Newcastle Wine Fair is coming up, offering the chance to swirl, sip and sample more than 100 vintages. JANE HALL talks to the man behind the event, David Harker.
If, 30-odd years ago, someone had suggested to David Harker that he would one day run his own wine school, he might have questioned their sanity.
If they had predicted he would also run Tyneside’s largest independent wine fair, he probably would have done likewise.
It was the 1980s and the average Brit’s taste in wine didn’t extend much beyond wimple-themed German varieties or French in funny shaped bottles.
“Like most people of my generation, my introduction to wine was on the back of Blue Nun, Black Tower, Mateus Rose and Le Piat d’Or,” David says.
They were the four main dinner party staples. If you were really pushing the boat out, you might look away from Europe and pick an exotic carafe of Californian Paul Masson.
We’ve come a long way since those days – as has David.
Our eyes have been opened to the full glory of a world of wines.
But David has a lot to thank Blue Nun et al for. We may now sneer at the wines once deemed to be the height of sophistication, but they were responsible for showing people there was more to alcohol than the gassy, mass-produced lager that also dominated the market in the 1970s and 1980s.
David was encouraged to begin finding out more about wine: why different grape varieties and yeast strains produce different styles; how climate can affect the taste; why particular vintages pair better with certain foods.
The 53-year-old Durham County Cricket Club chief went beyond just reading up on the subject, however.
Over the last three decades he has gained an impressive list of qualifications, including the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) diploma.
The long-time wine enthusiast knows exactly what has held him spellbound. “It is the pleasure and enjoyment of drinking wine; the knowledge that there are so many styles and varieties that you can never really know them all; and the sense that you are on a journey and that there will always be something interesting around the corner.”
It’s a voyage of discovery that, 18 months ago, led David to turn a pleasurable hobby into a business.
He decided to buy Newcastle Wine School from Chris Powell, the Jesmond-based businessman who has built a national wine education franchise network over the last decade or so.
David had met Chris when he signed up for tastings at Newcastle Wine School to help broaden his knowledge.
Now David runs the wine school while still holding down a job as Durham County Cricket Club’s chief executive.
Chris, meanwhile, is focusing on developing his franchise under the name localwineschool.com, which has seen outlets opening in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Hampshire, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire, Bristol and Glasgow.
Having grown from the one Newcastle school, which opened 15 years ago, it suggests we’re moving away from being a predominantly beer-drinking culture.
David says: “Wine is an incredibly buoyant market at the moment. It’s part of most people’s everyday lives – part of their weekly supermarket shop.”
On March 1, the Assembly Rooms in Newcastle will host a wine fair boasting more than 100 vintages from across the globe.
Newcastle Wine Fair has been organised by David and is the closing event in this year’s EAT! In food and drink festival.
The wine fair, which will see many of the North East’s top award-winning independent wine merchants laying out their stalls, is making a welcome return after taking a break in 2014.
The event was started about seven years ago by Chris and quickly established itself as a popular addition to the North East’s burgeoning food and drink calendar.
This year will see wine merchants Carruthers and Kent pulling corks alongside Michael Jobling, Majestic Gosforth, Fenwick, Bin 21, Heathcote Wines, Waitrose, Dennhofer Wines, WSET, Bon Coeur Fine Wines and newcomer Mmm…Glug, which has opened as an offshoot of the popular Mmm… delicatessen in Newcastle’s Grainger Market.
Wines from Australia, Chile, New Zealand, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa and Argentina wil lbe available to try – a world away, quite literally, from the uncomplicated flavours of Britain’s novice 1970s and 80s wine drinkers.
David, pulling of a bit of a coup, has persuaded New Zealand-born master of wine Peter McCombie to head to Newcastle to hold two tutored classes. It is, David asserts, a sign of just how far the North East has come in terms of wine appreciation.
And it’s not necessarily young people who are leading the charge. David says Newcastle Wine School – which offers a range of courses and tastings from introductory sessions to the chance to gain WSET qualifications – attracts everyone from students to retirees.
“We get a whole cross section of people. They like wine but are tending perhaps to buy the same ones every week. But the ethos of the wine school is not to tell you what to like, but to explain why you like what you do.
“It is about introducing people to wine and setting them off to make their own journey of discovery – just as I did.”
Wine, David remarks, is now established as a dinner time staple.
“The really interesting thing about wine is its ability to set off a dish and bring it to life,” he says. “The subtlest of flavours becomes much more than the sum of its parts when the right wine meets the right meal.”
What really amazes David is that while, as a nation, wine consumption is forecast to increase by 3.3% between now and 2018 – reaching 24.6 litres per head, according to a Vinexpo/WSR study – we still aren’t entirely comfortable with the drink. A ‘snobby’ persona persists and it seems we are still reluctant to experiment beyond our favoured tipple.
This where wine tastings and events like Newcastle Wine Fair come into their own.
David says it “offers the perfect chance to take the plunge” and try new flavours, talk to the experts and educate the palette.
Newcastle Wine Fair is on March 1 at the Assembly Rooms, Fenkle Street, Newcastle, between 12.30pm and 4pm. Tickets cost £20 each or £30 for two and include a tasting glass to take away and keep. The fair and masterclass costs £35 or £55 for two. To book and for more information go to www.newcastlewineschool.com