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Should Wine Writers Be Certified?
Terry Sullivan

Many Roads Lead to Wine Knowledge and Potential Wine Writer Certification

Several blog entries were written for the Wine Trail Traveler site centering on the question of whether wine writers should be certified. This lengthy commentary melds together the author’s blog entries.

Blog posts have taken sides on the issue of wine writers and if they should be certified. (Check Enobytes.com and The Wine Curmudgeon). At issue is the information or misinformation that is written. Those in favor of certification take aim at writers that wrote some misinformation about wine. True anyone with Internet access can write a blog and say whatever they want. Is what they say true or not? To suggest that wine bloggers and wine writers become certified alludes to a broader question of whether any blogger, writer or author should be certified in whatever field they are writing. There are many different types of writing. Why should a writer who clearly states an opinion be certified to state an opinion? On the other hand, if opinion is taken as fact, then challenges arise.

Let the Reader Be Aware

Perhaps this is the wrong way to approach the information and misinformation on the Internet. Rather than debating whether a wine writer should be certified or not, one should give readers the tools to determine if bloggers, writers or authors are credible writers. In the context of wine, some people give out misinformation. After visiting 600 wineries, this author heard a few statements that lacked factualness. The all-time whopper was a statement by a tasting room attendant who said, “Virginia has almost as many wineries as California.” Are there any math systems that would logically conclude that nearly 200 is almost as many as 3,000? This tasting room attendant immediately lost credibility.

How does one go about judging credibility especially for a wine writer? First one can read what wine writers write and ask does this seem credible. If a writer writes a blog, look at their blog and see if there is an about me section or page. Does the about me section or page lead you to believe the writer is credible? For example, do they have any background in wine? Do they have any on-hands experience in a winery or a vineyard, or perhaps as a home winemaker? Have they taken any formal or informal wine classes? Another item to look for is to see if the writer has contact information. If there is no way to contact the writer, generally via email, the credibility of the writing may be questionable. Any writer who makes blanket statements without explaining should be questioned.

Required or Voluntary Certification for Wine Writers

Assume for the sake of the argument that certification for wine writers is going to happen. One of the questions that will arise is if the certification is going to be required or voluntary. It is difficult to believe that wine writers can be required to have certification to write about wine. Many writers who write about wine do inform while others state their opinion. Requiring certification for writers to state their opinion will not happen. To try to force certification on these writers will face an uphill battle with The First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However making wine writer certification voluntary could happen.

Now let’s assume that there is going to be voluntary certification for wine writers. Whatever organization or entity provides the certification, can provide an icon that can be posted on the writer’s site or in the writer’s column. The organization that issues the certification can market the logo to help consumers recognize the writers who are certified.
What can actually constitute wine writer certification is a hurdle that needs debate and research. People come to wine and wine knowledge from many paths. There is no certification for winemaking. There are winemakers who learned the art from their ancestors and are now multigenerational winemakers within their family. Other winemakers read a paperback book on winemaking and then plunged into the process gathering trial and error experiences. Some winemakers have formal education from universities and colleges that have oenology programs. Others have learned winemaking skills as an apprentice to a winemaker. There are many ways to come to the knowledge of winemaking and many ways to come to the knowledge of wine.

Many Roads Lead to Wine Knowledge

Introduction to Wine Class

What would be acceptable criteria for granting certification to wine writers? There are many different avenues to learning about wine. Other than drinking and tasting wines at wineries and visiting vineyards, this author’s first formal learning came with a community college class that met for two evenings for three hours each. In addition to the twenty wines tasted both evenings, the instructor presented the very basics of the winemaking process and pointed out some of the world’s wine regions. He talked about a structured tasting and asked our thoughts when we tasted the wines. Was this two-session class enough to qualify to make one a certified wine writer?

WSET Intermediate Certificate Course

The community college class increased the desire to learn more about wine. The next logical move was to take the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) Intermediate Certificate course. The course met one day a week over seven weeks while the eighth week was an exam week. A book along with twenty plus wines per week accompanied the instructor’s presentations. WSET courses are offered in communities throughout the world.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the WSET course was a social science course. There was plenty of geography, history and culture. Once again tastings were structured and participants were required to write notes about the wines. Study for the exam was mostly rote memorization of wine terms, geography, wine regions and producers. Was the Intermediate Level WSET course enough to qualify one as a certified wine writer?

There are other programs in addition to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET):
Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS)
Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)
Master Sommeliers (MS)
Masters of Wine (MW)

Wine Travel

Travel easily trumps these formal classes. The Intermediate WSET Certificate text devoted three pages to Italy. Far more was learned spending two weeks on a vineyard in San Gimignano. Travel, for many is a much better learning experience. This author was able to walk through the vines, taste the grapes left behind by the harvesters, visit wineries and other vineyards in the Chianti Classico and Chianti Colli Senesi regions of Tuscany and taste/drink volumes of Italian wine. Likewise on a trip to New Zealand, much more was learned about New Zealand wine and its wine industry by traveling through some of the wine regions. Standing in a vineyard in Gimblett Gravels, observing, photographing and touching the soilless ground gives an understanding of the terroir. A short walk away, wines were tasted from the vineyard in the winery. Travel learning burns impressions on one’s memory and is much more interesting than rote learning. Is wine travel enough to qualify one as a certified wine writer?

College and University Level Courses

If programs such as WSET, CSS, CSW, MS, MW as well as travel are in the realm of the social sciences, what about college and university classes? There are universities offering degrees in oenology. Now many colleges and community colleges in wine regions are also offering courses. Two years ago, it was decided to take an online class in winemaking through Washington State University, WSU. This past year, another course was taken on sensory evaluation. It didn’t take long, just minutes, to realize that these courses were in the disciplines of science and math. Looking at a formula for increasing a wine’s acidity or reducing a wine’s acidity leads to a comment, “There should be an app for this.” Most of the time there are apps for the math part of winemaking, or winemakers who know how to use Excel.

Although the winemaking class was started in the spring it was quickly put off until the late summer. WSU gives students a year to complete the online version of the class. During the fall of 2009, two opportunities arose to make wine, one was at Vint Hill Craft Winery in Virginia, the other at Tin Lizzie Wineworks in Maryland. The online course made more sense when one could actually take part in what was being taught.

Taking college level courses offers yet another path to learning about wine. Were the winemaking course and sensory evaluation course through Washington State University enough to qualify one as a certified wine writer?

Working in a Winery

Working in a winery provides a pathway to learning. Although this author’s first task was to clean and paint a floor, experience was gained in other tasks such as measuring quantities of enzymes and fermentation tannins to add to the must in a fermentation bin. Over the year, much was learned about making the wines. The learning about wine is along a different path. During the WSET class there was never any mention of bladder presses exploding and covering those in the line of fire with wine; an event worth experiencing.

Were experiences in winemaking at Vint Hill Craft Winery and Tin Lizzie Wineworks enough to qualify one as a certified wine writer?

All of these courses, classes, programs and experiences add to wine knowledge and enhance one’s writing. If certification were ever developed for wine writers, it would need to take into account the many roads that lead to wine knowledge.


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