I recently retired. No, not from wine writing. I can't imagine ever quitting the magical world of wine voluntarily. I have just retired from an honorary and rather inspiring position.
Earlier this year my three-year stint as honorary president of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust came to an end. My duties were far from onerous. All I had to do was spend an evening each year on the stage at London's historic Guildhall handing out certificates and awards to the Trust's most successful students – almost 200 of them. Most of them have passed the WSET's most demanding exam, the Diploma, and they come from all over the world for this graduation ceremony.
Each year I have been more and more impressed by the sort of people who have been prepared to put themselves and their nearest and dearest through this pretty challenging test, involving serious blind tasting and a great deal of swotting, just one level down from the super-scary Master of Wine exams.
Ian Harris, chief executive of the WSET and the man responsible for making it an international force, is master of ceremonies and always reads out a short description of each candidate together with their name – not always easy when they come from so many different nations. I have noticed that over the last few years the proportion of bankers-turned-wine students seems to have rocketed – perhaps because of the trend, not welcomed by me, to view wine as an investment vehicle. But there are also many successful business people of different persuasions, academics, lawyers, hospital administrators, scientists and researchers, as well of course as those with full-time jobs in the wine trade.
It is quite extraordinary how popular wine courses have become and, thanks to a large degree to the drive of Ian Harris, the WSET is without doubt the global leader in wine education. Last year nearly 50,000 people in 17 languages in more than 50 countries took one of their courses and they are hoping to reach 60,000 wine-loving students this year.
I feel terribly proud of the fact that it is a British outfit that is leading the way in this increasingly popular field. I'm also proud to have been the Trust's third honorary president, taking over from my friend and co-author of The World Atlas of Wine Hugh Johnson, who succeeded Michael Broadbent. I always kept things going pretty swiftly because I felt for the hundreds of guests in the Guildhall who have to watch a merciless succession of successful (but mostly unknown to them) students receiving their diplomas and trophies, and I was always keenly aware that they were looking forward to the reception afterwards. But Michael used to get very carried away congratulating the prettiest students, so his graduation ceremonies always lasted much longer than mine.
I feel particularly close to the Trust because when, in late 1975, I started out as a wine writer, having been hired as assistant editor of a wine trade magazine strictly on the basis of my organisational abilities, I was only too well aware of how little I knew about wine. I therefore immediately signed up with the WSET, then only six years old. I found their courses invaluable – not least for forcing me to learn about topics such as gin distillation that weren't naturally thrilling to me. The result was that by 1978 I had passed the Diploma and somehow won the top prize, then called the Rouyer Guillet cup. I still have the modest, six-inch-high wooden shield to show for it, and relish drawing current students' attention to the contrast between this and what today's winners of the Vintners' Cup (as it is now known) win: a wine trip to the value of £5,000, a year's custody of a handsome silver trophy, and a finely etched magnum decanter to keep.
The courses have evolved considerably since my day and there are now special ones for spirits-only and for those in the hospitality industry, but what I think is admirable is that they are all systematically revised every three years. As the author and editor of wine reference books myself, I know all too well how rapidly the world of wine is changing. For obvious reasons, I can't vouch for the standard of teaching and suspect it varies considerably, but I do believe the Trust puts as much effort as possible into maintaining standards.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the WSET (whose name seems to be pronounced differently in virtually every country) is how popular their courses are in Asia. This year it is expected that the total number of Chinese students, or at least those in Hong Kong together with mainland China, will overtake the total number of students in the Trust's homeland the UK.
On a trip in March to both Hong Kong and Shanghai I met literally hundreds of WSET students, all of whom seemed genuinely thrilled to be studying wine in a formal, structured way. I helped host social wine tastings and dinners for graduates in both cities and was very impressed by the level of knowledge and commitment – which is amazing considering the embryonic state of the Chinese wine market even as recently as 10 years ago. I think perhaps because my books, especially the Oxford Companion to Wine, are recommended texts for WSET courses, I found an extraordinary number of young Asian wine students already very familiar with my work. It is also notable that the last two winners of the Vintners' Cup have been Asian women… Caucasian men, watch out.
So who is the next honorary president of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust? The first non-Brit, as befits such a truly international organisation. Last January I handed over to none other than Gérard Basset, whose initials after his name – OBE, MW, MS, MBA – put mine to shame. He will find smiling for the camera 200 times in an evening is quite challenging – and was especially so for me at my first graduation ceremony, which took place, as luck would have it, all too few hours after my mother died. But I'm sure this Frenchman, who insisted on being draped in the Union Jack when crowned as Best Sommelier in the World four years ago, is just as proud as I was to be honorary president of such a worthwhile organisation.
For more information, see www.WSETglobal.com.