'A good palate requires training'

Justin Knock, 32, is resident European, African and Middle-Eastern winemaker for the Australian wine company Penfolds.

What do you actually do?

I'm an in-house wine expert, so I educate staff and consumers about wine, and act as a bridge between the marketing people here and our winemakers in Australia. I hold wine tastings and make presentations at dinners and trade fairs. I try to make our wines easier to understand. For instance, I might talk about how Australian Chardonnay used to be very ripe and oaky when young, but never aged well. It was a bit like watching a really large man running down a hill - spectacular at first, but you knew it was all going to go horribly wrong. Nowadays, the wines are much more refined.

What's a typical day like?

You could have a day where you don't taste any wines, or you could taste 50 or 60. It involves a lot of travel. I might be going to the airport, preparing a presentation, or making sure I had the right vintages for a tasting that evening. We have a lot of events at night, and I work some weekends. I've just been at a conference with our distributors, and tomorrow I'll be tasting some South African wines. This weekend, I'm going to a big wine fair in Germany.

Why do you love your job?

It is such an interesting product. There is no other beverage that doesn't taste like what it's made from - red wine comes from grapes, but it can taste like plums or liquorice. There's so much diversity and complexity in the different varieties of grape, and in the way wine changes as it ages. When I hold tastings, people are very open and positive, and keen to learn. It's not like going to a presentation on investment banking. They're there to have a good time.

What's difficult about it?

I don't have a lot of time to hang out with friends - especially leading up to Christmas, when I'm travelling non-stop. You really earn your keep when you've been working until two in the morning, then get up at seven and start tasting heavy, red wines, still feeling rough. You're definitely spitting it out at that point.

What skills do you need to be a winemaker?

A good palate comes with training - you just need to taste a lot of wine. You need to love wine and love travelling. A science background is useful, so you understand the technical processes. I did a chemistry degree, before making wine for five years. There are a lot of courses in viticulture, the science and production of grapes. But most important is the ability to simplify things. You might be talking to a group of wine experts, but for most people, wine is extremely difficult to understand and can be a bit intimidating. So you need to be a good communicator.

What would you say to someone who wanted to become a winemaker?

I'd never have got to where I am now if I hadn't been nuts about wine. You don't do it to make lots of money - you have to be fascinated by wine. Before you sign up for a winemaking course, you're better off taking a holiday and getting a job in a winery during the harvest. The vintage is between September and October in the northern hemisphere, and February to March in Australia. The hours are long and it's physical, but you find out if you love it.

What's the salary and career path like?

You start as an assistant winemaker, then become senior winemaker, visiting vineyards and determining when to pick the grapes - probably the most important decision you can make. Eventually, you become chief winemaker, or start making your own wine. As an assistant winemaker, you'd start on about £20,000 a year. With experience, double that. Chief winemakers at the very top earn £100,000 a year. But the best thing is that you get cheap access to really good wine.


For more information, visit The Institute of Masters of Wine website, www.masters-of-wine.org; and the Wine and Spirit Education Trust website, www.wset.co.uk.