The Relevance of M.W. in Today's Wine Industry
The results from the second round of new MWs were announced just recently. CONGRATULATIONS! Those who brave the arduous time-consuming journey to obtain the vaunted initials should be applauded accordingly. However in a time when the industry is changing and evolving, with newer wines and newer markets, it begs the question whether Masters of Wine is as relevant as before.
In the western wine world, the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) is extremely well known for providing the highest wine qualifications one can hold since it's inception in 1955: Master of Wine (you can make an argument for MS but that is for another post). Its early members such as Serena Sutcliffe MW (1976), her husband David Peppercorn MW (1962), Jancis Robinson MW (1984), Clive Coates MW (1971), Jasper Morris MW (1985), Michael Broadbent MW (1960) and David Molyneux-Berry MW (1979) are all extremely hallowed names in the industry—legendary even—but the fact they all France/UK-based (with the exception of David Molyneux-Berry currently in Egypt although he was with Sotheby's previously) is telling of the fact that they belong to a bygone era when London was the centre of the wine trade.
Asia, meanwhile, increasingly has their own fair share of MWs; Hong Kong alone as 3 official MWs now, from Jeannie Cho Lee and Debra Meiburg both in 2008 and Sarah Heller as of 2017, who was part of the latest announcement from IMW. Fongyee Walker MW in Beijing became the first MW based in China in 2016. The first two Hong Kong MWs are extremely active in wine circles in Hong Kong and Asia at large, often appearing in wine media, television and publications for reviews or promotions in conjunction with different country's wine trade groups. However from my own personal experience in working in the industry have shown that they are quite removed from most people's wine circle, as they are often always on the move, hosting master classes and tastings in far flung cities around Asia to broaden their base. This all makes sense from a branding and profit standpoint of the MWs. The fact that they are not local, that they don't speak the lingua franca of the region (Cantonese) nor were they brought up in Hong Kong (Jeannie Cho Lee and Debra Meiburg are US transplants and Sarah Heller is from elite HK circles having graduated from German Swiss International School and then Yale University after) shows, that in essence, no matter how predominantly featured the three are in the HK wine world, they do not touch your normal everyday wine drinkers.
London is also no longer the dominant city in the wine trade. With no duties or taxes since 2008, the volume of wine traded in Hong Kong has skyrocketed and the city is now the leading centre for wine trade as the local and Mainland Chinese demand grew. The formerly mentioned MWs are still legendary and continue to draw crowds should they make the occasional appearance in the far east (such as Jancis Robinson recently for ProWein at HOFEX Hong Kong in May), however Chinese consumers have not grown up with BBR, Corney & Barrow, Justerini & Brooks, Christie's and Sotheby's etc. as familiar names. If anything, between those critics abroad and those presently based in Hong Kong/China, their writings are often inaccessible to everybody except the country's top elite due to the language barrier, further narrowing the influence those names traditionally hold in the west. Perhaps it is in this vacuum that hyperlocal amateur wine critics has taken the Wechat world by storm - the ultimate platform for all Chinese think pieces, including those for wine. This is all in spite of substantial outreach efforts by many Asia-based MWs. They lack the local and cultural parlance to relate and reach many local wine consumers effectively and easily. China is the most obvious new target reach although the same story can be applied to other emerging markets.
They are in direct contrast to the hyperlocal wine influencer, who are actively changing drinking habits now in their respective circles, cities and countries. There is also a track record for extremely influential critics without those initials behind their names such as Robert Parker, Allen Meadows and James Suckling just to start. Each have hustled their way through dedication, discipline, patience and knack for self-promotion to build their audiences from scratch. It would also be remiss to say that this diversion of authority from the Masters of Wine is made all the easier via technology. Without easy platforms such as blogs, Wechat, social media, there would not be such easy access of information, of sharing and dissemination of any kind. This creates more noise of which their immediate value not so clear, yes, nevertheless already there is a democratisation where information does not flow from the top (MWs in blue chip wine firms) down but rather side to side, or from the bottom up, as hidden wines from non-traditional prestige regions such as, say pet-nat, finds its way into the spotlight and popularity. The wine world is ever more interesting and diverse in this way but in this "new" world, where does the MWs stand?
MWs will still hold some cachet in the near future. The rigour of the exam and process is well known (especially with how little MWs there are in general) and general audiences can be easily assured that they are in safe, knowledgeable hands in the company and guidance of an MW. Being an MW will open more doors easily, whether it is to a prominent position in blue chip wine firm (as the ones mentioned before), access to top tier clients and domaine or different media platforms (TV, publishers, magazines). One also needs to take into account the time, money and effort the MW certification requires and whether there is enough return on investment to make it a worthy goal for any young wine professionals who wish to make their mark on the industry. Can you do that all without MW? Certainly and if anything, those with enough luck and pluck can mostly achieve all that the MWs can and more.