Why the Critics of Wine Certification Programs are Wrong.


“This is not a pipe.”

The Internet is awash these days in opinions about everything the value of wine certification programs. Some people are for them. Some are against. But while some criticisms have merit, the most common one – that a “piece of paper” is nothing compared to real-life experience – is baffling.

My initial response to this observation is: Well, duh.

A medical degree won’t replace years of experience practicing medicine. But the practitioner (and patient) will still benefit from both the “paper” and the real-world practice. Similarly, the criticism that a WSET, CSW, Guild-Somm or other wine certification program is somehow worthless because it is something distinct from experience is an argument built upon more straw than it takes to make a fiasco bottle.

The “it’s just a piece of paper” criticism fails because the critic implicitly replaces the word “and” with the word “or.”

“One can have experience OR a piece of paper.”


“One can have experience AND a piece of paper.”

From what I can see, the only people making the first argument seem to be the critics themselves. I have seen no claims, from students or schools, that sommelier certifications are designed to replace experience. In fact, when I took my classes at the WSET in London, nearly every student there was already working in the trade. There was a distributor agent from Brazil. A retail employee from Calgary. A hotel manager from Berlin. And a marketing rep from Great Britain, to mention a few.

These wine professionals understood that a certification program is an adjunct to real-life experience. Not a replacement.

Into each life, some rain must fall. And into each industry, some hucksters emerge. Do some people have the false impression that a lapel pin will replace real-world experience? Do some schools take advantage of this misperception?

Perhaps. But if that’s your argument, then provide some evidence for it.

My journey into the professional world of wine is just beginning. Even with a WSET 3 award, I am a complete noob. I get that. But my certification prepared me for my professional ignorance. It gave me context and allowed me to understand the framework of learning about wine. It has been invaluable.

To the critics, I won’t say shut up. Far from it. I want to hear the criticisms. But those criticisms need to be levied at the specific individuals making false equivalency claims or the specific institutions exploiting the potential misperception – not at the thousands of people who already know the difference.

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

Ape Artwork (c) 2014 Walter Moore, used with permission.