After having met Alder Yarrow at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, knowing he contributes to JancisRobinson.com, I asked if he would interview Jancis about wine education–how it, particularly the WSET, played a part in her career and what advice she would give to new students of wine. His Q&A with her is below, and we are grateful to Alder and to Jancis for their time. We hope her remarks inspire your journey into wine education. Her book, American Wine, was the inspiration for our American Wine Studies course. — Jonathan Cristaldi, Editor-in-Chief
by Alder Yarrow
Whether you’re pursuing a self-education in wine, or formal classes, you’re eventually bound to find yourself paging through The Oxford Companion to Wine. This hefty tome is quite simply the most authoritative reference guide to wine in existence and it owes its existence and authority to one woman: Jancis Robinson, the most influential wine critic working outside the United States. I have the pleasure of being a monthly columnist for her website, JancisRobinson.Com, and recently caught up with her upon her return from a trip with stops in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand.
Alder: So how was Asia?
Jancis: I have photo fatigue. But I’m heartened by how popular an interest in wine has become with young Asians, and also how many of them seemed to know my work!
Q: What role did formal wine education play in your career?
Wine education was extremely necessary when I became assistant editor of a wine and spirits trade monthly in December of 1975 because I had none whatsoever.
Q: I remember you telling me once after failing to teach a journalist wine skills and failing to teach a wine writer journalism, the magazine hired you because you were neither. How did you go about deciding to take classes and who to take them from?
There wasn’t much of a choice at that time, but everyone in the UK drinks trade recommended the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust.
Q: You first took WSET wine classes in 1975, when the organization was only 6 years old. Beyond the obvious growth of the program, what is your sense of what has changed since then?
I think it is much, much more professionally run and is a truly global force with much more money behind it. I joke with [WSET CEO] Ian Harris that all I got for being the top student in the Diploma exams in 1978 was a small wooden shield (which I still have). The Vintners Cup winner today gets a trip to Australia, £3000 I think, and a massive silver trophy. I admire the way they are constantly updating their courses to take account of developments in the wine world.
Q: What are three things that you would advise a student of wine to consider when choosing wine as a career path?
Give up any idea of making a fortune. Be sure you have a strong constitution and a good head for alcohol. Never be afraid of admitting you don’t know something.
Q: How important (if at all) do you think formal wine education is if one plans on making it one’s profession?
I think it’s very useful – particularly because it forces you to learn about the aspects of wines and spirits that you are not naturally fascinated by so it ensures you have a broad education.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to pursue the Master of Wine title these days?
Talk over in detail the necessary commitment of time and money with your family and/or partner. No one can do it in isolation. Also, develop a group of fellow students. It makes sense to carve up some of the research tasks, and it’s vital to have a group of fellow victims to taste with. Be sure you can get your hands on a wide range of different wines.
On behalf of the Napa Valley Wine Academy, thanks for taking some time to chat in the midst of your jet lag!