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History makers: 50 years of the WSET

As WSET marks its 50th anniversary, db brought together a panel of WSET Diploma graduates who have gone on to forge stellar careers to reflect on how studying for this qualification gave them a firm foundation in the wine trade.

At the start of the year, in the heart of London, a discussion took place called Reflections from the Grand Masters. Organised by the drinks business and hosted by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), it marked the launch of this institution’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

The discussion aimed to look at the evolving role of wine and spirit education in the past five decades, how WSET has influenced these changes and how it continues to inspire future generations of trade professionals. A selection of industry grand masters were invited to take part in the discussion to share their WSET experience in its first 50 years, and discuss the value of education.

Among them was someone awarded an OBE, another with an MBE, along with a Master Sommelier, and three Masters of Wine – four if one included me (I was enlisted to moderate the discussion). All in all there were eight WSET Diploma graduates.

In terms of positions in the trade, our panellists (see boxout) comprised: the world’s most respected wine writer; the UK’s most experienced wine retailer; the leading figureheads in wine importing, wine distributing, generic marketing and brand development, as well as wine waiting, with our sole Master Sommelier overseeing the globe’s best place to drink wine – 67 Pall Mall.

Helping to fuel the discussion was Ian Harris, who has led WSET for almost 17 years, and turned this London-headquartered education provider into a truly global institution, while picking up an MBE in the process. Although WSET was founded in October 1969, he traced formal wine education back to 1908, when writer and merchant André Simon established the Wine Trade Club, which ran lectures for professionals until 1955, when the Wine and Spirit Association took over.

Government initiative

WSET was set up in 1969 as a result of a government training initiative to improve the country’s economic performance through education (1964 Industrial Training Act).
Half a century later, Harris said the major changes to WSET had been the development of a progressive pathway to the diploma, the introduction of a business course, and, most significantly, a hugely increased international reach. “82% of our students now study in markets outside of the UK,” he said, adding that the first international course was run in 1977 in Toronto, for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

The scale of WSET’s student body has also swelled. “In the past 12 months, nearly 100,000 people have studied with WSET somewhere in the world,” said Harris.

Looking forward, he stressed how important it was that WSET stayed relevant to changing industry and consumer needs. He said WSET is regularly updating all courses to ensure they are current and relevant to jobs, and has recently redesigned the suite of qualifications to reflect three distinct subject streams: wine, spirits and saké.

The new Level 4 Diploma in Wines will be available from August, and a Level 3 Spirits qualification will launch at the same time. He added that the expansion of online learning in response to the changing learning habits and expectations of WSET’s customers is also a priority.

As for the role of education in the wine business, Harris was clear that the benefits were commercial. “Education shouldn’t just be about product knowledge, but it should be a driver of profit. The more people know about the product, the more they will be prepared to spend,” he concluded.

Looking back to the early days of WSET was the much-admired and outspoken former supermarket wine buyer Allan Cheesman, who gained his diploma in 1975, three years after he had joined J Sainsbury. Having highlighted a very different wine industry in the UK in the 1970s – “when one third of all wine sales were German, and Italy didn’t really exist” – he said WSET back then, like today, “was a given. There was little in the way of options, but you studied with WSET to benefit your normal business life,” he said.

Three years after Cheesman had gained his diploma, Jancis Robinson MW passed hers. As a diploma graduate in 1978, it emerged that the celebrated wine writer had just beaten Ian Harris, who picked up the qualification in 1980. For Robinson, success with the WSET Diploma led her to become a Master of Wine. She pointed out that WSET had taken her on an educational journey that proved to her peers that wine was serious topic. “When I graduated in the early ’70s wine was seen as an utterly frivolous subject, and my friends would have said it was a waste of an Oxford education,” she said.

To continue in chronological order, the next attendee of this roundtable to gain the diploma was Laura Jewell MW, regional director for the UK and Europe at Wine Australia, and former head of wine product development at Tesco, who obtained the qualification in 1987. Like Robinson, the diploma meant she was “taken seriously”, while “opening up the world in terms of product knowledge and the wider skills of being a buyer”, as well as being a stepping stone, again like Robinson, to becoming a Master of Wine.

Moving into this century, Hatch Mansfield sales director Ben Knollys passed the diploma in 2002, a qualification he embarked on because he was encouraged by his employers – who sponsored it – but also because of his belief that “if you are going to sell the product then you’ve got to really understand it”. It was also a prerequisite for his current job at Hatch Mansfield.

Also present at the discussion was Ben Smith, head of corporate communications for Concha y Toro UK, who, like Knollys, gained the diploma in 2002. Describing the qualification as “necessary and enjoyable”, he also stressed that it taught him how to taste. “That’s the key part that WSET covers so well.”

Next, Jon Pepper MW – CEO at Enotria & Coe – achieved the diploma in 2007 (like me). Impressively, at this time he wasn’t working in the wine industry, but in “beauty”, with a senior role at L’Oréal. Searching for a job in wine marketing, he said that his position at L’Oréal would normally “open lots of doors”, but, when it came to the wine trade “it didn’t really help at all”. As a result, he gained the diploma “as fast as I could”, because “I wanted a structured formal qualification, so that as a non-wine-trade person I could be taken seriously”.

And, finally, Ronan Sayburn MS, who comes last in this, because, although he is an ardent supporter of WSET, never completed the diploma. Having started the course in the 1990s, when he was a sommelier at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, he surprised the attendees by confessing that after “an accident with a sash window, I never actually got it”.

Looking more deeply into the power of WSET qualifications, Robinson admitted that not only does such formal wine education ensure that you “cover the ground”, but also learn about “subjects you may not naturally be the most interested in”. Jewell drew attention to WSET’s role in expanding one’s contact base. “I was living and working in Scotland [when I did the diploma] so it gave me an entrée in to the wine trade in London, and I met so many amazing people in the trade.”

Meanwhile, Sayburn was driven to study with WSET because “I hated not knowing”, as well as needing to answer questions from his customers, and “WSET is the best and most organised way to improve your knowledge.” It’s why, he explained, “everyone at 67 Pall Mall is put through WSET Level 2, including the kitchen staff”. For Pepper, such knowledge is vital for gaining respect among the producers. “The world of wine is getting smaller and smaller while at the same time it is broadening out; winemakers are travelling the world to do vintages in their off-season, so, for example, you have to be able to discuss the intricacies of Burgundy if you want to be able to engage with a New Zealand Pinot producer.”

Studying through WSET affected our panellists on a more personal level too. For Robinson, it gave her a first taste of Gewürztraminer, which she described as “an eye-opener; it’s so memorable that once I’d tasted it, I thought ‘hooray, that’s one grape I would probably recognise blind’”.

Sayburn recalled WSET’s introduction to the flavours imparted by ageing wine in oak barrels. “I remember distinguishing vanilla, cream, nuts and thinking, gosh, it’s not all bullshit – I had been brought up in Scarborough, where there was a lack of fine wine, so I had studied what they tasted like, but had never tried them.”

A shared understanding

As the discussion came to an end, it was time to hone in on the benefits of education for commercial success in the trade. Jewell stressed how important product knowledge was for buyers in this sector.
“Many a Champagne promotion [in supermarkets] has been put in peril because the buyer has not understood the process of production; the fact it has to be disgorged and dosed before it can be shipped.”

WSET, with its systematic approach to tasting, has created “a more homogenised way of talking about wine”, says Pepper. “This is important with a subject like wine, which is so emotive and widely panned, because it enables wine professionals around the world to talk a common language,” he added.

For Sayburn, product knowledge in the restaurant sector is vital. “If you work in hospitality and the wine offer is done badly, then your customers won’t trade up or buy a second bottle, and that can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful business,” he stated.

And educating consumers is also key for the sustainability of the wine trade. “We have people in this country spending £3 on a mediocre cup of coffee, but whingeing about a bottle of wine at £6… the only way for the industry to make more margin is for the consumer to spend more – we can’t keep cutting costs in the vineyard or packaging – and it is only through education that the consumer will trade up,” said Harris.

As a final point, such people should be attracted to WSET because of the positive feelings created through learning, according to Robinson. She said: “There is a high proportion of members of who are doing a WSET course, and they all seem to love it. I don’t exercise as much as I should, but people talk about endorphins from exercise, and I think there is a mental counterpart: the joy of learning. It gives you a high.”

WSET has played an instrumental role in the careers of some of the wine trade’s most influential personalities. It has also played an important role in the success of the UK wine and spirits trade, offering the only wine and spirits qualifications that cross global boundaries and unify markets. It has educated more than 500,000 people about wine globally, and created a solid base of informed consumers which is vital for the sustained success of this trade. According to our grand masters, WSET qualifications continue to be the foundation stone of a successful career in the wine and spirits trade. And, in WSET’s 50th year, that’s definitely one more reason to celebrate.

The panellists

Allan Cheesman
Chairman, WSET Awards Supervisory Board

Ian Harris, MBE
Chief executive, WSET

Laura Jewell MW
Regional director for the UK and Europe, Wine Australia

Ben Knollys
Sales director, Hatch Mansfield

Jon Pepper MW
CEO, Enotria & Co

Jancis Robinson OBE, MW
Author, critic, journalist and founder of

Ronan Sayburn MS
Head of wine, 67 Pall Mall

Patrick Schmitt MW (panel chair)
Editor-in-chief, the drinks business

Ben Smith
Head of corporate communications, Concha y Toro UK

WSET: key dates

1969: WSET is founded

1977: WSET launches first international courses in the Republic of Ireland and Canada

1991: WSET courses are opened to students who do not work in the wine and spirits trade

1994: WSET launches courses in the US

2001: WSET is accredited as an awarding body, with the first qualifications becoming recognised by the UK government

2007: International candidate numbers exceed UK candidate numbers for the first time

2016: WSET opens office in Hong Kong

2018: WSET opens office in US

2019: WSET launches updated Level 4 Diploma in Wines and new Level 3 Award in Spirits, taking the total number of qualifications it offers to nine, and completing the separation of its qualifications into three distinct subject streams.

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