Seven Young Sommeliers Cross Borders To Break Boundaries
After departing as a writer for Decanter Magazine to start her own business as a wine educator and media specialist—Bordeaux based British author and wine writer Jane Anson considered alternatives to stretching the dimensions of learning about wine.
She and Chinedu Rita Rosa—President of Circle of Global Business Women and founder of Vines by Rosa Bordeaux—talked about encouraging access and diversity within Bordeaux. They decided to set up a non-profit scholarship for young international sommeliers to visit the wine region of southwestern France for a week. Those who attended could broaden their overall perspectives on the wine industry.
The first challenge was deciding who to invite to this five-day mentorship. Anson and Rosa sat in a room and winnowed through 130 applications from 22 countries, trying to reduce the list to seven individuals. Exhausted, with their heads nodding toward a tabletop to sleep, the pair added a final filtering criteria: which candidates might not otherwise have the means to visit Bordeaux?
They soon selected, and then sent out invitations to, seven sommeliers from six nations/commonwealths: South Africa, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, India, United Kingdom and Germany.
One recipient, unsuspecting of the breadth of hospitality from hosts and event sponsors, accepted the offer but asked a simple question: should she pack her own bedsheets and blanket?
She was informed that there was no need.
The itinerary of Mentor Wine Week this past summer was both practical and informative. It began with the group of the seven selected mentees sorting grapes at Château La Lagune before tromping through wetlands. They then met innovators and startup leaders at Château Pape Clémant, visited an agroforestry project at Château Troplong Mondot in Saint-Émilion, then practiced wine blending before tasting older vintages at Château Lafon Rochet. Meals were served at a variety of locales: including by renowned wine châteaux chefs as well as at speciality food trucks.
The event marked another spreading of wings for the Bordeaux wine region, another casting away of anchors of residual staid imagery that this southwestern chunk of French wine country remains somehow static.
Unexpectedly, I met these candidates while at a traditional harvest dinner at Château La Lagune in the Médoc region.
The group gathered and chatted on a stone porch before vineyards, then assembled inside a sumptuous living room/library before dinner. There, the seven recipients shared stories of personal impacts during their one week twirl into the bosom of Bordeaux wine country finesse, largesse, harvesting and history.
Audrey Annoh-Antwi, a natural wine aficionado from Haggerston in east London, U.K., had never entered a vineyard before. She laughed at how she was ‘eaten by mosquitos’ among vines, but announced with clarity her love for this land: ‘Bordeaux is for me,’ she summarized—speaking about both wines and marketing mentality.
Sommelier Zintle Mkhize of Johannesburg, South Africa, told how she learned about the negociant trading system, and of the benefits of coordinating rather than competing. ‘Because of business ethics, people work well together here, which means more businesses can support the wine industry.’
Tracy Blessing Williams of Lagos, Nigeria, gained insight into wine production and classification systems, and was impressed by attention paid to vineyard work. But the spirit of entrepreneurship ignited her wonder—she praised English winemaker Sally Evans from Château George 7 in Fronsac, who began winemaking at the age of 52. ‘Now it’s clear that if I set my mind to a goal, I can do it,’ Blessing declared.
Fernando Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a wine devotee as well as mechanical engineer who is studying for a master degree. At Château Lynch-Bages his exposure to machinery design convinced him to pursue a future career related to technical aspects of wine production.
Shane Shadrack Mumba of Stellenbosch, South Africa, marveled at learning to blend the components of wine, and also connected with working with soils—building on what she had learned while working at Kanonkop winery in South Africa. ‘To come here really is a dream come true; a life changing opportunity,’ she said.
Tanmay Rathod from Gujarat, India, had visited France in 2106 and tasted Malbec for the first time. Working in a hotel, she received a scholarship to learn about French wine remotely. ‘I learned book knowledge. But here, we did the harvest. Now I will go into wine tourism and move with my passion, increasing the wine portfolio in India.’
Isabelle Mueller of Lausanne, Switzerland, is 19 years old and studying hospitality. She noticed that where she lives, ‘The wine world is very much a boy’s club.’ The week in Bordeaux helped opened her eyes toward future ways of meshing hospitality with women’s professions, as well as wine.
Jean-Guillaume Prats—former director general of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, current vice-president of Domaines Delon, and overall diehard aficionado of the pedigree of Médoc, helped shepherd these sommeliers through their training. ‘We wanted people hungry for substance,’ he added, speaking of the sommeliers.
These visitors have returned to their homes. Perhaps they miss Bordeaux wines and associated cuisine. Yet each was selected because of their hunger to learn more, and their desire to share what they learn. Anson, Rosa and this small group now spread subtle but powerful ripples of influence; they remind the world that producing great wines requires hard work, dedicated focus and also attention to surrounding communities.