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License to Swill?

2011 June 10
by Mike

My latest Slate column is about the Master of Wine exam and whether some form of accreditation would be beneficial for wine journalism. Amid the proliferation of wannabe Parkers, it has been suggested that certification à la the MW might be a useful way of distinguishing the true mavens from the hacks. But as I point out in my piece, devising a fair test of wine-tasting aptitude would probably be impossible. More importantly, I think the market already does a pretty good job of identifying palates worth heeding. There are lots of activities that require formal training and sanctioning; wine appreciation ain’t one of them.

What’s your opinion? Do you think wine journalism would be well-served by accreditation of some sort? When you see “MW” next to a person’s name, do you feel an urge to genuflect?

23 Responses leave one →
  1. June 12, 2011

    Ian,

    Sorry not to have replied yet to the email you sent me Friday; I will just respond here.

    Congratulations on completing the exam, and I hope you pass. As I said in my article, obtaining the MW is an impressive achievement, and merely getting to sit for the exam is an accomplishment, too.

    That said, it’s unclear to me what exactly your issue is with my article, save perhaps for bruised feelings. It’s wonderful that MW candidates are such down-to-earth, self-effacing people, and if pursuing the qualification made you a sharper thinker, that’s great. But I simply stated that the MW seems to have little if any practical value and that accreditation a la the MW is not something that wine journalism needs, and nothing you’ve written has persuaded me otherwise.

    As to your point about good journalism–judging by your lengthy comment here and the other comments, I would say that my article has certainly stimulated argument. You also write, “Good journalism gets it’s [sic] content right.” If there were any factual errors in my article, please feel free to point them out.

    Mike

  2. June 12, 2011

    I agree, Jack; in fact, if Bill doesn’t buy that domaine name immediately, I may switch the name of this site to WineDiarrheaist.com.

    And Dan, that sheep line is priceless; has had me laughing all afternoon.

  3. Jack Bulkin permalink
    June 12, 2011

    Bill, I tihnk the latter is a terrific name. Especially, since so many 15th growths taste like Kaopectate.

  4. Bill Klapp permalink
    June 12, 2011

    Dan, I was thinking “The Wine Diarrheaist”, unless that impinges upon Mike’s intellectual property rights, or has already been reserved by Jeff Leve or John Lahart of Squires board fame. My second choice would be “The Wine Diarrheaist Insider”. I feel that the addition of the word “Insider” would greatly enhance my credibility among wine enthusiasts, especially those who are active participants in 1,000-post, 50,000-hit threads which debate the merits of, and the fairness of pricing on, 2010 fifteenth-growth Bordeaux…

  5. Bill Klapp permalink
    June 12, 2011

    I am not certain, but I think that I took a couple of drugs back in the late 1960s or early 1970s that endowed me with the new way of thinking Ian refers to, but no matter: law school accomplished that in spades! Admittedly much more money at risk than $6,000, but only a three-year time commitment, and a dramatically higher pass rate. And it, too, leaves one overqualified for most jobs. Except the practice of law, of course. And you do get to add the letters “J.D.” or the word “Esquire” after your name. But, that said, like the MW, I recommend law school to no one!

  6. June 12, 2011

    Bill,
    In the end- dust. But while waiting, maybe you could try politics or cable TV?
    Either way, may I suggest that you call your show “The Bill of Rights!”?

  7. Bill Klapp permalink
    June 12, 2011

    Dan, excellent point. But what ever will become of a guy like me who has no standards, no insights and criticizes EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY (but NEVER myself)?

  8. June 12, 2011

    QED.

  9. June 12, 2011

    This was my resonse to the author via email.
    I’ve had no response. Questions for the group who have left comments.
    Firstly, why is there a discussion about accreditation for wine journalists?
    As with most things in a free market economy, if you’re good you survive, if not well…
    And what in the world does the Master of Wine have to do with any of this?
    For those who have made broad statements about the academic ability or organoleptic skills that MW’s have let me suggest strongly that you have no idea about either. One person even defined himself as too critical to genuflect before an MW! First of all there are no MWs who would expect this. The fact that a statement like this is even made is the responsibility of the person making the statement and has nothing to do with MW behaviour. Secondly if anyone who has left some of these critiques of MWs believes they are critical thinkers, they may want to take a second look in the mirror. Making bold statements about something you know nothing about does not make you a critical thinker.

    This was my email response to the author, Mike. I have had no response.
    And one comment to mike. Good journalism stimulates argument. It ilicits emotions and accomplishes something. I can stand on the street and shout at people and make stuff up and accomplish argument and get emotional responses from people passing by. Good journalism gets it’s content right. If you want to write an article about MW come to Napa next Feb. and sit in on the Educational Seminar for the week. You will walk away a little shamed and humbled.

    Goodmorning Mike.
    It is the day after you published this article http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2296624.
    It is also the last morning of the Master of Wine Exam for me. I have paper 4 theory to do this morning and this long week is over.
    A couple of comments regarding the article. I’m left wondering what the point of the article is. There is definitely a tone that suggests that this examination is warrantless. The point made about the letters M and W after the name seemed to me a little strange.
    There is something that you may have missed in researching for this article, and I think it’s very important.
    I can’t speak for all candidates, but I believe that there are a great many of us who probably see things the same way.
    Firstly. We can spend years studying for this exam. The six thousand dollars is nothing compared to the total after 4 or five years in the program.
    We all recognize that the vast majority of us will never pass. I’m not being pessimistic, just realistic. Then what motivates us? We get nothing if we fail. It’s not like the Master Sommelier program where you have stages. On top of this the general public have no idea what MW is. They know what MS is. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me “I hear you’re studying to be a Sommelier”. We have to be modest and simply say that it’s a different program. We go on this pursuit without the normal rewards that most people seek. Why?
    In the beginning I think that most of us enter the program because we love the idea of the prestige of being associated with the Institute. If you don’t drop out in the first couple of years, which the vast majority of students do, the reason for continuing changes. We get to a point where we realize that if we were to pass all aspects of the exam, although there would be some rewards, they would not make you some sort of rock star. The fact is that we would be overqualified for most jobs. It becomes a personal quest. It starts to change how you critically think. One day you walk through a door and you are changed. Your ability to analyse things not even related to wine changes. You learn how to balance arguments and look for both sides of every issue. You realize that some things that you believed in 3 years ago are total crap. This new way of thinking qualifies you to take on the world in a way that you could never have attempted before the program. So whatever level of success I may have with the exam, every penny, every hour, every explanation fielded about what MW is, is worth it. I have not met one person who is either getting ready to sit the exam or who has been there with me this week that was arrogant or conceited. These people are down to earth self-effacing people. Every MW I have met on the course has taken time out from their work and family lives to teach and mentor the students. They don’t walk around patting each other on the back.
    We don’t do this for recognition. We don’t do this for personal gain. We get to a point where we are going to do what we’re going to do in the wine business with or without a title.
    I have read many articles about this course over the last few years. It would be great to see an article that was balanced in it’s approach. It would be great to have the benefit of seeing multiple sides. The reader who knows nothing about MW would learn so much more.
    Oh, and I’m one of those Brits. I don’t, however, care too much for titles. And I didn’t watch the wedding either.

    Good luck.

    Ian.

  10. June 12, 2011

    I would pitch myself in with Mr. Klapp on his base trifurcation between journalists, writers, and critics. But, then where to put the many scribes who have no standards, no insights, and do not criticize anything (least of all themselves)? And, across all three disciplines we have those who position more as New Age Guru.
    That is the aspect that intrigues me. Who follows who and why? How does fervent tribalism arise around our drink? How do 99 points (which exist in the mind, not in the drink) stimulate a sense in so many that their life would be less without it?
    Is it simply “if they didn’t want to be sheared, they wouldn’t be sheep”? Sadly, I think that is very much in play in the realm of wine leadership- critical or otherwise.

  11. June 12, 2011

    As you can tell it is Synday morning and I am procrastinating.

    But another thing.

    One of the comments on the article on slate links to a blog of one of the MW students.

    All I can say about the writing is OMG. Check out the first two sentences for an inability to use correct pronouns (Slate published … He couldn’t …). Sounds like someones trying to evade publishing a certain wine journalists name.

    And LOL at the MW teaching critical thinking. Um, isn’t that what you’re taught at university, in any amd every discipline being taught?!

    And it would also help if there newly acquired critical thinking faculties didn’t have to be checked in at the door the moment they attempt to ply their craft.

    Well I will check out this morning with my usual head-in-my-hands farewell: Goodness gracious me.

  12. June 12, 2011

    Apologies for the typos due to my stupid smart phone keyboard.

  13. June 12, 2011

    Catching up with the comments above. Jack Bulkin, your first sentence says it all. I have been feeling with a growing sense of both conviction and disgust that someone needs to get a big freaking broom and sweep out the entire current cohort of established senior wine reviewers. They are fatally compromised by their need for access, and their need for their own self promotion.

    Following their self-reinforcing connections on twitter induces the nauseating spectale of jocks and prom queens backslapping and air kissing at the senior prom.

    Vibe la Revolution d’Internet. There will hopefully arrive new and fresher voices bribing critical opinion and insight.

  14. June 12, 2011

    Entirely agree with your perspective Mike.

    I would put it even more strongly. Having the MW is no guarantee of having something original or interesting to say; and vice versa.

    For original enquiry and critical perspectives the most important thing is distance from the trade, something too few wine writers have. It is no surprise that much MW produced content is, as with non credentialled critics who, even at the highest levels, have been neutered and co-opted by their seduction by their subjects, a lot of pretty anodyne Ra-Ra.

    So – genuflect before the MWs?! No, I am too much of a critical thinker.

  15. bud carlos permalink
    June 12, 2011

    A wine writer is a journalist whose copy is edited by an editor. Every one else is a poseur, poster, blogger, twitterer, et cetera; internet junkors without peer review and wanting none.
    The non-wine writer, the imposter, is identified by his/her reflexive use of Parker junk: the wine never shows , it “exhibits;” the wine is never sweety/fruity/biggy/blowsy, it’s “hedonistic.”
    Parker can’t write and his rip-offers know no better.
    Steinberger knows the notion of accreditation is nonsense and says so, so the point of the column evaporates before he’s done. But the internet’s need for content must be met, thus he is forgiven.
    Of great concern, however, is his use of the slang contraction “ain’t.”
    If “isn’t” is a derivative of “is not” it would follow that “ain’t” is derived from “ai not.”
    Which makes little sense. As does the apostrophe in “ain’t.”
    Mike, should we make it “aint?”

  16. Bill Klapp permalink
    June 11, 2011

    A few stray thoughts:

    First, I really feel the need for greater precision in the use of the terms “wine writers”, “wine journalists” and “wine critics”. Only wannabe “wine critics” need to be considered for certification, in my opinion. Eric Asimov, Frank Prial and every writer with a column in a newspaper or magazine (electronic or not) are “wine journalists”. Presumably, they are bound by the same standards that govern journalism generally. Thus, if Asimov hears from me, and me alone, that Chateau Latour is cutting its grand vin with 10% imported white Zinfandel, and then publishes that assertion as fact without any research or identification of other sources making the same claim, he will likely be fired if my claim is false. At a minimum, a very public printed retraction and apology to the Times readership would obtain. No further credentials or standards seem useful in that context. It is enough if a sufficient number of readers find Asimov interesting and credible.

    A wine WRITER is a different animal. Hugh Johnson is a wine writer. Remington Norman is a wine writer. Harry Karis is a wine writer. Matt Kramer is a wine writer. Jancis Robinson is a wine writer and a would-be, wannabe wine critic, with not much of a following for her efforts respecting the latter. James Laube and James Suckling have each written books (California wines and port, respectively), but neither is a wine writer. Both are wine critics that reworked tasting notes and connective material from the Wine Spectator into book form. Frank Prial is not a wine writer. His book Decantations is a collection of old essays written by a wine journalist. Despite all of his books, it is a stretch to call Robert M. Parker, Jr., the world’s most famous wine CRITIC, a wine writer as well. Most of his “writing” is of the Laube/Suckling ilk, with a bit of mediocre connective material (which, in the case of his Burgundy book, served no purpose but to reveal his utter ignorance of Burgundy). Mike Steinberger is a wine journalist AND a wine writer, but not a wine critic. (And the minute he becomes a wine CRITIC, filling this site with nothing but numbers and trite, useless tasting notes, I will make a case for his summary execution!) Neal Rosenthal and Kermit Lynch, two wine merchants, are both successful wine writers as well. Allen Meadows’ recent book puts him in an interesting slot. He could be considered the first pure wine critic to become a successful wine writer also. John Gilman is a wine critic whose best work is his well-researched wine writing that precedes his notes and numbers. (Wine writing should probably become his day job in fact.) You catch my drift.

    Wine CRITICS are different animals, too. That game is tasting and issuing numbers or similar ranking mechanisms and tasting notes, along with minimal connective writing about vintage quality and characteristics, etc. Few of them evidence much in the way of writing ability. Their tasting notes are often trite, repetitive and capable of communicating very little. Their work can often be sloppy: too many wines, too little time to edit or proofread the grist from their tasting-note mills. And, my friends, these are the folks that have the greatest impact on the production and sale of wine. A strong case could be made that we Americans are entirely too gullible and insecure when it comes to wine knowledge, and that we are easily led by wine critics claiming to know better and/or to know more than we do. We coronated failed lawyer Bob Parker as The Palate. We made the cigar-chomping investment banker Marvin Shanken a boatload of money. Regardless of how effective either may be, the U. S. government created the Securities and Exchange Commission to protect us when purchasing securities, and the Food and Drug Administration to protect us when we are buying food and drugs. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and architects, none of whom are nearly as important to the American quality of life as wine critics, are all subject to rigorous licensing and continuing professional education systems. Thus, it is not a stretch to think that some sort of licensing or other credentialing of wine critics should not at least be discussed. Of course, the wine critic can point to theatre critics, movie critics, art critics and book critics and their lack of credentials. But there, while there may be no formal credentials, theatre critics and movie critics see a hell of a lot of plays and movies, respectively, and cannot really succeed without both a strong grounding in the history of the enterprises that they judge and the context established by critics which precede them. In the case of art critics and architecture critics, I am not aware of any that have enjoyed great success that have not studied the history of the disciplines that they judge, or, in the case of art critics, perhaps were intimately involved in the purchase and sale of fine art. Too many wine critics simply sit down (or stand), taste wines, take notes and make grand pronouncements of quality or lack thereof. The more wines that they taste, the greater their supposed authority becomes, implicitly or explicitly, and the more arrogant, defensive and/or dismissive they become. And then there are the readers and followers, who worship or damn wine critics as though they were soccer stars or something.

    Some sort of credentialing process other than wines tasted would be desirable for wine critics, although the MW is rather like a book published by a vanity press (and a British vanity press at that!) and not really particularly relevant. Too much time devoted to the obscure, unimportant and uninteresting from the point of view of the wine critics’ readerships. I am not sure what all wine critics should know. Wine history for sure. More than a passing understanding of the technical aspects of growing grapes and making wine. Research skills and the time to use them. Coursework in creative writing. Whatever that answer might be, I am sure of this: the license, once given, must be revocable. The palate is destroyed by serial wine tasting over decades. It seems analogous to drug use, in that the critic’s palate becomes numb to some sensations, and requires more and less subtle taste in order to have the wine’s taste register. If somebody comes up with a sanctioning body for wine critics, i will be more than happy to serve as the first commissioner!

  17. Wilfred permalink
    June 11, 2011

    Of the Decanter 50 Power People in wine for 2011, 4 have the MW.

  18. June 11, 2011

    I thought you had to get an MW if you wanted to write for UK wine magazine. There’s some other purpose?

  19. mauss permalink
    June 11, 2011

    You certainly do not need a MW degree to be a good journalist about wine. But you need certainly to visit extensively properties in order to discuss with producers, to understand their way of making wines and to study the difference between regions, styles, vines.
    Then the readers will confront the views of the journalist with their own taste and, after that, they will be able to work better on their cellar contents.
    Look at Meadows or Tanzer : these two are probably, in USA, the best examples of serious wine-journalists. As far as I know, they do not have the MW degree.
    Now, of course, some MW are also good reporters. No doubt.

  20. June 10, 2011

    I think a lot of this push for accreditation is due to their own lack of confidence in their wine knowledge. I understand what it takes to be granted a Masters of Wine (about a decade of study) but in some of these conversations, the people pushing for all bloggers to be “certified” backpedal and say you can be certified in just a weekend. Which calls into question the value of the accreditation. A friend just sat for the WSET and indicated that you only need answer 55% of the questions correctly to pass. Which shocked me. I’m sure the questions are arcane, but being awarded a certification where you can get almost half the answers wrong reduces the value of the accreditation in my eyes. I’m all for increasing knowledge, but this seems more “diploma mill” and “window dressing.”

  21. Jack Bulkin permalink
    June 10, 2011

    I doubt that a MW would help cleanup the mess that is today’s current batch of hype driven, self promoting point showering shills know by many as Wine Journalists. I do believe that the naive public needs an “expert” opinion because people don’t trust their own palates.
    How anyone can trust the opinion of James Suckling escapes me.
    How would a MW clean up his act????

  22. Kent Benson permalink
    June 10, 2011

    While I certainly don’t think wine journalists should become Masters of Wine (there would be very few wine journalists), I think some formal training is a big plus. I think if one writes as an authority on wine, one’s wine knowledge should be at a relatively high level.

    It never ceases to amaze me how often supposed wine experts get the basic facts wrong, or the information given is out of date. This says to me that many wine journalists are lacking in formal training.

    When I first became interested in wine I read every wine article I could find. When I began my formal wine education, I discovered that many of these “experts” were not as authoritative as I had first believed.

    I think everyone who writes about wine should acquire one of the industry credentials. Something like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust’s Advanced Certificate, or the Society of Wine Educator’s Certified Specialist of Wine would be adequate. I know I would put a lot more confidence in what is being said if knew the writer had gone through the process of obtaining one of these credentials.

  23. June 10, 2011

    I agree with your perspective in your column, Mike.

    There are true mavens that have become true mavens without the help of a degree. This applies to more than just the wine world. Also, who is to say that a “hack” can’t command an audience with the written word, or through video, etc? And who’s to say that a “hack” can’t follow their passion and express their opinions through journalistic outlets? Perhaps they are a truly entertaining hack who has the ability to capture a new audience and get them psyched on wine. Also, the Internet does a pretty good job at filtering the worthy journalists up and the total hacks out. Why do wine journalists need some sort of mark next to their name that denotes how much they have studied? They are not doctors. Music journalists don’t have a mark by their name. But you look at a persons creds, their experience, and the quality of the work they produce and you choose whether to listen to them or not.

    An MW accreditation for wine journalism isn’t going to change a thing. Perhaps to some wine geeks, it would be a good thing to note, but the greater population of blog readers and wine enthusiasts could care less what someone’s title is. The Internet is here to stay. Therefore there will always be “hacks” and enthusiasts who try to get involved and compete amongst the truly experienced. Let them. It raises the bar for everyone involved.

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