Nasty plastic residues in wine, elitism, and the real cost of an MW

I’d planned, today, to write about fine research led by Dr. Pascal Chatonnet and company at the French Laboratoire Excell demonstrating disturbingly high phthalate residues in some older French brandies, at least some level of plastic residue contamination in all of the French spirits and many wines they tested, and laying out some really sensible thinking on whether that’s a problem. But instead I find my hackles raised to unignorable degrees by one of the more insulting and ill-advised articles I’ve read on the wine-net recently (and it doesn’t even involve gender!) So here’s an effort to talk about the cost of an MW and plastic residues in wine, both.

From the things that make me spit fire file I offer you the following drivel by Ethan Millspaugh for Grape Collective. The title suggests that we’re talking about “the cost of becoming an educated wine drinker” — a fantastic and fascinating question — but the piece is actually about the cost of making an attempt at the coveted Master of Wine (MW) degree.

Mr. Gillspaugh massively underestimates that price tag at $25,000 (not including travel, not including wines for personal training, not including the time you didn’t spend working, not including babysitters or keeping the right society or purchasing a very good suit), and then suggests to us all that we don’t have to spend that much to become a wine expert. We could spend a very reasonable $60 to attend a WSET-hosted Champagne tasting or something (if, you know, you live in NYC or San Francisco or Chicago). Because really, that’s as good, isn’t it? And hence, once again, we have an opportunity for thoughtful and critical discussion on the internet sunk by smily faces and sheer lack of thinking.

The degree to which attaining the MW is limited to rich (white, preferably European, preferably English-speaking) people is hard to estimate. First, there’s the language issue. While the Institute of the Masters of Wine allows the written theory exam to be written in any language, everything else (study program, practical exam, thesis) is English-only. Then, the Institute headquarters and much of the training is in London, and its heritage is squarely British. And much as wine is becoming very international, it’s fair to say that the residents of some countries will be more interested in highly Eurocentric-trained wine specialists than others. I’m not willing to chalk the notable paucity of MWs in Africa up just to bias and barriers. Nonetheless, the entire continent has three — one in Egypt, two in South Africa, all in the most European of African countries — of 300 total world-wide, and two of those three are British ex-pats. Of five in Asia, only one is asian by nationality; the other four are caucasian and European- or American-born. The overwhelming majority of all MWs, of course, are British.

Scanning the member profiles on the Institute website, another striking thing is their limited range of occupations. Many are in the wine trade, either owning their own distribution company or buying for someone big. Many are self-employed consultants. A few are writers or “educators.” A few with technical backgrounds are now either buying wine or “consulting” in some non-technical capacity. In my thoroughly unscientific random clicking, I happened on not a single MW working in policy, public advocacy, or research.

Which brings me back to Chatonnet’s phthalate research. To put it briefly, the group found these common plastic additives — some of which are known endocrine disruptors that can mess with human hormonal systems — in most of the French wine and spirits they tested. Concentrations in 11% of the wines and 19% of the spirits exceeded accepted safety limits, with older spirits generally the worst offenders. Epoxy linings in storage tanks are the source; the solution is replacing old tanks with new phthalate-free ones or even retrofitting old tanks with a simple barrier coating — which they’ve developed, because that’s how awesome this team is.

Maybe the industry, now that they know, will get on that. But I hear from researchers over and over again that convincing wineries to heed such recommendations is one of their perennial banes. What if MWs were involved in helping to advocate for this sort of change?

What do MW’s have that PhDs in enology don’t? Highly public profiles. Broad, international wine industry knowledge. Extraordinarily strong networks. Often excellent communication skills (sporadic among scientists, unfortunately). Lots and lots of prestige. It’s really no mystery why MWs aren’t out leveraging all of those skills to improve awareness and policies around wine science and wine research. The MW is a general industry degree, not a technical one. MWs can earn much higher salaries elsewhere. All very understandable. I don’t want to believe that that has anything to do with the social elitism of being an MW, even if I suspect that it does.

And yet, what if — what if — someone decided to use an MW as a force for public good? I don’t have any specific plans or calls to action here. But with 300 exceptionally trained, driven, collegial wine lovers and more working up through lower levels of the pipeline, I’m sure someone has some ideas.


11 thoughts on “Nasty plastic residues in wine, elitism, and the real cost of an MW

  1. Just what the world needs. More pontificating wine robots. The MW program promotes elitism like no one else. The entire exam is geared to remembering the most puerile of useless information. I’ve got enough good books to look up something I don’t already know. Who cares if someone can spit out all the DOs in Spain or grapes in Chateauneuf du Pape? What’s the point here?

  2. Ed, I think you have the MS and MW confused. It’s the MS test that’s based on pure rote memorization and the ability to spit out arcane wine trivia at a verbal exam.

    The MW is profoundly more analytical and academically rigorous. Candidates not only need to have a deep understanding of a wide range of wine topics but also the ability to answer the questions in well written, reasoned long essay form. In fact, the final stage of the MW is creating, writing and presenting a 10K word piece of original research on a wine related topic.

    The MW is truly adding knowledge to the wine world and, since many go on to be successful wine writers, disseminating that knowledge among consumers. The MS is dog and pony show to “win the pin” and then take a desk working for Wirtz or Southern Wine and Spirits bullying aspiring MS’s into buying your product.

  3. Well, whilst I don’t generally comment on articles or blog posts, I’m going to make an exception here, being i) an MW and ii) one of the six new MW’s mentioned at the start of Ethan Millspaugh’s article that inspired the Wine-o-scope’s article above. There’s a lot to write in response to both articles, both of which I understand and empathise with, to a great degree. Yet I think it’s fair to correct some of the comments made.

    First off, I ain’t no pontificating wine robot, Ed. Bill is correct in saying that the MW exam doesn’t require you to spit out wine trivia by rote: it’s much, much more complicated than that. My MW dissertation, for example, had absolutely no sensory (drinking) element to it and was a pure research project, based on testing a hypothesis and crunching lab numbers. That also makes Ethan’s points in his article slightly misguided – if you attempt the MW through only being interested in becoming a more educated wine drinker, I can assure you that you’ll fail the MW exams. I speak from experience of seeing several people who were too focused on tasting and wine trivia fall at the wayside. As for elitism, that’s not the aim of the MW exam – I did my (successful) dissertation on commercially grown Zinfandel in Lodi AVA. What’s elitist about that? It’s a lot less elitist than most of the production, pricing and marketing of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, great wines though they are. And if I can pass the MW with such a topic, where’s the promotion of elitism? I think it’s worth considering the facts of the MW exam and not believing the hype that surrounds it.

    Secondly, estimating the cost of the MW is an interesting talking point, but ultimately rather pointless. The MW is a very,very individual endeavour – it will cost some people a lot, some others not as much and it really depends on their personal situation, in terms of career, home country and own method of approach to the MW. At times the MW is very expensive, at other times it isn’t. Did it cost me $25,000? I’ve really no idea. Yes, it cost me a lot, but it was my individual mission and I was prepared to shoulder the cost entirely alone and self-funded. If you want to be an MW, the cost is a concern, but really not the only concern you’ll have.

    Third: it isn’t limited to rich people. Sure, I’m white and European – even worse, I’m British. Sorry about that. But rich? Please – I’ve held down two jobs for years, precisely because I need both jobs to put food on my table. And please note that since passing the MW three weeks ago, the mythical massive salaried job offers haven’t appeared – nor do I expect them to. You pass the MW by your own merits; you get massive salaries by your own merits as well. My merits need more work, simple as that, so I’ll be working two jobs for a good long while yet – and am happy doing so. A last point about “rich” MW’s – at an MW-only event a couple of weeks ago in London’s Mayfair district, there were ten MW’s present. I wouldn’t have described any of them as rich and certainly not in comparison to the uber-wealth found among the residents of Mayfair, for example. Most MW’s are not rich, in my experience, although how “rich” is defined and translated can be so contentious.

    It’s correct that the MW exam originated in London and it retains a British core of MW’s and students. I’m one of them. However, would the Institute like more diversity among it’s members and students? Of course, and it’s actively and genuinely trying to achieve that. I think the diverse countries that us recent six MW’s come from is a small sign of that, although yes, we’re all white. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to use this historical origin as a stick to beat the MW with, though: the MS qualification is, as far as I can see, a very North American undertaking and membership. That doesn’t lessen the achievement of an MS in my eyes. Lastly on this point, as far as I’m aware, you CAN attempt the practical exams and research paper in a foreign language. The MW is not an English language-only series of exams.

    There’s also very little “training” for the MW. Sure, there are some course days in London, but you’re talking less than seven per year. There are advantages to these being held in London – it’s a major airport hub and the UK wine trade (based primarily in London) is an import-led trade, so London has access to a gigantic choice of the globe’s wines and wine regions. The London-bias does admittedly mean that many MW’s are based in the British wine trade (including myself) or are journalists/writers based in the UK and Europe, but again, that’s largely due to the historical origin of the Institute and also by chance more than choice. Diversity within the occupations of MW’s will change with time, I have no doubt. After all, the MW has only being going since 1953, so it’s still a relatively recent Institute when compared with most universities, for example.

    But to tackle the main point of the article, why aren’t there more MW’s as research advocates? I don’t honestly know and possibly it truly is because the pool of MW’s is still so small that there’s a limited choice of MW’s who have the background to effectively act as research advocates. But here’s a question too – where’s the dialogue between researchers and MW’s? I don’t see much evidence of one and in my experience as an MW student, quite often wine scientists have been dismissive of the MW, probably because it’s a general industry degree. Possibly MW’s aren’t acting as research advocates because they aren’t being asked, harried and pressed by research institutes to help publicise the fine work that research institutes undertake. If you ask, you may get…..

    All I can say is that I’d like to help change the environment regards bridging the gap between wine research and MW advocacy, starting with personally undertaking more technical work. Like the Wine-o-scope, I don’t have any specific plans yet, aside from a bit more celebrating of my recent MW pass. But I’d certainly like to use the MW within technical and research-led areas. Could this lead to advocacy in some form? I certainly hope so.

    To both the Wine-o-scope and Ethan Millspaugh, I enjoyed your articles and I hope that you don’t mind my commenting.

    With best regards, Rob MacCulloch MW.

    • Rob, thanks for your (out of character) comment. (I must have been truly egregious to provoke you to such behavior.) You’re going to have a very hard time convincing me that the MW isn’t elitist. You also have much, much, much more experience and knowledge about earning an MW than I do, and I don’t discount that experience. Briefly: I am utterly certain that an MW is awarded based on merit and that who you know or how you dress isn’t an express part of the equation. I’m even willing to believe that the other members of the club won’t look down on you or fail to be friendly if you don’t fit in — that is, if your social disposition doesn’t mark you as British and upper-middle class. I’m also as certain as I can be, without either being one or running a study, that life as a MW student is much harder if you don’t have those social markers. We have plenty of evidence at the university level that students who don’t fit in to the mainstream discourse community are less likely to succeed: because they lack peer support, because of subtle and unintentional (or sometimes explicit and deliberate) discrimination, because the way they express themselves is unfamiliar and therefore more likely to be viewed as wrong because it doesn’t match expectations, etc. This was my point with needing to buy the right suit. How you dress may have nothing to do with your exam scores as such, but it probably has something to do with how well you fit into the society, with how your peers and examiners view you, and with how comfortable you feel. To be frank, I suspect that you may be less aware of these concerns because you’re British, white, and male.
      I also didn’t mean to suggest that cost was the only or even the main concern in becoming an MW. Nevertheless, it’s insulting to those for whom that barrier is very real to suggest that the financial cost is a figure that fails to account for many other costs and that “the rest of us” can buy a $60 ticket to a Champagne tasting as a consolation prize. I was digging more at the Grape Collective piece than at the Institute here. Mentioning “less than seven course days in London per year” doesn’t help your case, though. Do you have any idea of what it would take to get me to London multiple times per year for two or three years?
      Finally, with respect to social activism, you make an excellent point. For what it’s worth, my PhD deals with questions about how wine scientists succeed or fail at making science and making knowledge with the rest of the world; it’s important and I think we could be doing better. I also suspect that you’re right that the increasing diversity and expanding focus of the MW program will lead to changes in the not too-distant future. Like you, I hope so.

  4. Oh – a final point. Keeping to the right society or purchasing a very good suit won’t help you pass the MW exam. I did neither. Didn’t do me any harm. Cheers, Rob.

  5. Interesting discussion about the MW degree and its value to mankind. I have a more basic question about the epoxy linings in storage tanks as the source of plastic residue in wines: Does this include the epoxy tanks that are used in many wineries? Could they possibly contribute to this sort of contamination?

    • Tom, without knowing exactly which tanks you’re talking about, I can only say maybe. The authors of the study noted that the biggest problems are with older tanks because newer tanks are often phthalate-free; like BPA and plastic baby bottles, now that we know that these chemicals are potentially dangerous, manufacturers are reconfiguring their formulae to eliminate them (though goodness only knows about the things we haven’t yet identified as problems…) My experience contacting makers of the plastic inserts for bag-in-box wine about BPA suggests that the tank manufacturers will be happy to answer questions about phthalates if you ask.

  6. Like Rob (congrats by the way, Rob, well done), I hardly ever comment on blogs but similary, I would like to add my perspective in respect to the MW part of it, as I find it amusing to hear someone’s opinion of what I actually experienced that simply does not ring true. I did earn an WSET Diploma in North America before going into the MW program. But when I started my MW studies, I was still a recent immigrant – non-British, non-English speaking by birth – in my new home country, earning a sustanance salary in a completely unrelated field. I attended the North American IMW Educational program and not once was made feel unwelcome or out-of-place and in fact, quite the opposite. The academic culture or dynamics you are referring to, have no place in MW program. It only matters how your past experiences, inlcuding your academic achievements – if any – can help you succeed in the MW program, not what school you attended, what jacket you are wearing, etc. You really should look into the exam conditions and test scoring to understand that it does not matter who thinks what you are when it comes to the that point – the tests are scored with only the Candidate number on the sheets, by the dedicated examiners, far removed from the actual test setting. Your work is being judged on its own merit. The IMW runs the Educational Seminars in three key places in the worlds – US, Australia and Europe (UK and Austria). This is also on the website, if one cares to find out about it, so there is no need to go to London multiple times a year. I went to London for the first time ever to collect my MW degree. The MW pool is a collective of many different people with different background and views, so I cannot at all speak for them all. I cannot speak of the past of the organization, as I only became and MW in 2003. But I have my experience that does not at all fit into your preconceived perception of what it is. I also met a good number of the MWs in the past 10 years – and before – and find the vast majority of them are very accessible, smart, hard-working people – most dress very casually – who love to see more people learn to appreciate their wine expereince better with greater understanding of the subject. They, too, love to see more people succeed in their MW journey, tough as it is, should they choose to pursue it for the right reasons, and actively help the students to be successful. And to wrap-up – there is a lot of information on MW credential available of the IWM website, it is good for more than just a passing glance.

    I hope this is of help.

    • Thanks for your note, Igor. Just two comments. 1. You and Rob represent a new and welcome turn in MW-land (and you know that you’re in the minority). I appreciate your points, and my casual observations might indeed be corrected by a serious ethnography of the organization. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that anything you’ve said makes me feel much differently about the two points I was trying to make. 2. Both you and Rob noted that you don’t typically comment on blogs. Is commenting on blogs somehow dirty and something requiring explanation and excuse?

  7. With the greatest respect, I think the point myself and Igor have been trying to make is that we know we’re NOT in the minority of MW’s. As I’ve said before, including in my reply to your post of 29th September which you omitted from publishing in your blog, MW’s are far more inclusive than you’re presuming. And it really does seem like presumption to me, I’m afraid to say. Can I gently ask what your factual evidence is for the points you make? Would you be happy with this level of subjectivity with your own PhD? Somehow I doubt it and whatever myself and Igor state, it seems it won’t change your opinion – and that defines subjectivity itself. I think this is a great pity.

    Secondly, the fact that myself and Igor don’t normally comment on blogs has nothing to do with us believing that it’s “dirty and something requiring explanation and excuse”. In my case, and perhaps in Igor’s case, it’s to do with the fact that we simply read blogs, rather than comment on them. I’m just not particularly social-media aware and fairly shy – that’s why I prefaced my first reply by saying I don’t normally comment on blogs, nothing more. Of course, it could also be my white, male, upper middle class, English background getting in the way again…….damn.

    Again, with respect, your question about blog comments really comes across as trying to find a fault where there isn’t one. And this seems the general basis of your arguments against the MW process. It’s not a perfect process, but the MW also doesn’t deserve incorrect myths being perpetually circulated about it. That’s all myself and Igor have been trying to say.

    • Rob, I’d hoped that my question about blog comments came across as a joke, and maybe a pointed one: it was notable that you both made the same comment and I wondered why it was germane to anything; why mention it at all? I’m not trying to be presumptuous, but it seems that I’ve failed to make my point clear. The points I was trying to make in the post: 1) The Grape Collective piece, suggesting that becoming an MW might be kinda expensive but we could satisfy ourselves with attending a $65 Champagne tasting, was both simple-minded and offensive. 2) Becoming an MW is expensive. 3) Because most MWs are British or Brits-by-Association, a middle class woman from Istanbul, etc. is likely to feel out of place in that company. 4) Most MWs seem to spend their time consulting for rich people, and I’d love to see their expertise used for the greater good. It sounds as though you’re taking exception with my point #3. My evidence is this: minority individuals tend to feel uncomfortable in groups with a strong cultural majority, even if everyone in the room is the friendliest and most welcoming person on the planet, because the minority individual doesn’t own the cultural expectations embedded in the social interactions she or he is compelled to engage. See the entire body of literature on minority college students (including first generation students whose parents didn’t go to college and who, consequently, tend not to succeed as well in part because their family culture didn’t instill in them the college-success culture), along with scholarship on minority behavior in many other settings. I’m not trying to say anything mean-spirited about MWs or the institute. I’m trying to say that things are harder when you don’t fit in.

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