In January 1997 I attended my first ever wine evening class in Tonbridge.  My friend and I wanted something to do in the dark winter evenings.  By day, we were stressed and overworked lawyers, so a wine evening class seemed perfect.  We could enjoy some wine,  and we might even learn something.  There was no “spitting”, so I cannot recall much about it – except that in sparkling wine week, I experienced for the first time the difference in taste between champagne and other fizzy wines – a tiny seed of wine appreciation had therefore now been sown, and a new skill had unwittingly been acquired.

When I relocated from Kent to Bristol in 2003, it was time to seek out new friends.  I was now a senior lawyer working very long hours, with frequent trips to London and elsewhere.  It was hard to find time to commit to social activities after work, and when I did have time to do something, I had little energy left to do it with.  Fortunately, I found some wine evening classes in Bristol which fitted in with my other commitments, and I persuaded one of my new colleagues to come along too.

My new wine tutor offered WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) exam courses, and she encouraged us to sign up.  I was not keen.  O levels, A levels, a law degree and Law Society Finals were quite enough for me.  However, I was persuaded that a short exam of a few multiple choice questions was easy peasy (no tasting exam thank goodness), so why not tack that on at the end of the course…?  My colleague and I therefore took the plunge, and before we knew it, we were the proud holders of the WSET Level 2 (then called Intermediate) Certificate.

So studying wine had helped me settle in somewhere new and cement new friendships.   I also had a new addition to my CV and looked (on paper at least) slightly less geeky.

But something else had happened.  Although I was a happy and contented supermarket wine shopper, I now realised there was a much bigger wine world out there to explore.  My taste buds had woken from a lifetime of slumber.  As a result of learning how to taste wine (as opposed to drinking it), I could taste all sorts of amazing things in a glass of wine that I had previously missed, and I was getting much more value for money from my glasses of wine.  I had also discovered that there was a huge range of wines to explore, much more varied and fascinating than I had realised.

It was time to find out what else was out there.  It was time to learn more to gain more.  It was time to tackle the WSET Advanced course, now known as Level 3.  Again, this was an evening class due to my day job commitments.  This time I would be  “spitting” – partly because I had to drive to the venue, and partly because I was now expecting a baby!  I therefore remembered rather more about what I was taught.

The exam now included a “blind” wine tasting assessment.  I was apprehensive, not least because the senses can be thrown completely off beam by hormonal changes in pregnancy.  As luck would have it, my senses seemed to be accentuated, so everything tasted that little bit stronger – giving me a sneaky edge over my fellow students.

Despite my pregnancy and the demands of the day job, and the sadness of losing my mother at this time, I achieved a merit in the exam in May 2007 and was awarded a prize by the West of England Wine & Spirit Association.  I was invited as a guest to their annual luncheon to receive it.  This was the first time I had ever tasted a vintage champagne.  I had never tasted anything like it.  After receiving my book token prize (wisely spent on wine tomes I assure you), I was amazed by the “guess the port” competition.  There were indeed people in the room who could identify the shipper and the vintage, the only clues being what they found in the glass.

By now I had met some of the best known characters in the wine trade – the late John Avery MW, the late Bill Baker MW, to name but a few.  True, the more I knew, the more I knew there was to learn.  But wine was no longer a scary mystery.  I understood it, and could talk about it with genuine knowledge, even if my knowledge was not yet quite as great as my enduring enthusiasm.

Developing my knowledge was now more challenging with a lovely young daughter to care for.  However, I carried on with wine evening classes, where I met a beguiling lass called Kelli.  We dreamily mused about how wonderful it would be to leave our day jobs and work with wine instead.

Lawyers are risk averse by nature so there was no chance of me doing that!  However, Kelli was a much more courageous creature.  Off she went to London where she learned so much about wine that when she returned, she set up a wine tasting business, and then added to that a wine shop.  Being a trusting soul she asked if I would help by giving any tastings she could not do.  So all of a sudden, my wine study had to be put into practice!

Since then, I have given many tasting events of all kinds.  I have even taken the brave step of retiring from law to spend more time with my family and work with wine – emboldened by Kelli’s inspiring example.  I am a WSET Level 4 Diploma student, and I have passed the WSET Wine Educator Programme which means I am now a WSET Nominated Educator for Kelli’s wine shop in Winscombe.

So my purse is a little emptier, but my life is much more fun and rewarding.  It is always a pleasure to help others along their own wine journey.  I would not have been able to do this without my WSET qualifications.

Where will my wine journey take me next?  Maybe I will enjoy a bottle of champagne a week in my 50th year…..or embark upon a Grand Tour of European vineyards……no, I will NOT be taking any more wine exams!!!!!

More importantly, where will your wine journey take you?


Author: Diana Lyalle BA (Oxon) DipWSET

Lawyer turned wine educator and tasting events host based in Wraxall, North Somerset. Wine Specialist for Harvey Nichols Bristol. All opinions expressed are those of Diana Lyalle only. Email: dlyalle@winetimeevents.com Mobile: 07772055928

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