The fountain of wine knowledge

Published by Sally on June 16, 2009

A version of this article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International magazine, June 2008.

A winemaker or viticulturist will likely have a specialist oenology or viticulture qualification, but for those people who directly trade in, and communicate about, wine, a number of high level qualifications exist.

The Master Sommelier (MS), Master of Wine (MW), and Wine MBA represent the peak of international wine qualifications and all seem to be benefiting from both the globalisation and the increasing professionalism of the wine industry. Building up to this level, the WSET, in 42 countries, and the Society of Wine Educators in the USA, Canada and Japan offer qualifications part-way up the ladder, where in fact, most people rest.

It is the rare, few individuals who climb the mountain to one or other of the top notches. Indeed for Australian Andrew Caillard MW “passing the exam was like reaching the top of Everest.”


Executive director of the Institute of Masters of Wine, Siobhan Turner said it “is a membership body that promotes a cross disciplinary approach to understanding wine at the highest level. It is the premier group of people promoting wine trade education with a global perspective and a complete approach to the cycle of wine from choosing the site for a vineyard through to understanding consumption of wine and all the social, socio-political, economic and environmental factors around it.”

In the past the MW came under fire for being some quirky British exam, but since becoming an international qualification in 1983, it has grown into an organisation whose members are widely reputed around the world. Fifteen years ago, when American Mary Ewing-Mulligan passed the MW, those who knew about the MW in the USA “were either very clued-in trade people or serious consumers or collectors.”  “Now”, she said, “recognition of the title has increased in both depth and breadth.”  30% of the membership and 70% of studentship now come from outside the UK.

The MW is well known for its enormous depth and breadth of knowledge across all spheres of the wine world. This offers an unique insight for businesses building an offer across countries of origin, across quality and typicity spectra, and across social issues.

A straw poll of the main UK supermarkets and top companies show many of them use MWs, either as direct employees or in a consulting role. Waitrose has a long-standing philosophy of employing MWs, currently numbering six – three employees in the buying team, and three consultants – and the company has the most well-regarded wine range of all the supermarkets. Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, the company’s manager of wine buying said: “as a fast-growing business with a great reputation for the quality of our wine range, and as the complexity of what we offer increases, we need talented people to make sure that our team stays ahead of the game.”


Both the MW and the MS are notoriously difficult exams to pass.  Starting the course is absolutely no guarantee that you will finish with anything other than heartache, and many new friends.

But the similarity ends there, as Brian Julyan, chief executive of the Court of Master Sommeliers, explained: “MSs are ‘front of the house’ people. Their job is working in restaurants, so when customers ask questions, sommeliers need to answer.  Everything we test is done orally, and is to do with doing the job. We identify those who are masters of their craft.”

Rather than the written theory papers and blind tasting papers of the MW, the MS is examined by oral practical questions in front of a jury: serving a bottle of wine equally between a number of glasses; decanting, questions about vintage, product, about food and wine recommendations, setting up wine dinners, training your team to sell house wine, managing the profitability of the wine list, preparing glassware for table.  And of course the MS must know about liqueurs and spirits as well as wine, whereas the MW concentrates on wine.

From its UK origins, the MS started in the USA in the mid 1980s notably before both the MW and the WSET. Given the cultural desire for education with certification in the USA, it is no surprise that more than two-thirds of the world’s MSs are based there, and that the other international educational bodies were slow to compete effectively.

Being both MS and MW, wine consultant and writer Doug Frost, who’s also the vice chair of the American chapter of Court of Master Sommeliers is well qualified to comment on the differences these qualifications offer. He said: “There is not a great deal of overlap between the two programs. The MS requires exhaustive knowledge of the rules and regulations throughout the wine producing world, as well as regions, grapes, producers and styles. The blind tasting component is rigorous but not as demanding as the MW. The largest focus of the MS is service, about which the MW is wholly silent. The MW focus upon grape and wine production, maturation and marketing is almost wholly absent from the MS program.”

What does unify the MS and the MW is that they both have a master-apprentice philosophy, where those who have passed are expected to offer their services to help future candidates achieve mastery.


Where the MW has one written paper (out of four) focused on business and marketing aspects of the global industry, the Wine MBA’s entire thrust is commercial and marketing.  The Wine MBA is an MBA, and it is accredited Associaton of MBAs. What makes it different is the case studies and examples used throughout are from the wine industry. Director of the Wine MBA, Isabelle Dartigues said “the aim is to give students a global picture of the wine world, to benchmark management practices across the world.” With the required international travel element of the course, the development of best practices is an obvious benefit here.

It is also the newest kid on the block of top wine industry qualifications, created by the well-regarded Bordeaux School of Management to offer an international business programme targeted to an increasingly global wine industry. It has quickly evolved into a 22 month programme, based at three sites in Bordeaux, Adelaide and London. Classic topics, straight from the top drawer of an MBA, include marketing, corporate finance, strategic management, supply chain management, information management and economics.

Dartigues said “We address only professionals, which not all MBAs do, who are high position managers,. Our requirement is a minimum work experience of 5 years, and the average number of years’ experience of our students is 15 years.” She added “our pass rate is almost 100% because we have strict control during the year, so for example, when a student hasn’t passed an exam or case study, we have a strict policy for the student to re-sit the test.”

Cristían López, who achieved the Wine MBA in 2006, is the managing director of Concha y Toro UK, was clear which qualification he wanted: “I’m passionate about the wine business and it needs more professional, more capable people. Some years ago maybe the old trade was seen as too social, and not organised so much by finance and marketing. But we need to know about exchange rates and currency fluctuation, about supply-demand economic issues and financial issues. Wine is a business, and it’s difficult make a margin.”

In a recent survey, Dartigues said “though not statistically representative, those who responded had a 50% increase of salary”


In order to achieve the heights of any of the three top qualifications, education needs to start somewhere, and the WSET offers programmes at lower levels, including for spirits.

Additionally, they are open to both trade and consumer candidates. David Wrigley the Trust’s international development director said: “There is something in our suite of qualifications for everybody, even if your knowledge is zero. The fully-supported nature of our courses is a particular strength. We offer full tutor materials so that there is no confusion when a student gets in front of exam paper.”

As the WSET adapts to a more global industry and a widening pool of locations to study, it has commissioned a research project in three key markets, the UK, Germany and the USA, to identify ways to improve the product and commercial relevance of the qualifications. Ian Harris, chief executive of the WSET said: “Our aims are to create an understanding of market demand for training programmes in the wines and spirits industry, to get market insights to help us develop a long term strategy, and to identify opportunities for new qualifications.”

“There are different demands and issues in different countries” Harris explained. “The UK is a mature market, the USA is in growth but has the credit crunch. I have to convince people that the training budget shout not be cut when times are hard. We can demonstrate that training puts money on bottom line – we did some research that showed £1,000 of investment put £42,000 on the bottom line in three months.”

In the USA, Ewing-Mulligan, who is president of the International Wine Center (IWC) in New York, said “the IWC is considered the international headquarters of the WSET. We recruit third parties, individuals, organizations and companies to offer WSET qualifications in other parts of the USA.”

Another USA organisation, The Society of Wine Educators (SWE), also offers wine education and certification, tapping into the American hunger for credentials.  Their president, Sharron McCarthy, said “our mission is to promote wine education throughout the world. We have over 2000 members, including a chapter in Japan.”

These are ‘feeder’ organisations into the top tier of wine industry qualifications, though the Court of Master Sommeliers leads people towards the MS with a ladder of qualifications.


Financial gain is hard to measure, and personal motivation is a clear driver for all the top qualifications. Increased profile and reputation follows, even though some people remain confused about what the MS and MW mean.  South African Cathy van Zyl MW, who passed in 2005, said “it certainly didn’t change my life financially but I do far more wine judging and writing as a result of passing the MW. Most of the change has been personal; I derived a great deal of satisfaction, achievement and sense of self worth from passing the MW.”

When Lopez started doing the MBA, he “was the managing director of Concha y Toro UK, with 4 people and a turnover of £6 million. Seven years later we have a turnover of £70m and an office with 30 people.” This is not down to the MBA he emphasised, but “the MBA helped me gain more experience; you learn and get better at what you do. And with that comes reward, a little more money, a little more responsibility. You do these things to improve, to grow and continue your professional development.”

A much higher profile in the wine world was one of Ewing-Mulligan’s rewards, which, she said “has perhaps led to financial gain, but the cause/effect is difficult to establish. I signed a book contract two years after passing the MW: somewhat cause and effect I would say. I was able to make arrangements with the WSET to offer their courses in New York city. I would say a direct cause/effect there. The MW changed peoples’ opinions of me, and mine of myself, and that has changed everything.”

Gérard Basset MS, MW, WineMBA, is the only person to have achieved all three top qualifications. In mid-1980s Britain, working in the hospitality sector, he reached the final of a sommelier competition and realised wine was his way forward. Basset said: “The MS was the logical choice for someone wanting to do sommeliery. But in the wine trade in England you were nothing if you weren’t an MW. I enjoyed learning, about different things from the MS. Then when I sold my business in 2004, I remembered the WineMBA.  It was not a strategic plan to have all three, just an evolution for someone who had no school qualifications.  Now it’s a USP.”


A common thread is the opportunity to network among current and future industry leaders and opinion formers. And regardless of whether the qualification is achieved, contacts books bulge.  David Furer, who is a certified wine educator by the SWE, made four attempts at the MS. But, he says, he has “zero regrets. The process, even if you don’t get the MS, or the MW, is important. It’s the discipline, the accumulation of knowledge, the business contacts for your career, that make the journey worthwhile.”

Global insight and networking are key to both the MW and WineMBA too. Dartigues said: “We travel to various parts of the world, which allows students to compare management practices. The aim is to build a global picture, and to benchmark practices across the wine world.”


Whilst the MS is clearly devoted to the highest levels of wine service and experience at the table, and the wine MBA is focused at the purely business, marketing and commercial roles, MWs are found in a broad and diverse career theatre, from journalists, educators, buyers, sellers, commercial directors and consultants. It’s difficult for someone looking in to identify a clear ‘path’ that MWs follow, because they don’t. But, Turner said “if you’re looking for someone who can talk with confidence and authority with senior people in your business then the best person you can hire is an MW.  He or she can speak authoritatively to your vineyard manager and your chief winemaker and your head of marketing and understand what your corporate social responsibility person is saying to you.”

Basset, who later this year takes on the presidency of the Court of Master Sommeliers, said the direction for the MS is “to keep education in the restaurant trade up to date and relevant. We need to encourage more people to come into the restaurant trade, despite the difficult, long hours.”


A degree of complementarity clearly exists with the three top qualifications, each offering the candidate something unique. While it is very clear that the focus of the MS is the highest level of consumer interaction at the point of experience in the dining setting, and the Wine MBA is an MBA which focuses on wine businesses, the MW is almost impossible to categorise, which is argued to be one of its strengths.

Whilst it would be convenient for there to be a simple linear relationship between peak qualification and commercial success, it would be naïve to suggest such a thing.  People who achieve these qualifications are ambitious, driven and successful, and thus attractive to employers, though Frost is apposite: “I am constantly counselling candidates to expect nothing. Any success is built one brick at a time, one job at a time, one task at a time, and having an MW or MS after your name only offers you the opportunity to do more things. It’s up to you to make the most of those opportunities.” The same is true of the WineMBA.

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