By Debra Meiburg MW
Throughout Asia, people have high respect for education certificates, qualifications and scholastic titles in a variety of fields. But what drives us to learn? For some people it is about transforming their obsession into expertise. For others, it is about ego—a desire to demonstrate mastery of their chosen topic. Then there are those for whom learning is a goal in itself; to explore, discover and absorb as much knowledge as they can, not just about one, but many subjects. Hong Kong has its fair share of all three learners.
Huge demand for wine courses in Asia has coincided with the rapid rise of wine culture here. Increasingly, wine enthusiasts are aspiring to gain accolades in wine, earning Hong Kong one of the highest per capita levels of wine education in the world.
In 2006, the British-based Wine & Spirits Education Trust—or WSET—a global leader in wine education, began offering courses in China, where they are being lapped up by eager students. Initially designed for professionals working in the wine industry, the past decade has seen WSET courses pursued by consumers hoping to up their wine game. Last academic year saw an increase of 41 percent in candidate numbers, cementing China as WSET’s strongest growth market and its second largest market overall, behind the UK. There are 130 WSET approved program providers (APPs) delivering wine courses in China, and more than 30 APPs in Hong Kong alone. School locations range from ad hoc delivery in restaurants, primary school classrooms, or warehouse cellars to the more premium school sites designed specifically for wine education, such as AWSEC and the MWM Wine School.
While studying wine might seem “geeky”, success in wine education demonstrates considerable savvy, and it is not just those of us working in the business who stand to benefit. Professionals of all persuasions who can proffer informed and considered wine opinions could find their recommendations a subtle contributor to career success, especially given wine’s popularity in the business and finance sectors. You might say, the wine list has become the “golf course” of the business person’s dining table. As if to prove this point, last year’s top WSET Diploma student was a banker: Moritz Mueller, a vice president at London’s Santander Bank.
In 2016, WSET chose Hong Kong as the location of its first international office outside the UK, demonstrating the educator’s confidence in our region as its most promising market. Ian Harris, WSET Chief Executive, described Greater China’s expansion as “phenomenal”. And it is not just the number of students that impresses him, but also their talent and commitment. Three of the last six winners of the Vintners’ Cup—awarded to the graduate with the highest overall marks in its Diploma—were from Asia.
WSET offers a four-tiered series of educational programs, each with increasing rigour and intensity, culminating in the WSET Diploma. Students who want to advance their wine knowledge even further might go on to study the Master of Wine, widely considered to be the highest wine accolade in the world. Striving to achieve this title is not for the faint-hearted, though; the Master of Wine exam has been called the world’s most difficult exam, and I have to agree. Candidates spend years studying, open dozens of bottles of wine, and visit hundreds of cellars in their quest to achieve the MW title. Only 370 people in the world have attained the Master of Wine—the so-called Ph.D. of wine—with only a handful of candidates attempting the exam each year.
Students are given only three attempts within five years to pass the gruelling three-part exam, which is divided into Practical, Theory and Research Paper segments. For the practical—a punishing three-day tasting exam—students are expected not only to identify wines, but also to churn out twenty-plus pages in answer to the examiners’ questions. Though question formats vary, candidates are asked to identify the grape variety or blend; pinpoint the wine’s origin; ascertain the winemaking techniques used; discuss the wine’s quality level, market segment or ageing potential; and identify its vintage. For months before exam date, I rolled out of bed, pulled corks out of bottles and tasted a dozen wines with stopwatch in hand—all before my morning coffee.
“The MW examinations require a great deal of preparation, stamina and concentration. Some days, candidates will sit six hours’ worth of exams,” Mark Pygott MW, author of the new book France in 33 Glasses: A Field Guide to French Wine, told an audience at a recent IMW introduction seminar, held at MWM Wine School in Hong Kong’s Southern District.
The theory exam is a five-part, four-day written exam comprising a series of hand-aching essays on viticulture, winemaking, handling of wine, business, and current industry issues. Students are taught to think like a detective and write like a lawyer: arguments must be built and positions defended. Every statement must be supported by evidence detected in the glass of wine. Timing is tight and getting words to paper fast enough is a challenge. “MWs will demonstrate mastery and authority about everything to do with the wine trade,” Pygott pronounced.
“Masters of Wine have proven their understanding of all aspects of wine. MW students need to understand the whole industry. Candidates might not necessarily be experts in viticulture, but they need to have a thorough understanding of viticultural practices in different countries. The same goes with the tasting portion of the exam: candidates need to identify and appreciate all wines—from everyday wines that are sold in supermarkets, right through to very fine wines,” Olivier (Olly) Chapman, Programme and Development Manager of the Institute of Masters of Wine advised.
Students receive their results three months after exam date. But even after achieving success in the exams, there is still one more peak to climb: the Research Paper. “The research paper is a chance for MW students to delve into a topic they are interested in,” Chapman explained. Candidates can propose any wine-related topic for the examining body’s approval. Mine addressed the wine education needs for wine professionals in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
After finally passing all three segments successfully, candidates sign an ethics agreement and then, at long last, have earned the right to add those glorious MW initials to their name. Although the Master of Wine programme is a relatively new pursuit in Asia, there are rising numbers of Asia-based MWs and students. Recent years have seen success by candidates in Hong Kong (Sarah Heller), India (Sonal Holland), China (Fongyee Walker), Japan (Kenichi Ohashi), Singapore (Tan Ying Hsien) and Taiwan (Mark Pygott). A ceremony formally awarding the Master of Wine certificates is held each November in the Vintners Guild Hall in London, one of the oldest, most historic buildings along the Thames.
I became the first MW in Asia 10 years ago, the same year Hong Kong eliminated all wine duty. The government’s 2008 initiatives positioned Hong Kong as the wine hub of Asia. At the same time, wine markets in China began to expand at an astonishing rate. How lucky I was to be in the centre of the wine world! My passion for wine education has led me to launch conferences, festivals, research, trade associations and training to help build Asia’s wine markets. Annually, MWM International organises more than 200 events in 18 markets. Through our latest venture, MWM Wine School, we hope to seduce, intrigue and foster a passion for wine in every student. We believe quality education should involve all the senses. Our courses strive not only to enliven the palate, but also offer hands-on activities and tongue exercises to bring wine to life. At its best, education leaves students inspired to study more, to move into deeper levels of knowledge until they attain mastery. But if there is one thing I learned in acquiring the Master of Wine title, it is that one can never know it all. There will always be more to learn, new regions to explore, and that’s what makes wine such an intriguing lifelong study.