You may have noticed that we talk a lot about the people behind North South Wines. This is because, in the wine distribution business, people are everything! 

In a bid to shine a spotlight on some of the exceptional people that make up our team, we sat down with our technical manager – and Stage 2 practical-only MW student – Emily Brighton. 

Among other things, we wanted to find out about her first encounter with wine (surprisingly young!), if being a MW (Master of Wine) student changed her approach to wine tasting – and more about the process of becoming a MW. 

A deep dive into Emily’s MW studies

We have no doubt you’ll be left feeling inspired, informed and entertained!

Emily Brighton

Question: What’s your earliest memory of wine?

I vaguely recall dipping my finger in my dad’s wine glass as a child to taste it. But I was largely unfussed until I joined Wine Circle at Bristol University where the Pol Roger team teaching us blind tasting was somewhat more engaging than my Law degree!

Question: What made you decide to do your MW studies?

I won the Derouet Jameson Award for my WSET Diploma results in 2018, which was a scholarship for year 1 of MW studies.

At the time I was slightly miffed not to have won a trip to a far-flung wine region, but MW was always on my radar as the pinnacle of wine accomplishment, and a title that really commands respect around the wine world, so I quickly realised it was an amazing opportunity to be thrown out of my comfort zone.

Question: How far through your MW are you now?

I’m Stage 2 Practical Only – I passed the 5 theory papers (viticulture, vinification, handling of wine, business of wine & contemporary issues) last September and have just sat  the 3 tasting papers (whites, reds & a mixed bag)  at the end of July. I’m feeling quietly confident on a couple of papers, but it’s really hard to tell if it will be enough to get me over the line this time – now the long wait for results at the end of October. When (!) I (eventually) pass the Practical, Stage 3 is a research paper.

Question: What’s been the most interesting part of the course?

Bit of a cliché but meeting such a variety of passionate, inspiring people.

I also enjoy getting to grips with some of the nerdy detail (don’t get me started on soil) and global perspective for theory essays. So, speaking to winemakers, viticulturists, brand/export managers around the world. You need to have a grasp of what’s going on in markets like the US, China, Sweden. That’s also why MW studies are so relevant.

The more you know, the more you realise how little you know!

Question: And what’s been the most gruelling part?

It’s extremely hard! The overall pass rate is around 10% so it’s certainly humbling.

There are days where you nail a tasting, then the next week you’ll misread wines you should be familiar with, so progress is not linear!

The time pressure is also intense – 2h15 for each 12 wine paper answering long-form questions on variety, origin, quality, winemaking, maturity, style and commercial potential. It’s a lot of information to glean from just a couple of sips.

(My friends also don’t understand why it’s taking me so long to complete my ‘masters’!)

Question: What is your research paper on and why did you pick that subject?

TBC. I’m keen to do something on perspectives of female leaders in the UK wine industry…

Question: Has studying for MW changed the way you approach wine when tasting?

For sure. It’s very different to the WSET approach – assessing the structural components is key. What are the shape of the tannins in the mouth, what is their texture, what is the nature of the acidity? These things tell you much more than aromas or flavours. I think it also removes personal prejudices as you learn to be very objective about what is in the glass, especially from a quality perspective.

Question: Which trips specifically that you have done as part of your MW studies have you enjoyed most and why?

The Adelaide seminar in 2019 was glorious and action-packed, with producer visits in Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale. The d’Arenberg Cube was certainly a mind-bending highlight. We had a pretty cool Bordeaux trip too! Chateau Margaux’s winery is immaculate (key to me as a Technical Manager) and the wines were obviously special.

What’s next after the MW studies?

Question: If you pass, what’s next for you?

I’ll put my feet up! I’m joking. Watch this space I guess…

Question: What advice would you give anyone looking to become a Master of Wine?

It really does take over your life, so you do need to be highly motivated. I don’t think anyone ever feels ‘ready’, so just get stuck in and apply! If you’re eligible (so have WSET Diploma or equivalent) there are introductory sessions to see if the rigour of the programme is something that would suit you. And there is an application process including an online entrance exam.

Question: What was the greatest challenge during the journey to obtain the BRCGS certification for North South Wines in 2021? We’re going for it again, how does going for AA the second time around differ from the first time?

I essentially built our quality management systems from scratch when I joined NSW at the start of 2020, which was daunting, not least documenting and implementing almost 30 procedures and policies, during a global pandemic, but ultimately satisfying. The Agents & Brokers Standard ensures product quality, safety, legality and integrity throughout the supply chain, from grape source through to delivering the wine to the customer. So it involved lots of work with our wine suppliers and service providers to demonstrate that they too have robust risk assessment.

All the processes we’ve put in place require ongoing maintenance and review, so the last year hasn’t been a chance to rest on our laurels!

We’ve also been focused on growing a company culture of product quality and safety, in line with the new clauses in the latest version of the Standard.

Question: What does having BRCGS mean to the business?

It’s the industry benchmark; it’s about future-proofing the business as it rapidly grows. It’s easy to take product quality, safety and legality for granted, until something goes wrong. Obtaining formal accreditation provides customers with an extra level of confidence in us as a supplier partner. Knowing we have done thorough due diligence on our ways of working and are audited to the highest standards, which only a few UK agencies can claim.

Doing business in 2022 is all about authenticity and traceability, key aspects of BRCGS. This permeates everything we do on the product and supplier management side, and we are operating more efficiently and proactively, which is good for everyone!

A Master of Wine’s take on our wines

Tohu Whenua

Question: Is there a region or style of wine that you’re excited about?

Variety is the spice of life, but I am a big fan of volcanic whites. I had Envinate’s Palo Blanco from Tenerife recently which was awesome, really saline, herbal, stony…

Question: Which NSW wine is your favourite and why?

I can’t pick one! But I do love a cool climate Chardonnay and the Tohu Whenua Awa is a bit of a stunner. It has that appealing reductive flintiness and well-integrated smoky oak, cashew meal character to complement the bright peach and citrus fruit. Yum.