Do wine writers need qualifications?

wine cert

Do you really need a certificate to pontificate about wine?Henry Jeffreys gives his thoughts on booze blogging…

A little while ago I was reading the comment section on a wine blog, in which someone had written in to voice his displeasure that people could start blogs and pronounce on wine without any formal training. The commenter argued thus:

Just as it takes qualifications to be an expert in the medical or legal field (MD or Attorney) if a wine blogger has aspirations to be an authority and thus have a following they need to earn certification from a recognized wine organization such as Society of Wine Educators, Court of Master Sommeliers or study of enology and viticulture with course credit to show… No experience = no credibility. That’s the problem with many wine blogs.

My first reaction was that this seems fair enough, we don’t want ignorant people passing judgment on something that they know little about. Perhaps Leeds, my alma mater, could offer a course in wine writing where one could learn how to spit accurately from a distance, the correct use of the word ‘austere’ and the difference between Verdelho & Verdejo. Knowing Leeds the course would also examine how a rich seam of African wine writing was suppressed by a conspiracy of dead white males.

From reading British wine blogs however, I’m not sure this is necessary. The ones I have come across are curious, calm and none of them claim knowledge that they don’t have (there are some American ones that try to ape the authority of Robert Parker JR without the experience and some Australian ones that seem to have been written by excitable cricket commentators who have just had their first drink.) Sometimes I long, when trawling the internet, for a Clarkson of the wine world making absurd pronouncements based on enthusiasm and a cheerful ignorance of technical matters – if anyone knows of one please let me know.

What I like about wine is that you can explore a whole world from the comfort of your living room without any special equipment or training or even, unless you want to scale the heights, that much money. Combine this with the internet and there’s a forum for enthusiasts to opine away. Unlike say rock climbing or medicine, a little inaccuracy isn’t going to cause any serious ramifications.  And what Mr Appalled of Sonoma misses is how some of the best writing on wine comes not from Masters of Wine or vignerons but from the curious amateur. One thinks of Evelyn Waugh, Jay McInerney and Roger Scruton – all writers who manage the rare feat of putting the magic of wine into words. And who would dismiss Samuel Pepys’s pronouncement on the ‘good and most particular taste’ of ‘ho bryan’ because he didn’t have his WSET higher certificate? You can’t have the Waughs without the Clarksons and I say this as someone who is glad to have both.

I’m not saying that qualifications are worthless. If I want to know something or some disinterested advice before spending a lot of money, I turn to writers such as Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson. Their qualifications and experience give them authority. But for me, this is secondary to the fact that they both write elegantly and, most importantly, I tend to like the wines that they like. In the end it comes down to how you write and what you like.

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About Author Profile: Henry Jeffreys

Henry Jeffreys was born in Harrow, Middlesex. He worked in the wine trade for two years and then moved into publishing with stints at Hodder & Stoughton, Bloomsbury and Granta. Under the name Henry Castiglione, he reviewed books for the Telegraph Under the name Blake Pudding he was a founder member of the London Review of Breakfasts website as well as a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury, 2013). Since 2010 he has been writing mainly about drink under his own name. He is wine columnist for the Lady magazine, contributes to the Guardian and was shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason drink writer of the year 2013 for his work in the Spectator. He is writing a history of Britain told through alcoholic drinks called Empire of Booze. He blogs at Henry’s World of Booze.

6 thoughts on “Do wine writers need qualifications?

  1. Worm
    May 13, 2014 at 09:01

    No one asks of any qualification whatsoever of a food critic, beyond being able to write evocatively (and often times about everything apart from the food, viz. AA Gill et al) so perhaps it’s a chicken and egg thing, people only want to see your credentials once there’s a credential on offer…

      May 13, 2014 at 15:37

      Ah yes, critics, chickens and eggs.

      You don’t need to lay eggs to judge a good omelette.

      Or, indeed, a good roast chicken.

      • Worm
        May 13, 2014 at 16:04

        Incidentally Mr Sediment, your very excellent blog could (no offence intended) be put forward as fitting (very loosely) the criteria of ..”a Clarkson of the wine world making absurd pronouncements based on enthusiasm and a cheerful ignorance of technical matters”

        Anyone who hasn’t read it should check it out here, fantastic blog

    May 13, 2014 at 15:17

    Back in the day, Adam Smith could well have argued that qualifications existed largely for certain classes – the guilds in his day – to maintain their priviledged access to certain jobs. What would he know, though? He was hardly a qualified economist.

    May 13, 2014 at 15:52

    I work in the universities, which I find hard not to consider as a fully automated middle-class-o-matic. The kids go in one end, where lights flash, chalk flies and biros whirr, and more-or-less employable, very middle class graduates come out the other. Views, attitudes and tastes guaranteed to satisfy! Defective items may be returned for a complete refund. We place them in the graduate programme for recycling as educators. Oh Brave New World!

    May 14, 2014 at 00:00

    For unabashedly unqualified wine writing, I would refer you to Calvin Trillin’s “The Red and the While”, collected in Feeding a Yen, in which he says

    “I have nver denied that when I’m trying select a bottle of wine in a liquor store I’m strongly einfluenced by the picture on the label. (I like a nice mountain, preferably in the middle distance.”

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