Increase Your Wine & Spirits Knowledge

Demystifying the Wine and Spirits Education Maze

Wine and spirits professionals, whether they’re in wineries, distilleries, agencies, retail stores, restaurants or pubs feel the pressure for excellence. Competition is fierce and demanding, so education is critical for people entering the industry. With many options available, staff question which wine and spirits course they should take.

The Wine Spirit and Education Trust (WSET) is a UK-based wine qualification that is highly recognizable. There are four levels and after completing the final level the student receives a diploma. A number of schools offer this program and the duration for the entire program can take up to four years of study, although levels 1 and 2 are relatively short. The emphasis of the WSET program is more on the business of wine and the different sectors pertaining to it. It has the versatility to be of value to the importing, exporting, agency, and hospitality sectors.

The International Sommeliers Guild (ISG), as the name suggests, has a sharper focus on the service aspect of the wine industry. This program has several levels as well. Many of Vancouver’s finest restaurant professionals have the ISG qualification. This course is as equally challenging as the WSET, however, there is a more practical aspect to this program.

There are a plethora of shorter wine courses. The former French Wine Scholar (FWS) program is now part of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG). The FWS course offers deep insight into the French world of wine. The WSG is an organization that has been created recently and courses have been expanded to include Italy and Spain. These courses are shorter in terms of study time.

The North American Sommelier course, the “Italian Specialist”, is another short course. It is held less regularly and is considered to be a challenging program.

Other international wine education programs like the International Sherry Educator program require that the person apply and then the individual will be advised if she is accepted into the program.

Specialist courses in Sake are offered by two WSET approved schools in Vancouver, and given the hugely popular Japanese cuisine following in the Lower Mainland, it is proving to be popular. This is a high-level course and it’s demanding. A local Vancouver wine  school offers its own self-created Canadian Wine Scholar program. It also has its own independent Sommelier program and French  wine professional course.

The Society of Wine Educators from the US offers the Specialist in Wine course culminating in the Certified Wine Educator program. The program is a self-paced online course and exams are booked at specifically designated examination centres. They are self-paced programs. The Society also offers the Specialist in Spirits course, which targets all types of spirits and details the production method.

WSET also has a Spirits program specifically aimed for spirit lovers. The program offers a strong foundation in this area. WSET has been gradually reducing the spirits section in their programs, so this specific spirits course is a solution to fill the gap.

“The Whisky Ambassador” is an internationally recognized certified qualification from Scotland and the UK. The program is for industry professionals and also aficionados, and offers a firm foundation on the history, origins, production and geographical aspects of whisky.

Certification based on the Quini universal wine tasting standard is now gaining firm support with wine and spirit professionals. The standard focuses primarily on restaurants, hotels and retail stores. Quini has an alliance with the Asia Pacific Wine and Spirit Institute (APWASI). APWASI online wine and spirit programs, which will begin in 2017, are developed by wine professionals and university academics and will offer a broad range of programs from country specific to specialized wine categories.

Ultimately, education reigns supreme. Deciding which course to take depends on the area of expertise someone wants to develop. Other considerations are time, cost, and the recognition of the program. My personal philosophy is that education is an investment and never a wasted exercise.

Dr. Lee is an international wine lecturer, international wine judge, wine writer and critic who has delivered lectures to a wide body of audiences ranging from professional bodies to wine aficionados.