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Remembering Mel Jones MW

Yesterday, high in the hills of Gloucestershire, family and friends celebrated the life of a remarkable person who died last month aged 53.

Mel Jones with her husband David Kearney, who she married on 21st June last year

Mel Jones MW, as she will have been known to those in the wine trade (and to others, Melanie Kearney, since her marriage last year) suffered a stroke in June and then died on Friday 21 August after a marked deterioration in her health.

Mel may not have been a hugely famous figure in this industry, but that had more to do with her modesty and self-effacing nature than her achievements, which were immense.

Mel, after many years working as a wine buyer and writer, managed to gain the Master of Wine qualification in 2010, an impressive feat, but made exceptional by the circumstances surrounding the final stages of her studies.

Before Mel had passed the theory part of the Master of Wine examination (she had sailed through the tasting paper on her first attempt), she lost her second husband, Peter, to illness, leaving her with three young children, including one, Fred, who had been born with Down’s Syndrome.

This meant juggling an extremely demanding family life with the huge workload of the MW essay-based exam and then the dissertation, both of which she soon passed, proving her extraordinary determination.

Not only that, but her website called Quaffers Offers, started by Mel in 2003 as a no-nonsense guide to supermarket wines, remained an up-to-date resource throughout such challenges.

But more hurdles were to come. Mel was later diagnosed with breast cancer and, following an operation to remove the tumour, and a course of chemotherapy, conquered the disease.

However, around 18 months ago, a swollen lymph node in her neck was a sign that the cancer was back, and it was subsequent chemotherapy for this that caused her to have a stroke in June, followed by her death last month.

Yesterday’s service at St John the Baptist in Edge, Stroud, just minutes walk from her “dream” house, which she had bought just two years ago with her new husband David Kearney, highlighted Mel’s talents beyond wine tasting.

One of these was cooking. Mel was well known as a generous host, as well as a skilled chef, and it was her ability in the kitchen which saw Mel take second place in The Great Bordeaux Cook Off in 2011, only losing out to Joe Lutrario & Stefan Chomka from Restaurant magazine.

Birds with Bottle: Sandra Clement and Mel Jones MW

Then there was her writing, above all her poetry. Little-known to those in the wine trade was the fact that Mel was an accomplished poet, something that was proven by her words about her son in An Extra Chromosome for Fred, which won the poetry slam at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature (and can be read here).

She would also perform her work to audiences around the country, which doubtless explained her popularity at the BBC’s Good Food Shows, where she would give wine masterclasses, as well as her ease in front of the camera, which she put to good use in Birds with Bottle – a collaboration between Mel and Sandra Clement to playfully promote wine using web-based videos.

Among her other gifts, Mel was a green-fingered gardener, something her good friend Mimi Avery would utilise whenever she was given an orchid – Mel was one of those rare people who could coax these specialist plants back into bloom.

Speaking yesterday at Mel’s memorial, her best friend Rachel Jarmen said that “she didn’t know anyone who had suffered more big knocks than Mel, and anyone who complained less”.

Rachel also described Mel as extremely “determined,” but also “modest”, and “never a wine snob”, as well as someone who “generously shared her passion and her knowledge with her friends”, referencing the regular dinner parties at Mel’s house.

Summing up, Rachel said, “All of us are better people for knowing Mel – some of her brilliance has left a mark on all of us.”

Later on in the celebration, Mel’s “enormous” support for the Institute of Masters of Wine was recorded by wine writer and Reverend, Helen Savage, who gave the address.

Helen also commented that Mel, who was born in Bradford, had retained her “Yorkshire directness” despite an education at Cheltenham Ladies College, before recalling her cooking prowess, mentioning, in particular, Mel’s “amazing macaroons”.

I knew Mel through the Master of Wine programme because she was my mentor – every student is assigned an existing MW to help them through the course.

This was a role Mel took extremely seriously, providing a level of support far beyond the usual requirements, not only setting practice essays and tastings, which she would carefully mark and return within a matter of days, but also laying on mock examinations at her house on Saturdays, which she would follow with a delicious three-course lunch, before gently talking us through our mistakes, and warmly congratulating us when we got anything right.

Mel was a great asset to the Institute of Masters of Wine, and a great ambassador for the qualification. Indeed, her healthy approach to all aspects of the trade is brilliantly summed up by her strapline for Birds with Bottle: “Tongue-in-cheekily serious about wine”.

Our thoughts now go to her husband and her three children, in particular her daughter, who is about to start her first year at university.

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