By Lim Hwee Peng, CSW, FWS
10th March 2012
I was struck by this brief yet profound statement uttered in the highest office of this land – the Singapore Parliament, where ministers and members of parliament gathered to discuss national policies, and in this instance, a debate on Budget 2012.
In a loose translation, those wise words in the Malay culture means ‘you cannot love what you do not know.’
Ms Faizah Jamal, a nominated member of parliament, was expounding on how the act of discovering nature can relate to self-discovery and nation-building (see full text here http://bukitbrown.com/main/?p=1952).
Her passionate sharing appeals not only to my senses, more importantly, the Malay wisdom that she put forth led me to reflect on a specific dynamic of our industry – the earnestness in acquiring knowledge.
When I was a rookie in the wine fraternity (in early 1990s), one is accorded the ‘professional’ status based on the years one spent in the industry. Professional certifications were rare and unheard of; and even if some enlightened souls were to encourage it, an oft-heard response would be ‘why do you need to study when all you need is to sell jiu?’
(Note: ‘jiu’ (?) is a common mandarin term that were used in the early days, which literally encompasses all forms of alcohol, including wine)
WSET education was brought into the fore only in the mid-1990s. My fellow program participants, who enrolled in the WSET International Higher Certification program, were probably the first few industry practitioners who valued the worth of a formal professional education.
For the others, being able to hold your liquor; speaking in the same ‘language’, thinking in a similar wavelength and indulging in activities that pleased the clientele were some of the established ‘professional’ deeds.
It is also common to find a wine industry practitioner (on and off-trade) to ‘smoke’ his/her way on product knowledge, especially when they were being queried by customers or on-trade clientele
e.g. Customer: ‘what is the difference between those two wines you are promoting?’ Wine guy: ‘oh, this wine is fruity, the other one is fruitier’.
At the end of the day, as long as cases of wines were moved, or bottles of wines were being sold to diners, those were the KPI of the day.
Fast forward to modern days; even with the realization that consumers and the market have evolved (consumers are much savvier than before, also widely traveled, highly exposed and educated), I am shockingly alarmed that the outdated ‘1990s’ thinking still exists among the wine industry.
Once, a young and attractive wine sales person even exclaimed the uselessness and irrelevance of qualifications in the wine trade, simply because she can sell bottles of wines just spending time with her potential clientele (perhaps she was not privy to a Chinese proverb ??????? – the ulterior motive behind an inebriated individual)
These days, in any setting (whether in retail, restaurants, or in wineries), it is common to see wine lovers seeking information that are available at their finger tips, literally.
With the advent of apps and easy access to information via iPhone, consumers can instantly find information on the wines they are enjoying.
Therefore, the challenges of being a credible wine professional, and the level of professionalism in modern context, are not just providing fundamental details that consumers can easily access.
How then can a wine professional be appropriately equipped to manage such high expectations?
Firstly, get out of that aged and outdated mentality, regardless of the years an individual has been working or has achieved in the wine market; after all, most successful Chateaux listed in the 1855 Classification did not continue to live or thrive without making changes in adapting to a constantly changing market.
Secondly, acknowledge the need to upgrade and enhance one’s profession in the industry, unless that individual is only keen on making a splash in the trade, without seriously considering it as a career.
More importantly, take the initiative and a keen interest in investing in your career-growth, because if one is not even willing to put in a good amount of devotion in his/ her own career, it is preposterous to expect someone else (commonly referred to as ‘my boss’ or ‘my company’) to invest in you.
Perhaps to illustrate the importance of acquiring professional knowhow in our field; two of my recent encounters may serve as an urgent need for us to be, at least, mindful of the level of competency in our profession.
Two weeks ago, when I embarked on an international certification program as an Australian Wine Educator, my fellow program participants were not just passionate about wine and education, they are also highly qualified.
We have a year-one MW student from India, who is also an author of a wine book (in fact, the first wine book in India); a Japanese wine educator with competitive experience in several All Japan Sommelier competitions, as well as being a certified wine specialist.
A South Korean educator who is also a certified Burgundy, Bordeaux and Spanish Wine Educator, and a Diploma in WSET to boost her qualification; representing Hong Kong were two well-qualified educators that have a Diploma in WSET, International Sommelier Guild (Level 2), as well as being certified Spanish and Bordeaux wine educators.
Among the four fellow Chinese program participants, some were qualified Bordeaux and Spanish wine educators, almost all have a WSET level 2 educations, and one is attempting her Diploma program in WSET.
All participants were able to communicate fluently in English (unique and quirky accent included, but that is a true-blue ‘Asianess’ that should be encouraged, as long as effective communication takes place); two of the Chinese wine educators even speak fluent French!
From personal observation in my local contacts with the industry, as well as through several visits in international markets (including wine regions), it is high time we stopped believing in our sheltered world, and trash the oft-told fairy tale that we are a step ahead of other markets.
In truth, our competitiveness is eroding at a rate that we should be doing something IMMEDIATELY!
Second incident occurred a week ago, when I finally had the opportunity to attempt my French Wine Scholar certification examination, some of my fellow wine trade friends queried me ‘why do you need to acquire another certification? Aren’t all that you have achieved good enough??’
As a wine professional, I realized that the wine world is not only a dynamic one, but also set in a diverse landscape. I bet not even a MW would assuredly pronounced he/she knows EVERYTHING about wine. Much less for mortals like us, thus, a continued-learning mindset will certainly make a credible professional.
With those two incidents shared, can we assuredly and categorically state that wine industry practitioners in our market are competent and professional in words and deeds?
Where do we stand when we compare the professionalism of local market vis-à-vis the rest of the region and continent?
I am certain some readers will doubt my purpose in this sharing as I might turn this article into a self-promoting initiative.
Certainly, there can be some benefits for our efforts as we aspire to increase professionalism through structured wine certifications.
But to be a true professional, it would take more than just attending one or two wine programs to be recognised as one.
A paradigm shift of attitude and also adopting a life-long approach in learning would certainly ensure a prosperous career.
If an Asian wisdom is beyond you, there is a similar saying in America, ‘if one can’t tell, he can’t sell’.
Trinchero Napa Valley, Haystack Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak 2007
Trinchero Napa Valley (TNV) winery is located north of St Helena, in a knoll with Spring Mountain to the west, and Howell Mountain to the east.
It is also a property of Trinchero Family Estates (TFE), which is one of the largest family-owned wine estates in USA.
Trinchero Napa Valley made a host of premium wines at its winery, using mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, supported by Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
All the TNV wines were vineyard and AVA specific, thus making it one of the best examples of connoisseur wines, and also great examples for educational purpose.
Of specific mention is the TNV Haystack Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Atlas Peak, northeast of Mount Veeder.
This is a well-made wine, with traditional Napa Valley style in its expression, yet without the deep concentration of modern muscular Napa Cab. It is able to capture a wine lover’s mind with its juicy and fleshy mid-palate, framed in an almost austere structure, with a scent of mineral note – an essential quality of a well-crafted wine.
I took a liking to this bottle as I was impressed by its authenticity and honesty; a wine that is strongly-built, yet retained sufficient poise to offer elegance to its overall appeal.
This wine is suitable for:
American Steak House/ Restaurant
Fine Cantonese Cuisine
Wine Bar’s Fine Wine list
Price per bottle: USD60 (quoted from the winery website)
Available at: Trinchero Napa Valley (http://trincheronapavalley.com/#/winery)
Besides producing well-made wines in its TNV range, TFE is also known for promoting professionalism through its wine education arm, spearheaded by Mr Barry Wiss, CWE.
Every year, through TFE, Wiss has reached out to hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of trade professionals to be certified and upgrade their knowhow on the TFE education platform.
I was one of those fortunate few that benefitted from the initiatives.
Our focus for introducing formal certification programs into the market was also inspired by TFE and Wiss’ passion in enhancing a professional’s career through structured wine education.
Locally, the Employment & Employability Institute (e2i) has been fervently supporting our cause through subsidy and creating awareness on their platform.
It is through those supporting institutions and shared visions that we were able to conduct eight successive batches of Certified Specialist in Wines (CSW) program.
Through this sharing, we hope our program graduates and the current batch of participants can appreciate the efforts and intention behind those joint-initiatives.
We are also confident that our continous efforts will enhance their professionalism.
Afterall, when one truly become professional, all stakeholders benefit (????).