Matt Kramer’s ivory tower and the “credentialization” of wine culture in America

best cork screw boulder coloradoI went to a public university that had a scientific bent. As I was one of its less brainy students, I’ll save the school from embarrassment by leaving it nameless.

This memory surfaced as I thought recently about how wine has changed.

In case you’re not getting the reference, the above is a parody of an article by the illustrious, ivory-tower-educated and senior wine writer Matt Kramer, whose recent op-ed for Wine Spectator, entitled “Not a Trivial Pursuit,” has been the subject of lively discussion among wine professionals on social media this weekend.

In Kramer’s Jeremiad, he bemoans the “credentialization” of the wine trade. O the lamentization of wine writing these days!

“It seems that everyone is seeking to be a ‘master’ of this or that,” he observes. “Does wine, of all subjects need such credentializing?” he asks rhetorically.

“Documentaries depicting young, ambitious sommeliers intensely pursuing such a diploma embarrassingly reveal just what a literally trivial pursuit this credentializing really is.”

The “modern demand for a credential,” he writes, “is larger and more substantive than mere careerism… We now insist on a kind of professionalization that has less that has less to do with the benefits of an education and more to do with jumping through hoops held by others in order to acquire a diploma of some kind.”

“Now, you could say that it was ever thus, and you’d have a fair point,” he concedes. “But our current pursuit of credentials creates an undesirable class differentiation for a subject that neither needs nor deserves one.”

O Kramer! Say it ain’t thus!

His op-ed wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t for that line about “an undesirable class differentiation.” That’s where his argument falls apart and where he betrays his bête noire rouge.

In another time, the realm of wine authority belonged to people like him, his peers, and to those who have acquired “an understanding of wine… over a lifetime of bottle slowly savored during a meal. It’s like living with a painting as opposed to gazing at one for 30 seconds in a museum.”

Evidently, you need to have the financial means to “live with a painting” in order to achieve an “understanding of wine.”

The “undesirable class differentiation” that he writes about doesn’t work for him because it runs in the wrong direction, in other words, from the proletariat class moving upward.

On Saturday morning, I found myself sitting next to a Master Sommelier candidate at our neighborhood diner. We were both there with our kids having bagels and eggs and fish.

“Did you see Matt Kramer’s article?” he asked me. “I have all the respect in the world for Wine Spectator but come on!”

My Houston colleague is the wine director of one of the city’s most illustrious wine programs where oil-and-gas set high rollers spend obscene gobs of money on a deep-reaching list of French and Californian wines. The list has won numerous Wine Spectator “Excellence” wards.

“I’m studying for the Master,” he said, “because I’m trying to push myself. I’m trying to make myself a better wine professional.”

Kramer, I’m sorry to break it to you, man: the world is changing more rapidly than you can -izize or -ism the new wave of young people who may not have attended an illustrious college like you and probably don’t have Picassos hanging on their walls.

Reducing them and their studies to an -ization runs counter to the spirit of what wine is at its heart: human nourishment and hospitality.

While you gaze upon your Matisse comfortably nestled in your cozy ivory (read Platonic) cave, a glass of Caymus Special Selection in hand, a new generation of wine professionals and their post-nominals are shepherding a throng of new wine lovers into a brave and thirsty new world of wine appreciation.

Just think: many of these hoi polloi will ultimately become Wine Spectator subscribers. And in my view, even that is a good thing.

Thanks for reading this and please ascribe my bad grammar to my public school education and the fact that my family and I don’t have a Rothko hanging on our wall.

36 thoughts on “Matt Kramer’s ivory tower and the “credentialization” of wine culture in America

  1. I like this. Thanks, Jeremy. As someone about to finish the WSET Diploma, pursued in hopes of establishing a “certifiable” amount of street cred as I moved into the wine world after years in other fields, I think Kramer is letting his self-satisfaction show. There are many paths for lovers and students of wine. Not everyone rises in the same way or on the same terms. Thanks for saying so.

  2. I tend to disagree. I don’t feel that Mr. Kramer is highlighting his blue blood, and find it unusual that the attacks on his position seem to land squarely at him, rather than his message. This attack to me is reminiscent of political figures that make impacts highlighting the differentiation between the classes rather than the struggles inherent with the class structures.

    Rather than delve into Marx, I offer that the first question asked when I tell people I work as a sommelier is ‘What level are you?’ – I feel this condition is derived from the injection of marketing into the profession via credentialization. I don’t think Mr. Kramer is saying you need to own, to use your example a Rothko to enjoy it. I feel he might be arguing that it is more valuable to visit a (most likely free) museum and spend time in contemplation rather than take an exam to acquire a credential to publicize your ability to understand. After all – what do most people do with their credentials if they are smart? Go on to work in Sales, Marketing, and Branding. Just my two cents.

  3. I tend to agree with Michael. Some how the arguments against Kramer’s opinion are being pointed towards his financial status? His “Ivory Tower”? As if his position disqualifies him from having an opinion? Or that he gained, or that in the past wine pros gained, their knowledge “because they could afford it”? If Somms (this title has been stretched so thin that it now means almost nothing and everything it seems) are the new sacred cow then opinions about the “Somm” culture should be broached in a “consumer” magazine. The “Court” has quickly replaced the “Old guard” as wines new secret society and unfortunately we have to remember that “The Court” is a business with its own agenda. Somm backlash has been brewing for quite sometime. I think Kramer was talking directly to the “Consumers” who read his magazine. The Court does not talk to consumers (except to take their $ for level 1) instead they have set themselves up as the deaf to wine police. Sad really.

      • Just to correct the Karuth’s statement; CMS pays it’s own members for “services” in order to stay not – for- profit. There is a fundamental and legal definition between non-profit and not for profit.

        • Nate,

          The difference between non-profit and a not-for-profit is colloquial. The CMS is in fact a not-for-profit (a designation of state law) and a 501(c) 6 under federal law. The term non-profit is a description used to describe something in colloquial not legal terms. I am in no way speaking for the CMS, but I am someone who understands the legal structure of not-for-profits (legal) and non-profits (colloquial) of which the CMS is both. I’ll spare any further clarification, but trust me on this one.

  4. Geoff,

    Highlighting the difference in tax structure does not really change the fundamental need for cash flow of an organization, regardless of paying taxes on said cash flow or not. I will respectfully add that pointing out tax structure, which in the case of a section 501(c) allows an organization the ability to not only deduct expenses just as a C corporation would, but avoid income taxes (as the NFL has done for decades, another ‘non-profit’) it does not change the underlying point Nate is making; the court wants money. The catholic church is in fact a not for profit organization, but they happen to own 177 million acres and hundreds of vatican embassies. Trust me on that one.

  5. Geoff, I stand corrected though most “non-profits” are organized a bit differently the the CMS. They are not “membership driven” who then pays the “top” members for their services. In some circles this is called a pyramid scheme.

    I also want to make sure that I don’t come off as hating on the court. I don’t. Nor do I think there is anything untowards in the structure. However, I firmly believe Kramer’s opinion was to Mirror consumer thinking to his own readership.

    We live in the day of prolific “trade to trade” marketing. Everybody is trying to either make status or $ off of the trade. We are a closed loop that is bound to collapse because consumers think we talk at them instead of talk with them. Or worse yet we talk above them.

    Imagine if a Vineyard could talk about us? What would it say?

    • I don’t speak for the CMS, but let’s just say that your characterization how (c)6 non-profits are organized is not coming from a well-informed perspective. No organization is above critique, but you are mistaken in your characterization.

      If you want to make an argument that there is no reason to deify anyone who passed a wine test, I’m sure most of us would quite agree with you. If you want to argue that wine education is a bad idea and not worthwhile as a professional, I will happily take the other side of that argument.

      • Do Master Somms get paid appearance fees and expenses directly from CMS in order to represent the CMS at Court classes and functions? We both know the answer to that.

        No disrespect Geoff but if you have something to say about the above article instead of “not speaking for the court” that would be great.

  6. Any like organization is extremely limited and regulated as to members receiving benefit; that’s not what they are designed for. I’ve heard gross misinformation about this and the reason I replied. It’s not my place to make any specific comment but feel free to research such organizations – better than making unqualified statements.

    For me I teach MS classes despite financial considerations, not because of it. As an MS, if I want to earn an “appearance fee” big enough to pay my baby-sitter and gas, we have plenty of actual options for that.

    As for this article, I thought it was right-on and I didn’t care for Mr Kramers’ piece as you might guess.

    • Do you or do you not extract a fee for services to the court?

      Trust me, this is America, We all want to pay for our babysitter and gas. Some of us even pay for wine!

  7. Yeah I’m about to leave my family and fly to Texas to teach an advanced level class for $200 which half of us won’t bother to collect. That’s like accusing someone of doing jury duty for the money. I hope that makes this clear how off-base you are.

  8. My problem with “the “credentialization” of the wine trade” is that the knowledge one “has to learn” is very arbitrary and, of course, out-of-date. It’s based on the biases of the standard bearers who think they Know What’s Important. WSET alone has 8 different levels! I wonder which level it is where you have to name all 142 French appellations along with the permitted grapes in those appellations; of course we won’t have that for Italy, Brazil or Slovenia because it’s not France. If Chinese consumers consumer more red wine than any other nation (which apparently they do), how much do you have to know about wine in China to pass each level?

    Level 1, Wine, includes “Health, safety and legal issues” – because, when you drop a bottle on someone’s foot they’re going to sue your ass in the US but probably not elsewhere.

    Level 2, Wine & Spirits. Not just Wine. You have to become a semi-expert in Spirits. Because, knowing about the tens of thousands of wines released every year isn’t enough that we’re going to make you learn an entire other category. Should we stop there or make you pronounce and name 2000 sakes? I mean, com’on it’s sake! And ciders are again hot, so, are there 30 questions on ciders from Spain, Normandy, BC, California, Vermont, New York, etc.? Or do they not matter because this is Wine & Spirits, not Wine & Cider. And never mention the B-word!

    Do I need to make each wine professional I interact with show me their Wine Level Card? Does Master of Wine still beat Master Sommelier? Which of these requires you to make five vintages before you can receive the card? Do you have to own a vineyard, a winery, a restaurant, a wine store, a wine importer, or have your own cruise ship to score Extra Gold Stars on your Level Card? Does being a cellar rat, a retail sales person, or an importer sales rep bump up your level a bit? Are there bonus points for appellation you’ve visited in person? Triple bonus points for each unicorn wine you’ve drunk? At what level are you permitted to drink 80-year-old Massandra wines? Seriously, which of these counts and why? Do you lose points if you’ve ever wine blogged, spoken to the Hosemaster in person, purchased wine futures, or quoted a wine rating to a consumer in the past seven years? Where does his madness stop?

    So to me, “the “credentialization” of the wine trade” seems to be about exactly three things: 1) Getting a better paying job, 2) qualifying for a Wine reality TV show and, 3) Winning Wine Jeopardy.

  9. Wow… where do I begin?
    Matt Kramer is nobody I am a fan of, and his writing is fairly boring for all of the supposed accolades he has acquired. That is my personal opinion and I simply choose not to read his work. As for Wine Spectator, it is a magazine that gives underperforming wines undue praise. It doesn’t take a master of anything to look over their “top 100” and see a ton of garbage wine being advertised as something special. It does the publications already weak reputation even more damage and is detrimental to the novice wine enthusiast who really wants to experience great new products. I choose not lend support to the publication and tell my guests my opinion, if they ask. With that being said, Kramer does bring to light a valid point on the material that the court covers and the applicability of its teaching method.
    If you want to rail on the court, take issue with its antiquated testing format, lack-luster education curriculum and the weak networking it provides its freshly minted masters. At this point, successful passage of either the advanced or master level grants you very little more than what your networking, intelligence and experience would have already gotten you. A simple addition of some marketable business skills to the curriculum and the reduction of the trivial aspects of the exam would rectify this fairly quickly. Furthermore, the faster the court and its members can run away from these ridiculous “somm” movies would be so welcomed, as it makes wine professionals who work hard to become educated and seek to be the leaders of an industry seem petulant to the casual observer. We are not movie stars, celebrities or anything remotely special. We work in restaurants, serve alcohol and make dining experiences better for people… and that is good enough.
    As for Nate (above poster) trying to give Geoff Kruth some sort of virtual tongue lashing for being a master sommelier and accepting compensation for participating in CMS sanctioned events, regardless of the taxation status, it is simply erroneous to imply that Geoff is not one of the more genuine wine professionals and a true contributor to the world of wine education. Unlike Matt Kramer who throws stones from his glass house, Geoff was instrumental in bringing the Guild of Sommeliers website to fruition, which may go down in history as the most comprehensive and informative wine and spirits education platform ever to be created.
    So, Matt Kramer is just being a wine writer who seeks to be the authoritative voice in an industry that’s getting younger and passing him by. Nate (the above poster) is just being a comment board internet hater; a dime a dozen in this world. We should all be grateful if Geoff keeps expanding upon his body of work, because it is fantastic. It helps us all stay sharp and helps master somms who come to sell me wine study up on the things they forgot years ago on the way to the appointment.

  10. Carlos, thank you for referring to Nate ( above poster) as a hater, and I might add coward, hiding behind the convienence of not saying the uninformed and ignorant trash he is talking directly to Geoff. God forbid he becomes one of my Twitter followers and stalks me ruthlessly while eating Cheetos in his underwear and trolling the Internet looking for someone to bash and/or terrorize. I might also add that the CMS is a testing organization, not a teaching one. There is nothing lackluster about their teaching ciriculum because they don’t teach. As an MS candidate, I expect nothing once I get my pin. It is my initiative to move forward and get whatever I can get, no matter what the endeavor is. No one held a gun to my head when I payed for my intro. I am doing this for my edification, not because I think it gaurantees me a cush job with KJ. As for Matt and the WS, stop paying for the rag.

    • Nice words. Eloquent. I could have swore the court put a memorandum on you guys giving yourselves the additional title of Master Canidate? Just to be clear I was not hating on Geoff or the Court just trying to be clear that it is run as a business.

    • Directly from the court – “The Court as an organization does not recognize the term “Canidate” at any level including Advanced and Master. Permitting the use of what one aspires to dilutes what you have already accomplished. Do not use in Print or web material the following terms or derivatives of these terms – Certified Exam Canidate, Advanced Exam Canidate or Masters Sommelier Canidate”.

  11. So education is bad and ignorance is good. Sounds pretty political to me in an allegorical way. Admittedly, the enjoyment of wine is up to the beholder and wine is better now than it has ever been. The one eyed man can be king in the land of the blind. Kramer implies that the only reason to be a candidate is to further the sale of expensive wine. However to understand wine can free one from that illusion. That $4.99 Walmart bottle can sometimes be the one to take. As they said at Faber College-“Knowledge is Good”.

  12. What I find most people keep drawing the conclusion that a critique on an organization is a critique on education itself, which I don’t think is point. The vehemence I’m reading keeps reminding me of a religious comparison, and appropriately so, considering at the forefront of the conversation is an association called, “The Court.” Considering the organization is less than 40 years old, it’s astonishing how quickly it has risen to the forefront of the discussion on what it is to be a Sommelier. Almost as if we started certifying growers of wheat, when farming has been going on since the dawn of civilization.

    I don’t believe anyone thus far has commented with the aim of ‘bashing the court’. I’m sure everyone here has benefited from it, and gone through at least part of it. Yet the paradox arises when one seeks to have it both ways; if the Master Sommelier credential weren’t accompanied by prestige, association with a popular movie, and a large pin to wear, would it be as popular? Does a holder of a Doctorate in Philosophy wear his cape and gown when teaching?

    Geoff Kruth demonstrated excellent political acumen by avoiding to answer what we all already know, as pointed out by Nate – CMS is a business, albeit one with special tax privileges. Jack Everitt made great points about the fact that it does not really do the best job testing useful curriculum, ironically so I would argue it may even serve to perpetuate the mentality this piece accuses Matt Kramer off – but it is at the forefront of fostering education which most would agree is valuable.

    Thanks for another thought provoking piece Dr. Parzen.

    • Michael,
      I think that is still an inaccurate characterization of the function of the CMS and the reason I chimed in on this thread to begin with. The CMS is a not-for-profit “business league” not a business in the way you described it. It’s charter is very well defined to maintain and support the Master Sommelier diploma. Its Chairman and directors have always been unpaid. It supports the quality and prestige of the MS diploma. Its members earn a living and pick focus in the wine business to their own accord. Any honorariums given by a business league are of a trivial nature and subject to strict rules of private inurement. This is not a point of debate for anyone who understands how such business leagues work. You can research them yourself; they are well defined under federal law. There is no pyramid scheme possible despite what any conspiracist on a blog might suggest.

      • Geoff,

        We can agree to disagree on the characterization. I’m not suggesting it’s a pyramid scheme, as I mentioned – we’ve all benefited from CMS. I would hope that you don’t believe the honorarium that you earned from so much work is of a trivial nature. I certainly don’t.

        Yet I will finally ask – does one need to understand the gear box inside a car to comprehend it’s function? That would seem to be the point you finished with, and our main disagreement.

        If we are discussing a business league, a social welfare organization, a fraternal society, a political organization, or any other type of tax-exempt organization – they are all organized around the intake of capital, and I am in agreement that this is not a point of debate. Your previous comments about them being highly underpaid do little to change this fact. If I may be so bold as to say a degree in finance, several years in corporate finance, and a family member working for the IRS would give me some basis to comment on this.

        Lastly, I would say that a charter is a basis to begin. While the charter of CMS might have started 40 years ago to support the Master Sommelier diploma – that might not be where it is today, which is what I believe Kramer was trying to say. Berkshire Hathaway is no longer just a textile business in New England.

        Respectfully –

  13. Geoff, this seems really important to you? This conspiracist does have access to form 990 for both CMS and The Guild as these are public record.

    On another note it really seems like Girl proved at least some of Kramer’s article by demanding to give herself an additional title above her already profound achievement of Advanced. And that the practice was so rampant that the CMS had to send out a memorandum may even prove Kramer’s case further. If that is not credentialization I don’t know what is.

    • Nate
      It would be ideal if you could spell correctly. Candidate, not canidate. It seems as if you are a small minded person living in your moms basement judging everyone that is not you . I do not demand anything, I live up to what I do. Throwing stones is a cowards folly, man up.

  14. It would be ideal if you could spell correctly, candidate not canidate. You seem to be a small mined person, living in your moms basement, doleing out judgment to people that are living the dream. I don’t demand anything, I am content in what I am doing.

  15. To me Credentials are fine, but not the only way to become a solid wine person. What irks me is the phoniness of the restaurant business where really the only way to get hired is to look good and be young and then they train you. Passion and quest only apply if you look like a model in the business now. If you are a bit older, or you aren’t model good looking, you will never get a job.

    • You’re right for the most part. Being on the floor selling wine is a young man or woman’s game. If you’ve got a bad left knee (like me) or want to spend time with a s.o. or children, it’s no the profession for you. As far as looks, it’s not so much about beauty as appearance, meaning how you dress, how you groom, your vibe.

  16. Just left this comment over at DC, it’s equally pertinent here, I think:

    “Just because Kramer writes well doesn’t mean that his opinions are well-formed.
    If he has offered data in support of his opinions on credentials, I have yet to see them.
    I would counter-argue that the “undesirable class differentiation” of which he speaks has been perpetuated far more over the last two decades by the staff of Wine Spectator than by anyone bearing a credential from SWE, WSET, or the MS and MW programs (the latter two containing the majority of wine experts that, from what I can discern, have done more to make fine wine more accessible to more people than any other group in the history of the product).

    If we happen upon methods and work ethics that mirror those taught by those programs, then we should consider that could be the result of both hard work and luck, rather than an indictment on the effectiveness of the programs themselves.

    Sorry, but I’m Kramer-ed out at this point. His take on this sounds like that offered by someone who has never done the hard work to obtain a professional credential in wine.”

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