Should Wine Writers Be Certified?

I came across a post the other day that piqued my curiosity. The author, who happened to be a professional wine writer, poked fun at mechanical harvesting. It wasn’t her rambling that bothered me so much as it was her lack of respect and knowledge about the subject. She tweeted pictures of Frenchmen using mechanical harvesters as she disparaged (and made fun of) those who used them, alluding to the fact that everyone knows hand harvesting produces a better product. And the kicker? One of her favorite producers mechanically harvests grapes and (I’m pretty sure) she doesn’t know it. How’s that for irony?

Alas, in wine circles such stories abound. Years ago, I would have fallen for her rant hook, line and sinker, but now with some experience and training under my belt I know better. Sure, in an ideal world, hand harvesting may be the way to go, but not everyone has that luxury.  Factors like labor availability and immigration issues, cost, vineyard topography, varieties, and weather conditions often force harvesting decisions. And in Bordeaux, many classified châteaux still harvest by machine. On the other side of the coin, you might be surprised to know that some winemakers prefer mechanical harvesting—and it is certainly a well accepted practice worldwide.

And in all honesty, who can scientifically guarantee wine picked by hand will produce a better quality product over those picked mechanically? If you have evidence to prove the former, let me know because I’ve been searching for this report for a while now. And if you claim you can blind taste a wine and tell me which red fruit was picked by machine or handpicked, I want to meet you. Wait, I’ll even up the ante—bring some spit bucket juice and I will drink it. Ok, I’m grossing myself out now and I’m so easily sidetracked—this post isn’t about mechanical harvesting, it’s about wine writers (pros and bloggers alike) gaining the knowledge they need to educate readers with accurate information.

Interestingly enough, wine writer experience and credentials are trending differently than they were twenty years ago. What I have found is that most of the traditional wine writers gained employment at newspapers and magazines with a journalism degree in their pocket. They had the passion to write about wine and were willing to learn about wine and viticulture along the way. Very few had formal wine certification (or hands on experience) prior to gainful employment.

Today’s wine writers are different animals. They may not be well known, nor hold positions at newspapers or magazines. Most of them don’t have degrees in journalism but many enter the field with wine certification, which, in my opinion, is a welcomed addition. They feverishly apply their knowledge by educating readers through blog posts, videos, social media and educational courses and many assert the need to improve their writing skills.

In all honesty, I think most readers would prefer to learn from those that were educated in a specialized field (wine) and those that have real hands on experience (at a restaurants, wineries, sales positions, winemaking and such) rather than learning from those that were taught to write prose (journalism) while learning about wine on the job.

Curiosity led me to find out how many of today’s wine writers hold credentials, so I polled my twitter followers. Forty out of sixty who responded hold certification spanning from CSS, CSW, WSET, MS, and MW programs, which is enlightening to see—and the majority of those forty fell into the “different animal” category. It seems evident that wine writer skill sets, experience and credentials are trending quite differently now.

Leading back to the question, “Should wine writers be certified?” That’s a good question. It seems to make sense for some industries. Think of physicians, lawyers, architects, nurses, accountants and teachers—even financial planners. I don’t trust anyone to manage my money, do you? Most finance guys I know wouldn’t trust 90 percent of the (non-certified) people in the field.

What about the food industry? They have programs like the CIA, master chef, and Le Cordon Bleu. Not all chefs obtain certification, some do. Then on the other side of the coin, we have celebrity chefs like Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri who built their reputation from working every position in the kitchen. Most of their knowledge isn’t learned from a book or certification—it is more about the blood and sweat they endured from hands on experience. How about food writers and critics? Should they be certified? I don’t think Michael Bauer has certification but he grew up in the business, working at his father’s meat market. In my opinion, the best food critics are those who have worked in the industry and have manned positions.

But what about the wine industry? Joel Butler, MW points out, “…the evidence I see when I look at various wine blogging sites indicates that a little “qualified education” may not be a bad idea for many.” So should we consider certification? It definitely makes sense for sommeliers, educators and … skreecchhh… (that’s me slamming on the breaks and backing up)…the magic word here is ~EDUCATORS~. Is it not the job of a wine writer to educate with accurate facts? Could writers (re)gain credibility by holding themselves accountable to the same standards they apply to others, such as teaching or financial planning which requires licensing? Or is this going too far?

Some say yes, it is going to far and point out that  wine writer certification is an unnecessary action because it would foster snobbery and would drive consumers away through unrecognizable prose and technical nonsense. But is this really true? Many bloggers who hold certification do an excellent job at describing and eliminating the technical jargon and journalism fluff. We are lucky to have so many good (certified) writers that really have their finger on the pulse to educate and entertain us…fine folks like:

Personally, I think it would be good if writers obtained certification—and I’ll throw in a “get some industry experience” into the mix. The problem we have right now is not so much a lack of enthusiasm, but rather a lack of experience and training. If wine writers could find a nice balance between certification and practical experience, I think this would be ideal. We should not mandate it, but I think those who take wine writing seriously should consider it.

After all, wine writers should have a good grasp of the topics they write about and finding a balance between education and hands on experience would build confidence and credibility. I credit much of my knowledge to education and hands on restaurant and winery experience.  I can attest the knowledge wine writers might gain using this method would help them expand their horizons and consider different angles and perspectives on many subjects. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect more from wine writers, do you?

~Pamela Heiligenthal