Independents pride themselves on having a knowledgeable clientele. But who educates these customers, and how much do they really understand about the wines they buy?
Running a wine school, however informally, is an increasingly attractive option for specialist retailers. For consumers, it’s an enjoyable way of gaining expertise in a subject that already interests them. For the shop owner, it’s a way of encouraging trade-up and loyalty. But wine classes are not necessarily money-spinners in their own right.
The word “school”, like the word “education”, can be problematic, especially in a trade that considers itself a branch of the entertainment business. But learning can be fun, says Richard Bampfield MW, chairman of the Association of Wine Educators, with 75 members dotted around the UK.
“There are all kinds of options but the merchant should be trying to deliver at least two types of wine course: the more structured WSET style, and the more convivial things,” he says. “I get the impression that some wine classes are singles’ clubs, because wine gets conversation going and creates a convivial atmosphere. There’s a social element to wine tastings if the format is conducive. I’m not saying that in a negative way, I’m saying it in a positive way.”
Ian Harris, director of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, adds: “The more educated and the more someone knows about wine, the more they’re going to be prepared to pay and that’s got to be good for the industry. The supermarkets don’t embrace in-store education but where the independents have got a fantastic advantage is there is a growing number of people that are bored with the stack of £4.99 special offers and they’re prepared to pay £10. But they need to be given a reason why they should pay £10.”
The WSET says 14 wine merchants in the UK are approved programme providers in their own right – there are 200 providers all told. To become accredited to teach a WSET course, candidates pay a £500 fee covering a three-day educator programme. “It ends with the candidate having to deliver a teaching session – and some people do fail,” Harris says.
IF YOU AREN’T WSET accredited, you could buy in the services of one of the AWE’s members, all of whom are Diploma-level qualified and assessed for their teaching ability. “Most AWE members have made it their business to know and support their local wine merchants in the hope that when they are doing something like this they will call in some qualified educators to do some of the courses,” says Bampfield.
“Just because you can run a wine shop doesn’t mean you can present well. Teaching and presenting requires a particular skill set that isn’t necessarily the same as running a retail wine business. Having said that, there are merchants that are fantastic speakers.
“Generally for a two-hour session most educators would charge £150 but would be hoping to get nearer £300, but it really does depend on the individual and the working relationship they have with the merchant. It may be that they benefit in other ways, perhaps with stock.”
Formal wine classes tend to follow the WSET structure. It’s sometimes assumed that such courses only appeal to people in the trade, but Harris reports that some 30% of those who study for WSET qualifications in the UK are consumers. That’s nearly 4,000 people in total, many of whom are learning on the premises of their local wine merchants.
“Level 1 can be done on a Saturday, which is very popular these days – it can be more practical than committing to three Tuesday evenings in a row,” says Bampfield.
“Level 2 can be eight two-hour sessions with a bit of homework. It can be done over three days, but people have to be pretty engaged. Level 3 is possible in a week, but it’s pretty demanding.”
He adds that punters who are paying good money for their wine education expect to pass their exams, so proper planning is vital.
“If you are going down the formal route, you have to make sure the environment the course is in is suitable. The space needs to be airy, it needs to be bright, you need PowerPoint facilities. People need space to be able to put their glasses and books out. People obviously need to be sitting down, but if it’s informal there might be a strong case for people standing up. You need the right glasses and you need an educator who has proven results.
“A two-hour session is normally pretty good. It is quite intense, and we know what wine’s like – it’s incredibly complicated and when you’ve got so many hundreds of grape varieties and place names to get to grips with it’s pretty hard work. Although in the trade we’re used to tasting, not everybody is, and it can be hard to taste and take on information.”
Bampfield believes 12 is the optimum number for a wine class, giving the merchant a reasonable return on costs.
Despite the position he holds, Bampfield shares the unease about the word “education”. He says: “It’s much more about engagement and inspiration more than education. Education is far more effective if people are really engaged and inspired by what’s happening. We explore different formats to make it more fun, so it isn’t just a classroom.”
Great Grog, Edinburgh: a learning curve
Owner Richard Meadows is accredited by the WSET and offers Level 1 and Level 2 courses. He charges £80 for the basic course and £160 for the intermediate, though discounts may be available for wholesale clients.
The courses take place at the Edinburgh School of Food & Wine in Kirkliston. “I was doing them on site but we moved premises and this one is not as good,” he says.
Are the courses successful? “They work OK,” is Meadows’ cautious verdict. “They’re not lucrative – we can’t make a living doing them. You’ve got to give people wine and feed them a bit. You’ve got to go and buy that and then there’s your time – and it’s a day’s work.
“They dovetail with the shop and give us some kudos. We can fill them with wholesale customers we need to educate, and we can get a few paying customers.
“We all do a bit of the lecturing. I quite like doing it – education is one of my things. I would love to do it full time but there’s no demand in Scotland.”
Meadows is happy to continue running the courses using the WSET framework – indeed he says it would be “pointless” to go a different route. But he is not entirely comfortable with the WSET’s decision to offer distance learning to Diploma students. “They used to do the Diploma all over the country and they were supporting local educators and local institutions,” he says.
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Bristol independent Clifton Cellars offers three formal wine courses, but they are not WSET-structured.
“We’ve taken a slightly different approach in that I concentrate on the mechanism of taste,” owner Alan Wright explains. “I talk about wine, and what wine is, and follow the WSET guidelines on how to taste, and then go a bit deeper and talk about the difference between taste and flavour.”
The courses have been running for almost 15 years. The most basic is a two-hour course, for a minimum of six people, priced £25 a head.
The second course, which takes place over two sessions, is £50 and a third, over eight sessions, is £150. Students receive notes on all wines they taste and, depending on how far they take their studies, learn about grapes and viticulture, the use of oak, faults in wine, and the characteristics of various wine-producing regions.
Wright says the courses are advertised on the website and promoted through word of mouth. Many customers go on to attend other tastings and events organised by the business.
Some of the regulars include medics, who have contributed their own ideas on why people experience taste in different ways. “We’ve had some lively debates,” Wright says.
Like Meadows at Great Grog, Wright dismisses the suggestion that running wine classes is a way of giving the business a huge revenue boost. In any case, that’s not his motivation.
“I think it’s more to do with getting people to know that we’re here, we exist, and that we’re not just about selling them some wine and saying goodbye, but trying to get them really interested in wine,” he says.
“It’s very good fun. If you can’t enjoy yourself when you’re having a glass of wine, when can you?”