Wine Ink: A thirst for knowledge (column) |

Wine Ink: A thirst for knowledge (column)

by kelly j. hayes
Close up of sommelier pouring red wine with decanter at wine tasting.Female hand taking notes at table.
Getty Images / iStockphoto | iStockphoto

A couple of weeks back as the Tour de France got underway, we did a story on a young sommelier, Greg Van Wagner, who had used Google Earth to plot and study for his Court of Master Sommeliers Theory Examination. He had created a program originally to find unique French wines along the route of Tour, and then gerrymandered it to provide information on the entire wine world.

Well, a polka dot jersey goes to Van Wagner, as he passed his exam in Dallas this month, a test that has a less than 10 percent pass rate. Today he can tell you more about wine and the people who make it and the places it comes from than, well, just about anyone. He still has two stages of the Tour to go to achieve status as a master sommelier, the Practical (service) and Tasting examination components, but congratulations to him for achieving a goal that he had studied for for nearly a full year.

Now the rest of us may neither need nor want to acquire that much information on wine. But one of the joys of being a wine lover is satisfying our curiosity about the who, what, where, why and how of what we drink. There are a number of places to get info and improve your wine education, ranging from books to the Internet to classes and, yes, even sanctioned programs.

Let’s start with the sanctioned programs. Outside of university degree programs from places like UC Davis or Washington State, perhaps the most serious wine education you can get is from the alphabet soup of certification courses: CMS, WSET, MW, ISG. These are all courses that, based on examinations following various study, provide certification that will designate the achievement of basic standards in wine.

The CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) may be the most well-known among the general population, as it was the subject of the film “SOMM,” which followed students attempting to pass the exams. It may also be both the most definitive and grueling course of study that one can undertake in wine. Definitive in the sense that it is rigidly focused on the profession of sommeliers, and grueling in the sense that some work for years at it without passing. If your goal in life is to have validation as one of the premier wine professionals on Earth, this is your course. (

The MW (Master of Wine) is a London-based certification program that is perhaps a bit more academically structured than the MS, but no less rigorous. Attainment of the MW requires that a candidate has “passed the Stage 1 Assessment, the Theory and Practical components of the MW Examination and (written) a Research Paper and have signed up to — and abided by — the Institute’s Code of Conduct.” How very British. There are fewer than 400 people who have passed the MW, and just a handful who have become both masters of wine and master sommeliers, which in the wine world would be the equivalent of someone having degrees from Oxford and Harvard. (

Then there is WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). Also London-based, the four-tier WSET program may be more consumer friendly, that is to say a bit less formidable, especially in the first tiers for consumers or those who just want to know a bit more about wine. Still, the study is challenging and passing even the first level of certification, the Level 1 Award in Wines, is an achievement. WSET candidates attend classroom gatherings or work online initially and are required to pass multiple-choice tests for certification.

Of course, these programs require a significant commitment of time and money for those who participate. But if you want to simply spend some time with wine on the internet there are a plethora of places to go. is a fun and informative site, especially if you just want quick answers to wine questions. The major wine publications, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, and the British Decanter sites offer current wine news, ratings and articles, though much is behind paid portals. Still, they are worth exploring.

But maybe the easiest thing you can do to learn a wee bit about wine every week is to sign up for Karen MacNeil’s “Winespeed” digital Newsletter. The author of the best selling “The Wine Bible,” MacNeil sends a Friday missive with facts, figures, news and reviews written in a fun and accessible format. All for free. Sign up at

Stay smart.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at

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