There are 354 Masters of Wine in the world. Of those, only 117 are women. Anne McHale is one. After ten years at the venerable Berry Bros & Rudd, she took “the scary step” of setting up as an independent wine consultant, educator and presenter.
What first piqued your interest in wine?
Definitely my dad! He founded the very first student wine society at Queen’s University in Belfast (where I grew up) at a time when very few people in Northern Ireland drank wine, and it has remained a lifelong passion for him (although he doesn’t work in the industry). I hero-worshipped him, so it was a small step to developing the interest myself. I went to university in Cambridge and the first society I joined was the wine society.
How did you come to work in the wine industry? We can’t imagine many people grow up thinking, “I know: I want to work in wine”.
Indeed – and they don’t suggest it to you at the Careers Service either! Despite my interest in wine, it didn’t even occur to me that I could make a career out of it. I studied French and Classics and ended up with a degree, but NO idea what I wanted to do. I applied for every job which needed a French speaker, and was offered a job as administrator in a small, family-owned French wine agency business with an office near Paddington. They paid for my first evening classes in wine. By the end of the course I had well and truly got the bug...
How did you gain Master of Wine?
It is quite a journey. In order to be accepted onto the Master of Wine (MW) study programme, you have to have several years of experience in the wine industry and to have worked your way through the other trade qualifications, usually those awarded by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). I studied these from 2004-2007, and then began the MW programme in 2008. Then you must pass a series of exams: five written theory papers covering every aspect of wine from production to business, three 12-wine blind tasting papers and a 10,000 word research paper. It took me five years to complete the qualification and as I was working full-time it was one of the most intense times of my life, but yet also one of the most personally fulfilling.
Of the 354 Masters of Wine, more than half are men: what would you say to encourage more women to venture into the industry?
The reason is that wine, like many industries, has traditionally been male-dominated and women haven’t yet caught up. The first ever female Master of Wine, Sarah Morphew Stephen, who gained the qualification in 1970, has spoken on more than one occasion about how she was told that there was ‘no place for women in the industry’. However things are changing. If you look at the split of those studying for the MW, it is pretty much 50/50 male/female, so I would say that there is no better time for women to venture into wine.
You’ve recently set up on your own – tell us a little about your work now…
As a consultant I am currently working for a boutique hotel group called The Doyle Collection. I curate their wine lists, train their staff in wine and host wine-themed events at their restaurants. I also teach courses at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and at the Institute of Masters of Wine, as well as running private one-to-one tutoring sessions for students studying for the WSET and MW exams.
As a presenter I focus on corporate wine-tasting events and I also run ‘women in wine’ themed events where we focus on top female winemakers, and events where I teach women how to be able to read a restaurant wine list just as well as any man – it drives me crazy when I’m out with a man and the staff assume he knows more about wine than I do!
So, on to the wine! How much should we spend on a bottle?
By the time you factor in duty (more than £2 a bottle in the UK), VAT, retailers’ margin, packaging and transport costs, if you buy a bottle of wine for £5 you are usually only spending about 50p on the liquid itself. Every pound more you spend is money spent on the quality of the wine. My personal benchmark price is around the £10 mark. That’s when I feel I’m really getting something worth drinking, which reflects its origin and has an interesting story behind it.
What do you like to drink in winter?
In winter, like many people, I favour big, bold comforting reds like Aussie Shiraz or Argentine Malbec. I love to drink those on their own in front of a roaring fire – with food I’m still a fan of the European classics like fine red Bordeaux, Rhône or Chianti. And I love finishing a special meal in winter with a cheeky glass of Port or Madeira – both real winter warmers.
And serve at a party?
When choosing a party wine it is safer to cater for the tastes of the majority. Only you will know your guests, but I would suggest crowd-pleasers like Sauvignon Blanc for the white and Malbec for the red.
How should we choose wine – should we look for climate? Grape?
Climate and grape are both great ways to select wine. Climate particularly for traditional European wines, where the name of the grape isn’t always on the label.
It’s all too easy to fall into a wine rut – when you always order the same thing at the bar or pick up the same bottle to take to a party.
Please could you suggest some great alternatives to old favourites?
Try Verdejo instead of Sauvignon Blanc, red Rhône instead of New World Malbec or Shiraz, Beaujolais instead of Pinot Noir. If you love drinking Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but don’t always want to play the price, then experiment: try Gigondas or Vacqueyras – they’re from neighbouring towns and taste similar but don’t have the famous name so are less expensive. Likewise if you love Sancerre, look out for neighbouring wines Menetou-Salon or Reuilly.
What glass of wine would you order with your last supper?
Oh, that’s a tricky one – I love SO many wines! If there were no budget restrictions for my last supper, then I think it’d have to be a Le Montrachet.
How do you pair food and wine now the ‘white with fish and red with meat’ has been debunked?
The key rule I teach the staff I train is that you must match the richness of the wine with the richness of the dish – you don’t want one or the other to dominate. Within this you then have a lot of flexibility to work with your own individual tastes and preferences – and you can think outside the box e.g. a light red like Beaujolais can work well with a delicate seafood dish.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Don’t be so fearful! I’d tell her to read the Susan Jeffers classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, which gives advice I now try to follow every day.
Who or what is the love of your life?
I’m very close to my immediate family so I’d have to choose them. However, it would be hard to beat that glass of Le Montrachet…
When are you happiest?
This one’s easy: when I’m eating amazing food and drinking great wine, all in the company of someone fun. A beautiful view in the background just tops it all off.
We're are all about the value of female friendships: what quality do your friends share?
I have many lovely female friends. For me the value of our friendships lies in our mutual ability to listen and be there for each other when times are tricky.
You can invite six women (living or dead) for supper: who? And where do you go?
My mum & sister, Madame Lily Bollinger, Jane Austen, Emma Watson and Jessica Ennis-Hill. Again, if there’s no restriction on budget, I would go to Le Gavroche. I’ve only been once but everything about it was pure class.
The last time you laughed out loud?
Last Saturday night at a dinner party. There was fine Burgundy involved!
What book do you wish you’d written?
The History of Wine in 100 Bottles by Oz Clarke. Or anything by Oz Clarke – I really like his style.
The one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
I do like to be well-groomed – hair and make-up always done, nails manicured etc – so I think people would be surprised to learn that earlier this year I went to work in a winery for the first time, where I ruined my nails and got my clothes dirty every day!
What – if anything – keeps you awake at night?
Being your own boss means it’s hard to switch off, so I often find that my mind buzzes at night with ideas for future projects. I’ve been practising meditation techniques, though, so I’m getting better at drifting off.
Winter or Spring?
Definitely spring. I like sunshine and warmth!
Over or under dressed?
Over. I love to glam up.
White or red?!
Anything with salted caramel…
The time and money to have a really lazy, decadent holiday centred around food, wine and reading fiction.
Word you over-use?
Dream holiday destination?
Haven’t been there yet, but I want to visit the Amalfi Coast.
One thing you’d want on a desert island?
Le Montrachet, obviously!