If you’re a WSET Diploma student wishing to give yourself the highest chance at passing the exams (with flying colours too), the courses and masterclasses from Global Wine Academy are going to be your best friends. These courses, led by Jim Gore, former Principal of the WSET Wine School, delve into the nitty gritty of the WSET learning journey and provide precise techniques to calibrate the palate and write the perfect tasting note.
As I chatted to Jim to find out more about the courses at Global Wine Academy, I quickly realised what made them unique: Jim. Principal of the WSET Wine School at age 30, his whole life has been punctuated by wine, whether that was the intention or not. Listening to Jim tell me about his story leading up to founding Global Wine Academy, I couldn’t help but think a career in wine seemed to be written in the stars.
It all started with childhood camping trips to France every Easter, then every summer (his mother was a teacher and made the most of the school holidays). Southern France was always the intended destination, but because Jim, his twin sister and his older sister misbehaved so much in the back of the car, they never quite reached the South of France (he thinks they made it one year) and always ended up stopping in Burgundy. His father, being in the Navy in the 1970s and ‘80s, liked drinking Beaujolais Nouveau and his mum loved Chardonnay, even when it was unfashionable, and on the way back to the UK, the kids couldn’t move for boxes of wine in the car. Jim recalls leaving many of his summer clothes in France, just so they could fit in another bottle!
Wine was always around when Jim was growing up and when he was about fourteen, he started working in the village restaurant with his twin sister. They got to know the wine list (supplied by Oddbins, where Jim would later work and complete his Diploma in Wine) of about twenty wines, which, of course, they started drinking. When faced with the issue of two underage teenagers having discovered alcohol, Jim’s parents decided to encourage a safe interest in drinking and, rather than them drinking illicitly elsewhere, they allowed them the conservatory as a space to drink wine. ‘It was like, “We’ll get you and your friends a bottle of Cotes du Rhone and you can have that, but you can’t go outside”,’ Jim remembers.
At Edinburgh University Jim took Biology (which ended up being Microbiology) and worked at Oddbins part-time (a job he got by writing a paragraph about the trips to Burgundy and his mum’s love of Chardonnay. ‘Sara, the assistant manager at the time, asked me to pick a bottle of wine from the shelf. I picked a Yellowtail Shiraz, which I was familiar with, and she opened it and poured it into a glass and said, “Have a little taste of that and then sell me that bottle of wine.” And that was my interview.’) By the age of 22, Jim was on the Diploma, funded by Oddbins, and knew 300 to 400 wines off by heart, thanks to working at the shop.
Whilst Jim completed his degree in Microbiology (wine and science ended up crossing paths a lot), it was at Oddbins where he found his tribe (‘everyone was interested in the world, pretty clever and had interesting music tastes’). He worked at there for seven years altogether, setting up a wine tasting group, until their business started to change and he left.
A three year stint in Burgundy (helping his parents renovate the house they had decided to buy there) unexpectedly served somewhat as a training ground to his career in wine education. The French builders, after realising that Jim was into wine, started to bring bottles of wine round to taste on their lunch breaks. ‘A worker would say, “Oh I’ve been paid in wine from someone in the Cote d’Or – I don’t know what it is,” and there would be this random little blind bottle on the table. And so I started putting blind bottles on the table too and suddenly it’s lunchtime and it was who could out-do each other – the French builders versus me and my dad. We did blind tasting every single lunchtime and evening for three years.’
Upon returning to the UK, Jim got a job at the Wines and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) on a maternity contract as an examination coordinator in the Awards department. By this point, he’d realised that he wanted to get into wine education. ‘I liked talking about wine, I liked learning about it and I really liked the courses – I preferred the Diploma to my degree.’ His job was to help create the questions for exam papers – and a particularly fun task was choosing the blind wines for the Diploma.
In another twist of fate (so far there’s been: stopping in Burgundy because of bad behaviour; getting a job in Oddbins because of Burgundy; doing the Diploma because Oddbins put him through it; blind tasting with French builders because of the knowledge gained during the Diploma), a last minute spot became available on the educator programme – he was informed on the Friday and the course started on the following Monday. Upon starting the programme, Jim recalls, ‘Within about two or three hours, it became clear that this was what I wanted to do. During the assessment, I realised that I was having so much fun presenting and working with the students – and I think they realised as well – and within a couple of months I’d switched departments to the school team.’
Jim worked with Level 2 and Level 3 and he gobbled up every new challenge that was thrown at him. ‘One of the great projects I worked on was recreating Level 1 and Level 2 for blind students,’ Jim tells me. Then he started to get more involved in the educator programmes – teaching educators how educate. When Karen Douglas left the position of Principal to set up a new department, at age 30 Jim applied and got the job. ‘With it came a lot of really rewarding work, like getting into the nitty gritty of how the courses are run. We were really thinking about the journey of the student from when they hear about us to their experience of going through one level with us, then the second and third and the fourth – and what they are gaining all the way through. It was a big mapping out exercise of the journey and I was interested in smoothing out the edges. What is great is that a lot of things I put in place are happening and I’m really proud of that.’
After a couple of years though, Jim had a yearning to get back into the classroom, which he couldn’t do whilst managing the school. He wanted to spend more time in Burgundy with his parents and enjoy being a stepfather to his husband’s two children who live in New York. He also felt that he needed to explore the top qualification (the Diploma) more – and so the seeds were sewn to set up his own wine school.
The Global Wine Academy is currently in its second year and it is based at Jim’s home in London. The large table we are sitting at in the very stylish kitchen is where his courses are delivered from and it’s ideal for an intimate learning experience. ‘We don’t want to compete with the programme providers who are actually delivering the Diploma – we are quite separate from that,’ says Jim.
‘The idea is to calibrate the student’s palate to the Diploma standard, allowing students to improve their tasing technique and very much their exam technique – you could be a very good taster but you don’t quite know how to put it down. It’s great for students all around the world studying the Diploma and ideal for online students.
‘When you have students who are studying alone, they don’t have the opportunity to put blind samples in front of themselves because they know what they are. Or if they want to try three wines against each other, they’d have to buy three bottles, whereas you can buy a ticket to a day’s tasting, where someone has bought the bottles for you and has spent a long time selecting them and sampling them.’
Global Wine Academy has three different tasting masterclasses – Fortified, Sparkling and Wines of the World – and each of them are scheduled on dates that are before the exams throughout the year. The courses are highly personalised to meet what each individual wants to get out of the day.
‘During the first part of the morning, we’ll look at perfecting the tasting note,’ Jim explains. ‘We’ll have a fake wine and the students have to write a note on it with quality. I give them lots of guidance on how I want them to write the quality assessment and it’s just to actually see what their natural writing style is like, how quickly they write and whether their technique is going to get them full marks. Then we put it into real time with wines and see if they can put their tasting skill and their writing skill together.’
The students taste around 15 wines throughout the day, the vast majority blind. It’s about drilling down the differences between the wines and really testing the students to see whether they can methodically come up with a top tasting note every time.
Looking ahead to next year, there will be a few changes, including a move to a larger venue in Canada Water which will allow for more group activities, where sets of students can look at different bits, then come together to collaborate. They will also be adding in tasting days separate to the sessions, which will be opened up to anyone who wants to buy a ticket and come along to do some calibration. Between 11:00am and 7:00pm, people can drop in and taste 12 blind wines at their own pace in a less pressurised environment.
I ask Jim when global domination will happen. ‘Certainly there are hubs around the world that have lots of wine students and it’s not necessarily all to do with WSET – there are lots of other companies that do wine education. The idea is to do concentrated training weeks in London this year and then look at next year to see if we can take those individual training weeks around the world. In particular, the walk-around tastings have a much wider appeal for people who are doing WSET, Master of Wine or are simply serious wine enthusiasts. Every year we’ll move it on – it’s all to do with feedback. We ask every student what they thought of the course and what they would want – so they are actually telling us what we need to do.’
There’s no doubt that Jim is doing what he was always destined to do. He knows wine education from the inside out – and if I ever decide to do the Diploma myself one day, I know who I’d want to have my back. ‘We get people in saying, “I need a pass”’, says Jim, ‘and so we get to work.’
Find out more about Jim Gore’s Global Wine Academy here.