It reminds one of the old joke: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Lady, you gotta practice.” How do you obtain a qualification in wine? Work, work, work.

One way is through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which exists to educate the wine trade in everything from tasting to customs regulations; and it deserves attention because it has transformed itself from an organisation providing courses that were taken dutifully, even cynically, 10 years ago, to one training people in 57 countries, in 14 languages.

Then around 11,000 people took its courses every year, and 70 per cent were in Britain. Now, in the year to July 2012, 45,000 people sat them; and 75 per cent were based abroad. That is quite a turnround.

It needed to happen. I remember taking the higher certificate more than 20 years ago. The exam was multiple choice, and to pass with distinction all you had to do was to memorise one particular textbook. It was not very challenging. The book was long out of date, and you knew that some of the answers you had to give were simply wrong. But that was the deal. The WSET, at the time, was hard to take seriously.

In 2002 Ian Harris was appointed chief executive. He’d come from Seagram, but knew the WSET and its ways because he used to lecture on Cognac for it. He took over an organisation with £90,000 in the bank, and a monthly salary bill of £75,000. The trust is a non-profit organisation, true, but there are limits. Making a trading loss for two years running, as it had done, did not promise much of a future.

He knew he had to change a lot of things: the teaching, the exams, the qualifications themselves. So he went out and talked to the trade, started a scheme of corporate patronage, and organised an R&D team to bring everything up to date. The qualifications were swiftly revamped, and are now reviewed on a yearly basis. “There’s a team of three who do nothing but that,” says Mr Harris.

They spend their time training people who already work full-time, and the new structure reflects that. Instead of there being a certificate, a higher certificate and a two-part diploma, there are now five levels, of which Level 1 is the most basic. Level 4 is the diploma, and if you pass that you’re able to knock on the door of the Institute of Masters of Wine – which means that you’re automatically allowed to sit the entry test for the MW course. “We very much see ourselves as preparing people for the MW,” says Mr Harris. “It’s the first four steps of the ladder.”

But the Institute of Masters of Wine is a separate organisation, and many people stop at the diploma. Even that can be a drain on your time and energy. “You can’t just come to a class, read the book and pass now,” says Mr Harris. “For the diploma you have to do 120 hours of classroom-contact time, and three times that with homework and tastings …we have online learning at all levels. When you sign up for a course you have a start date and a finishing date, an online tutor, tasks set and practice tests. If you don’t come to classes you have to buy your own wines for tasting, but you have your hand held by a tutor.”

Who are the tutors who take people through the courses? Many, but not all, are MWs. Some are independently successful in the trade; others don’t seem to do much outside the WSET. A straw poll of a handful of recent candidates revealed general satisfaction with the teaching. As Richard Bampfield MW, who teaches Burgundy and Alsace, says, “They know what these courses cost. If standards drop, they’ll complain.’ (level 1 courses start at £140; the diploma starts at £1,620.)

Not all candidates are in the trade: Harris reckons that about 25 per cent are either interested consumers or people wanting to work in wine, and some may be people who have made money in other fields and want an agreeable way of not making too much more.

Why do the tutors do it? The best of them are natural teachers. Says Mr Bampfield, “I get a buzz – it’s not altruistic, it’s more selfish – from seeing young people come into the trade with the same interests, the same questions, the same hunger that I had when I was young. I’m fascinated to see them given opportunities for learning, and for making contacts they’ll have all their lives. I still have contacts I made then, and I see the same thing happening now.”

And the WSET? With a turnover of £6.4m, and a £5m building in Bermondsey Street, it is financially secure. It is part of the National Qualifications Framework, and its exams are taken seriously, not least by the students themselves. And a good thing too: old jokes sometimes need shaking up.

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