“Mala tempora currunt” would say the Romans, these are dark times.
With the current global situation, online learning has gained the center of the stage as a primary mean of education for a wide spectrum of subjects, wine included. However is it appropriate to study wine?
I have a pretty long experience in learning wine online: I moved my first steps in the world of wine thanks to a friend who started teaching me Italian wine. Only problem, he was in Tokyo and I was in Kobe. As a result, we would meet on Skype with a bunch of other friends and have a lesson every Sunday evening, following the program of a famous Italian association of sommelierie, exam included. This was back in 2009!
My WSET Diploma was also online. That was (and still is) the only option in Japan: two very intense years (2015-2017) of study and homework. The WSET Online structure is interesting: it is not made of frontal lessons, but of a series of activities where you are given a topic and you must write about that. It is an excellent way to train your writing skills and to avoid simple mnemonic learning, which would be useless for such a certification.
Finally, I also have experienced the online programs of the Wine Scholar Guild, precisely the Burgundian Master Level, the Italian Wine Scholar and the Spanish Wine Scholar. The structure here is much more traditional and straightforward: the Master Level is composed by a series of videos, while the Italian and Spanish Wine Scholars are made by a collection of interactive modules. In each you have exercises, a list of recommended wine, pronunciation references, maps and other goods.
On the other hand, the internet is being used in a variety of ways for wine: we go from simple tasting videos, where a host guides us through the characteristics of a wine of choice, to tasting-less webinars (like those by the Wine Scholar Guild). The WSET is now allowing online “frontal” lessons, on condition that they are live and interactive, to compensate the class disruption caused by the present emergency.
Another interesting experiment is being done by Stephan Metzer DipWSET: he offers blind tasting sessions by sending wine to the participants and hosting online commentaries of said wines, according to a schedule.
This last approach tries to tackle what is the main issue of learning wine online: tasting. Wine study includes a sensorial component that is very difficult to replicate by distance. Either you do a webinar which does not need wine tasting, like the webinars of the Wine Scholar Guild, or you need to find a walk-around to this problem.
The WSET gives a wine list to all of its students, included in the Specification. In the online courses you will then be responsible to fetch the wines on your own and then post a comment in the Online Classroom. The problem: how does the instructor know if the acidity in your wine is going to be medium, medium+ or high? The answer: he doesn’t. The instructor will look at your note, check its formal correctness and maybe advance doubts in some limited, blatant cases, like a Cabernet Sauvignon described as a low acidity and low tannins.
However for an instructor it is very difficult to make judgements when he or she is not able to taste the exact bottle of the student and this is the fundamental problem on online wine learning.
Sometimes the issue is not relevant: the Wine Scholar Guild courses have no tasting exam at the end, the wines to be tasted are just a reference, to verify in the glass what is being taught. Wherever your tasting skill is not put to test, I think that distance learning for wine is possible, although imperfect.
However when it comes to courses like the WSET Level 2, WSET Level 3 or WSET Diploma, I am very very skeptical about this approach. Sometimes it is inevitable, for logistic reasons, and at least at Diploma Level candidates should have a solid foundation to start with. With lower levels though the students are still “building” their palate, trying to get a grasp on all the different aspects of wine. Some of them, especially those outside the industry, may not even be aware of what a corked wine tastes like!
Sending bottles and conducting tasting sessions with those is one solution, but as I said, the risk of tainted wine or bottle difference, or bottle shock if you are going to send the package somewhere, is subtle but real.
One would have to taste the wine before sending it, which may be theoretically possible using Coravin, but only with cork closures. Furtheremore: are you really going to ship a wine punctured with Coravin? To me it seems even riskier than sending the closed bottle.
This is why, while my first steps in wine learning were online, after that stage I really felt the need to taste wine with professional instructor. For this reason I went some months to New Zealand to get my WSET Level 2 and Level 3, at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine.
This is also why I struggled a bit to pass the tasting exams in the Diploma: although I never failed, I feel that I really got the handle of the WSET tasting approach after starting to work at the school, side by side with experienced and talented instructors willing to give me guidance.
Online learning is a marvellous way of expanding your knowledge. In this period it may be the only way wine schools have to survive. As a result of this emergency, this technology will become familiar and in the future more and more schools will be able to implement distance courses and webinars, expanding their offer. This is good.
However as long as wine will be considered measurable according to objective criteria and conclusions will be drawn based on these criteria, as long as this judgement will form an integral part of wine exams, online learning for wine will always remain a niche market that will need to be supplemented by real tastings and practical experience.