Sarah Jane Evans is a Master of Wine and highly accomplished and award-winning wine writer and journalist. She is Co-Chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards, the world’s largest and most influential wine competition.
You are a Chair at the Decanter World Wine Awards, can you tell us about the awards?
Decanter World Wine Awards are the largest wine awards in the world. Every wine is tasted blind, so you can’t see the producer, although you know the key features of the wine – the region, vintage, price range etc – then you are just looking for quality within its range.
It’s a very exciting and fun thing to do. The room is filled for two weeks with experts from all around the world talking about their wines, why they love them, searching for medals. It’s a huge event held at excel – there are rooms after rooms with more than 18,000 wines – there is plenty to taste – it’s great.
What makes Decanter stand out from other wine awards?
It’s the biggest in the world with more than 18,00 wines. Its spread is international – not only in the wines we have to taste but also in the judges who come from all over the world. It’s become, over the years, a gold standard in finding medal wines. Producers want to put their wines into this competition to see how they stack up in the world. It’s also become a place for consumers who look for value and quality in wines. A Decanter medal gives you something you can trust as being something you can reply on. In this fabulous field of wine if you see that Decanter medal then it really means something and it certainly makes your life easier. We are scrupulous about blind tasting, the people we have with us judging and the decisions we make, the layers of tasting we go through. You can be sure if you buy a Decanter medal wine it really has had a lot of attention.
What do judges look for in a good wine?
We’re always looking for something to be typical. If you want a Provence rose you can go on our awards website find one we recognise as being really good. If you want an Argentinian malbec, we have a range of those. If you’re wanting to get into English sparking wine and don’t quite know where to begin go through Decanter winners and you’ll find a great place to begin.
We’re looking for wines that speak to you. They are the wines you want to go back to and have another glass and then they are wines that you will take a sip and that flavour will sit with you for not just seconds but minutes. They have a memorable and delicious flavour. We’re also looking for value, to find thing that quality and value at the same time. When we find them we’re delighted.
Were there any surprises at this year’s awards?
There were some surprises but we expect these. Every single new glass is going to give us something special to savour and enjoy, every country there will be a new grape variety to talk about. The world of wine is constantly changing and for us its one of the reason we judge at the awards to keep up with what’s happening.
How did you get started in the industry?
One of my first jobs was with BBC Good Food, I was Associate Editor and I was commissioning Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden to write for me. I thought – this isn’t rocket science, I’ve since discovered they made it look easy. They were very good tasters but never the less if you study and keep on tasting then you will get to understand wine. I was working on wine tasting at BBC Good Food and I started doing to courses, which are run by the Wine Education Trust and you’ll find people all over the country who are running these. If you’re interested in wine it’s a fun thing to do – there is a little bit of study and there are exams at the end but it makes you feel you understand why you’re buying wine and what’s happening. Particularly I’ve had situations where people don’t believe women can make a sensible decision about wine and it’s nice to have those qualifications to know you are correct about them.
So I got started in the industry writing and eventually went freelance so I could continue my studies and become a Master of Wine. I now write about wine and travel widely. There is something about wine being provided all over the world is that I get to travel to visit the vineyards and wine makers. I give masterclasses and I write books about wine including especially about Spain which is a particular passion of mine. I think Spain is the most exciting country in Europe for wines at the moment. There’s a whole new generation doing such exciting things so a country well worth exploring. There are places that are holiday destinations, such as Canary Islands, which are home to some exception wines.
I now have a wonderful life working in all sorts of aspects of the wine industry
You’re a Master of Wine, what does it take to earn that qualification?
There are 419 of us at the moment across 30 or more countries and about 300 students. Most of us will have taken exams which are provided at schools around the world at the wine and spirit education trust. Some people are already qualified as wine makers or may have other diplomas or qualifications in wine and its can be a quick process in principle. You can study for two years, if you pass the exam you go straight on and the following year you write a long research paper. However, I have to be honest and say because we’ve all got other lives, families etc. The number of people who pass first time are very small 2 or 3 or 4 at most. Most of us do it in stages and it becomes part of our lives, but it becomes a pleasurable part of life and build a great network of friends and contacts. I was working at BBC Good Food for most of the time. I think sometimes my colleagues couldn’t understand the intensity of the study and the amount of blind tasting you have to do, the amount you have to do to get to know the world of wine but it’s really fascinating
I was never interested in geography at school but when you begin to understand the soil, the climate, everything effects wine and you get to meet the people who make the wine, that for me is the most interesting thing. I’m not just into assessing a glass of coloured liquid I’m interested in the people the place and the culture behind it.
Yes it’s a lot of time but if you’re interested in this then it’s definitely a path worth following I can’t rate too highly the satisfaction it’s given me and the network of friends and contacts I’ve have.
What advice would you give someone who wanted a career in the wine industry?
Many of us come into wine from all sorts of unexpected directions and indeed a lot of people started working in Oddbins or Majestic or other wine shops. Other people knew from the beginning that they wanted to make wine and we have a wine university at Plumpton College and it’s part of Sussex University and you can go and get qualifications. You can get a degree in the wine industry.
The most important thing is people will be looking for experience, start in a wine bar work, through hospitality, work for a wine company, if you can to travel in Europe or Australia, New Zealand, California, just look for the opportunities and keep drinking, keep learning!
Do you have a favourite wine?
No I don’t have a favourite wine, my favourite wine is simply the next wine as it might be something outstanding I’ve never had before. There are wines I’ve returned to. I have a particular love of sherry, very wonderful unique wine and the Hereth zone, where it’s made, is a very special place to visit. If you haven’t discovered sherry do start. There are many places which will give you the chance to have sherry by the glass. Beyond that get out you comfort zone, I don’t always want to be having the same thing, wherever you are try something different.
What is your favourite food and drink pairing?
Interesting question – in many ways I don’t do food and drink pairing because I think you can have a great glass of wine without needing to eat something at the same time.
There are some things that go together beautifully. I have a particular interest in fine chocolate. I’m a founder member of the academy of chocolate and you can make some terrific matches. There was one I made once with white chocolate with frieze dried raspberries in it and if you match that with a blush zinfandel from California it’s a real sugar overload but it’s a delightful thing. Similarly you can have a milk chocolate with sea salt and a little bit of lime juice and blend that with something serious like a wine from madeira. A lot of people say that red wine goes well with chocolate but I find dark chocolate and red wine doesn’t work as both have tannins.
I think one of the best things you can do at a meal with friends is have some wine on the table and for your pudding – different kinds and some different bars of chocolate milk and dark. Choose the best chocolate you can and you’ll find you can get up to something really fun.
Do you have a role model or someone you admire?
There are so many wonderful people across the world, I think particularly when you mention the word role model the thing I’m most concerned about is having women working in the wine industry.
When I first started studying to become a Master of Wine and I was working at BBC Good Food, I got a lot of very negative reactions – like what would a women like you working for a women’s food magazine have anything to do with the world of wine. They were all in pinstriped suits and ties and we couldn’t understand what you as a little woman could do.
What I’m most concerned about is that there are plenty of role models for women in the wine industry and that we can all help ourselves up the ladder and through glass ceiling.
Its super important – lots of women in wine work for themselves as I do and it’s super important to make sure that women at the top of the industry are employed by businesses and not having to step outside to achieve what they want to achieve. In terms of diversity I’m excited to see that in terms of ethnic and gender diversity there’s attempts to develop scholarships and get interns into the business and promote them up the ladder.
If you wanted to impress friends, what bottle would you recommend taking to a dinner party?
As a Master of Wine I don’t take a bottle to impress, everyone should enjoy wine and it’s not about trying to impress. In the same way I think when I worked on a food mag – people would say I can’t cook for you as you work on a food magazine and it’s the last reaction you want your friends to have. What I would say is I like to bring a bottle which is different – maybe it’s from an unexpected country or an unexpected grape variety and most important I think about my friends are likely to be serving for food so I would bring a bottle on that basis.
As they know wine is my business, it’s easy for me to bring wine so I’m much happier to bring some great cheese, really nice chocolate or flowers.