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Posted: Monday, 14 October 2019 15:11

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Star Interview: Ian Harris, the dynamic CEO of WSET visits India

Oct 14: WSET is undoubtedly the most popular wine course, though nor recognised by any university, in India with about 1200 students opting for at least one of the streams in 2019, a jump of 20 times in 10 years, and this has come about thanks to the rock-steady CEO Ian Harris who I met on the sidelines of India Wine Awards at the Leela in Mumbai and had the opportunity to interview him at length, writes Subhash Arora, congratulating WSET for the 50th anniversary celebration on October 17, 2019

I had first met Ian Harris, CEO of WSET at the London Wine Fair around 2004. I had founded the Indian Wine Academy a year earlier and was keen to promote wine education through a structured course like WSET.  But my burning desire was to have thousands of students learn about wine. My only request to him was that to have such big numbers, we needed to lower course fee as majority of young people could not afford their high fees. We chatted for almost an hour when he patiently explained the programme details but expressed inability of the Trust to consider any reduction specifically for India , which made me change my plans at the time.

Prepared to do the first two courses myself, I went to the Trust’s office and even bought two paperback course books. I was surprised to see chapters on Spirits as well. The vinotaler (teetotaller who drinks only wine) that I am, there was no way I would touch alcohol (read spirits);  in my book, wine is not alcohol- it has some!) and when I was told I had to study and taste spirits as well, I gave up the idea and even wrote about it once in delWine:

But I am glad, from this  50th year of WSET, and as already written last year by delWine, the wine and spirits have been finally separated.

Meeting Harris after 15 years

I was very happy at the prospect of meeting the man who had started the upward climb of WSET in terms of profits, turnover, and its global reach and in my view  who corporatized the Trust. I was also surprised that he had taken over as the CEO barely 2 years earlier in April, 2002 when he met me and was handling the WSET stand all by himself (at least when I visited him).

Ian has had an interesting background in the wine and spirits industry before joining WSET as the CEO. Starting his career in 1977 with a spirit and wine merchant Christopher’s in London, he had done his WSET Diploma in 1980 on the second attempt. He joined Seagram in 1987 and despite being a spirits company his passion was more for Cognac and since they owned Martell, he had been assigned to work with Martell. When Seagram was taken over by Diageo and Pernod Ricard in 2001 he was looking for an opportunity that came in the form of a job offer as the CEO of WSET which was struggling with student stagnancy, losses and was unsure of its future.

During that year there had been over 10,500 students appearing in the exams but WSET had a deficit of over £100,000. In the very next year, he was able to turn it around and there was a surplus of £150,000!

The growth in numbers has been exponential since he took the reins.  ‘108,000 students appeared in one of the 4 streams of WSET last year globally. India had 1200 students- which was way more than 63 barely 10 years ago- a 20-fold jump. The number may still seem small but it was similar to that in Italy and also at 50% growth over the previous year (the WSET yearly Calendar runs from August-July). India happens to be among the Top Twenty-The course is now taught n 75 countries in 15 languages! In India it is still taught in English. Incidentally, there are 6 centers that offer these programmes in India though people are free to go to Hong Kong, USA or elsewhere to do the course.

China biggest market

Which are the biggest markets of WSET, I ask Ian who had not been to India before.  ‘Traditionally, the US and UK have been our major markets with a share of around 21% each. China has made huge strides and today Greater China (China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) is our biggest market with a share of 23% last year,’ says Harris. Though UK market has been also growing, the international market has 80% of the total share now. Till the early 1990s, the market was around 8,000 students only, primarily in UK trade only. Canada was the first international country added and the numbers increased somewhat. As might be expected, in China it is taught in Chinese.

India/UK/China in the course

India has made big strides during the last 4-5 years in terms of quality and global reach. To my query about introduction of India in the course, Ian said, ‘we have been watching India with great interest as it has a huge growth potential. Our courses are designed to include the countries with a significant global presence and impact. I think India is moving in that direction but has yet to reach a point where we can include it in our syllabus.  It needs global traction. This means it must have global relevance. Sula is doing well and Fratelli is getting there but we need people to believe and invest in it,’ adding, ‘we have just included China in the syllabus.’

China is perhaps the biggest market in the world today (23%) with the numbers of students doing any one of the 4 levels of WSET almost equally at around 20,000 each.  The other two equally important markets are North America (21%) and UK (21%). While Asia including India has 6% of the total, WSET has not penetrated enough into Latin America (3%) or Africa & Middle East (3%).

How about Britain- the new kid on the block in Europe? ‘We already have incorporated Sparkling wines which have been making waves in the foreign markets for many years now, especially in the US but still wines  need to increase the global reach though some of our Pinot Noir is already  astounding,’ he affirms .

WSET is also WET in 2019

‘During the 50th year, during the start of the Academic year in August, we have segregated our WSET qualifications by initiating WSET2 in Wines, Level 3 in Spirits and the Level 4 Diploma in Wine, ‘ he says. (delWine had already written about it last year in April 2018. For details visit Here)

I wonder if my meeting with Ian 15 years ago had anything to do with the segregation of wine and spirits but I am not naive enough to take the credit for it. It is apparently more due to the expanding field of Spirits with keen interest in beverages like Baijou, Soju and Sake. Ian says, ‘the need to separate has been primarily because there has been so much evolution of these segments that we needed to focus on these as separate areas.’ WSET now runs 2 separate courses in Sake alone, which are quite popular, he says.

In the 50th year, it runs nine streams: WSET level 1-4 in wines, WSET level 1-3 in Spirits and WSET Level 1-2 in Sake.  It is interesting that for MW there are no Spirits. Therefore those aiming to go for MW will not have to suffer Spirits any more in WEST, he opines.

Corporatizing WSET

When I told Ian that WSET seems to have become like a business corporation chasing numbers, he laughed and said, ‘ if you mean we have structured the business and expanded it well and run as a corporation with offices in Hong Kong (India still comes under UK) and the US, yes, we have. But if you mean by it being ruthless like corporates, this is not our approach. We are into education and strongly believe that those who want it should be assisted. We like co-exist side by side with others imparting education, be it a university or a special course. We work with universities and other institutions in different countries and languages and have tweaked the direction of the courses; Sake has been added and now we call the level 4 as DipWSET which has only wines from this year’s syllabus. We co-operate with the Institute of Masters of Wine and Also Court of Master Sommeliers. Our courses are aligned with various universities that run hospitality courses and of course through our APPs (Approved Programme Providers) we link up with hospitality industry all over the world.’

It was his corporate spirit that WSET improved their turnover from 2001-2 of £1.748 million to £17 million in Aug-Jul 2019. He was quiet on the profit made during this period. The secret of his success has been rather simple. While WSET was designed for UK Trade and later in the 1990s extended to Canada, it is Ian Harris who realised that the market was in international space and it was the customers who can understand wine better, and drink more that the market grew, are the audience they should be looking at. He also helped improve the course content to keep up with the changing wine scene globally. Incidentally, during the 50th year 10,000 people have so far completed the diploma, now popularly known as DipWSET.

Thanks to Ian’s performance, WSET received the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade 2015. Moreover, Harris has also been the Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Drinks Retailing Awards and Man of the year 2014 by The Drinks Business.

On a lighter note I ask Ian Harris if WSET was responsible for many Indians with even WSET Level 1 qualification showing off as WSET qualified Sommeliers or whether WSET could enforce some discipline of not calling themselves as such, he said WSET never prepared people to become Sommeliers and as such they should not call themselves as Sommeliers but it would be difficult to enforce this as a Dictate.  Its only when the job interviews are conducted, the truth comes out in a minute.’

Established in 1969, WSET is celebrating its 50th year. DelWine wishes Ian Harris and the Wine and Spirits Trust a very happy 50th anniversary on 17 October 2019, technically on the date of incorporation.

Subhash Arora



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