Oxford is responsible for how I have spent my working life. I was one of the first three undergraduates to embark on the three-year Maths & Philosophy course in the supposedly rabble-rousing year of 1968 (a very small rabble was roused in sleepy Oxford). By 1970 I had a boyfriend with a particularly generous father. As a result, I was treated to many a superior meal and indeed my first journalistic billet was as restaurant correspondent of Isis.
As with so many people who end up devoting their lives to wine, it was a glass of red burgundy that made me realise how wonderful it could be. In fact more than a glass, a shared bottle of Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses 1959; a wine that would be far too expensive for me ever to order in a restaurant nowadays.
‘It was heady and sensual on the one hand but on the other I could tell that there was something rewardingly cerebral about it too’
One sniff was enough to show me just how very different this liquid was from student plonk. It was heady and sensual on the one hand but on the other I could tell that there was something rewardingly cerebral about it too. This single liquid was expressing history, geography, psychology, economics – and maybe even maths and philosophy.
I was especially lucky at St Anne’s to know Alison Forbes, who was in the then very unusual position of having been brought up with wine. Her father was a member of The Wine Society, and had encouraged her to assess wine in an intellectual way. She would buy two half bottles of wines that were similar but different and show me how they varied.
I even remember standing in front of Oxford wine merchant G. T. Jones in the High Street (do people still call it ‘The High’?) chanting the bottle colour mantra ‘green for Mosel, brown for hock’.
‘The subjects of wine and food were viewed as irredeemably frivolous by undergraduates of the early 1970s’
I did not get up from the table at the Rose Revived resolved to become a wine writer. The subjects of wine and food were viewed as irredeemably frivolous by undergraduates of the early 1970s. It would have been seen as a waste of my Oxford education to have pursued a career in either of them, however much I wished to. I frittered away three years organising holidays because I liked travel, and then, as was the prevailing fashion, dropped out.
I then spent a year in Provence, and came back resolved to look for a job in either food or wine. In December 1975 was lucky enough to be taken on as assistant editor of a wine trade magazine.
At the interview, the publisher had told me they had had many applicants for the job. ‘Either we have to take on a wine expert and teach them how to write,’ he explained, ‘or we get a trained journalist and have to teach them all about wine. You of course are neither of these things. But nevertheless you’re the favourite for the job.’ I tried not to look anything like as surprised as I was.
I immediately embarked on wine courses that would eventually culminate in my becoming the first-ever non-trade Master of Wine. After I’d been there a year, I asked the publisher why he had chosen me. Was it my glorious career on Isis? My temporary job with the Good Food Guide? My year in France? None of the above. Was it, I asked hesitantly, the fact that I had worked temporarily for a London wine merchant? (Technically true but in fact I was just a barmaid in a City wine bar they owned.) No it wasn’t. Apparently what had clinched it was that I had been in charge of the skiing side of Thomson Holidays and they thought that I was obviously such a good organiser that I would organise myself to learn about wine.
If he had thought during the interview to ask me whether I could type, my life would have been very different.
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