The Psychology of Wine
PUBLISHED: 14:10 20 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013
In our December issue we meet Xenia Irwin, Master of Wine, and learn about the rigours of wine tasting!
The Psychology of Wine
Malcolm Twigg meets Xenia Irwin, Master of Wine, a title held by only 269 people in the world
Would-be psychologist Xenia Irwin is wine buyer for Walter Hicks, the wine and spirit company of St Austell Brewery. Furthermore she is a Master of Wine - an elite group, for there are only 269 worldwide who make wine both their business and their lifelong study, because no one will ever know everything there is to know about wine.
"That is what makes it such a fun thing," Xenia tells me in her office at St Austell Brewery, clearing away a tantalising array of bottles. "It can also be a tedious thing when you're tasting the umpteenth version of Chilean Merlot to find the right entry-level house wine, but there is also the fun stuff to taste - mostly champagne," she says with an infectious laugh. There isn't a lot of her, but it's packed more explosively than bubbles in a jeroboam, making TV wine buff Jilly Goulden seem like a shrinking violet. Which is all to the good because if wine is about anything at all, it is about communicating its virtues to make the man in the street as enthusiastic as she is about it.
Xenia was brought up in Boscastle, which makes her as near Cornish as you can get. Originally she was going to become a clinical psychologist "But," she admits, with a devilish twinkle in her eye, "I had quite a bit of fun at Exeter University and didn't quite get the 2:1 degree required to go on for an MSc, so that career was over before it had started. Then, I saw a job advertised with Majestic Wine Merchants in London, so I applied and got it. It was just chucking wine around in the warehouse, but I enjoyed it. I was still in an academic frame of mind so they put me through what they now call the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Advanced Certificate in wine."
That was 19 years ago and Xenia has steadily worked her way up the career ladder. Her second job was with a company specialising in Italian wines, which still remain a favourite of hers, where she was put through a WSET Diploma course. This eventually led on to her taking the Masters of Wine qualification, making her eligible to become a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine. Despite a break in her studies when she and her husband moved to Devon, it was something of a fast track for such a demanding course. She started studying in 1999 and qualified in 2003.
"Although the wine trade is a close-knit community, there isn't a lot of it and jobs are scarce, so I worked freelance for a while after we moved, which helped me concentrate on getting the qualification so quickly. I did a lot of corporate entertainment work, designed websites, drew up wine lists for restaurants, that sort of thing. Then I saw the job advertised here at the brewery and was lucky enough to be appointed two years ago. I commute daily whenever I'm in the office. It's only an hour-and-a-quarter journey but I get through an awful lot of audio books!"
'When she is in the office' is a telling phrase, for a large part of Xenia's job consists of travelling the world in search of exciting wines to introduce to the Walter Hicks cellars. She does at least one long-haul trip a year and, when we spoke, was planning to be in Languedoc for the weekend, in Champagne country the week after that and Portugal two weeks later, with a trip to Italy planned for later on. It's a hard life, but someone has to do it. "And it is quite hard work, actually," Xenia says. "People forget that you are on duty for 24 hours a day and, once you've seen yet another stainless-steel vat, and inspected yet another computer-controlled system, it all tends to blend. But there is fun stuff in between, of course."
Some of that fun stuff consists of winemakers' evenings where she gets to attend specially held food and wine pairing evenings, getting people really interested in wine and demystifying it to those keen to know more. One of the highlights of her time at St Austell Brewery was rediscovering a rack of wines laid down by successive owners of the brewery dating back to 1916. "It was like being a kid in a sweet shop," Xenia enthused. "Most will be past their best by now, although others will be drinkable, but they will all be interesting and I will get the pleasure, from time to time, of opening one up."
Xenia has recently created St Austell Brewery's own Goldcoast label, with a small range of South African wines: quite fitting, really, bringing the Walter Hicks brand full circle from when Walter Hicks, Wine Merchant, started his brewery back in 1851.
From putative psychologist to Master of Wine is a quantum leap but not without its rewards. "After all," Xenia says, "you don't get quite the same sort of samples in the health business that you do in the wine trade!" _