Why does it take a funeral to make you feel gratitude? Really feel it, viscerally.
Perhaps, because it is too late to say ‘thank you’.
Every story from the eulogy in the chapel, every anecdote in the pub afterwards, brings back memories of the person who you knew, and reminds me of what you loved about them. It also makes you sad that you didn’t get to know them better than you did, to know what others knew.
But then it teaches you to treasure what you did know, and the laughter you shared.
Among the many people who have been important mentors in my life, Liz Robertson was the one who gave me my biggest break.
She recognised a glimmer of talent in a rather raw jobbing cellar-hand, and offered me a job as a junior buyer at Safeway. She persuaded the bean-counters at Safeway to fund my MW studies (Liz was one of the early female MWs who passed in the 80s), and she gave me a little guidance and a lot of encouragement as I slowly morphed from gumboot-wearing cellar-rat to fully fledged wine buyer, and eventually, MW.
Every trip with Liz was a hoot, and every chat in the testing room a chance to chuckle about one thing or another – life seemed to amuse Liz, and in turn she buoyed up every room she entered. A jolly person. And an extremely intelligent one, who wore her knowledge lightly, and never talked down to anyone.
Sadly, Liz’s last years were marked by a slow slide into dementia, and I hadn’t managed to catch her in a lucid moment to share a significant bottle, and to say thanks for everything she did for me. Personally and professionally.
So I’ll say it now.
Thank you Liz. For responding to my hopeful letter with an offer of an interview. For giving me a glass or two of wine when we met in the tasting room, not to steady my nerves, but to have a chat about what I thought about it. For persuading Clive McLaughlin to give me a job, and for wise counsel and warm encouragement for many years thereafter, at Safeway and beyond. Thank you so much.
And while I am thanking Liz, perhaps I should thank all of those other people who helped me on my way in my early career in wine:
Hugh Johnson – for being married to my godmother Judy, and for opening the door to the glories of wine enjoyment, and friendship in wine. Thank you, Hugh!
Robert Joseph – for giving me a job on the International Wine Challenge, and then letting me help write the Good Wine Guide, and for being a provocative Devil’s Advocate to help me hone my thinking skills and bullshit detector. Thank you, Robert!
Angela Muir MW – for repeatedly giving me jobs as a wine shop assistant, wine school manager and then cellar rat in several countries, and for expecting more of me than I did of myself. Thank you, Angela!
Lynnette Hudson – for tolerating my lack of winemaking experience, or Hungarian language skills as we tried to mentor a formerly communist winery transition to making wine the New Zealand way. Thanks Lynnette!
Hugh Ryman – for employing me as a flying winemaker (well, cellar rat) in South Africa. Not once, but twice. Thank you Hugh!
Lynda Clarkson – for coming in to replace my original boss at Safeway a month after I got there (and then telling me she’d never have given me the job herself!) before admitting she was wrong a few months later, and then giving me a loose rein to let me get on with learning the job. Thank you, Lynda!
Allan Cheesman – for assembling a jovial crew on the good ship Sainsbury’s and for letting us climb up the rigging and raid the captain’s cellar. Thank you, Allan!
Mark Williamson – for remembering the interview we had a week before he left Sainsbury’s, and three years later, offering me a plum job at Waitrose, where I eventually ran the wine department, widely considered ‘the best job in wine’. Thank you, Mark!
Simon McMurtrie – for believing in my creativity and vision and persuading me to leave ‘the best job in wine’ to go to work for the lovely Laithwaite family – and then for helping me three years later to transition to life as a consultant. Thank you, Simon!
There have been many more such people throughout my career, colleagues, suppliers, bosses and fellow MWs, who have given me encouragement, help, support and lucky breaks, and I thank you all. It takes a village to raise a child, and the wine world is a friendly village.
And now it is our job to give others a leg up when they need it, and to keep the door open and the ladder dangling.
If someone you know is looking for an opportunity to develop a career in wine – send them my way.