Customers have never been more knowledgeable — or more curious — about wine and spirits. A well-versed staff is a must.
Enter the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Founded in 1969, this UK-based organization has grown into the largest provider of qualifications in the field of wines and spirits. It is government approved, and works with third-party providers to put on training programs around the world. Lessons develop tasting skills and product knowledge.
The WSET certifies participants in levels 1-4, with 4 being the most advanced qualification. The end product is a certificate of achievement. Anyone from novices to professionals, small schools to major businesses, can take WSET classes.
We recently spoke with David Wrigley (pictured above), International Development and PR Manager of WSET, about the lessons offered.
CH: How would businesses benefit from your classes?
DW: Employees need to know about products, and know how to talk about them, in order to do their job properly. If staff can talk comfortably about wine and spirits, that’s very important.
One issue we have with businesses is them needing to pull staff for training. It’s a double hit. Business need to free up staff for training and then also replace them in the store. Businesses need a real good reason to do that, but they are seeing the value in having their staff talk about wine and spirits.
CH: What do classes entail?
DW: We developed something we call SAT: Systematic Approach to Tasting. It’s a common language for describing wine through logical deduction. Level 1 of that is for the absolute beginner. It can be done in a day.
We also try to have people understand wine from a global perspective. In America we’re very familiar with wines from our backyard, and not quite so familiar with other parts of the world. But it’s increasingly a global world now and it’s important for retailers and servers to know what’s going on out there.
The biggest challenge when we look at curriculum is determining what’s important and what’s not. Wine in particular is a subject that’s completely fact rich. There’s a wine’s origin, vintage, blend percentage, etcetera. It’s possible to get tangled in the weeds. Our team tries to get people to see the woods for the trees, to sort out what is and isn’t important. For instance, the DOCs are important, but the individual vineyards perhaps not as much.
The vast majority of our students who come our way already know something about wines, particularly about their favorites. The value we provide is filling in their knowledge gaps.
Our training is a broad representation of everything. We’re not brand specific. We’re more about objective knowledge. The whole idea of what we do is to put people in the position to have an objective opinion on any wine or spirit.
CH: What are you teaching in spirits?
DW: Right now our spirits program is mostly a part of levels 1 and 2 of the wine program. But we’re working on spirits-only training, including advanced training. That’s a reflection of what’s helping the spirits industry grow — a lot more distilleries are now doing different things.
We teach about the production process, and the maturation of spirits. Now consumers are more into the nuisances of production. And we also want people to know some key brands.
CH: Do you know what difference these classes make?
DW: We had an impact study done once. It measured results in 30 stores. We broke them down into 10 groups. One was the control group, which received no training. One group received WSET training, and the third group got the same training plus some sales training. The WEST-plus-training group did significantly better, with the WEST training having good results as well.
The study also found that the training added a million dollars to the bottom line across all the businesses. And mind you, this study was 12 years ago. If anything, the craft movement makes all this training more valuable.
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Cheers Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @kswartzz