Words by Lucy Studley
Could wine education be the ultimate brain workout? Time to ditch the Sudoku and raise a glass instead…
No matter what stage of life you find yourself at when reading this, learning a new skill is always a good idea. Especially when that new skill plunges you nose-first into the intriguing, multi-faceted, and sociable world of wine. The Cornwall Wine Centre promises students with a thirst for knowledge a sensory journey, an intellectual workout, and a life-enhancing learning experience. Surely not all this from simply sipping away at wine and pontificating? It’s time to discover if this story has any legs…
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET)was founded in 1969 to serve the educational needs of the UK wine industry. Today, the highly regarded qualifications which WSET offers are available in over 70 countries, and are taught in 15 different languages through a network of carefully accredited course providers. One of these providers is the Cornwall Wine Centre – a collective of local wine professionals who have varied areas of expertise but are united by a love of their subject.
Cornwall Wine Centre is the educational arm of Old Chapel Cellars – an award-winning wine merchant based in Truro which, in 2021, became the first UK wine merchant to achieve B Corp accreditation. Led by Jamie Tonkin and Louisa Fitzpatrick, Old Chapel Cellars is a forward-looking set-up in what is an age-old business. The pair take a modern and refreshingly irreverent approach to wine education in tandem with their mercantile business, embracing new ideas and trends backed up with encyclopaedic knowledge of the wine world. They are joined at Cornwall Wine Centre by three other respected and experienced educators: Elly Owen, Stuart Douglas, and Steve Brown.
Elly became a Sommelier while working at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall, going on to win ‘Imbibe Sommelier of the Year’ and become a member of the prestigious Champagne Academy. She’s a proactive champion of career progression in the hospitality industry, but she’s best loved for her down-to-earth, fun approach to imparting wine knowledge.
Stuart has led hundreds – if not thousands – of students of all ages through WSET courses over the years. He’s an expert in condensing complex information into sip-able chunks and helping his students penetrate the world of appellations, pruning systems, and maceration techniques. Meanwhile, Steve draws on his recent experience of being a WSET student himself (he passed his WSET Advanced in 2017) to ensure the content of every course is right up to speed, and the key information is really sinking in. Steve retired from his first career in the fire service, where he was a respected trainer, before discovering a passion and aptitude for wine education. Teaching comes naturally to him, and he says the subject is nothing to be sniffed at: “Wine has a bit of a reputation as an elitist subject, but it really doesn’t have to be. A bit of wine knowledge will give you a great foot up the career ladder if you’re starting out in hospitality, and for the rest of us it’s a brilliantly demystifying experience,” he enthuses. “People who embark on WSET courses come out feeling much more confident when buying or ordering wine. Forget being blindsided by the world of wine labels – you’ll be able to look beyond the branding and make sure you’re getting great value with every purchase.”
Meanwhile, Stuart has seen lifelong friendships formed around the tasting table. “Our courses, delivered at Old Chapel Cellars and fabulous hospitality venues around Cornwall such as Knightor Winery, attract a diverse crowd of wine lovers, all of whom are eager to learn but also not averse to having a good time along the way. It’s a great way of meeting like-minded people and, by joining our network of alumni, students often find themselves invited to tastings and other events – all in the name of education, of course!” For Elly, it’s in the act of learning itself where the greatest benefits lie. “Learning about wine touches on geography, geology, horticulture, history, culture, and commerce. Without moving from your comfy chair, your senses will transport you to a certain place at a certain time. Understanding how a wine is made and why it smells and tastes the way it does allows you to get under the skin of that particular place – what people like to eat, the local traditions, how the weather changes throughout the seasons, what the native flora is like, what it smells like when it rains… it’s like travel in a glass!”
Louisa agrees: “Learning about and talking about wine engages the senses and helps develop next-level language skills, as we all have fun describing aromas, colours and flavours. It’s a brilliant brain work-out!”
Wine knowledge is important for the continued growth and development of the hospitality industry in Cornwall. As Louisa explains: “The importance of WSET courses cannot be understated. They enable hospitality businesses to enhance their wine expertise, curate exceptional wine lists, and offer informed recommendations to customers. Additionally, individuals who complete WSET courses become valuable assets to the industry, raising the overall quality of service and contributing to the growth of Cornwall’s reputation as a culinary destination.”
Three levels of WSET courses are offered at Cornwall Wine Centre covering most students’ needs, be they driven by academic interest or professional development. Beyond this there is a Diploma offered at six centres across the UK which can take up to three years to achieve, but this is really the preserve of wine industry professionals; advancing as far as an Advanced WSET (Level 3) will set you up nicely with a lifetime of useful and fulfilling wine appreciation.
If you’re totally new to the subject however, start with Level 1. “Level 1 is ideal for anyone who enjoys drinking wine and simply wants to learn a bit more about what’s in the glass – how it’s made, different grapes and wine producing countries, and the basics of food and wine pairing,” explains Louisa.
If Level 1 piques your interest, then you’ll be eager to progress to Level 2. “This is a deeper dive into the key grape varieties and the regions of each wine producing country, showing how wines differ and why,” says Louisa. “You’ll taste over 40 different wines during this course, and develop an appreciation for what makes wine so unique.” According to Louisa, Level 3 is a big step up and starts assuming all the content from Level 2 is known. “If you’ve had a gap in between the two, we advise a little swatting before starting this,” she hints. A detailed and intense course, Level 3 is spread across a 4 to 6 week period. The majority is home learning with 5 tutored sessions during which students taste over 60 wines. “A hugely rewarding and internationally recognised qualification,” says Louisa, “this is ideal for those wanting to progress their career in wine or hospitality generally, or with a genuine desire to learn all about the subject.”
Stuart believes that anyone who considers themselves a ‘foodie’ should dip their toe into WSET learning. “Food and wine matching isn’t the preserve of Michelin starred restaurants and elaborate tasting menus,” he says. “For centuries, wine has been made to complement the local food culture in various parts of Europe, and now the same happens in winemaking regions all over the globe. Having a good understanding of how the right style of wine enhances the enjoyment of our favourite dishes can be a game-changer.” He continues: “The courses include content on English wines which students always find really interesting, and it’s a nice opportunity to talk about grape varieties successfully grown in the UK and how they complement the local produce Cornwall is famous for.”
For Louisa, one of the big bonuses of disseminating wine knowledge is promoting a more ethical approach to consumption. “At Old Chapel Cellars, we nurture relationships with small producers and family-owned vineyards, and have a big focus on organic wines which encourage biodiversity in vineyards around the world. Some of the winemakers we work with are traditionalists, keeping ancient cultivation methods and techniques alive, and others are young mavericks taking their region in fresh, exciting directions. But for each wine it’s about what’s in the bottle and its intrinsic interest and value, rather than clever marketing. These are the wines we use in the WSET courses, and by sharing our considered choices as a wine merchant I like to think that we’re helping brilliant winemakers all over the world reach an appreciative crowd!”