Why I’m crowdfunding to become a Master of Wine

Auction house worker Dan Kirby tells db why he’s asking the public to back his ambition to become a Master of Wine.

It was around September this year, when the new cohort of Masters of Wine were announced by the IMW, that Kirby, the young, confident, and lightly pierced marketing manager of Taversham’s Auctioneers in Suffolk felt a familiar pang of frustration.

“Every year I think I’m confident I could do it myself, but it’s criminally inhibitive to people who don’t have a business behind them or their own wealth.”

“Master of Wine” is one of the most coveted accolades in the industry, but it’s also one of the most expensive. The key requirements for the program is at least three years’ experience in the wine trade at the time of application, a sponsor who is already an MW, and a diploma from the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust (WSET) or equivalent. On top of that, the total cost for three years of the program is about £11,000, which includes the application fee, residential seminars, and course fees. A further fee for sitting the exam is also required. Students buy their own wines for tasting and pay to travel to vineyards around the world in the hopes of expanding their knowledge, and have to take a good deal of time out of work to do so.

It is little wonder, then, that since the programme’s inception 1953, fewer than 500 people have added the initials “MW” to their names.

So Kirby is taking matters into his own, or rather the general public’s hands. He has set up a GoFundMe page and is asking for anyone with a passing interest to donate towards his first year of fees, around £5,000. So far, he’s earned just over £1,600 from 31 backers, including the chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Miles Beale. He has until May, when the applications are submitted, to reach his target.

“Basically, I got called out for complaining that it’s expensive and not doing anything about it,” he said.

If he is not accepted onto the course, Kirby has pledged to donate all proceeds from the fundraiser to The Drinks Trust.

Like most people, Kirby, fell into the wine trade. He was in a punk band before, but that didn’t seem to be making much money, so around 10 years ago, landed a job at a restaurant. It was during a tasting session with a representative from brewery Adnams that he caught the wine bug. He later joined Adnams as a sales representative, got his WSET Diploma, and worked his way up to managing a cluster of wine bars, shops and restaurants. Having graduated from the WSET and built up some decent connections in the wine trade, he moved to Taversham’s at the start of 2018.

“My personal journey is just trying my best to do a bit of everything. I’ve done buying selling, marketing fine wine auctions and drinking fine wine in restaurants. I’ve taken a pretty rounded approach to learning as much as possible, but trying desperately to keep it too consumer focused.”

Many higher education programmes have scholarship or bursary systems to enable people who don’t have enough money to enrol, and the MW is no different. Some employers will cover some or all of the fees, but this comes with its own set of problems. Hopeful applicants are usually required to stay on with their company for a set period of time after they complete the course, and things can become even more complicated if an employee fails. Meanwhile, many businesses, especially during a pandemic, simply can’t afford to subsidise their staff’s course fees and let them take time away form work.

Crowdfunding is a pretty common thing in the drinks sector, and has become increasingly prevalent in higher education. Ambitious students have set up crowdfunded pages for all sorts of goals from helping a British student get an MA in history at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in the middle of Brexit, to helping overseas students overcome catastrophic sanction-induced currency devaluation.

Kirby plans to blog about his journey to the pinnacle of oenological excellence, taking after notable MWs such as Richard Hemming, who did the same for JancisRobinson.com.

But there are very few instances of people calling on strangers to fuel their passion for wine.

“Theres a couple of people I’ve been made aware of who are documenting their journey through the course and building a community around their process, and there’s only a very small number of grants available, but I haven’t seen or heard of anyone publicly crowdfunding.”

While some may find the idea of having your academic success or failure viewed by hundreds, Kirby said he’s keen to be held account “by people who have decided I’m a good enough person to do it.”

“I’m happy to take that burden.”

In return, the marketing manager has set up a tiered benefit system for anyone who chips in, though aside from a guarantee of being signed up to a subscriber-only newsletter, the rewards aren’t set it stone yet.

“The sell really is about the satisfaction of backing the underdog and joining me on the journey. A lot of MWs do it in addition to their day job and aren’t necessarily vocal about it because it’s such a hard course to do. I want to do it quite publicly with people in the industry holding me accountable along the way.”

2 Responses to “Why I’m crowdfunding to become a Master of Wine”

  1. John says:

    Ummhh I think there are more deserving charities out there.

  2. Mark Pygott says:

    ‘Criminally Inhibitive’? No it isn’t. It’s cheaper than doing an undergraduate degree in the UK and a drop in the ocean compared to almost any education (post 18) in the US. It also happens to be the most engaging course of study I have undertaken. Good things require a certain level of investment and the biggest investment one makes for the MW is in the time spent studying.

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