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Ruth Wiles on wine tasting

By West Country Life  |  Posted: March 22, 2014

  • 'Many people seem to be very confident and knowledgeable about food, but are less sure of their preferences and opinions when it comes to wine,' says Ruth Wiles who has set up Clifton Wine School PICTURES: Fran Stothard

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They say you know you are getting old when policemen start looking young.

I am beginning to wonder if the same applies to wine buffs, as I sit across a table from one of the West Country's leading experts.

Ruth Wiles, a fresh-faced 32-year-old, is talking about how much she enjoys Chardonnay. However, it would be a mistake for anyone overhearing us to assume she is chatting about nights out with girlfriends featuring significant quantities of the popular white wine.

When Ruth declares: "I love a big Chardonnay from California," she is not referring to the size of the glass containing the alcohol, but giving an expert view on the robust taste.

She certainly knows what she is talking about, having visited vineyards in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Champagne, Cognas, Alsace, Marlborough, Barossa, Clare Valley, Margaret Valley, and the Cape of South Africa, during a career in which she gained the highest level qualification issued by the wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

And now, she is putting her wine expertise to good effect, after setting up a West-based independent wine school aimed at giving a greater knowledge to wine lovers ranging from experienced connoisseurs to nervous novices.

"Few hobbies are as enjoyable as learning about wine," enthuses Ruth, who prior to recently launching Clifton Wine School had a successful career in management at Majestic Wine branches in Swindon, Bristol, Sheffield, York, and Nottingham, including three years of leading WSET courses at Majestic's head office in Watford.

"Many people seem to be very confident and knowledgeable about food, but are less sure of their preferences and opinions when it comes to wine, which is where I think I can make a difference.

"It's about being able to look at a wine list and make a decision on which wine to order based upon what you know you like and what you will be eating."

In addition to advice on food and wine pairings – such as Cabernet sauvignon with Cheddar Cheese – events will also feature tips such as how to find good value alternatives to quality wines,

During her previous career as regional tasting manager at Majestic Wine, Ruth hosted and organised nearly 100 wine tastings, as well as travelling to visit vineyards and wine producers around the world.

So why did she decide to give up what many people would regard as the perfect job? Ruth replies: "I'd been doing the job for nearly five years and I loved it, but I felt that I'd got out of it everything that I was going to get out of it.

"I was looking for a new challenge, and a friend told me about a network of independent wine schools that was expanding across the UK, and decided to take on the franchise covering the Bristol, Bath and Cardiff area.

"I felt there was a market, as this area has a huge foodie scene and being able to choose the perfect wine to accompany a meal makes the experience so much more enjoyable.

"All Clifton Wine School events will be quite sociable, with good wine and food. I'm planning to involve local producers in food matching, and there will be events specific to the time of year, such as summer with barbecues, and at Christmas.

"Being a franchisee works for me as although I am very confident about my knowledge of wine I don't have a business background, and so it has been really useful to have the support that comes with a franchise."

Ruth, who lives in St Werburgh's, Bristol, is also going to be putting to use her experience as a WSET trainer by running courses.

She says: "I've already had interest from restaurants in doing WSET training for their staff. They do not do it just a professional qualification, but also a knowledge and a confidence."

Ruth admits most of her friends would not have expected her to make a career in the wine industry after she graduated from Nottingham Trent University with a BA in social sciences and going on to work in care and as a learning mentor.

"None of the work I'd been doing really suited me, and I wasn't sure what would suit me. Then I saw an advert for the Majestic Wine graduate trainee scheme," she says. "I wasn't an obvious candidate. I didn't grow up in a family of wine buffs. My first experience of wine would have been when I was 18 and working in Paris as an au pair. I would drink 10 franc bottles with other members of the 'nanny gang'. The main thing was having fun rather than considering the wine.

"By the time I'd finished university and applied for the Majestic Wine graduate scheme I knew I liked Shiraz and Chardonnay, but that was about as far as my awareness of wine went. After gaining a place on the scheme I discovered a huge amount of prior knowledge about wine wasn't important, because you get a very thorough training."

Ruth is focussing on her home city of Bristol initially for her regular wine tastings, which will take place on Saturdays at Goldbrick House and in the evening at Radisson BLU hotel. Events include evening tastings, four and eight-week courses, private parties and corporate events. And all focus on wine education – no selling is involved.

"It's about having fun and not about selling," says Ruth. "At some wine tastings they are selling wine, but I'm not trying to sell anything, and there is no pressure on anyone attending beyond spending the price of attending the event."

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