For our first ‘Roots in Majestic’ interview of 2020, we speak to someone who has taken a love of wine one step further – and now uses her passion to educate others both as a WSET School London educator and Bordeaux Ambassador. She’s also the winner of several prestigious awards, a specialist in fortified wines – and one of the UK’s select group of MWs.
Lydia Harrison MW was first captivated by the world of wine when taken to the tasting counter on her first day working in a Majestic store. These days, Lydia takes hundreds of tasters through their own tasting journey and beyond, as one of the WSET School London’s educators. There she helps to teach the WSET Diploma, an exam she herself earned a Distinction in, and won the coveted Vintners’ Scholarship for the highest mark in the UK trade.
As a born and bred Londoner, Lydia has been immersed in the wine scene of the capital throughout her adult life. She also bangs the drum for the wines of Bordeaux, Jerez and Porto as both an events curator and educational ambassador. We took some time out from the tasting room to talk all things wine education, special bottles – and what’s inline for the next chapter of a nation-hopping newly qualified Master of Wine!
What attracted you to join Majestic?
I attended a Careers fair and got chatting to the staff on the Majestic stand who were really friendly. I already knew that I enjoyed wine and the fact that Majestic sought university graduates for their trainee management programme gave me confidence in the company and career prospects.
I also was attracted to the fact that you could work your way up into senior manager positions and were fully trained, with all trainees doing their WSET Level 3 Award in Wine.
Where and when did you join us?
I joined in 2006 a year after I had finished university and my first store was the branch in Ealing where I grew up.
Why it was a good place to begin your wine-journey?
Majestic was a great place to begin my wine journey because you gain hands on experience with the product immediately. On my first day, my Manager Chloe took me through the selection of wines on the tasting counter to discuss their styles.
This close contact with the product, and subsequently learning about it through completing the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines, gave me the confidence I needed in sales and to progress into management roles.
What are the wines, experiences and attitudes which have stuck with you?
I still love trying all different types of wines and the beauty of Majestic was such a broad range of countries, regions, grape varieties and price points to choose from. I remember the first time I tasted a Condrieu and learning about this special place for Viognier. I also had a bottle of Sarget 1997 for Christmas one year and thought if this is what they can do with a second wine in a not so rated vintage, what can they do with their Grand Vin, Chateau Gruaud Larose! I now have a case of 2009 in the cellar after going a little wild buying en primeur!
I still remember the vineyard trips that I was fortunate to go on, a particular highlight was winning a trip to Argentina. The opportunity to travel so far from home, and experience different countries and cultures through wine is something I really appreciate. In terms of attitudes, Majestic was a great place for me to work in my twenties, the team you worked with were your friends and family and you all worked hard together to run the store successfully. As a Manager you were responsible for training your staff and I really enjoyed the collaborative effort and hopefully inspiring others.
Has this gone on to play a role in your life an a Wine Educator? And if so, how?
Definitely, the fundamental wine knowledge I learnt through studying for my WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and then the Level 4 Diploma while working at Majestic, as well as the opportunity to taste such a broad selection of wines, gave me a really strong basis to then go and spread my knowledge to others. I can also share my experiences of vineyard visits with students, like I used to with customers and staff. The customer service and communication skills I developed dealing with all sorts of customers over the years also helps when educating a mixed audience about wine.
What would be your advice to anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps and go into Wine Education? Or to become an MW?
If you’re interested in wine education then start by hosting some tastings for family and friends to see if you enjoy it and gather feedback from them. It’s always good to have a clear idea of the aim for each tasting and what you want them to get out of it as well as being interactive to maintain people’s attention. Start with subjects you know well and are confident with as this comes across when you are educating.
If you want to become an MW then make sure you do your research on the programme beforehand and understand the commitment and work level involved. It was an amazing and incredibly rewarding experience, but not something to be undertaken lightly as it is a serious commitment of effort, time and money. The WSET Diploma was definitely useful for me to have done before progressing onto the MW.
You aced your diploma, Level 3 Award in Wines and were awarded several illustrious prizes for your results. How does working surrounded by wine help your studies, and what advice would you give anyone taking their WSET who doesn’t currently work in wine to replicate that?
Working at Majestic definitely helped when I was studying. The opportunity to taste wines regularly and then research the areas where they came from and how they were made brought the studying to life. You were also surrounded by other wine lovers with different tastes and experiences that helped broaden my appreciation of wine as well as the opportunity to attend tasting events where you could hear first hand from the people behind the wines you were selling.
You can still learn about wine without working in the trade, at the WSET about half of Level 2 students are non-trade, and it is great that wine appeals to so many people. If you’re not involved with wine in your day job then get involved outside of work, set up a tasting group with other wine loving friends, or go to places where you can sample lots of different wines and discuss them with the staff. It is lovely to share wine with other people and just having conversations about it helps you remember and understand more about the product.
Technology is also brilliant and the opportunity to watch videos of wine regions on the other side of the world or see wine being made while doing your commute definitely helps make learning about wine more accessible. Finally, make sure you still make it fun and drink some good wine along the way!
For the WSET School London, you specialise in Fortified, Bordeaux and Champagne. Are there any particular experiences, or wines, which lead you to focus on those categories?
By gaining a top mark in my WSET Level 3 Award in Wines I received the Calem Port Award. I went on a trip to the Douro, touring the port lodges, exploring the vineyards and tasting incredible wines. The Douro has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful wine regions I have ever visited and I loved every minute. This opportunity definitely fuelled my love of Port more.
The experience and understanding you gain from visiting wine regions first hand can’t be replaced, and my passion for the subject matter I hope comes across when I teach these areas. I was blown away by the quality of the wines and the experience and that really does incentivise you to continue working hard in the wine industry.
And since achieving the impressive feat of graduating as an MW in August 2019, what’s next on the agenda for Lydia Harrison?
I have recently just been on my first MW trip to Chile, kindly hosted by Wines of Chile, and I am definitely keen to continue visiting as many wine regions as possible. There is always more to learn and I want to keep my knowledge up to date. I have been assigned 6 Stage 1 MW students as mentees and I am keen to share my advice with them and try and help them achieve the title too. I am also going to attend the MW Stage 2 Seminar in Bordeaux and again look forward to helping others on their wine journey.
I will continue teaching at the WSET School London which I love and organising tasting events to bring wine to more people. Outside of wine, I am getting married next year and can’t wait to celebrate with my family and friends who got a bit neglected while I was studying, we will be making up for it over a few glasses.
Lydia was speaking to Majestic in December 2019. If you want to find out more about studying with the WSET School London – and Lydia’s world in general – head over to here!