I happen to come in brief contact with both of these late last week and early this week.
This is what I understand: International Wine Center (IWC) is a Manhattan-based establishment that promotes wine. Although they are, nowadays, cloaked in the role of an “education” organization, they are not regulated by the New York Regents. In fact, they are not even a non-profit organization in New York.
I had heard about IWC maybe 25 or 30 years ago. You can read what they have to say about themselves at their main website, or you can read the 2003 obituary of Albert Hotchkin, Jr., a former investment banker who founded the IWC, which is more straightforward and candid.
In 1982, Mr. Hotchkin founded the International Wine Center, a wine school, upstairs at Tastings. The school offered classes and wine club tastings for consumers, both novices and collectors, as well as for sommeliers and others in the wine trade.
The International Wine Center became a site for trade tastings offered not only by individual producers, domestic and foreign, but also by importers and distributors. It was the site of some of the first commercial tastings held in New York City by the Long Island wine industry, then in its infancy, and by the Australian and Oregonian wine industries.
Mr. Hotchkin eventually closed both wine bars to establish the Burgundy Wine Company. He retained a financial interest in the center until 1997, when he sold his share to Mary Ewing-Mulligan, its director since 1984.
So you see, IWC is at best a “for profit” school. Its educational component is suffused with the fact that it is a trade networking group.
Now, what of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust or WSET? Well, it seems like it is some sort of gateway organizer to a “qualification” (not degree) called the “Master of Wine”. Who gets the Master of Wine? Only a rare number of people. But these people are primarily involved as exporters, importers or promoters of the wine trade.
The “qualification” has a certain legal status in the United Kingdom—and only there. It has no similar status in New York state, and its only apparent value is that it puts the holder in a certain network of other holders. It’s like they are complimenting each other through some foreign outlet with no American pedigree.
Normally in our culture, when you masquerade a qualification as a degree (i.e. use of “master”), it is an eyebrow raiser. How the IWC gets away with it, apparently, is to say that this UK organization is the sponsor of the certification, and they are, essentially, “hands off”. (There is another group in Philadelphia that is enabling WSET as well.)
My antennae are raised. How does WSET get away with this slight of hand in America? Because of the power of shadow money? The corporations that are involved in the wine and spirits trade? Because the people who represent it speak with British accents?
For-profit schools with an amorphous purpose and design are nowadays on the radar of both the media and regulators. What about trading organizations that masquerade as schools?
[Update 9/14/14: Here are the eight trustees of the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. Most have had connections to the adult beverage industry.
Laura Jewell, MW (that means Master of Wine) is the Chairwoman of the Trustees.]
[Update 9/15/14: Ah! Talk about the juxtaposition of various flavors (or flavours), I have to wonder how an Education Trust that is headed by the wine buyer for Tesco (the Wal Mart of Great Britain) maintains a consistent theme. On the one hand, the WSET is supposed to be promoting all the delicacies of what is essentially an agricultural product with an ethanol component. On the other hand, the billionaire shareholders of TESCO are squeezing wine suppliers throughout Europe to get them to give up the product cheaply, so that TESCO can be a few pence lower than Costco on a mass offering.
Given that this group got its start in 1969 (not 1769 as you might assume), even the educational component looks like trade promotion. When I get my Nissan serviced, I don’t go looking for the “Master of Nissan” to do it. I trust the high volume Nissan dealer here. Simply on the trust of the connection between the servicer and the product. I don’t need to be bamboozled or spun around, with a bunch of employer-provided initials at the end his name. SMH.]