Wednesday, 21 June 2023 16:25

Point of View: Could you be the next New Zealand MW?

Written by  Emma Jenkins MW
Emma Jenkins MW Emma Jenkins MW

Is the Master of Wine worth it?

In our neck of the woods, a winemaking or viticulture degree is often seen as more useful. I don't actually disagree with that view - we are certainly a production-focused industry. But there are many facets to wine. Despite some progress over the past two or three decades, I doubt many would argue that we have a particularly strong or sophisticated wine trade. We are small, far away, and too often operate as an uncritical echo chamber/cheerleading squad. I am very proud of what New Zealand wine has achieved thus far but not convinced anyone benefits if we're content mostly to just sell or highly score all-too-often anodyne wines from an increasingly consolidated production environment without questioning whether this is really the best we can do.

Perhaps I am a biased source, but I believe this is where the value of undertaking a qualification such as the Master of Wine (MW) really lies. By design, it forces one to consider all aspects of the global wine trade, to think deeply and critically (in the true sense of the word) about how the world of wine really fits together. It’s a challenging and rigorous process that requires thorough understanding of wine production, history, business and culture, alongside excellent tasting and communication skills. The ability to master all of these at once is the fundamental key to success in the exams, but it doesn’t end there. One of the joys of joining the Institute as a MW is the ongoing immersion in a membership organisation that demands rigour and up-to-the-minute thinking about wine.

When I started my own MW study in 2004, there were more than a dozen New Zealanders at various stages of the education program. This has dwindled to a mere handful despite the fact we have had several recent passes. This is a great shame, as our distance from mature wine industries, as well as the inherent potential of our own industry, makes it all the more important to foster people with a broad and holistic view of wine. Obviously studying for/becoming a MW is not the only way to gain this viewpoint, but it is hard to beat as an excellent grounding in its most important areas.

So, for those feeling tempted (or skeptical!) what does it entail? To gain entry on the programme, candidates must have been actively and professionally involved in the wine industry for more than three years, hold a WSET Diploma level (or equivalent) qualification, gain a reference from an MW or other experienced trade figure, and sit a practical and theory entrance exam. Acceptance into the Stage One year gives access to a five-day residential seminar (the closest to New Zealand is Adelaide) and four non-residential course days, online theory and practical assignments. It culminates in the Stage One Assessment – a 12-wine blind tasting paper and two theory papers (held in Adelaide, Napa or London), the passing of which allows one to proceed to Stage Two. Failure means repeating Stage One or taking time out to continue preparation. Stage Two’s basic requirements and support are the same but after a year at this stage candidates can make their first attempt at the practical and theory exams (generally candidates take a couple of years in Stage Two and a full pass must be achieved within six years of starting). The practical exams comprise three 12-wine blind tastings – wines from absolutely anywhere, which are assessed on their origin, variety, quality, winemaking, commercial appeal and style – and five theory papers spanning viticulture, vinification, pre-bottling procedures, handing of wine, business of wine and contemporary issues (sample 2022 question: “does anyone still need wine writers?” Ahem). Candidates get five attempts to pass the exams overall and must have passed at least one part within three attempts. Exams are held in various locations globally, the closest being Sydney. Once the theory and practical exams are passed, Stage Three requires a 6,000-10,000-word research paper on an original topic of their choosing. Upon its successful examination, they are welcomed as an MW at London’s Vintners’ Hall.

This sounds fairly arduous, and it is! But it’s also incredibly rewarding. “Studying for the MW entails the highest highs and the lowest lows; it really is a journey in self-understanding, humility and knowing how far you can push yourself,” Marlborough’s Sophie Parker-Thomson MW says. “The exams are a veritable marathon that require as much time focusing on endurance as it does the skills of blind tasting, essay writing and the theory behind all areas of the wine industry. When I received the phone call in February 2021 from Adrian Garforth MW letting me know that I had passed, it was this euphoric, surreal moment in time I’ll never forget.” New Zealand’s most newly minted MW, Hawke’s Bay’s Michael Henley, agrees. “Passing the final hurdle took me a little longer than most! So the feeling was immense relief, as though a noose had gone from around my neck. I felt pretty proud of myself to be honest, that I had finally achieved it and that I had managed to join quite an exclusive yet incredibly inclusive group of likeminded people. It has changed my career direction considerably and given me renewed enthusiasm and confidence in what I can do in this very cool industry we work in.”

Obviously passing one’s MW is the ultimate reward and undoubtedly helps with career development. Sophie says the two years since attaining the qualification have been busier than ever, “and it has been rewarding being on the other side; mentoring MW students, engaging with the incredible network that is the global MW community, and immersing myself in projects and causes that I deeply care about”. With a 15% pass rate, realistically this isn’t the result for most. That doesn’t make undertaking an MW a futile endeavor. On the contrary, most who have been through the process value it for its own sake: the time spent with like-minded candidates and MWs, the travel and tastings, the immersion into the theory and practical study components all significantly deepen every candidate’s knowledge and understanding of the wine world. It’s a skillset and mindset that I would love to see more New Zealanders contribute to and benefit from.

Emma Jenkins MW became New Zealand’s ninth Master of Wine in 2011, having already achieved a diploma in winemaking and viticulture. In addition to work as a wine consultant and writer, Emma is Research Paper Chair for the MW education programme.

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