db Meets: Jimmy Smith, wine educator and The Drinks Business Man of the Year 2019

Jimmy Smith has been working in the wine trade for more than 15 years. He won the Man of the Year prize at our Drinks Business Awards in May 2019, and has also been named Wine Scholar Guild Italian Wine Educator of the Year 2018. He is the founder and owner of West London Wine School, which has educated over 1,600 students through the WSET Level 1, Level 2 (intermediate) and Level 3 (advanced) certificates, and owns boutique bar Streatham Wine House in south London. Having just picked up another award for his work promoting Alsace wines, we caught up with the nattily-dressed wine buff to get an insight into his world.

(L-R) Jeff the campervan and business partner, Jimmy Smith, of Streatham Wine House. (Photo: Jimmy Smith)

1. You’ve recently been awarded for your work in promoting wines from Alsace in the UK. What sets Alsace apart from the rest?

The region offers diversity and difference from the rest of France by focussing on exciting grape varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc amongst others. Alsace is steeped in history, and being a frontier region, it has experienced dramatic influences from neighbouring countries and empires through the centuries. This has produced a cultural melting-pot, with language, architecture, gastronomy and more importantly viticulture meeting. The landscape is also breath-taking. Value-for-money and awesome quality – what’s not to love?!

 

2. What is your funniest memory from your travels around Europe?

There are so many! I was traversing through Cote d’Or in Jeff with my friend and wine traveller Matt Wicksteed. Our primitive Sat Nav directed us on an interesting back route during a torrential downpour. Suddenly the screen went blank, and we found ourselves on a quagmire dirt track with drowned vineyards all around us, including a steep 50 degree slope to our right. It was not feasible to carry on so a multi-point turn was attempted to turn back on our ourselves. Let me remind you, Jeff is a very heavy 40 year old VW campervan, and it was full of about 60 bottles of Champagne from the previous region we visited. During said manoeuvre, we found ourselves slowly sliding down the slope. Matt jumped out the van and attempted, feebly, to hold it in place whilst I kept revving the reverse – all during a very heavy downpour. This was fruitless, so a crazy idea popped into my head. I began to empty several cases of Champagne, and used the packaging to assemble cardboard tracks and placed them under the wheels. We succeeded, much to our euphoria, so sat there in the rain drinking some of loose bottles of Champagne with big smirks on our faces.

 

3. You recently gave a Nebbiolo masterclass inspired by your work at our Wine Show Chelsea. Why did you decide to focus on Nebbiolo?

It’s definitely a grape that for me is one of the greatest grapes in the world, I think also because it has this image of being only a grape that can really be enjoyed once it’s been laid down and you’ve matured it, and needs serious time to develop, but for me you can discover Nebbiolos, like we did today, that can be quite drinkable. I wanted to convey that there is more to life than Barolo and Barbaresco, but I still like those. Very much.

 

4.Your class was a taster session from the advanced Italian course with the Wine Scholar Guild, is this directed at people already in the trade, or can that be for anybody?

Well we’re a very big consumer focused school, so we probably have 60% consumer, to 40% trade, so we have significant amount of consumers that come on the courses as well. We do get a bigger percentage of trade on this course, just for the pure fact that it’s very in-depth and of course people working in Italian restaurants want to get immersed in these wines, but we do have consumers and we make it very accessible, very friendly, and the examinations are quite achievable (if you listen to me!), so it works quite nicely.

 

5. What made you want to become a wine educator?

My parents were teetotal when I was growing up, so I rebelled against them, as kids do, but I also had three elder brothers who worked in the wine trade at some point. I took my WSET education when I was young. I think I was 18 when I did my Level 1, 2 and 3, then I went to university. When I came back to London I told that I could hold a class and teach quite well, so then I thought I’d give it a go. By the age of 23 I was head of education for Threshers. I wasn’t the reason for their demise, by the way!

 

6. What’s your favourite part of taking someone through a masterclass?

You can see a student’s development from ground zero up to them being so confident, and also being able to hold classes themselves. A lot of my students come in and do special classes once they join the trade, they specialise in wines from Hungary so might come in and do a Hungarian masterclass for us, for example, so it’s that development. The spark in their eyes is also great, and that engagement, really making someone see they can actually enjoy their career instead of sitting in an office and ploughing through life.

 

7. Do you have a “penny drop” wine?

I do actually have one, it wasn’t the one that got me into wine, but it was definitely one that was absolutely magnificent, and that was…we had this show-and-tell and this student of mine brought a wine, and I’d mentioned I’d wanted to try this one.

It was a Domaine Huet Vouvray Haut Lieu, so a sweeter version from Loire Valley from 1947 – which is the greatest vintage ever made for Vouvray – and he sourced a bottle and brought it, and it was that “wow” moment, when you understood everything. A wine of 40 years of age from £1000 per bottle, and you go “actually it’s worth it”. That for me was one of the greatest wines. Then I tried it again about three years later and because of that time period I was so worried about the second bottle, but then it delivered again, and that’s very rare, for it to deliver twice.

 

8. Have you ever had that before?

I often think what normally happens is you’re in another country and you’re having wine in a certain context with the cuisine, and the winemaker, and it’s never the same when you bring it back. It’s still great but it’s not the same, that’s quite common, but that Vouvray was a really special one because it was exactly the same experience second time round

 

9. What do you think people will want to learn more about in 2020? Is there a region that you think is becoming particularly popular with wine-lovers?

We aredeveloping our new exciting Saké qualifications through WSET and the Saké Sommelier Association, plus committing more course dates for our BPET (Beer Professional Education & Training) sessions that assist students in achieving their Cicerone accredited qualifications. We feel that these are both emerging educational topics in the UK and we hope to be pioneers at offering a comprehensive schedule of events in 2020.

Through our wine bar, Streatham Wine House, and our wine schools we are noticing that wine enthusiasts are becoming more adventurous in their wine selections. Real wine lovers and fanatics are discovering lesser known French regions such as Jura, Savoie and Corsica; Italian regions such as the Alto-Adige, Valle d’Aosta and Friuli-Venezia-Guilia and Spanish regions such as the Canary Islands. Very experimental wine drinkers are seeking out orange/amber/skin-contact wines from countries such as Georgia, Croatia, Slovenia amongst others.

In the more mainstream wine consumption we are seeing a trend towards more English wine domestically. In addition, as the pound devalued against the euro during the past twelve months, European wine has become a little more expensive, so we have seen greater interest in new world countries such as Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia. South Africa has fully emerged like a Phoenix from the flames, and is offering very exciting diversity across the board.

 

10. If you were a wine, what would you be, and why?

It would have to be an orange wine – obviously due to the camper van!

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