Alex Harper: Professional Wine Taster
Billed as “your supermarket sommelier”, wotwine – launched in 2013 – is an innovative wine app which allows customers to scan a wine bottle’s barcode in a supermarket and be told not only whether that wine offers quality and value, but also tasting notes comprehensible to the average consumer.
Intrigued (who doesn’t want a personal sommelier in their pocket?), we met Alex Harper – an integral member of wotwine’s tasting team – to discover more about her journey from history graduate to Decanter magazine’s Young Wine Writer of the Year.
My Little Black Book: Alex, you are one of the few professional female wine tasters under the age of 35 in the UK. Tell us how you came to be involved in the wine industry.
Alex Harper: I come from a large family where wine was always a central part of Sunday lunch. My father would encourage the whole family to taste and comment on the wine and this became a cherished custom. While studying history at university, in a moment of horror I realised that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my degree and I wasn’t tempted by any of the traditional careers. I was given sage advice to “find a subject you love and make a career out of that”, and for me that meant a career in wine.
After my second year of university I ventured to Bordeaux to work in a small winery. It was a summer of hard graft but it taught me a huge amount about wine production and the sensory qualities needed to fully appreciate a well made vintage. From that moment I was captivated by the wine industry and subsequently worked at a South African winery and set up a company building wine cellars. It started as a way to show my friends the fantastic wines on their doorstep but the business quickly grew. I now work not only for wotwine but also as a Sales Executive for Bancroft Wines (a leading UK importer and wholesaler).
MyLBB: Sage advice indeed. A unique selling point for wotwine is that no other wine app has tested as many bottles or offers a more definitive guide to supermarket wine. Describe a typical tasting session at wotwine HQ.
AH: Our wine tastings usually follow a particular grape variety or country. We taste a range of wines during a two hour period, but to ensure impartial tasting we are not told the price of each wine or the supermarket stockist. We take it in turns to start the tastings and we focus our attention on the quality and value of each wine. Together we collate tasting notes for each wine but we moderate these carefully to ensure there is no wine jargon; the wotwine notes must be accessible to every consumer.
MyLBB: If only all tasting notes were so user-friendly! Alex, what has been your biggest career challenge to date?
AH: I am currently studying for my Master of Wine qualification. It has been incredibly demanding and only 20 people in the world passed last year. It’s staggering to think that with a total of 319 qualified Masters of Wine, more people have been into space than obtained the accolade.I have been studying for three years and am nervously awaiting my exam results. I failed one of my practical exams last year and that was an immense knock to take, especially when working full time. It was a real challenge to pull myself back but I am extremely determined to get to the finish line!
MyLBB: Good luck with the results. Aside from resilience, what advice would you give to other women interested in entering the wine industry?
AH: Don’t take yourself out of the race just because you assume your skill set doesn’t fit the model. People often think that wine experts need to be science stars to fully comprehend the grape growing process and the chemistry involved in the production process. I struggled with science at school and knew nothing about wine production but decided to take a punt and thankfully it paid off because I had an emotional attachment to the work. It’s a very friendly, warm and supportive industry with so many people willing to offer guidance and support. There are a vast range of careers on offer in the industry, from sales and marketing to production or buying or front of house sommelier roles.
MyLBB: How accessible is the wine industry to women and have you ever experienced any obstacles as a woman?
AH: Some people think the wine industry is dominated by red-faced portly men with bow ties, but this just isn’t true anymore. Although only one third of the world’s Masters of Wine are women, there are now many more female students than male students on the Master of Wine course. I have never heard of any discrimination on the production side, but on the tasting side I do occasionally find that my gender and age can cause some rather old-fashioned customers to conclude that I couldn’t possibly know anything about wine. I find it fun proving them wrong!
MyLBB: Good for you, Alex! So, what are your future career plans?
AH: I want to continue helping others fall in love with wine as it’s the most rewarding part of my job and will continue to be a major motivator for me. I have so many plans for the future, all of which revolve around interacting with consumers. A longstanding dream would be to set up a wine shop where we offer food pairings and regular tasting events. I would like to make every consumer see that when tasting wine you can never be “wrong” as everything depends on personal interpretation; everyone’s palette is different and the beauty of tasting is appreciating the variations.
MyLBB: Phew, that’s a relief to hear! Finally, Alex, what are your top tips for My Little Black Book readers buying wine?
AH: In terms of stockists, Lidl has great quality at a lower price point and Waitrose and Tesco are also reliable. However, it’s important to remember that every supermarket has a mixture of good, bad, overpriced and bargain bottles. Unfamiliar vineyards and regions offer the best value; instead of sticking to Bordeaux and Sancerre, go out of your comfort zone with something from Greece or further afield. Spain offers some particularly noteworthy wines, and not just Rioja!
You know where to find us tonight then (all in the name of research, of course).