In a shocking instance of journalistic back-slapping, I am going to use this column to sing the praises of a colleague who has recently become an MW - a Master of Wine, as certified by the Institute of Masters of Wine ( www.masters-of-wine.org). I would rather shave with a chainsaw than embark on the MW programme. Created in 1953, it was initially open only to members of the wine trade as a kind of high-level professional certification. In 1984, wine writer Jancis Robinson became the first MW from outside the trade. She has since been joined by two other UK writers: Tim Atkin in 2001 and, just a few weeks ago, Sarah Jane Evans.
Evans broke the mould more comprehensively, being a food writer as well as a wine writer. During much of her period of MW study she was publishing director of BBC Good Food magazine as well as President of the Guild of Food Writers (a very demanding job). Now, describing herself simply as a writer and broadcaster (and wine editor of Good Food), she is the least specialised person ever to attain the MW.
Evans's MW path began back in 1999. "To start with," she says, "it just seemed like the next thing to do for someone like me who enjoys exams." By the end, "it became an end in itself." And the path was anything but smooth. "I failed the theory section three times and the practical section once." The first failure, in 2001, was a shock. Evans is a Cambridge graduate who "had never failed an exam in my life".
As a journalist of some prominence, Evans had more to lose than most other MW candidates. And there was a special challenge for her: "As a 'ladies' consumer journalist', I was not taken seriously in some quarters." That meant that the reward in prestige would be substantial if she passed - but the potential for embarrassment would just as high. Had she failed to make the grade, the wine trade might theoretically have discounted her judgements afterwards.
The MW combines in-depth technical/scientific learning with a subject that might as well be called Higher-Hedonism. "The things I could tell you about screw cap liners..." sighs Evans. She stuffed her head with chemical formulae - her daughter pasted them on walls and doors so Evans could study while walking around the house - and has probably forgotten more about nematodes than you and I will ever learn. But all this is focused, ultimately, on the stuff in the glass - knowledge of which is tested in blind tastings that form a third of the exam. "To begin with I was bad at this. You have to read out your tasting notes, and if you find yourself in a roomful of people who disagree with you...."
But she got better, a lot better. She correctly identified the origin of three out of four Pinot Noirs in one of her tasting exams (Central Otago, Marlborough, Chorey les Beaune and Vosne-Romanée). I sure as hell couldn't do that. And now she isn't embarrassed when she disagrees with the rest of the room. Evans acknowledges the assistance of her husband in improving her tasting skills: before leaving for work, he would open a dozen bottles for her to taste blind first thing in the morning.
What do you get when you start tagging that pair of initials after your name? Well, you get an instant increase in respect from others in the wine world - and invitations to more and better tastings. You also get to join a tiny peer group (there are only 250 or so MWs in the world) whose exclusivity would make the Masons envious. And your marketability goes up, too - though that was never really a consideration for Evans. What does she likes best about her new status? "I no longer have to explain myself. When I'm 85 years old, I'll be able to say: 'I'm an MW'."
New World white wonders
Oak Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (£9.95, Great Western Wine, tel: 01225 322 800, www.greatwesternwine.co.uk) An exotic South African (Elgin Valley) cocktail of all sorts of pineapple and passion fruit flavours. Amazing.
Neagles Rock Riesling 2005 (£8.95, Yapp, tel: 01747 860 423, www.yapp.co.uk) From Australia's Clare Valley, that paradise for Riesling. All the hallmark scents of ripe lime, plus petrolly complexity.
The Maverick Chenin Blanc 2005 (£8.99, Majestic and Waitrose) From the Stellenbosch region, a Chenin that combines massive power and concentration with enough lifting acidity to keep it fresh.Reuse content