The View from Geisenheim: The Challenges Facing Wine Education

Non-University Education Programs

Wine education has evolved considerably over the last 20 years. Prof. Dr. Gergely Szolnoki and Beth Kaczmarek of Geisenheim University interviewed wine educators from across the globe to capture an understanding of their approach and the challenges they face when teaching wine.

Reading time: 5m 15s

Gergely Szolnoki
Gergely Szolnoki

 

  • The wine industry believes that education of professionals and consumers is essential.
  • The focus on consumer education sets wine apart from other sectors.
  • Wine is a very complex topic. The rapid growth of courses and tools in recent years demonstrates the breadth of the wine education industry today.
  • As the wine industry has evolved, with the arrival of New World and other new regions and the arrival of varietal wines and new styles, wine education has had to change.

 

Looking Back – a Brief History of Wine Education

Formalized wine courses began in the mid-20th century. The U.K., far ahead of the rest of the world on the subject, founded the Institute of the Masters of Wine in 1955, and, 14 years later, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers.

By the late 1980s, wine schools were beginning to appear throughout the United States, Australia, and South Africa. Then China became a major focus, providing the WSET with a larger number of students than any other country. In January 2021, the organization was forced to suspend operations in China. After lengthy negotiations, these have now resumed.

Today, public perception of wine is shifting massively,  as wine becomes much more approachable. This is also evident in wine education. Thanks in part to the experience of the pandemic, we now see smaller, tech-driven formats. Websites, blogs, newsletters, and Instagram newsfeeds are all reaching new consumers and sometimes wine even enters pop culture through platforms such as TikTok.

What Do Industry Professionals Say?

We asked twelve industry professionals from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa how they view the current state of wine education.

Interviewees

 1.

Rose Murray Brown MW

Self-employed

U.K.

In-person and online wine courses, wine tours, wine dinners

 2.

Chris Powell

The Local Wine School

U.K.

Owner of the U.K. brand which has franchised 27 wine schools

 3.

Maryna Calow

Wines of South Africa

South Africa

Director of Communications for Wines of South Africa

 4.

Roger Noujeim

Quini

Canada

CEO of the Quini app and Quini Somm wine technology

 5.

Mark Davidson

Australian Wine Discovered

Australia

Director and creator of wine education for Wines of Australia

 6.

Chris Scott

ThirtyFifty and the U.K. Wine Show

U.K.

Wine educator, wine appreciation courses, and host of the longest running wine podcast globally

 7.

Heidi Duminy

The Cape Wine Academy

South Africa

Head of Education at the Cape Wine Academy and Cape Wine Master

 8.

Karen MacNeil

The Wine Bible and Winespeed

USA

Author, educator, and weekly digital newsletter

 9.

Elizabeth Schneider

Wine for Normal People

USA

Author, educator, podcast, and online courses

10.

Jancis Robinson MW

Oxford Companion to Wine, World Wine Atlas

U.K.

Author, educator, and critic

11.

Kevin Zraly

Windows on the World Wine Course

USA

Author, educator in-person and online courses

12.

Catherine Bugué

Napa Valley Wine Academy

USA

Co-founder, educator, and WSET Diploma holder with eight satellite schools

Teaching in the 21st Century

It is not surprising that teaching is as diverse as the personalities of the educators. In 12 interviews, no two models were found to be identical. And of course, with an increasingly demanding audience educators have to change the formats to suit different channels and audiences.

Comparison of Interviewees' Educational Offerings by Channel
Comparison of Interviewees' Educational Offerings by Channel

These audiences, however, are not so easy to target. Although many educators viewed their platforms as appealing to everyone, they create new materials and courses to reach new individual consumers, corporate clients, and industry professionals. "If there is something I have learned in 20 years of experience, you cannot use typical demographics to target wine education consumers. They transcend every demographic group." (British interviewee)

More Choices in Education?

Almost all interviewees agreed wine education had grown rapidly in size, quality, acceptance, and interest in the 21st century. The overall image of wine has become more mainstream in many western and eastern cultures.

Evolution in Wine Education
Evolution in Wine Education

Where the wine goes, education must follow. Thus, courses, educators, and wine training tools have become much more accessible. Although consumers have more choice today, experts believe the WSET courses, specifically, have become dominant in the market. But even for them, it is not always easy to live up to consumer expectations, especially, as trainers have to overcome the difficulties of teaching tasting.

"I do think it's important to do formal education but also equally important to get out there and experience wine regions and wine.
(Australian interviewee)

Or is it all about marketing? One British interviewee believes evolution has less to do with education techniques and more with advertising efficiency. "In the last ten years, it was easy to use Google and social media to reach a targeted audience," he stated. "Before this, I was going door to door, trying to drum up business."

Motivations
Motivations

Challenges in Wine Education

The overall question in 2022 was how had the Covid-19 health crisis affected the education businesses. Unsurprisingly, the answers vary. At least a few interviewees profited from the situation to cut costs, time, and resources— all positive outcomes of lockdowns and social distancing. Others described how in-person teaching had been a central pillar of their business and would always be preferred. Will demand return to normal once the pandemic is over?

Other challenges facing professional educators:

  • maintain relevance and consumer acceptance against competition from wineries and distributors offering their own options,
  • maintain financial sustainability against market saturation.

"Consumers, especially millennials, who are the future of the wine industry, need to be brought on board. If we don't appeal to the new consumer, we are calling for our own demise. On the other hand, those who do will dominate the market."
(Canadian expert)

Maybe, the most important challenge will be the steadily growing movement to restrict the marketing and promotion of alcohol. Here, again, educators have to adapt to reality. Teaching responsible drinking will play a vital role in the sustainability of the wine industry. Otherwise, wine will continue to be seen as harmful to health.

Wine educators also have to confront the issue of diversity. Wine used to be largely the domain of white males. Today, women have become an integral part of the picture, but ethnicity has not changed.

"The focus up to now in wine education has been very Anglocentric and white. We need to open up the syllabus and language to other cultures and ethnicities."
(British interviewee).

Several respondents agreed that without the ability to become more diverse and inclusive, the wine industry and wine education are potentially at threat.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of how wine education platforms are built, or through which channels knowledge is presented, there is a diversified global approach to wine education. The ability to adapt to new media and pivot during a time of crisis demonstrates the creativity of this niche of the wine industry. Driven by business goals, personal resilience, and a passion for teaching, educators can use their distinct teaching platforms as a USP when targeting new consumers.

As the global wine industry continues to grow and new countries every year gain relevance in the wine industry, learning and teaching will become more challenging, more complex, with new regions and wines to discover. Countries in Asia, Africa, and the Nordics may be joining the list of relevant winegrowing nations. Complex topics such as new grapevine diseases, new hybrid varietals, and climatic phenomena such as smoke taint will continue to expand the list of topics necessary to learn before becoming well versed in the subject of wine.

 

Non-academic wine education has grown in importance over the last 10-15 years. People have different hobbies - some play tennis, others just watch T.V., but thousands of highly motivated amateurs and semi-professionals around the world spend their free time learning about wine at different levels. This is an essential sign of quality improvement of consumers, who will develop a much better understanding of good wines and become ambassadors of wine in their peer groups in the future.

Beth Kaczmarek
Beth Kaczmarek

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