The Angela and Erna show

Angela Scott and Erna Blancquaert, Golden Vines Scholarship winners

Angela Scott (left) and Erna Blancquaert, pictured above by Adrian Bridge of The Fladgate Partnership at a glitzy ceremony at Annabel's earlier this month, were awarded scholarships worth £55,000 each. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

There are encouraging signs that the wine world is slowly becoming more diverse – not least the success of the recently awarded Taylor’s Port Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships. A total of 42 wine professionals of colour from all over the world applied for two dream awards involving internships at some of the world’s most glamorous wine estates and all the considerable costs of studying for either a Master of Wine or Master Sommelier qualification.

I was one of the judges and reading these applications was a thoroughly humbling and uplifting experience. So much so that I decided to publish some of the applicants’ personal histories in this series on Jarrett Buffington, for instance, is an African American raised in Houston by a single mother who worked as a cleaner. Unlike me, he did not get any sort of leg-up in the world of connoisseurship, but he is now one of the most promising sommeliers in Australia. He wrote, ‘Growing up, I was often bullied. I ate my lunch at school in bathrooms. I witnessed family violence. I was subjected to verbal abuse. My oldest brother killed himself, and so much more. For most of my life I never believed that I was going to be anything other than disappointed and sad. But hospitality and wine have truly changed my life.’

Winemaker and academic researcher Diana Hawkins wrote in her application, ‘I’ve been dismissed at tastings and taken seriously only after reps realised I was buying for James Beard Award-winning or Michelin-starred restaurants. Suffice to say, I’ve faced discrimination and micro-aggressions that have almost made me leave the industry. The key word is almost.’

Iranian Nikan Jooyani grew up in a country where alcohol of any sort was forbidden but a move to Italy lit the wine flame and she aims to become a Master Sommelier.

Many of these aspiring wine students are based in countries where it can be extremely difficult to meet fellow pupils with whom to share research and tastings. Both Korean applicants complained of this. Others, such as Peruvian Rosa Lyn Joy Way Bueno, who was stranded by the pandemic in her native land, have been virtually isolated from any sort of international range of wines.

All these tales made me realise how very lucky I have been to live in London, which arguably has the best opportunities in the world for buying, tasting and learning about wine.

The awards were created in memory of the late Gerard Basset, himself such a keen wine student that his many titles included Master of Wine, Master Sommelier, Wine MBA, Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, OBE and, on his sixth attempt, World’s Best Sommelier. He left school, directionless, at 16 and, as his memoir Tasting Victory vividly illustrates, had personal experience of the transformative power of an interest in wine.

Two candidates stood out for us judges: Erna Blancquaert and Angela Scott. Blancquaert, 38, is the only female viticulture academic of colour at Stellenbosch University. She is a respected PhD researcher with an international network of colleagues having found local wine producers and academics less willing to share their knowledge. She took 44 international flights in 2019, she says.

Blancquaert’s mother was a nurse and her father a driver for wine producer Nederburg. Wine labels intrigued the young Blancquaert. At school in Paarl she was bullied ‘because I was always in the top 10’. When she told her parents she wanted to be a scientist and go to university, they laughed. No one would laugh at her achievements now.

Two days before the awards ceremony in London earlier this month we enjoyed lunch before attending a wine tasting together. A ready giggler, she politely corrected me on a point or two and when I tried to give her directions on parting, she insisted, ‘I’ll find it; I’m a scientist’.

She met her Belgian husband in a Yahoo chatroom when they were 14 and they married in 2010. Her students call her Blanket, while some friends call her The Token (person of colour). She is invited to sit on a multitude of committees (‘too many – it’s exhausting’) to provide her viewpoint. Not inclined to mince her words, she finds herself ostracised almost daily for drawing attention to the realities of life in South Africa.

The Master of Wine viticultural paper will surely be a doddle for her. Yet, as an academic, she says, she is inclined to dive too deeply into many of the topics. Like the other two MW students in South Africa, she will also be hampered by the geographically narrow range of wines available even in Cape Town. Three of the eight MW papers are ‘practical’, each involving assessing and identifying as closely as possible the wines in a dozen mystery glasses.

On that score, Angela Scott, the other winner, may have some consoling advice. Scott, 46, has already completed the first year of her MW studies. She was meant to have taken the exams this year but was prevented from doing so when COVID-19 trapped her and her winemaker husband in New Zealand. Yet Scott was assured by her MW mentor Natasha Hughes not to stress about identifying all the wines correctly, that accurate arguments and quality assessment were far more important to the examiners.

Describing herself as ‘a recovering lawyer’, Scott was brought up outside Philadelphia by an African American businessman father and a half-Cuban, Wharton-educated mother. After Dartmouth, she became an international human rights lawyer and spent time as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Haiti at the end of the last century. She fell in love with wine via a wine club when she was working in Washington, DC, and ‘ended up in Napa after a job prospect in Mongolia fell through’.

En route to the Master of Wine course, Scott worked for the American wine writer Karen MacNeil and the irreproachable Spottswoode winery in Napa Valley. She sold her house to pay for her studies and invested in NZ wine retailer Cellar Ahuriri, which she now advises.

All this is far outside the ken of most of us Masters of Wine and I can only assume that both she and Blancquaert will add much to what can sometimes be seen as a rather stuffy, Anglocentric institution.

Both will bring their individual expertise to the course, and each is determined to show, by example and direct action, that a career in, and enjoyment of, wine should be open to all.

The realities of the challenges some of the applicants face are rather at odds with the almost disconcertingly glitzy awards ceremony at the London nightclub Annabel’s, with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Grands Échezeaux poured in abundance backed up by Ch d’Yquem 1988 from jeroboam, Kylie (dressed by sponsors Gucci) in full song and awards scattered like confetti. The online auction run in advance of the evening, together with a live auction conducted heroically by Charlie Foley of Christie’s, apparently raised more than £1 million.

The scholarships are awarded by the Gerard Basset Foundation, run by Gerard’s widow Nina and son Romané with a mission to fund diversity and inclusivity education programmes in wine, spirits and hospitality globally. Both Ian Harris, CEO of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and I are trustees and our next exciting task is to choose which of 23 applications from the US, Canada, UK, France, Ghana, South Africa and Australia for funding of wine diversity schemes should receive the surplus raised.