Some of you read that headline and thought, “Yup, agreed, I’m ready.” Others want a bit more information before being convinced.
“Wine school” is a great idea if you want to work in the wine industry, learn more about your industry or if you employ someone who would benefit from enrolling and learning a bit more.
My column for the Fall 2022 issue listed options for obtaining wine education. This piece will take a closer look at Washington State University’s Wine Tasting Room Certificate Program, which is a non-credit course specific to the Washington wine industry.
In contrast, the two other entities I wrote about — the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and Certified Wine Specialist (CWS) programs — offer credentials focused on the global wine industry and are internationally recognized.
Having all three on your résumé is impressive and shows dedication. If you are considering all three, then I would recommend starting with the WSU certificate. It is the least-expensive option ($249) and involves the shortest time commitment — eight hours.
The WSU certificate is an online class and uses the Canvas platform. Canvas is a popular software program used for teaching online that doesn’t require purchase by students and conveniently offers an app. Students will access their Canvas program with a link and a code after registration. They work at their own pace through four “modules” (think of these as lessons or book chapters), which are designed to deliver about eight hours of instruction. Students demonstrate their knowledge by passing a multiple-choice exam and receive a certificate of completion.
It’s important to know the WSU training certificate program content was created with assistance from a team of industry professionals, including winery owners and managers. I’m proud to note that I was on the steering committee that contributed to the curriculum under the direction of Joan Giese, director of lifelong learning for the WSU Tri-Cities Carson College of Business.
“We would like to be an education partner with the wineries, to help train people in an efficient way and make the tasting room experience the best it can be in the state of Washington,” Joan explained.
Our committee agreed it was important to include the most crucial basics that a tasting room associate needs to know, which is recognizing the importance of everyone on a direct-to-consumer team to converse with guests on topics such as American Viticultural Areas, the Missoula Floods and what style was used to craft the wines. Honestly, the biggest challenge was keeping it to eight hours.
There were many points of checking in with the steering committee, which was beneficial in keeping “course development on track,” she said. “Midway through the design, someone realized we had not included information on wine flights, wine faults or wine flaws.” Those topics were added to the program prior to its launch in November 2021.
Something that has surprised Joan in this first year of course offerings is the reach of the program. Out of the 76 registered students, addresses ranged across the state.
Another impressive trend Joan mentioned is seeing several wineries send multiple students. It seems some wineries have adopted this training as a critical step in onboarding their team and have set a higher standard of required knowledge for new and existing employees.
The WSU course gives an overview of information, but each subject could easily be explored for beyond eight hours. For example, students are taught about the state’s 20 AVAs, which in layman’s terms means, there are 20 growing areas in the state that are federally recognized as different and unique from the surrounding area, based on criteria that include climate, elevation, aspect and terroir. This is a great example of how deep a subject such as AVAs can be. Some terms that define an AVA require study and comprehension before they can be applied to the concept of AVAs.
Other examples of covered topics that could be a stand-alone course include how wine is made, styles of winemaking, what makes Washington wine unique, how to deliver great wine service and food-and-wine pairing suggestions.
Jack Costa, a recent graduate of WSU’s wine business program and a former tasting room associate, found value in the class.
“This tasting room course was designed not only to solidify your fundamental knowledge of wine, but also equip you with the skills necessary for becoming a successful hospitality and sales professional,” he says.
Jack and I agree tasting room associates set themselves up for success when they are prepared to chat with guests about many aspects of the industry. Some guests do their homework before a trip to wine country and arrive hoping a tasting room educator can share more knowledge on topics important to customers.
Good news is that the future of the certificate program at WSU seems bright. Joan, a professor who has taught business and marketing at schools such as the University of Oregon, Kansas State and the University of Montana, reports the team at WSU is at work on a digital supplement as an additional resource to the wineries who have sent students. And plans are in the works to develop a Part 2 where students train using role-play scenarios that occur in tasting rooms, preparing them to handle difficult situations like a pro.
Now, are you ready for wine school?