Competition – Lee Isaacs


Lee Isaacs DipWSET writes about himself, ‘I have been in the wine trade since 2002 but have been around wine from a very young age. I passed up a place at university to study law to instead join the wine trade. For the last 3 years I was head of Education as Oxford’s oldest wine school and have been privileged to teach around the world before moving into freelance tastings and wine experiences. ‘Here’s his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition

The event described below happened in the winter of 2002 in my early days as a wine merchant but gave me my most moving and enduring wine experience. 

I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t around wine, although surely that time did exist. My father, a cockney who fought in World War II and had developed a taste for the nicer things in life, encouraged me to taste all manner of food and drink from a very young age. This liquid of the grape particularly interested me though.

At the age of 12 whilst in London with Mother Isaacs I asked for a taste of the house red she had ordered. Being a pretentious little sod I gave it my best Jilly Goolden (I’d seen her on the telly and still wonder what a wheelbarrow full of ugly fruit smells like) I proceeded to theatrically sniff and taste this wine, with suitable slurping noises. I suggested to Mother Isaacs that this was ‘An Australian Shiraz’. Mother Isaacs responded accordingly with “Shut up! You’re 12, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Well dear reader, it turned out the wine was an Australian Shiraz. Please don’t imagine for a moment that this suggests some latent, Rain Man like tasting ability, or that I imagine myself as the mystical and unsuspected hero of some vinous fantasy tale. I simply recognised what we drank a lot of at home. However, this moment did solidify my complete fascination with the subject.

We move forward some years; I am 18 and on a gap year, as was and remains the trendy option of the modern youth, and looking for full time work. A job appeared in my local Oddbins and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to try my hand at wine retail. Within 3 months I contacted the university that had generously offered me a place but informed them I was going to make my fortune selling grape juice. I heard laughter and ultimately a sigh of relief as the put the phone down.

I’d been in the role for about 6 months as we headed in to the depths of the bleak, cold Cumbrian winter. I’d learned a little bit about wine and was no longer a pretentious little so and so. I was beginning to discover the beauty of wines outside of those on which my father had weened me. He was in his very early eighties but still very much enjoyed his food, wine and music. Mother Isaacs was to be away for the evening and I saw an opportunity to finally take a bottle of wine home to him. For years he had opened bottles and poured for me and shared what he know. He didn’t know much and certainly had no pretensions but he valued art, culture and a connection with something greater than himself.

This winter’s night was to be the night I could say thank you to him for starting me on a long and life affirming journey into wine. The night I could say “Here you go Pops, I’ve finally learned something that I can share with you and start to return all those magnificent bottles you have opened for me.” We lived in a cottage in the sticks near Kendal. A beautiful and peaceful place, although I only appreciate that now, living as I do in the urban danger lands of Oxfordshire. It was a typically, dark and stormy night as we settled into our arm chairs in front of a roaring log fire.

“This wine is from Jumilla Pops (or as I pronounced it, Jamilla) in Spain. It’s a Reserva so it’s pretty good and has some bottle age. It’s called Taja.” The wine, looking back, was straightforward and fairly simple. It had plenty of bright red skinned fruit and some of those vanilla oaky notes I so loved back then. It was soft, supple and smooth. I remember really tasting each mouthful though and there was something about this moment that I savoured more than others I had previously. In fairness it was a wine that I’d today describe as Good Quality in common WSET SAT parlance. I think it cost me about £6.00. My father’s face lit up, not at the wine, but at the fact his son had learned the beauty wine can bring to an everyday moment. We bonded over the bottle of simple yet delicious Spanish juice. There was the odd knowing look between father and son that this was something to savour and enjoy on its own merits. It was nothing fancy but it was just a ‘good bottle of wine.’ This moment stays with me and continues to do so as it instilled the keystone of my life in wine.

Wine to me is special because it is that very connection to something so much greater than ourselves. Life is a series of moments and we endeavour to make those moments meaningful, memorable and special. Wine can achieve this so easily as long as it is valued by the drinkers but not set on a pedestal and made the focus of the occasion. Wine itself occurs because of a series of moments, perhaps going back hundreds of years. Wine is history and connection. My father sadly did not live too much longer and this was the only occasion in which I was able to provide him with the juice, the story and the moment. I’ve had other great wines and great moments, but until my own son can share a bottle of his choice with me, I don’t think anything will ever top that bottle of Taja Reserva from Oddbins shared with my dear Old Pops.