Thoughts on: The Real Cost of Wine Education — Wine!

So, yesterday I was working the morning in Montsant, helping a friend pick a 0.3 hectare field of Carignan that was ready for harvest. During our time picking, we chatted about a lot of things and I asked the same question I ask to a lot of experienced individuals in the wine industry; how do you get access to the fine wines of the world for the purposes of education without bankrupting yourself? The reason I ask is that over the last 10 years, prices for the ‘classics’ of the wine industry have sky-rocketed, to the point that many of these wines are essentially unobtainable for the majority of us, including those studying the industry through some form of formalised route such as the WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers. Whilst the vexing problem of not being able to drink hundreds of euros of wine may seem something of a particularly obnoxious ‘First World Problem’, the truth is that if you want to identify these wines blind and come to a conclusion of quality and style, something that is required for the purposes of passing the top exams in the industry (MW/MS) you need to have had some experience tasting them first.

Whilst the course costs of the various education bodies are sometimes quite high themselves, the wines tend to be far and away the most expensive part of this process. Anecdotal tales of students studying for the infamous Masters of Wine exams have told stories of students spending anywhere from $20–50k over the course of their adventure, simply on travelling the world, trying different wines and slowly building up their tasting experience with the wines of the world. Whilst finding access to commercially available wines for most countries is not overly expensive, good luck finding Grand Cru Burgundy for less than $100 a bottle. Cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? $150 and upwards. Don’t even get me started on First Growth Bordeaux, with prices en primeur starting from $400 and then climbing towards the sky, which of course is not counting the 15+ years it then takes for these wines to become approachable. So, what’s a student to do? As far as I can tell, these are the most realistic routes open to me whilst I am based in Barcelona:

Work in fine dining as a sommelier: A popular route, as working as a sommelier in a formal setting grants you access to essentially any wine you will be required to serve to your guests. As part of the ritual of serving a fine bottle of wine, often a tiny sip must be tasted in order to confirm there are no faults or flaws with the bottle before serving it to your guests; a fine reason to up-sell to Chateau Margaux if there ever was one! This is a solid approach, although this is Barcelona and not London, so the amount of fine-dining restaurants with the international wines of the world on them are relatively few and far between. I’m already having nightmares of crashing around the floor of a Michelin starred restaurant; I’ll definitely need to work on formal service a little if this becomes a reality.

Find a scaleable way to make considerably more money within my current business: Sounds blindingly obvious, I know. My current income is mainly based around wine tastings. When I do a wine tasting, I make a profit. Naturally this isn’t scaleable unless I wanted to invest into building a company and hire people to do tastings (I don’t, incidentally, as I feel I’d lose the intimacy of the tastings I currently offer) so there would have to be another approach here. Write a book? Start selling wine? Try and start getting my writing published in formal publications? There are certainly possibilities here worth exploring and whilst none are guaranteed any level of success, it would be another chapter in the adventure regardless!

Find a way to make money outside of the wine industry: Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just make your money some other way and then study for wine. Unfortunately, as show-cased by the large number of ‘how to get rich quick’ schemes floating around, it’s not a simple case of just making money; if it were, everyone would be doing it. Add to that the fact that both building wealth and studying require enormous commitments of time, focus and effort and..well, I don’t see this one happening anytime soon. I know some individuals who have done very well from this approach and good luck to them, but unless something falls into my lap this is unlikely to be an option for me.

Work for a company willing to pay the course costs: Interesting one. If I worked for a company that was willing to invest in my education for their future gain, the course costs (5–6k euros per year for the MW course) could be deducted and that same money could be siphoned into the study budget. The unfortunate reality however, is that the Spanish wine industry is struggling to sell any bottle above 7 euros a bottle and even the major cities of the country are hardly awash with fine wine. There are 358 Masters of Wine in the world and only one of them lives in Spain; overseeing the winery he owns and runs rather than being involved in any existing operation. Needless to say, this is probably an indication that there won’t be many companies lining up to throw money at a level of education that is arguably unnecessary in the Spanish market. Still, you never know, someone may share my passion to change and improve existing Spanish wine culture and see an investment of this kind as being a shrewd move!

As it currently stands I’ve finally finished paying the last of my WSET Diploma, including the flights, hotels/hostels, reading material and course costs (Close to 8,000 euros in total, not counting any wine!). I have access to both Monvinic in Barcelona for international tasting options and a great group of friends working in the industry to split costs with and practice blind tasting on a regular basis. In short, I’m in a very good place and looking forward to my next exams and the second half of my education in 2017. If I want to go any further after that and try to scale the MW mountain I will need to find a solution to the cost issues detailed above, but I’m quietly confident that I’ll figure it out; I have a lot of faith in the Fintan of the future; that guy will figure it out for sure! As my mother always used to say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.