I have just returned from London, England where my wife, one daughter and I attended the graduation ceremony for 2010 graduates of the WSET Diploma program. I was one of those graduates.
This was a real highlight for me, something I decided to do when I was mired in the depths of the dreaded Wines of the World unit – as a motivator to complete my studies, and ultimately as a reward for completing them. Well, it worked!
It was rainy outside last Monday night but the lights were glittering inside Guildhall and I was with some 170 fellow graduates, sharing the distinct pleasure of completing a task that now seemed not-so-difficult. That’s the benefit of time. The challenges we had to deal with were not on our minds as we shared the occasion with the holy trinity of wine writing: Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson – respectively, the Honorary Past President, the Honorary President and the Honorary President-Elect of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
There were some 700 people – graduates and guests – in the Great Hall of Guildhall, with graduates from 23 countries in attendance.
Presently over 27,000 candidates in 55 countries study at some level in the 5-level WSET accreditation scheme. Courses are available in 14 languages and the program has now reached a point of international scale where annually more Diploma graduates reside outside the UK than within. WSET accreditation is required for advancement in many global wholesale and retail organizations in the trade (including the LCBO) and the Diploma is recognized as the stepping-stone to studies for the Master of Wine.
All of this is to say that attending the graduation ceremony reinforces my understanding of London as the center of the global wine trade. London is more than the epicentre of education for the trade. More world-recognized wine writers are based in London than any other wine capital (i.e. more writers in addition to the holy trinity I noted above) and the wholesale and retail players are the leaders in their respective domains. These firms are defining how the trade will move forward in a rapidly-changing world wine marketplace.
A reception was held following the ceremony and there was plenty of opportunity to test the state of the trade in the UK. Like Ontario the business of wine in the UK is dominated by large player(s). In the case of the UK, the dominant firms are the supermarket chains – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose, among others. In addition there are numerous specialty retailers – chains, brokers with retail operations and storefronts – throughout the country.
The UK wine and spirits marketplace is intensely competitive and the smaller players constantly seek unique market positioning to avoid the aggressive margin-threatening discounting practices of the big players. The smaller players like Bibbendum, Oddbins and Majestic seek to differentiate themselves with wine clubs, advice-based selling, small lists that constantly change, small producers that don’t get coverage from the supermarkets and market-based lists tailored to the preferences and attitudes of the local community.
I spoke with the Chairman of Oddbins, Henry Young, about his plans for his firm. Henry is the new owner of this business and he will be unrelenting as he steers clear of discounting in recognition of the narrow margins in the trade. He sees opportunity to differentiate successfully by segmenting the 158 store markets he presently occupies. He will re-build his business – at one time there were almost 300 Oddbins stores throughout England – on selection and service and operate as a local merchant in each market, not as a chain centrally-governed from London. Several of his staff – smart, young people, all – were prize winners at the graduation ceremony.
The UK wine and spirits trade is front and centre in its support for WSET programs. Firms, large and small, support WSET as patrons, they grant prizes and scholarships and they supply a very large proportion of the students.
I am often approached by people who want to start a career in the wine trade, young and mid-career folk, alike. During and after our recent long weekend trip to London I have been thinking about this question and I now have a comprehensive answer. For those who want to get the best start in the trade I think there is no better strategy than to (1) get as much formal trade-oriented education possible; (2) ideally work in a winery or two along the way and (3) subsequently seek employment in the trade – wholesale and retail, both – in the UK. While it might involve a time investment of some 10 years, the knowledge and experience gathered by following this route would be a perfect launch pad to a career anywhere in the world, as an importer, buyer, front-line store operator, educator, writer or even, vigneron.
I wish I were 30 years younger….in the meantime, I am letting my feet slowly return to ground (while I work on my proposal for the WSET Level 5 Honours Diploma dissertation).
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.