In a trade conversation recently, a long time friend and colleague asked how many truly able people are coming into the wine business these days and where are they coming from? It is an interesting question as the individual asking it has a good view of the trade at a senior level.
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (W.S.E.T.) report on their website that 460 people passed the Diploma of Wines and Spirits, one step below the fabled Master of Wine (MWs) qualification. In the course of nearly 50 years 9,007 people have passed the Diploma of Wines and Spirits. There are 356 people awarded the MWs certificate in the 60 years of its existence.
Then there are the Sommeliers. The Masters of Sommeliers report that there are 240 Master Sommeliers (MS) and an estimated 200 that they put though their basic course in a year. But they operate in a small market. There are 168 Michelin starred restaurants in the UK, all of which you could assume have a sommelier and probably double that seeking a Michelin star(s). The Master Sommelier pass rate is 4%, so it is really tough to acquire it as a professional qualification.
Ronan Sayburn, MS and spokesperson for The MS programme, says that there is a clearly defined career path for those participating and many go on to supervisory and management roles. They are often destined for greater positions. What is interesting and maybe backs up some of my friends suspicions, is that the demand for this qualification comes form Southern and Eastern Europe. The traditional British applicant is a relatively unusual occurrence.
There are other European based organisations, which award Sommelier qualifications – Chaine des Rotisseurs, Association of Sommeliers International some of whom we have interviewed in these columns.
By way of an education comparison, there are 2.2 million students in 163 UK Higher Education (H.E.) establishments in 2015-16 (H.E.S.A.) of which 742,730 were awarded some form of qualification. Not that I am drawing any direct comparison to the levels of the courses, merely that it is a perspective of the overall educational landscape. Clearly training in the wine / drinks industry is a dot on this perspective with just 0.06% of all U.K. H.E. qualifications passing the Diploma.
But I am not sure that was the essence of my friend’s question. It was more of commercial attitude and ability. Where are those that want something bigger, better, more robust as an industry thrusting through the ranks? Where are the business leaders of tomorrow?
Commercially wine sales are estimated at £15Bn or thereabouts annually, about 0.64% of UK GDP as at 2015 figures from tradingeconomics.com. About half of that goes in taxes and as a BBC research programme pointed out before Xmas 2016 a £5 retail bottle of wine leaves just 13p for the actual wine, post bottle, label, taxes, margins etc. So the profit motive is low in the industry and this may well explain one reason as to why the theory exists that not many bright young people are attracted to the wine industry.
One of the muttering criticisms of the Diploma and MW’s exam has always been that, they are all very academic but no reflection on commercial ability. It is clear that W.S.E.T. has taken this to heart and now has a Business and Commercial Knowledge course (at the princely sum of £1,485). And of course when it comes down to it then commercially wine is only as good a story as you tell. But then again isn’t every consumer good known to humans?
So maybe the question should be asked in a different way. Why should a bright young person be attracted to learning about and contributing more to the wine industry? What value, indeed, does it add?
It is difficult to calculate. I am sure that greeted by that question some in the industry would resort to philibuster and come out with things like ‘we are the centre of the world’s wine trade’, ‘without wine is without life‘ etc, etc. In reality making excuses for their own love of the product, which steps into the personal requirement a little too much.
I am minded to think of Vera Lynn’s comments when asked about what part entertainment played in the 2nd World War. She replied that entertainment was the reason that the Allies won the war without it we would have lost. In fact her role in the war is taught in schools as part of the curriculum. It is perhaps counter-intuitive to identify that a relaxing persuit such as being entertained with singing would be the heart of the reason why we would be successful with such a serious, intense and horrible circumstance as war. But ‘all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy’ so the old saying goes.
Wine is a small element of relaxation, a social lubricant that without which human life is less rich and less rewarding. It is a small but key piece of that many of us use as social lubricant, reward aspect – a small slice of personal selection and taste that as humans we need in order to fuel us up for the next challenge. It is as Dame Vera’s tunes, a relaxant (emotionally) that allows us to get up and going for the next round. We all need a small personal reward as motivation for the next step. It is an unavoidable part of human nature.
Maybe it is this deeply personal aspect that has retained the industry as a very fragmented industry with 100,000’s producers globally making their expression of the elixir.
A further health study on alcohol recently published in the BMJ by the Universities of Cambridge and University College London found that moderate consumption contributes to reducing 12 different heart disease illnesses. Heavy drinkers, I should say, were reversely affected and had higher instances of heart disease.
Without this curiously academic, cultural, natural and healthy product that has played part of our human culture for around 8,000 years we would be much the poorer. And whilst it may not be the most profit driven, easiest way to make money, or the biggest contributor to relaxation or the most healthy of consumption products in quantity, it is nonetheless a net contributor and for that anyone who doesn’t have burning ‘make million now ‘ambitions with a love of history, culture, global perspective, and food should consider getting themselves involved in the wine business.
So to my friend who started this discussion, I am not sure that there are the finest minds coming into the industry or the people who are going to drive the industry to the ‘next level’ as they say, but it may be that we are collectively able to describe, justify and be seen to actively contribute to human life – without question! Sustainably and transparently the important 1% that makes it all come together perhaps.
Hospitality & Catering News, Wine & Drinks Editor