Have corkscrew – will travel!

Posted March 22, 2012, 12:40 p.m.
Have corkscrew – will travel! I know, I know – we get to drink wine all day as part of our job, but someone has to do it – and we (mostly) spit it out! Having enjoyed working with Michael Brocklehurst, albeit briefly, before he sold VSF (Vins Sans Frontieres), I have learned to appreciate & value the incredible and demanding niche “cocktail” that is wine & yachts. Inspired, myself and husband Nigel have embarked on a rollercoaster of a new business, which amongst other things, offers specialised and bespoke wine training to yacht crew. Recognising and understanding that sometimes even mid term planning for yacht crew training can be fraught and often rather frustrating for both trainers and crew members, we set out to offer a more flexible approach to fitting in wine training for interior crew. Having gained a sort of “roving ambassador” approval from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust to offer their internationally recognised and accredited wine qualifications wherever yacht crew, and owners want and need them, we are not being tied to an audited land-based classroom. Although based on the French Riviera, we presented WSET in London with the dilemma that some training could be needed in the shipyards of Europe on superyachts before they launch (or post re-fit) and before they get sucked into a busy and demanding charter season in the Mediterranean. Having got the “all clear” to travel far and wide, our new, small (but perfectly formed!) company found that demand for both WSET and bespoke wine training with the ultimate flexibility on the Cote d’Azur was proving irresistible to crew who were suddenly finding themselves with a delayed start to the season, cancelled charters or just time on their hands. The nature of the WSET courses (and the way Fine Wine Works has adapted and modified them to be particularly appropriate to yachts, covering the issues of storage & service and food & wine matching in more detail), can appeal to the wider crew as well. We have often run them as a “fun team building” exercise for non interior and galley crew as well as the chief stew and team. Logistically, lugging 50 plus different wines and spirits around, including many “non – French” wines difficult to source in France, to run the Intensive three day WSET Intermediate course on board can be a headache. But we’ve proved it can be done and with just 10 days notice, we have loaded the car with assorted wines, tasting glasses & spitoons, booked the exam papers and, remembering the corkscrew, set off to run courses from La Ciotat to Livorno. Running a wine course on board is not without its hazards and before you start picturing pools of red wine over plush interior fabrics, we often do the “tasting” part of the course in the galley or another suitable environment. Teaching crew to slurp air into their mouth after they have taken a swig can result in giggles, dribbles and the odd wine sprayed splutter. Perhaps that pristine white yacht t-shirt might not be the best attire for a wine course? At a recent course held on board, we had a moment of drama when husband Nigel, managed to stub his toe on our whiteboard whilst setting up a screen and the “spaghetti” cabling. Us “landies” (never having worked on a yacht, I suppose that’s what we are?) haven’t acquired the leathery and impenetrable quality that working bare-footed brings to your tootsies. So after hopping around the salon for a few moments, cursing aloud, he looked down to see a trail of perfect spots of blood across the deepest pile, pale cream carpet imaginable. Not the best start to a course, but the stews were unfazed and unflappable and with an arsenal of cleaning substances, erased all trace within seconds. The attendees didn’t seem to mind that we hadn’t got sea-legs, and enjoyed the course so much that some of them now want to do the three day Intermediate. One student e-mailed us afterwards saying, “Thanks soooo much for the amazing course, I absolutely loved it!” When you get feedback like that you realise you must be doing something right and Nigel will just have to wear plastic bags on his feet in future! Without the ties of a wine supply business, when May to September means concentrating on sales, we can react to last minute requests for on-board training. Also having adopted an independent stance, we are free to advise on and sometimes source fine wines for both owners and crew. We are in very different times, and the days when “money is no object, just get me the wine I want” are past. Prices for blue chip wines (the top growth Bordeaux etc.), have come down and we can offer unbiased suggestions as to where best to shop for them. We can unlock the secrets of the fantastic value and approachable drinkability proffered, for example, by Bordeaux 2nd wines (big name Chateau who label another wine from their domain, often from younger vines, which hasn’t made it into the Grand Vin) or less well known yet up and coming producers in Burgundy and growers in Champagne. Less well known producers also have a refreshing lack of arrogance and will often go an extra mile to help us solve a yachts problem. We had an amazing fast and efficient response from a 1er Cru Champagne house, Vilmart et Cie, to a request for a good value, premium Champagne that wasn’t a Grand Marque, which could be offered to charter guests as a “house champagne” – oh, and could we get 300 bottles to Greece within two weeks? One of the bigger Champagne houses would likely have snubbed us saying we hadn’t an allocation or a trading history with them or just about any excuse to be difficult, but the guys at Vilmart (yes, they are French!!!) pulled out all the stops to make it possible. Small businesses such as ours, remember that’s all a charter yacht is as well, need to pull together in these times, so if we can’t help with finding a wine, we probably know someone locally who can, and we’ll happily pass the query on. One Purser, delighted with a recent one Day Foundation Course, said of us that we “offer wonderful courses with the added service of having the course taking place onboard the vessel. This not only adds a personal touch, but the stewardesses/stewards can feel free to ask open questions about the wines that the vessel stocks onboard.” The importance of knowing your Pouilly Fuissé from your Pouilly Fumé cannot be underestimated. A lot of young and inexperienced crew are perhaps more “practical” than “academic” in their approach to learning, and so rather than having to read a stodgy wine book, they can enjoy having what’s in their glass discussed and explained whilst learning how to “swirl & sniff” and taste. Oh yes, and it’s b****y good fun too! Helen Brotherton Tel: +33 (0)6 42 15 51 21
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