The Alton Wine Academy eviscerated


28 September Yesterday Richard explained why he turned down an invitation to join the board of a certain wine academy. We decided to republish his article free today, in place of our usual Throwback Thursday, as an entertaining warning to anyone tempted to rile Richard with their hyperbole. 

27 September Whoops! When you launch a wine business which comes across as equal parts scam, cheek and fruitloop assertions, it’s not the smartest move to mass-email every Master of Wine to invite them to join its advisory board. What follows may not be the kind of advice they were hoping for. 

But then smart moves are evidently not part of the business plan of the Alton Wine Academy, whose ‘MC (Master Connoisseur) program, together with MW (Mast of Wine) and MS (Mast Sommelier), forms the Three Musketeers to represent the top 3 authorities in wine industry worldwide. Alton's MC (Master Connoisseur) program combines strength of both MW and MS, and has more value beyond both MW and MS.'

At first glance, such corked claims deserve only to be chucked down the drain. But that’s no fun when, on closer examination, the Alton Wine Academy provides an abundance of blather that calls for nothing less than a visceral, systematic takedown – the equivalent of full surgical disembowelment using only a foil cutter.

Told you it would be fun!

The email begins thus.

It is an honor to meet you, thanks to the Institute of Masters of Wine.

My name is Alton Fan, President & CEO of Alton Wine Academy, an innovative high-tech wine rating organization based in Los Angeles. I would like to invite you to join our company's Advisory Board with compensations in the form of stock options and potential cash allowance.

Alton Wine Academy has Alton Wine Clubs in more than 90 cities around the world with total members more than 20,000. All these members can become your fans once you join our Advisory Board.

Curious that 20,000 people in 90 cities can leave absolutely zero footprint via Google. The email continues:

Alton Wine Academy is a non-profit organization located in metro Los Angeles. It was founded by a group of senior winemakers, sommeliers and wine critics from France, Italy, Spain, USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

Alton's patent-pending 2T4V™ integrated wine rating system is the first in history to incorporate the six essential elements of a wine's overall quality: Taste, Terroir, Viticulture, Vinification, Vintage, and Value. With 2T4V, a wine can now be assessed holistically like never before.

In addition to the 2T4V integrated wine rating system, Alton is also the first professional wine rating and critics organization in the world that has invented AI (artificial intelligence) and robot for wine ratings that assist wine rating experts by significantly reducing potential bias and/or personal preference due to changes in physical and health conditions, moods or emotions, and on-spot environmental effects.

Incredibly, the illustrious co-founders referenced above are not named anywhere in Alton’s literature. Yet there is clearly some wine knowledge being displayed here. The 2T4V system accurately covers the main elements of wine. And perhaps it’s no more ludicrous than the many other wine rating systems that have become indispensible. Somebody knows something about what they’re doing.

Their example of 2T4V in action vindicates this further, but only in the way that Trump vindicates democracy. Their assessment of Opus One 2013 has elements of plausibility – you could argue that their scores for taste, vintage and value are no more or less arbitrary than those from more established sources, for example.

But their scores for terroir, viticulture and vinification carry about as much intellectual gravitas as climate-change denial or professional wrestling. Although like aliens and ghosts and biodynamic forces, that doesn’t stop people believing in them.

Anyway, this matters little when the final mark is calculated by some magical method – it certainly isn’t a mean, mode or median result. Perhaps there’s a top-secret formula behind it which is part of the patent – which I am grateful to reader Will Connolly for informing me was applied for in China earlier this year.

But the Alton Wine Academy isn’t offering only a crackpot gospel for wine scoring. Their other proposition is that most celebrated third Musketeer of wine education, the Master Connoisseur.

If you can navigate their homemade website, the nature of this illustrious title is explained – and again, it is a curious mix of apparent wine knowhow and blustering gibberish.

Thus the first objective of the course is as follows:

wine-related business, including grape growing, wine, procurement, transportation, storage, retailers, academic research, wine, education, writing, magazine writing.

Good to see that wine gets a mention twice. And it tickles me that writing is considered separate from magazine writing. The syllabus goes on to describe a ‘seven-unit, three-hour theoretical written test’ covering such diverse topics as ‘Theory and practice of wind and soil’ and ‘brewing technology and technology’.

Now perhaps something is being lost in translation, since Alton is clearly a Chinese venture – indeed, to be fair, its website states 'Alton's MC Ratings program is also the first systematic wine ratings system focusing on Chinese culture, and focus serving Chinese speaking wine lovers and professional worldwide'. This is despite its Los Angeles headquarters – which is just a rented mailbox, of course. Or perhaps this is a Frankenstein-style cut and paste job taken from other wine courses. The description of the tasting exam is a mangled facsimile of the MW practical paper, for instance:

three blind bottles [presumably meant to be ‘exams’] of twelve bottles of wine at a time. Each time lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes, to describe in writing the type of wine, region, planting, brewing, quality and style

Either way, when you make the sorts of lofty claims that Alton have, and especially when you broadcast them to Masters of Wine, then you’re inviting scrutiny.

Their website has some photographs of various wine-tasting classes, taken in China with their branding, so this operation isn’t illegitimate. Perhaps all the blundering is just naivety from a misguided but ambitious enthusiast. Accordingly, I did reply to the email I was sent to try and find out more, and received a brief response promising more information. In the meantime, this account will have to do. They asked for it.