Richard Hemming MW: the importance of communication

Master of Wine students sometimes question why the examination is held under such strict time pressure. Some even ask why an exam is held at all. They might sound like silly questions, but the answer is far from silly. In fact, it reveals one of the most fundamental elements of the qualification, and by extension of the wine industry as a whole.

In a word: communication. It’s no good accumulating the highest levels of knowledge and understanding about wine – or indeed anything – unless you can communicate it. Blind tasting skills are useless without being able to explain your reasoning in a convincing, coherent fashion.

Effective communication skills are essential for all sectors of the wine trade, not just exams. Indeed, they are a vital part of life in general. Politicians demonstrate their competence (or lack of it) for communication on a daily basis – the facts of the matter can be less relevant than the ability to convince an audience that you are right, which we’ve learned the hard way.

Back to the MW exam. It is perfectly possible to identify a wine incorrectly but gain enough marks to pass that question. If a candidate can justify why they think a wine is Meursault – by analysing acidity, body, alcohol, oak usage, flavour characteristics etc – and, most of all, communicating that analysis effectively – then they can pass a tasting paper even when the wine turns out to be Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay. And I know that because it happened to me.

Too often, the importance of communication is overlooked. It’s easy to get obsessed by tasting as many Grands Crus as possible while forgetting that expressing that knowledge is equally important. Which brings us to wine retail. Good merchants should spend as much time telling their customers about their products as they do sourcing them in the first place. Spending three days visiting Champagne producers might be a lovely perk, but it has limited value unless you also develop the skills to pass on your experiences, selling more bottles and reaching more customers.

The basics of communication are spelling and grammar. Getting those wrong undermines your authority. Your prose needn’t be prizewinning but it must be lucid, and that means being grammatically correct. It should also suit the medium, which means adjusting your style and tone for social media, email newsletters, printed catalogues, window displays and, of course, face-to-face conversations.

Directly related to that is tailoring communication to different types of customer. On Twitter, most of the wine communication I see is the trade talking to each other, which is unlikely to interest casual wine drinkers. Similarly, different styles of face-to-face response are needed for the customer who asks for a sweet rosé and the one asking about Qvevri-fermented Tsolikouri.

Getting communication right requires practice, and we should spend as much time on that as we do on tasting or travelling. Communication not only improves your business but, who knows, it might just help you pass an exam one day.

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