Join us every week as we interview each Master of Wine to delve into their experiences and expertise. Meet Natasha Hughes MW, who graduated with outstanding achievements in 2014. Natasha's expertise extends beyond academia. She consults for restaurants, private clients, wine producers, and generic bodies. Her passion for wine education is evident in the wine events, seminars, and tastings she hosts for both consumers and members of the wine trade. She even teaches tasting and theory to Master of Wine students and leads private trips to wine regions.
Natasha, you say that the path you took was long and winding. Can you tell us more about how you found your way into the wine trade?
I stumbled into the wine trade, really. I had a passing interest in wine, but food was more my thing – so much so that I ran a catering company part time while I was at university (where I studied physical and social anthropology). When I left university, all I knew was that catering took all the fun out of cooking for me, and that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I left the UK in the early 1990s and moved to Sydney, where I worked in TV and film production for a few years before retraining as a copy editor in a publishing house.
After six years in Australia, I returned to London to take up a job in publishing, then moved into magazines, where I freelanced as a writer and sub-editor, and – purely by chance – got a three-week stint working for Decanter, polishing up copy and fitting it to a layout. I liked them and they liked me, so when a job came up as deputy editor of the website later that year, I ended up getting the position.
I’d like to say that the rest is history, but I actually lost the job in less than a year because the parent company suddenly realised they couldn’t figure out how to make money out of websites, and retrenched lots of staff. I’d been bitten by the wine bug as well as the food bug by that stage, though, so decided to try my hand as a freelancer writing about both (with a little bit of travel writing on the side), and I must have been doing something right because, more than 20 years later, I’m still in business.
In 2014 you graduated as a Master of Wine, winning four out of the seven prizes awarded that year, including the Outstanding Achievement Award. That is an outstanding performance. I don’t believe this was a matter of luck. What did you have to do to win these awards? Was there anything particular about how you studied that meant you performed better than the class average?
Tempting as it is to portray myself as some kind of genius, I think my achievements in the exams were largely down to my well-honed skills as a writer. My success as a freelance journalist has been due, in part, to the fact that I find it very easy to create good, clear arguments on paper. I’m used to seeing issues from all sides (otherwise my writing would be one-sided and biased – and that’s polemics, not journalism), and I have absolutely no problem with putting questions to people until I’ve got detailed, satisfactory answers. And, at the point when I sat the exams, I’d spent a decade tasting widely and visiting wineries around the world, gaining a detailed appreciation of the breadth and depth of the global wine trade, as well as its variety. It turned out that everything I’d ever learned as a wine writer was incredibly germane to writing good arguments, whether in theory exams or in practical papers.
Why did you want to be a freelance journalist?
I’m not sure I really ever wanted to become a journalist. I always knew I was good with words, and my father (a doctor) always thought I should become a writer, and I’ve experimented with many different forms of writing (fiction, poetry, plays, etc), but I never actually trained to be a journalist – I just kind of stumbled into it.
Although I’m probably best known as a journalist, journalism actually plays a very small part in what pays my bills these days. I spend quite a bit of my time on consultancy projects (for private clients, for importers, for wineries and, when possible, for restaurants), education (mainly of MW students), events and seminars, judging at competitions and taking clients to visit wine regions.
I also do a lot of work for the Institute (the Institute of Masters of Wine). I’m on Council, have long been involved in student education and have just taken over as Chair of the Trips Committee.
You create wine lists for Michelin starred restaurants but also for local gastro-pubs. What kinds of things do you need to bear in mind when creating a good wine list?
Working at the interface between food and wine is my first love in the wine trade, so I adore working with restaurants to help them set up good lists, communicate that list to their customers and train front-of-house staff to sell with confidence.
When you’re writing a wine list, you’ve got to bear in mind the brief you’ve been provided with by your customer (often the owner or manager of the restaurant), but really your job is to ensure that the list you create is totally appropriate for the venue. There’s no point in writing a voluminous multi-page list for a local restaurant with limited storage space, a clientele who aren’t really interested in the latest exciting bottlings from arcane wine regions and a high turnover of staff. It’s not appropriate, though, to write a 12-bottle list for a fine dining outlet that wants to make its mark as a destination restaurant. You’ve also got to consider the kinds of food offered at the restaurant – the wines have to complement the menu. And the price of each wine on the list has to be in line with expectations for that kind of restaurant in that kind of area…
On top of that, you have to bear logistical issues in mind. How much on-site storage is there? (If it’s limited, this is going to have a bearing on the suppliers you can work with in terms of their flexibility when it comes to restocking.) How many different suppliers does the restaurant want to work with? (The greater the number – within reason – the better and more flexible the list, but this is not always practical or desirable from either a financial or administrative viewpoint.)
Then you have to figure out how to communicate those wines effectively to customers – listing them by region or by style is not always the way to go. And, finally, you have to empower and incentivise the people working on the floor to sell the wines effectively, which can be tricky if they have no wine knowledge (or interest).
Can you explain why a bad food & wine combination can undermine a dish, or why a great pairing can create a really memorable experience?
I don’t really think that there’s such a thing as a bad food and wine combination – just combinations that don’t happen to be right for an individual (although I’d probably steer clear of pairing a meaty rare steak with a pungent Sauvignon Blanc or a delicate Dover sole with a big, ripe Primitivo). And if you’re offering advice in a restaurant context, the whole idea of perfect matches becomes ridiculous when each diner has ordered a different dish.
Having said that, there are pairings that usually work well for most people – things like Pinot Noir and duck (it’s got to do with the brightness of the wine cutting through the fattiness of the meat, and the fact that the wine’s fruit profile works well with the flavours of the duck, a bird that’s often served with a fruit-based sauce), or lightly oaked Chardonnay and crab (I often open a bottle of Burgundy when I’m having linguine in a crab sauce with lemon, chilli and parsley), and then there’s always fino and Pata Negra ham...
My favourite thing, though, is to open up several different bottles of wine that I think will go well with whatever I’m serving to guests and see what works best on that day at that time.
Bear in mind when you’re trying to pair wine with food that wines evolve over time, and every cook will interpret a recipe differently (even the same cook never produces exactly the same results twice, unless they’re stone cold professionals – and even then perfect replicas are rare), so you can’t be too prescriptive. (There’s an old saying attributed to Heraclitus that states: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ I feel the same way about trying to recreate exact food pairings.)
You were involved in developing the Institute’s Distance Learning programme. Can you explain what this programme is about?
I’ve been involved in the Institute’s education programme since shortly after I graduated. I spent four years as the wine coordinator, not only setting and sourcing all tasting papers for the residential seminars, course days and Stage One Assessment, but overhauling the system for doing so. I’d actually left the Education Committee when the pandemic struck, and was brought back onto the team to help devise and implement a distance learning programme that would allow us to continue to offer education to students at a time when everyone was stuck at home, socially distancing. Luckily I’d already been teaching small groups of students online, so had some insights into what worked (and what didn’t) in an online context.
I had to hit the ground running! Within a month of being given the brief, I’d organised the first of a programme of online seminars and debates devised to help students understand the diversity of approaches to various topics, from the use of whole bunch to the making of bulk wine. We also ran online sessions in which MWs discussed their different approaches to past exam questions, and one-on-one sessions, which gave the students the opportunity to discuss weak points in their studies with an MW other than their official mentor.
The biggest challenge was helping students with their practical (tasting) studies. The team at the Institute put a formidable amount of effort into rebottling wines that had already been purchased for education into small bottles and sending them around the world, so that students could sit their blind tasting practice papers. After they’d done so, MWs were drafted in to provide feedback on their answers to small groups.
All of this was an incredibly complex and challenging operation, especially when you realise that we have students based in about 30 different countries. The distance learning programme wasn’t perfect, but under the circumstances I think we managed pretty well.
You are not a big fan of wine point systems, why?
Assigning points to a wine implies that you can score a subjective experience in an objective way. While I certainly think that experienced tasters can spot quality, we don’t always agree about precisely how good a wine is, so trying to reduce an assessment to an absolute number is faintly ridiculous.
What is the difference, objectively, between a 92 point wine and a 93 point wine? Is my 93 points the same as 93 points from Tim Atkin MW, Jancis Robinson MW or Jamie Goode (or any other experienced taster you might mention)? What does it imply if I score a wine at 92 and one of my colleagues gives the same wine 94 points?
What’s more, if someone gives the best wine of a poor vintage 100 points, what should they score the same wine (all other things being equal) in a great vintage?
There’s a further issue at stake. Points get widely quoted by wineries and by companies wishing to sell wines. Critics know that the higher their scores, the more likely they are to be widely quoted, burnishing their reputation. It’s widely acknowledged that this has led to score inflation over the years. It’s rare to find a wine rated below 85 points in any publication, and in some cases scores rarely go below 90 points.
All of this aside, I wonder to what extent such scores are truly helpful for the consumer? Might it not be more useful to suggest that you should either buy a glass, a bottle or a case of a wine you’re recommending? And should we not be encouraging consumers to understand that wine criticism – like theatre criticism or restaurant criticism – is about finding a critic whose taste is broadly in line with your own but who can point you in the direction of new experiences you might otherwise have missed?
Producing a precise point score for a wine raises all kinds of interesting issues, and I’m not convinced that they’re truly helpful to the end consumer.
I quote you: ‘’ Don’t talk about wine all the time. Seriously, I may have mentioned this before, but I can’t emphasize it enough. I have watched non-geek friends lose the will to live far too many times while my geek mates waffle on regardless. Don’t do it, people – there is more to life than wine.’’
Do we need more geek friends or is there more to life than wine?
The quote you cite is about my ‘rules’ for wine geeks in the context of social gatherings. While I love my geek friends, I don’t always want to talk about wine. I think that even if wine is your passion, it’s not fair to inflict that passion on everyone else sat round the dinner table. It's just bad manners.
And life’s much more interesting if the wine talk is leavened with discussions about art, theatre, travel, politics, books or even the occasional bit of gossip. Wine is one of life’s pleasures, but it’s not the only one.
You’ve worked in the PR and publicity world. Have you ever considered writing and publishing your own book?
I’ve done very little work in PR – maybe nine months about 30 years ago. And writing press releases bears very little relationship to writing books. But, as it happens, I’ve already contributed to a fair number of books, the latest of which – a book on Champagne – will be published soon by the Academie du Vin Library.
Would I actually want to write a book about wine entirely by myself? Let’s just say that it’s not a viable financial proposition and leave it at that. (A non-wine book, on the other hand, may well be in the offing…)
Which Master of Wine should I interview next?
I reckon the next MW you should talk to is Cathy van Zyl, who’s not only a totally stand-up human being and a great friend, but she’s also the IMW’s next chairperson.
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