The view from the summit

An interview with Penny Richards by Robert Joseph

Penny Richards
Penny Richards

Before becoming Executive Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2013, Penny Richards worked as a reporter, editor and producer for the BBC, covering stories ranging from genocide in Rwanda to Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the first-ever live broadcast from the Galapagos Islands. She negotiated BBC media access with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq and, as Asia-Pacific Bureau Editor, was responsible for news coverage of an area comprising half the world’s population. For three years, she was based in New Delhi as Senior Advocacy and Communications Lead for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private philanthropic organization, where she liaised with government ministries, the UN and international NGOs.

MEININGER’S: How did a journalist with a history of going to war zones end up in the wine industry?

RICHARDS: I was looking for a job that involved running an international organisation that wanted to be changed and modernised, and a headhunter suddenly said, “we have one we think you might be interested in”. When I saw it was the Institute of Masters of Wine, I thought it was a joke. I’d never had heard of it, so I got in touch with a friend who is a sommelier in Paris and he replied within moments, telling me it was the biggest thing in the wine world and that I had to consider it.

MEININGER’S: So what is the Institute and what is the qualification?

RICHARDS: The Institute is a membership organisation and every member is a Master of Wine.  The reason it has such an interesting reputation is that there’s a very high entry expectation for our members. Every MW has to pass what is recognised to be a very tough entrance test, to see whether they have the required depth and breadth of knowledge and standards it takes to have truly mastered wine.

MEININGER’S: Who are your competitors?

RICHARDS: I’m not sure if we are really competing against anything. Different facets of the wine world would give you different answers. So, a sommelier might think that our direct competitor is The Court of Master Sommeliers.  People working in the business of wine might say it’s one of the masters programs in a wine university. We are unique in not only welcoming, but being keen to attract anyone in the wine world, and having a very broad definition of what that can be, from a scientist to a marketeer and anything in between.

MEININGER’S: How diverse, socially or culturally, is the membership?

RICHARDS: Let me just tell you internationally because that is quite exciting. At the moment we have Masters of Wine in 29 different countries, but we have students in 40, and that serves to suggest how much more international we are going to become in the next few years.

Our largest number of applications is from North America, followed by Greater China, with an extraordinary breadth from scientists through to bloggers. I think MW students and Masters of Wine do share some commonalities: to be continually curious about wine, to be continually humbled by the information they’d like to know about it, and to be quite driven. You don’t embark on a Master of Wine journey without knowing it’s going to challenge and stretch you and expose your strengths and weaknesses.

MEININGER’S: What does it cost in terms of time and money?

RICHARDS: The quickest way you can become a Master of Wine is in three years, and we recognise that very few people achieve that speed. One of our MWs who’s based in Belgium calculated it cost him €30,000.00 ($35,400.00) to €35,000.00. Only a relatively small proportion of that is the fee itself.  The rest comes from the need to travel extensively and to taste extensively.

MEININGER’S: How much of that cost was – is – the actual course?

RICHARDS: If someone became a Master of Wine in the shortest time possible the fees would be just under £10,000.00 ($12,825.00).

MEININGER’S:  Educational institutions offering MBAs talk about the salary expectations associated with their degrees. Have you got that kind of data for the Institute?

RICHARDS: No, because it depends on every individual. Anecdotally we’re seeing fascinating changes in careers, almost days after people are announced as an MW. My favourite story is the Master of Wine based in the States. The day he became an MW, his company made him its global ambassador. We’re seeing a lot more of that, and companies gearing up to promote members of staff when they become MWs. But we also have individuals who make their own wine in small quantities and act as consultants, Every Master of Wine brings a different experience, a different value, and does the MW for different reasons. If people just did it for career advancement, they could be disappointed, but I think they do it for personal satisfaction, for access to the greater wine world and to stretch themselves. 

MEININGER’S: Might becoming a Chinese MW, for example, arguably have a higher value in job terms than being a British MW in the UK?

RICHARDS: You’d have to ask British students why they’re on the program. So many different people do it for so many different reasons, but it’s certainly a fight to become the first in different countries. But I don’t think it’s devalued if we have more MWs each country.

MEININGER’S: How different is the Institute from when you took over in 2013?

RICHARDS:  I’ve got a new team that puts a lot of emphasis on provision of service. We feel very strongly that it’s unfair to accept people in the programme unless they have a very good chance of becoming a Master of Wine.  So we have changed our application process to make it much more rigorous and involved many more MWs in it. We want to make sure that students get appropriate access to information that’s timely and appropriate. We want to make sure their offer as a student is much more interesting and exciting, so we have spent a lot of time working with regional trade associations and wine companies to offer really exciting trips and seminars and greater access to great winemakers. So if people don’t become a Master of Wine, we’d want them to walk away having had a really fulfilling experience that has enhanced their enjoyment and their depth of knowledge. We’ve also done a lot of work on our image and transparency. Again, this is anecdotal and subjective, but I think people could have historically seen the Institute as a somewhat opaque, secret organisation, and I would love to think now they see it as an open transparent one. We’ve got nothing to hide.  

MEININGER’S:  How many people are in the system at any time?

RICHARDS: It’s actually a very strange time of year to ask me that because we are between exam and registration, but, in 2016/2017 we had 350 students. There are 355 living MWs, and around 140 take the exam every year in three different exam centres, in Sydney, San Francisco and London.

MEININGER’S: What is the approximate success rate?

RICHARDS: It is really hard to say because it’s not necessarily a linear process.  People can take a few years out of the process if they want. So we’re unable at the moment to entirely track the exact pass rate.

MEININGER’S: Critics have said it is easier to get a science degree from Stanford than an MW. Is it difficult just for the sake of being difficult?

RICHARDS: I think that has been a valid criticism, which is why we’ve done so much to change the Institute over the last few years. I’m determined that we’re not making it hard for the sake of it. It is hard for the sake of making sure that people are a true master in a complex subject. One of the most moving things in running the Institute is that I’ve never met an MW who doesn’t want to encourage and nurture future generations.

MEININGER’S: MBA courses are run by qualified academics. MW students are taught by MWs. What training do they have as teachers?

RICHARDS: We’re very clear that we’re not an education institute. No one’s taught by Masters of Wine: it’s a self-study programme. MWs volunteer themselves in extraordinarily generous ways to try and explain how to pass the Institute’s exams. 

MEININGER’S: When you want to become a journalist or a lawyer you are taught by people whose job it is to teach you how to be a lawyer or a journalist. And that isn’t the case for the Institute?

RICHARDS: No. It’s a process in which people who have taken a journey are there to help you take the journey yourself. So when people join the study programme, they are offered the opportunity to have a Master of Wine mentor who holds their hand, as it were, throughout the process. It’s one of the great things about the Institute, that it’s such a nurturing community of people and a process in which people are building relationships that will last lifetimes.

MEININGER’S: It is sometimes suggested that MWs know more about fine wine wine, soil and pruning regimes than the background to some of the multi-million dollar deals. How is the syllabus drawn up, and by whom?

RICHARDS: We have an exam committee and we have different layers of examiners who have worked their way up through the Master of Wine system. They start the process of writing and refining the exam in December for the next June, addressing amongst other things new trends in the wine world, the business of wine and the marketing of wine. And they try and work out ways of asking questions that are straightforward, so they’re not set to confuse students for whom English is not their first language. The other interesting facet of the examination which probably gets less publicity is the research paper.

Once our candidates have passed both the theory and practical exams they are invited to write a 6,000 to10,000 word essay on anything to do with wine: historical, philosophical, viticulture, marketing, anything. And that gives them the opportunity to delve really deeply into a facet of wine which we hope will enhance the understanding of the wine world and enhance them professionally.

MEININGER’S: But historically that has been a controversial element of the exam, with some high profile students feeling that they weren’t as fairly dealt with as they might have been.

RICHARDS: I think that the allegations in the past, before my time, might have some validity but we’ve done everything we possibly can to change it, modernise it, improve it. It’s now called the research paper and the resources given to it have been extended massively to make sure that people have a great chance of success in writing it.  

MEININGER’S: Is it the mentor’s role to help students express themselves in the best way to pass the exam?

RICHARDS: I was told a fantastic expression when I first joined the Institute: to become a Master of Wine, you have to think like a detective and argue like a courtroom lawyer. It’s not just about retaining facts and regurgitating them; it’s coming up with a cogent argument about why something might or might not be true or accurate. That’s what our successful candidates learn. It’s as much about communication as it is about information.

MEININGER’S: Examiners for MBA courses have all been through a training process to ensure that all students are assessed equally. Is that true of the MW process?

RICHARDS: When the exam papers are set representative answers and the information they’d like to see in each answer is set out.  That is again analysed by the panel and one or two papers are then marked by each of the examiners to make sure that they are marking to the same standard. When that’s been resolved then they continue to mark more papers.

MEININGER’S: Is there an appeals process?

RICHARDS: Yes, and it has been used in my time, but very infrequently.

MEININGER’S: The Institute has always been a British qualification with its roots in London. How much benefit do your Chinese and American students get from a UK-centric approach?  

RICHARDS: It might be fair to say that we can’t do much about where our headquarters is based and our legacy. What we can do is make sure we are increasingly international, and that the opportunities we give students, wherever they’re based, are healthy and good. We’re expanding our reach in America and Australia and offering more opportunities to our students. We’ve got study trips to countries like Switzerland, Lebanon and Chile, and we’re continually finding opportunities in different parts of the world. We are holding a fund-raising auction later this year, with the sole intent of providing support to our international students and extending our activities in the global world of wine. We will never lose sight of this aim.

MEININGER’S: How important is being able to express yourself in English?

RICHARDS: Our candidates are allowed to write their essays in any language and then we translate them.

MEININGER’S: Harvard and other top colleges have their own publications. Is this on the agenda for the Institute? 

RICHARDS: We have published in the past, before my time. If we were to publish now, we’d do it seriously and it would be peer-reviewed and appropriate for expanding knowledge in the global wine world, and at the moment we’re concentrating on other things. Every four years we hold our Symposium – which delves deeply into current technical topics – that non MWs are very much encouraged to attend.

MEININGER’S: How about online education? 

RICHARDS: We are working on expanding the resources we offer to students online, and have spent the last year addressing how to enhance distance learning for them. We also plan to launch a new interface on our website soon, so the wine world can discover the expertise and experience of individual MWs.

MEININGER’S: Where do you see the Institute going from here?

RICHARDS: I would love to have so many more Masters of Wine.  Even if there were a thousand MWs in the world, that wouldn’t take away the allure of the Institute.  I would love to think that the wine world continues to see us as the benchmark of excellence and that anyone who joins the wine world aspires to becoming a Master of Wine and thinks it’s attainable.

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