As a student, alcohol is never far from my mind, and wine holds a particularly special place in my heart. It’s delicious and sophisticated and makes you feel like a proper grown-up. Sarah Jane Evans is the Chairwoman for the Institute of the Masters of Wine, a magical organisation which provides qualifications in the practical and theoretical aspects of wine and links together all those who know about the lovely liquid. Sounds like heaven.
Being a wine connoisseur, Evans is eager for everyone to get involved in wine, and education and experimentation are key to her philosophy. “The key thing is to experiment; it’s a bit like food. Develop the taste for what you like. Go along to every free tasting you can and gradually you’ll build up a liking for a particular country or a type of wine.” She acknowledges that there are elites in the world of wine making this self-education a challenge. Sarah Jane reminisced about the male-dominated industry wine producing was when she first entered the field. Today, the landscape has changed, with many senior positions in purchasing and producing wine being held by women. However Sarah Jane is still frustrated by the tendency for the man to be handed the wine list in restaurants. “I’m very keen that women should be out there, learning what there is about wine, as they should about anything,” she advocates. Simply by trying, and learning about wine, elites can be broken down.
“In terms of choosing wine, feel confident that now, basically, all wines are perfectly good, regardless of price.”
Sarah Jane thinks that fear is a major obstacle in getting new people talking about wine. “I often do tastings with wine and chocolate,” she explains. “People are very afraid to give an opinion on wine, so you say ‘What does this taste like?’ and they say ‘Well, it tastes like wine’. Then you give them a piece of chocolate, and say ‘What does this taste like’ and they say ‘Oh it’s too bitter’, or ‘This tastes like redcurrants’ – they can find words to describe it. In fact you can do the same thing with wine, but we think we’re not qualified to do it.”
Whilst my first introduction to wine may have been a plastic cupful of Echo Falls in the park, Sarah Jane found her love of the liquor in a far more sophisticated setting. “I lived in Spain for three months and had been introduced to sherry.” The drink is, as she admits, “an acquired taste”, but it stuck with her. Studying at Cambridge University, she describes how “when we went to our supervision, you read out your essays, and you were served a glass of sherry”. Take note future SABB candidates, take note…
After pursuing a career in publishing and editing the BBC Good Food Magazine, she returned to wine, taking up evening classes to expand her knowledge. Here, everything from gargling to geography was covered. “Now, I never found geography very interesting, but geography with a glass of wine suddenly becomes fascinating. I never knew what East and West meant, but now it really mattered whether your wine was from Eastern or Western Australia.”
“Never serve a white wine warm, and the cheaper you go, the better it is to chill it.”
Naturally, being students, our main concern with wine is its price. Having drunk plenty of the £3 Tesco Spanish Wine and the fine vintage which is “Vin du France”, given to us for free from the Chinese takeaway last year, Sarah Jane had some reassuring words about wine in the student price range. “In terms of choosing wine, feel confident that now, basically, all wines are perfectly good, regardless of price. The quality of wine has improved tremendously.” She does suggest occasionally grouping together and splashing out on a bottle over a fiver, as she warns “that if you’re buying a wine at £5, it has only about 30 or 50 pence worth of actual wine in it. The rest of it is all bottling, shipping and profit.”
But if you’ve already gone for the cheap plonk, you can bring it upmarket drastically simply by chilling it. “Never serve a white wine warm, and the cheaper you go, the better it is to chill it. Similarly, a perfectly average red wine can be so much better if it’s a bit colder, so sometimes I ask for ice cube and pop it in my red wine.”
Quality matters when it comes to alcohol, and Sarah Jane has been watching the growth of craft beer with excitement. “With beer we’re becoming more like we are with wine. We are becoming much more interested in local beers and artisan breweries are opening up round the corner.” She puts it down to personal taste, stating that she prefers wine to beer. But spirits are also receiving this gentrification. “Gin is really jumping in the UK. Local artisan gins are really exciting.” It might not make the best mixer, but the UK is becoming increasingly discerning when it comes to alcohol.
I asked her if she was concerned by student drinking culture; are we doing wine wrong? “You need to be sensible about it. We all hear about students being face-down in the streets, being sick in the middle of the gutter, but people can be like that at any age.” But Sarah Jane sees the problem of student drinking as an overblown issue. “You need to recognise what you can tolerate,” she advises. “Wine is very good for you in all sorts of ways, but in moderation. It’s about trying to find a good way to enjoy wine.”
“I would really recommend boxes, because if you have to keep wine for any period of time, you can drink them at any time.”
The way students enjoy wine may differ slightly to how a Master of Wine would take their poison, but I put Sarah Jane to the test on some student favourites. Are they really as bad as their cheap pricing would suggest? The word Lambrini doesn’t bring about an entirely negative reaction. “The key thing about it is that it’s fruity and fizzy.” The low-alcohol content and the general deliciousness appeals to a specific market, which Evans says is set to grow. But, if you thought that at £1.50 you were getting a bargain, Evans isn’t so convinced. “These beverages are a bit cheaper, but not by that much. They should be a lot cheaper, because the tax is different.” So if Lambrini is pocketing a major profit, what about the pinnacle of cost-effective alcohol, box wine? “I would really recommend boxes, because if you have to keep wine for any period of time, you can drink them at any time.” She is also positive about the contents, saying “it may be the cheapest for the consumer, but the wine itself may not be that cheap because it’s not been through the same standard wine process”. The very lack of a bottle means that the £5 you spend on three litres of Country Manor is going on the sweet syrup inside, rather than a fancy glass container. Well, that’s me satisfied.
So now you’re salivating at the mouth, counting down the hours to the next pre-drinks to get out your glass and sample this lush liquid. But Sarah Jane has a final tip for preventing a dry mouth and headache on the way to your 8:30 lecture the next morning. “The best advice I’ve had was on a trip to Trinidad visiting a rum company. Their policy is that employees can only drink rum, but you have to have a glass of water between each glass of rum.” She advocates taking a bottle of water with you to ensure you “drink about the same amount in water”. Seems sensible – as we all know just one glass is never just one glass.