melck on achieving his CWM qualification and in his new role at the CWA; and wish him all the success in the world. We know he will educate many people in the years to come.
    Kind Regards
    Conrad Louw

  4. It seems a pity to trivialise learning some of the basics of wine: how it is made, where it is made, how it is made differently in different places. Experience in uncritically drinking the stuff (even staying out late with the wrong sort of people) is fine, but it is not, in my opinion, a sufficient basis for feeling qualified to offer one’s opinions publicly and feel entitled to be listened to with any respect. The “art of wine”, I’d suggest, is something that is best developed on the basis of some objective understanding of the history and geography and comparative aesthetics of wine. You studied philosophy, I think, Christian. What would your attitude be to someone claiming to be interested in the subject who “dropped out when it all became too academic”? Someone who thought, wow man, I don’t need this – I stay out late talking drunkenly to some really interesting people? Fine, surely – but not (in most cases) if you want to express a valid opinion about logic, or the place of a particular line of thinking in the history of the world, or even aspire (however doomed to failure) to coherent discourse on the subject?

    Actually, I don’t believe you really believe the implications of this bit of unreflective populism. You talk about “developing your own aesthetic”, and I can’t believe that you think this can be done without reference to the established great benchmarks, for example – whether you ultimately reject or accept those benchmarks. It’s fine to talk about “unlearning”, but before you do that you have to learn. Picasso said he could early on draw like Raphael, and then had to learn to draw like a child – but he did the latter on the basis of the former. You don’t learn anything useful about wine without drinking it in a context of useful understanding and a wider frame of reference than is available at a party or in a local drinking hole. Learn something and only then are you starting to reach a position from which you can decide what you want to “unlearn”.

    Anyway, it’s rather a pity you didn’t continue with some formal wine education and realise that it is, or can be, about a great deal more than learning tricks for blind tastings. However, I have long thought of you as a notably stern critic of “faults” like brettanomyces and “greenness”, and look forward to seeing the results in your tasting notes of your apparently changed attitude to such things. There I more happily agree with you.

  5. A note to all who’ve commented on this post. Thank you for engaging and clearly wine education is a topic close to your hearts. I’m certainly not saying that the academic study of wine is useless or unimportant but rather that teaching and learning about it should always be fun – it’s impossible to be be entirely rational about it and much of its enjoyment depends on its appeal to the emotions and instinct (it is after all an intoxicant).

  6. In the mid 1980’s, I got 2 & a half years into the CWM course, and only gave up because my fledgling business took off, & I ended up working so many hours that something had to give. Sadly it was the CWM course, something that I have regretted to this day. I am not sure that I would have ever been able to gain the qualification, the final year looked very difficult to pass if you were not actually in the wine industry. But I learnt a great deal, and would always recommend it to anyone.

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