March 15 2010 issue

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PAGES (70-78) March 15 2010

COVER STORY Certification Update Tim Gaiser, MS

A survey of wine-education programs around the country

When the Preview Issue of Sommelier Journal went to press in 2007, the world was a different place. My article on sommelier certification in that inaugural issue spoke to a strong economy, booming restaurant and hospitality industries, and a sommelier profession that seemed to have finally come into its own in terms of popularity and demand. Today, the landscape is completely different. The global economic slump has had a severe impact on the sommelier community and on the restaurant and hotel industries. In fact, more restaurants closed in 2009 than in any year in recent memory. Others scaled down their beverage programs, and with those moves came a declining need for sommeliers.

But there is a silver lining in this dark cloud: historically, any economic downturn is accompanied by a strong surge in reeducation and retraining. Those who have lost jobs or have had their current positions cut back are seeking other career alternatives, and many are now looking at the wine industry as a possible landing place.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that wine-certification programs are in more demand than ever before. Last year, as director of education for the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, I helped supervise a record number of classes and exams—not only in the United States, but in Puerto Rico, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore as well. Specifically, our Certified Sommelier examinations, Advanced courses, and Master Sommelier diploma examinations showed incremental enrollment increases. Last year also saw a record 15 new Master Sommeliers named from among those who took exams in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The MS program was not alone in terms of growth in 2009. Paul Dray, associate director of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., said that “the numbers show that our volume of enrollments is actually up significantly compared to last year. But there’s more to the story than a simple number. The primary driver of that increase is the number of students who are enrolling in multiple classes, most notably our Wine Immersion program.”

Dray’s comments are echoed elsewhere in the industry. Peter Marks, MW, vice president of education for the Constellation Academy of Wine at Constellation Wines U.S., is also a lecturer and examiner for both the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. When asked how the economy has affected enrollments for both organizations, he replied, “I don’t think the excitement for education in the industry has waned at all, even with the economy.” He went on to note that “people who are really serious about the wine industry as a profession know that one is expected to have a certification of some weight when you apply for a job. We’re starting to put some of our employees through the WSET programs because we know that it will make them more knowledgeable, confident, and credible with their accounts.”

University wine and hospitality programs have also seen increases in both interest and enrollments. According to Edward Korry, CSS, CWE, department chairman of the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University, “Johnson & Wales’s enrollment has increased during this past year, while reducing the rate of admission to 67% of applicants as standards have become more demanding. Despite the poor economy, retention rates have also increased significantly over the past two years.”

Dr. Margie F. Jones, an associate professor in the Collins College of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Ponoma, observed that “a decision to return to school is fairly common in tough economic times. In this down economy, the California State system saw a 30% increase in applications. Unfortunately, this increased demand for education is challenged by diminishing state funding for higher education.” Many wine professionals are even doubling up on their credentials, said Jones: “Achieving an industry-recognized certification while pursuing a bachelor’s degree offers undergraduates a couple of advantages. First, a certification on a recent graduate’s resume would be a competitive advantage for our undergraduates in this tight hospitality labor market. Second, in this tight-budget environment, it is often difficult for students to enroll in elective courses.”

One of those multitasking students is Yohannah Burmeister, California prestige account manager for The Henry Wine Group in the San Francisco Bay Area, who is pursuing certification in both the MS and WSET programs. “The Court of Master Sommeliers and the WSET are complementary certification programs that help train well-rounded, dynamic wine professionals,” she said. “Participation in these programs fundamentally shows a high level of commitment and follow-through and is attractive to employers. They have directly helped me advance my career with The Henry Wine Group and have made me a strong resource for restaurants, retailers, luxury hotels, and individuals.”

Melissa Monosoff, MS, sommelier and beverage director at Savona Restaurant in Gulph Mills, Pa., agreed: “Wine-certification programs have proven to be valuable credentials for me in the wine industry. Learning from the best pushes me as a professional to be at the top of my game both in knowledge and technical skill. This has inspired me to teach others and remain humbled by how much there is yet to learn.”

Considering the recent economic upheaval and the continuing surge of interest in the wine industry, finding a reputable wine-certification program that offers solid value has never been more important. I always recommend that prospective students thoroughly research the programs they may be interested in before enrolling. Wine educators and established professionals are sure to respond to requests for information on the institutions within their experience. But the best people to ask may be recent graduates who have gone on to pursue careers within the industry.

The tables in the gallery are an alphabetical listing of current programs, many of them suited to professionals and consumers alike.

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