Wine Biz Education: Eight Questions with Peter Marks, MW

Peter Marks MW & Christian Oggenfuss DWS
[Peter Marks, MW and Christian Oggenfuss, Chief Education Officer, NVWA]

Two decades as a Master of Wine—that’s what Peter Marks will be reflecting on this year. Having earned the prestigious title back in 1995, we were curious to ask how 20 years of being a MW has helped shape Marks’ career and ideas about education in a time when more and more people are considering a serious track in the beverage industry. Even outlets like CNN are asking some interesting questions, like should the U.S. lower its drinking age? However that debate rages, and others arise and take hold of the beverage industry, the Boomer vs the iGeneration influence, innovations in digital drink apps and marketing, all of it and more will provide serious fodder for future MWs and industry pros to debate.

So, how has Marks’ career been shaped by his education? What does he think about the WSET program? In all his years of blind tasting, is there one experience that stands out? We asked these questions and more and are grateful to Peter for taking the time to talk to us (and thrilled to have him as a NVWA Instructor who also sits on our Board of Advisers).

Sit back with a glass of some White Zinfandel* and enjoy:

Jonathan Cristaldi, Editor-in-Chief, What did the MW program represent to you, in terms of opportunity? And now, in your 20th year as an MW, how has it helped your career?

Peter Marks, MW: I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the MW program. Earning the MW title opened doors to travel broadly to special vineyards and wineries around the world, allowed me to appreciate wine from a new perspective, offered job opportunities that would otherwise not be possible, and introduced me to many wonderful people and lifelong friends. Commitment and hard work is required to be successful in today’s world. I tell many MW students, you can still be successful in the wine business without initials after your name, and many people have proven this.

Q: Looking back, do you think a B.S. degree in Food Service Management from UC Davis was instrumental to your career track?

I think any college degree is important, not just for the discipline you study, but to develop critical thinking skills and to learn how to interact with others. That said, my degree in Food Service Management had a significant impact on my career. After graduation, I worked in restaurants and food service management for five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the California wine boom, and this peaked my interest in wine. Plus, all the science courses I took helped me understand viticulture and enology.

Q: How might the WSET program prepare one for entry into the Master of Wine program?

The WSET Diploma is highly recommended as a precursor to the MW program. In my experience, students who enter the MW program with Diploma, are much better equipped to tackle the MW program and have better success. The fact that Diploma includes a study unit “The Business of Wine” is unique and critical to becoming a MW.

Q: What alternatives do you see to the WSET for certification?

There’s nothing really comparable at the Diploma level. However, Society of Wine Educators CSW and CWE are somewhat equivalent to WSET Levels 2 and 3, and Court of Master Sommelier courses are great for anyone interested in working in the on-premise business. Local wine schools and community colleges are also a great resource. [Check out our page on choosing the right wine certification. – JC]

Q: Is there any one mentor you can point to that really made a difference in your education?

Sorry, I can’t pick just one; good things come in 3s. My father, who was a teacher and taught me that you never stop learning and the discipline of hard work. My college roommate, Rob Davis, who has been the winemaker at Jordan since we graduated and he lets me ask him every conceivable question about growing and making wine. And all the MWs who mentored me through the program and from whom I continue to learn so much.

Q: Tasting wine blind over the years, is there one funny, enlightening and revelatory moment you’d care to share?

About 30 years ago, my neighbor, David, gave me a bottle of White Zinfandel* as a joke. This bottle ended up being re-gifted at least a half-dozen times during our birthdays and holidays. One year David and I were invited over to another friend’s house for dinner. Both David and the other friend were successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with impressive wine cellars and they loved Burgundy. So I doctored up the White Zin by adding a dash of balsamic vinegar to cut the sweetness, food coloring to make it look like an old Pinot Noir, and extract of coffee, vanilla and few other secret ingredients. I then decanted the “wine” into an empty bottle of DRC Echezeaux that I had saved, and poured it blind to David and my friend at dinner. I told them the wine was a wonderful leftover from a tasting I had attended that day. Throughout the entire dinner, they waxed poetically about the wine and how fortunate they were to be able to taste such a beautiful treasure. I really hated to spoil their fun, but I finally told them the wine was not DRC Echezeaux, but the rehabilitated the old White Zin. We still laugh about it today. Little did I know, certain wine fraudsters would later employ similar techniques to their advantage.

Q: Which wine publications do you read religiously?

I read almost everything online. In no particular order: Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Decanter, Wine Business, Wines & Vines, SOMM Journal, Drinks International, Market Watch, just-drinks, and Steve Heimoff is my favorite blogger. I also read the wine columns in the Napa Valley Register and San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: Any last words of wisdom to impart to someone thinking of a career in wine?

I have to quote Robert Mondavi who said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.” So, find an area you’re passionate about and be patient. Success doesn’t come overnight and the pay may not be great, but again, if you love what you do…



Jonathan Cristaldi is a WSET Certified Instructor with The Napa Valley Wine Academy. He is also the Deputy Editor of the SOMM Journal and Tasting Panel Magazine, a contributing editor to, wine writer for Los Angeles Magazine’s Liquid LA blog,, Thrillist and former bar-reviewer for Time Out LA. He tweets from @NobleRotNYC.



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