In Conversation with Steve Charters, Master of Wine, Part 1

While at a conference on wine tourism in Sion, Switzerland, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Steve Charters, Master of Wine and Director of Research at the School of Wine and Spirits Business, ESC Dijon in Burgundy. He gave a great presentation on a fascinating topic and he was also very kind in accepting a small interview for Bottled Bliss.

British-born but currently residing in Dijon, France, he became a Master of Wine in 1997. With a PhD from Edith Cowan University in Perth, his professional experience ranges from wine retail, marketing, management, writing, research and academia. As a novice, it was a great opportunity to get his insights, his advice and his perspective on such a dynamic industry. In this first part of a two-part series we discuss the basics of getting into the wine industry. The conversation offers plenty to think about and much to chew over for anyone considering a career in wine. I invite you to read over some of my thoughts on the interview (please see previous post) and in the following months, I hope to post the second part where we discuss wine tourism.

I want to thank Dr. Steve Charters for his time, his insights and a great conversation. I’m very grateful for his advice and I hope it will serve others well too.

You have lots of experience in the wine industry, how did you end up where you are today?

SC: I did all kinds of other things in the UK. Originally I qualified as a lawyer. I got a degree in history, but [did] all kinds of different things. I moved to Australia in 1995 and I had become very interested in wine. I’d done a few wine courses in the UK including the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma. When I moved to Australia I needed to get some work so I started working selling wine in a wine store. I learned a great deal about Australian wine and what was available but it wasn’t intellectually super challenging. So in Sydney I drifted into the Master of Wine (MW) program, which I never considered doing in the UK. I always thought I’d never be able to do it but I drifted into doing it. I passed the MW, at which point I’d been doing a certain amount of wine education for consumers and the wine trade around New South Wales in Sydney. But I needed to get a full-time job and someone who I had met a few years before, who was an academic on the other side of the country, in Perth, rang me up and said “Steve, I need someone to run wine courses and to set up a master’s program in wine business, would you be interested?” So I and my wife went to the other side of the country, to Perth, and I became an academic. Having done that, I got fascinated by the academic side of wine. I did a doctorate, a PhD, which was about what people in Australia think quality is in wine when they drink it. I also had a lot of contact, while I was in Australia, with the Champagne region in France. I won a regular competition that takes place in Australia, which sends people to Champagne every two years – for professionals, non-professionals, and students. So I’d been to Champagne and I went back a number of times. While I was in Western Australia, after I had been there for nine years, a job was advertised for the business school in Champagne and I and my wife had been talking about coming back to Europe and that looked ideal. So I got the job there. I worked there for six years but decided it was time to move on and the business school in Dijon, where I work, was setting up a dedicated school of wine and spirits business, which seemed ideal to me so I moved here.

You mentioned you ‘drifted’ into the Master of Wine program. From my understanding the Master of Wine program is really intense and it’s a pretty hard exam, how is it that you drifted into it?

SC: It is a difficult exam but I did drift. There was an evening information session with a few wines to taste, and there were probably about 50, 60 or 70 people and I thought, well I’ll go along for that. Then they were running a one day seminar for people who were seriously interested [in Sydney]. So I thought, well, I’ll do that. At this stage my wife was very encouraging and also the manager of the store where I worked was very encouraging. He said, “Look Steve, you ought to do this. I think this is a good thing.” Then there was a chance to enrol in the program proper, which meant a one week seminar in January. I thought, shall I do it or not? You know, there was a cost attached. It was not cheap and you don’t get paid a lot working in a wine store but, again both my wife and James, the store manager, they just said, “It’s a good thing. Go and do it.” So I did it. Then I had to decide to go onto the second year and I did. Then I had to decide if I wanted to sit the exam. There was no absolute determination ‘I am going to do this at all costs’ but having decided I was going to do it, I then worked hard at it. The ability to pass the MW exam is based much more on organization and work then it is on any natural ability to taste wine. If you can organize, plan yourself and plan your work schedule, and if you can give yourself the time, it can be done by any reasonably intelligent person. So I really did drift.

How important was it to have support or pillars like your wife and your employer?

SC: One of the things that we always tell students looking to study the Master of Wine program is that you need to have support in doing this. Broadly, you need your family behind you and you need your employer behind you. And if they aren’t, it’s going to be very, very difficult, particularly the family. If your family just thinks it is a waste of time and it’s far too much work for a very limited potential reward, because the chances of passing are so small, then forget it. It’s not going to do your family relationships any good.

How have you seen the evolution of wine industry since you began?

SC: The world of wine is expanding. Each year there are new wine regions. There is more wine being made in places where, when I became a Master of Wine, it wasn’t being made. The volume of wine being made in Australia, where I used to live, has expanded a great deal since I became a Master of Wine, although over the last eight years or so it’s actually sort of trailed off a little bit because of demand issues. So there is a lot more wine. In fact, too much wine in the world because we can’t sell it all but that’s a separate issue. There is clearly the impact of new markets and the obvious ones here are the Asian markets, which are coming on board. But even before that you have places that traditionally did not drink a lot of wine. I’ll mention Denmark, which is a tiny country, but that has a very high per capita wine consumption now which it didn’t have 40 years ago. In fact, it may well overtake France at some point in the amount of wine per person per head drunk each year. And that’s replicated across Scandinavia, across North America. There is more wine being drunk but this is a vast question and I don’t think I can do justice to it in the space of a few minutes.

What’s the best thing about being an academic in wine?

SC: The thing I love about wine which relates to being an academic is that there are so many facets to it. It is a really exciting drink to drink because there is such a wide variety but there are also so many ways in understanding wine. Wine reflects different cultures of people who make wine. It reflects the different motivations of people who drink it. You can examine wine from a marketing perspective. You can understand it from an aesthetic philosophical perspective. You can look at it psychologically, or historically, or sociologically. There are so many ways of using wine as a means to see how people engage with the world. What they enjoy and how they view things more generally.  My PhD was in consumer behaviour and consumer behaviour draws on all of these aspects: anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, and so on. So in my work, my thinking and writing is generally around wine but never from a single aspect, never from a single dimension. I have a low boredom threshold. It allows me to keep myself active and engaged. And at the end of it all, you can sit down in the evening have a glass of a really nice wine and relax and just enjoy the pleasure of drinking it.

You are one of very few people in the world who have the title of Master of Wine.

SC: Yes, there are about 350 of us.

What do you love about being a Master of Wine?

SC: Well, it completely changed my life. It took my life in a direction that it would almost certainly not have gone in if I hadn’t become a Master of Wine. I’d assume after I became a Master of Wine I’d become a marketing manager for a company or something like that. It certainly gave me the chance to become an academic, which I really enjoy, though it never occurred to me that this is what I wanted to do. So that’s the first thing. The Institute of Masters of Wine is full of really interesting people. For me, one of the defining characteristics of Masters of Wine is that they are not just interested in wine. We have Masters of Wine who have climbed Mount Everest, who’ve rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, who run marathons for charities, who are painters and sell their paintings, who write detective stories, a whole range of different things. And the point of being a Master of Wine is that you have a hinterland to wine, you have other interests, you can think more broadly not just about wine but about other things and I think that’s really good.

What are the challenges of being an academic and/or a Master of Wine? I know this is a pretty broad question, but just in general.

SC: … I think that everyone in the wine industry has to show their relevance. Obviously if you are making wine the relevance is will people buy your wine? That’s easy. But in the case of someone like a Master of Wine who does a little bit of consultancy but also does teaching and research, you got to show that what you are doing is relevant to the industry. That you are providing something that the industry needs.

Do you think it’s necessary to have some sort of wine certification if you are looking to work within the wine industry? Certification programs like the WSET, Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, are they really necessary?

SC:  I think the WSET is a really useful qualification because it is available to people, again, who are prepared to work worldwide and it shows you have a basic knowledge of wine – at whatever level you have- of how it’s made, of grape varieties used and what it is likely to taste like. I think any certification is good as long as it is rigorous. The WSET is widely recognized and widely taught. I think that’s first rate. I think Master Sommelier and Master of Wine is much harder to get and as long as those institutions and many institutions like that have got or maintain a rigorous approach to their assessment, to their examinations, then they are useful. They say certain things about you. They say different things about you. Master Sommeliers are not Masters of Wine and vice versa. There are few who are both, who cut across both fields, but there is a different kind of culture to each of the two. So I think accreditation is good but in the end, accreditation is only as good as the people who’ve got it and the use they make of it.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting off in this industry?

SC: The first piece of advice I’ll give you is that lots of people get seduced by the romance of wine but you need more than that to make a living in the wine industry. Now I saw this most obviously in Australia where I would regularly meet people, often very rich people, who had been very successful in one form of business and who just loved wine. And they wanted to own their own vineyard, they wanted to make their own wine. They had a dream of sitting on the veranda of their new house in the middle of whatever wine region it was, with their friends, drinking their wine and watching the sun go down. It’s a lovely, lovely dream but it is hard work. If you like the modern replacement of those people, they are the people who love to blog about wine. They think, I love wine, I’m going to have a blog. It sounds like I’m criticising you and I’m not criticising you. Blogs are a wonderful thing and blogs give you feedback to develop your ideas but a blog on its own doesn’t make a living. I’ve seen too many people who think because they love wine they can talk about and therefore they will be able to earn money around it. You don’t earn money because you love wine. You earn money because you are very good at making and even more, marketing it or are extremely good at writing about it. And when I say extremely good, I mean that you are a good writer. If you want to come into the wine industry as a critic, you’re starting point should be, Can I write well? And if I can’t, how do I develop those skills. Not can I taste well. There are other people who think, I’m going to be a wine merchant because I love wine. Being a wine merchant is a really difficult thing. It’s very, very hard. It’s very capital intensive and again, the fact that you love wine doesn’t mean that you’re going to run a good wine store or be a good negociant. So I suppose my first piece of advice is what skills do you bring to this and a love of wine is not a skill. It’s a passion. Even good wine tasting is just what everyone who works with wine should have. That’s not something that is distinctive. And the second thing I’d say is do work hard at getting some kind of accreditation for what you can do, to show that you know things. Now that accreditation might be a formal accreditation like the WSET, which as I said is extremely good. It may actually be working at a cellar door or as marketing manager or as brand manager for a winery for a period to show that you know how the business works and how to be successful in it. Or it may be qualifying as a winemaker and making wine.

 

 

Please stay tuned for more.

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