Wine education is a booming business in Hong Kong.
Interest in wine is a direct result of the abolition of taxes in February 2008, combined with a cosmopolitan market of people who want to use wine as a networking tool.
The most prestigious qualifications come from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), based in the United Kingdom.
Hong Kong and Macau contain less than 0.2 per cent of the world’s population yet 28 of the 440 WSET approved education providers worldwide – almost 7 per cent of the total – are in those cities. The number of students in Hong Kong jumped 67 per cent in the year to February 2012, WSET data showed. Level 1 student numbers soared 80 per cent in the same period.
Only approved companies are allowed to advertise WSET qualifications. These qualifications are recognised worldwide and are available in 58 countries. About 35,000 people take WSET examinations each year. International candidates account for 70 per cent of the total.
The Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC) is the only program provider in Hong Kong approved to run courses at all levels.
The first level provides a basic introduction to wine and runs for six hours. Level 2 offers broad coverage of all wine regions. Level 3 focuses on in-depth knowledge of a wide range of wines and spirits and is aimed at industry practitioners. The diploma in wines and spirits, level 4, is WSET’s flagship qualification.
This diploma is seen as the stepping stone to the highly-prestigious Master of Wine qualification. Only 299 people hold the MW worldwide. A handful of people are studying for the MW in this region. Hong Kong has two MWs, Debra Meiburg and Jeannie Cho Lee.
Jennie Mack is AWSEC’s managing director and senior wine educator. She runs courses six evenings a week from offices in Sheung Wan.
Mack said a feature of Hong Kong was the range of professional people taking courses, and the high ratio of women students. Level 2 classes sometimes had four women for every man.
Level 2 courses cost $6,300 to $6,800 – though discounts are available for paying a month in advance – and run for two hours a night over eight weeks. Fees for level 3 courses are about $9,800, though again discounts are available for payment in advance. These run for 14 weeks for 2.25 hours each week.
Fees appear high in Hong Kong compared with UK prices. Level 2 on the WSET web site costs 405 GBP, or $4,922. Level 3 costs 675 GBP or $8,204.
Mack said wine was becoming an important aspect of business, and professionals attended courses to gain the confidence to be able to talk about wine with clients and contacts. “A bit of peer group pressure is also there,” she said. “We have bankers, financial types, and doctors at our courses as well as industry people.”
Level 3 courses tend to have more men than women – three men for every two women – while the diploma course has a gender balance. “Wine education gives people the chance to enjoy the finer things of life without being snobby about it,” Mack said.
Later this year Wine Australia will work with 24 wine educators across Asia to deliver a level 1 introductory course about Australian wine. Lucy Anderson, Wine Australia’s Asia director, said the courses would be offered in China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India and Hong Kong. AWSEC would be the education partner in Hong Kong and the course would be called A+.
A trial A+ level 1 course was held in Hong Kong this month (Subs: May). Anderson said student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “More than 90 per cent of participants said they would like to complete the level 2 course.”
Cottage Vineyards in Causeway Bay offers WSET courses at levels 1 to 3. Ada Leung, the company’s sales and marketing director, said wine courses were perceived as being similar to golf and piano lessons – something people needed to acquire.
Conway Chan, Cottage’s operations director, said wine had become fashionable, and was associated with sophistication. Wine re-sellers like Cottage Vineyards said education was necessary so people would be more adventurous in their wine purchases, instead of only buying known brands from Bordeaux.
Annabel Jackson, who teaches wine studies at the IFT hotel school in Macau and the University of Hong Kong, said the boom was exciting. “It is clearly not only people working in the industry who are taking certificate classes.”
Her HKU classes, in the Department of Personal Development, were entitled Wine as a Life Skill. “That is exactly why people are there,” she said. “It is critical to have at least some wine knowledge now, given the huge popularity of wine.”
“Where there’s wine, there’s civilisation,” Jackson said.
Ian Symonds is a wine educator for HK Space, the outreach arm of the University of Hong Kong, and the IFT hotel school in Macau. Symonds is one of the few people in Hong Kong qualified to teach wine educators. He often taught every night of the week, he said, such was the demand for wine classes.
Conway Chan Cottage Vineyards noted the difficulty in finding qualified people to teach diploma-level classes. They needed to be native English speakers because assessment was only in English and involved writing essays to assess wines, a high-level intellectual skill.
Published in WineTimes, June 2012. Find a link here.