Wine Education1

Wine Certifications, Racial Politics, and Me

Wine Food PairingI try to avoid (as much as possible) speaking politically on this wine blog, but sometimes I may receive a comment, an email, or read an article somewhere that gets me going.  This is one of those times.

I have been reading several articles on the necessity (or not) of wine certifications and credentials.  After all, many of them argue, the likes of people like Robert Parker, for instance, don’t have certifications.  They do quite well. Plus there are many people working as sommeliers in fine restaurants and who have never taken a class.  (As a matter of fact, I know a young man who works as a sommelier and has no certifications at all. But he’s outstanding.) Most wine writers don’t have any certifications, and many of them are very well respected. So therefore, they reason, certifications are not necessary for anyone.  Just do it.

I am an African-American woman “of a certain age” who decided to make wine a post-retirement career. While having a certification may not be altogether necessary for the average person, in order for me to have credibility, I feel that certifications are more than a necessity. Otherwise, why should anyone take me seriously?  And won’t that give them a reason to dismiss me and my knowledge? While I am expecting a certain professional respect for the work and the knowledge that I’ve worked so hard to earn, the fact of the matter is that there are people in places of power (i.e., hiring) who won’t care how many certifications I have. Their answer will always be no. Ask me how I know.

I currently hold a CWAS (California certification) through the San Francisco Wine School, a Sommelier (L1) through “the Court,” and am a candidate for both the CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) and Certified Sommelier credentials. That’s just this year.

Next year I will be tackling Certified Wine Educator and WSET Advanced and *maybe* the WSET Level 4 Advanced Diploma with the idea that the Master of Wine may be well within my reach within a few short years. My problem is that because I’m working the “day job” and studying at night, I don’t have time to work in the industry as required by the Court in order to go to the Advanced Sommelier (and ultimately Master Sommelier) levels and as required by the Institute of the Masters of Wine. So while I may have my “eye” on one of the advanced credentials, the reality may be that from a practical standpoint, I may not be able to qualify for them. Could I pass them? Sure.  After all, I spend my nights studying!

Why am I so driven? Because I’m “an African-American woman of a certain age”!  Apparently I am the only one who’s out getting as many certifications as she can. I was raised in a beer and spirits environment (North Philly isn’t exactly known for its wine culture), but when I discovered wine, I was hooked and fell madly in love. It took a few years to realize that if I want to have credibility in the world that I love so much, I’m going to have to flex my wine chops with the all-important post-nominals. How else are people going to know that I do indeed know my stuff*?

My observation of the field of wine is that there isn’t a problem if you’re a woman or if you’re black.  There are many women heading successful wine programs in outstanding restaurants, and I understand  how hard they had to work to earn the respect and credibility of their male peers.  There are a couple of African-American male Master Sommeliers who have passed the exam (and a couple who’ve come close, which is like most everybody who takes it), and who have successful wine careers. The problem is that I haven’t been able to find any African-American women who are heading successful wine programs. I know that the numbers of African-American women sommeliers are quite low, and they are working primarily as staff sommeliers rather than Head Sommeliers or Wine Directors.  Is that a result of  ingrained discrimination or a result of there just not being enough women pursuing careers in the field?  While I think it’s primarily the latter, some of my own personal experience shows that may be the result of the former. If you know of any that I’ve missed, I want to meet them.

That being said, I have a tough skin.  I can take it. I’m an old hand at this.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the Masters level in either of the certifying bodies just because of my age, day job work schedule, and having only a few years in the hospitality industry that I earned when I was a young divorced mother trying to make ends meet. But the way I look at it, if I *don’t* try, I definitely won’t succeed. Knowing that there are less than a dozen American women who are MWs and NONE of them are of African descent and there no female African-American Master Sommeliers…well, that’s an incentive, isn’t it?

 

*Insert appropriate “S” word here.

 

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