My Favourite Wine Person

Friday 22nd December 2023

Inspired by Jancis Robinson MW’s 2023 wine writing competition, Anne has written her own version (several months too late for entering the competition!). Hope you enjoy her story.

I was aware of my parents’ love of wine from my earliest days.

When they were getting dinner ready they would jokingly communicate in snippets of French, with ‘et le vin?’ (‘and the wine?’) being a favourite phrase as the preparations neared their final stages.

Imagine their amusement one evening, then, when wide-eyed, three-year-old Anne, wondering why the wine hadn’t yet been placed on the table as per the usual routine, parroted back to them:

‘Et lo vin?’

From this moment onwards, wine became a thread running through the narrative of my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without my favourite wine person.

My father, Noel McHale.

A true Daddy’s girl

Born as a war baby late on Christmas Eve 1943 (yes, that is why he was christened ‘Noel’), he has most definitely been the inspiration for my unusual career path.

His story is a fascinating one.

Until the age of 23 he did not come across a single alcoholic drink that he liked. During his early years of adulthood he had tasted the gins, beers and whiskies which were widely available in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, but didn’t enjoy them and decided to remain teetotal.

Then, during a student conference in Vienna whilst studying for his second degree in physiology at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), he attended a tasting of that year’s new wine vintage in one of the city’s traditional wine taverns (‘Heurigen’) at which he had his first taste of wine, most likely an Austrian Riesling, although he says that the details are somewhat hazy.

Whatever the wine was, he was a convert.

Upon his return to Belfast, he began to research the fascinating world of wine in more detail. To his chagrin, however, it was very challenging to get hold of decent stuff in this as yet embryonic market.

Noel as a young QUB graduate

Then he remembered the words of the QUB admissions officer who had addressed their year group in freshers’ week:

‘You have a wide range of societies to take part in here at Queen’s. And if the society that covers your interest doesn’t exist, you should found it.’

And thus it was that, two years after Noel’s first taste of heavenly vinous nectar, the inaugural QUB Student Wine Society was born in 1968.

There being very little wine consumption at that time in Northern Ireland, the wine trade were keen to develop the market, so subsidising wine education for the next generation of potential consumers was a great move for them. Noel recalls support from local merchants who are no longer trading, such as Lyle & Kinehan and Hollywood & Donnelly.

And, boy, did the QUB Wine Society get subsidised! Noel was privileged enough to know the 1960s vintages of Bordeaux’s top châteaux like the back of his hand, and wine society members enjoyed the very best wines, as is evidenced by this menu from the annual dinner in 1972 (shame they didn’t yet have an Anne McHale to proofread their work for them…’Mersault’, anyone? 😜)

The 1972 QUB annual Wine Society dinner menu

Closely intertwined with the story of the Wine Society is Noel’s love story with my mother Carmel, with whom he celebrated fifty years of marriage in July this year.

Carmel and Noel on an early date

They first met in 1969 when Carmel was an undergraduate at QUB studying English literature. It wasn’t long before she caught his eye at the students’ union, and shortly thereafter he invited her and her sister Christine to the first annual Wine Society dinner – with an ulterior motive, of course. Little did he know two things: first, she was a teetotaller, and second, she had a boyfriend.

The first issue was dispensed with fairly quickly after she was persuaded by Christine to have a taste of the wines. Carmel had the same reaction to her first taste of this heavenly vinous nectar as Noel had had back in 1966.

From that moment onwards, her teetotal days were behind her.

The second issue was not so quickly dealt with, however, as it was not until the following year that Carmel became single. Upon learning the news, Noel didn’t waste any time and decided to woo her with a home-cooked meal of scampi served with a 1953 vintage Champagne.

She was well and truly won over, and the rest, as they say, is history.

14th July 1973

Their joint love of wine continued throughout their marriage. In the mid 1970s they entered the Ulster Wine Taster of the Year Competition, which had separate prizes for men and women. They spent several days in the lead-up practising blind tasting, swirling and spitting, as well as swotting up the Wine Atlas of the World (this will sound familiar to anyone preparing for their WSET exams!).

And what happened? Noel was awarded runner-up in the men’s category, but Carmel got crowned Ulster Lady Wine Taster of the year and won a lot of wine as well as some beautiful Tyrone crystal glassware, which we still make use of to savour our Port and Madeira every Christmas.

So how did this all influence me?

As a daddy hero-worshipper, I used to listen with fascination to his tales of the QUB wine society. I particularly enjoyed the romantic aspect of the love story with my mum.

Despite this, my own relationship with wine-drinking got off to a slightly rocky start, with my very first taste of wine at around age ten being morning-after leftovers as my brother and I crept round the detritus of the previous night’s dinner party.

Needless to say, that was NOT a pleasurable experience, but it probably helped me in my resolve to keep to a promise that I made not long afterwards at my confirmation into the Catholic Church, a ceremony at which as eleven year olds in Northern Ireland we were encouraged to ‘take the pledge’ – i.e. to eschew all alcohol until the age of eighteen.

Unlike most of my peers, I actually stuck to this pledge, and didn’t taste wine again until my eighteenth birthday, when my father poured me a glass of Champagne to welcome me into the wine-drinking fold.

I hated it.

It was much too dry for my tender palate; I remember looking longingly at the flute of Shloer (sparkling grape juice, for those not in the know!) in my younger sister’s hand.

I soon got over these minor hiccups, and the following year when I left Northern Ireland to attend university in Cambridge, the first society I joined in freshers’ week was – you guessed it – the Wine Society. I loved the idea of following in my father’s footsteps, and I also thought that the society was a terribly sophisticated, non-studenty way to enjoy alcohol. Needless to say, though, the thought of using the spittoon never entered my mind. I remember also seeing someone taking notes on the wines, a concept which I found totally bizarre. Little did I know what lay ahead…

My wine journey developed further when as a languages student I went to spend a year living in the French city of Lyon, a place neatly sandwiched between Beaujolais to the north and the Northern Rhône Valley to the south. In fact, on my first day at my English teaching assistant job I was greeted with the words: ‘Welcome to Lyon! Here we have three rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais!’

They were not wrong. The local casual dining restaurants, known as ‘bouchons’, were affordable even for a student like me living on meagre wages and a student loan, and I ate out regularly at tables laden with carafes (‘pots’) of cheap and cheerful St Joseph, Côtes du Rhône and Beaujolais. My hitherto unrefined, medium-dry white wine-loving palate gradually adapted to the taste of red wine, and I’ve never looked back. I even had a chance to explore some of the city’s finer food and wine with my dear father when he stopped off en route to a work trip in Germany.

If you’d asked me then, however, if I was considering a career in the wine industry, I would have looked bemusedly at you. I’d never heard of such a thing! When in my final year of university I went along to the careers office, desperate for guidance, the only suggestions made were teaching, law, the civil service, management consultancy or banking. I remember thinking ‘no, no, no, no and no’.

Another young graduate

So it was that my arrival in the wine industry happened seemingly by accident when I moved to London with a group of university friends and applied for a wide array of administrative jobs requiring a French speaker. The first one I got offered was at a small London-based agency called Mistral Wines who acted as middle-man between a portfolio of French wine producers and a broad range of UK retail and wholesale customers. They sponsored me through my first WSET exam in 2004 and, once again, the rest is history!

It may have seemed like an accident at the time, but I very much doubt that I would have been drawn to this world without the influence of my father. As I continued throughout what has now become a twenty-year career, he has been a huge support to me. And with my parents still based in Northern Ireland, we don’t see each other as regularly as we would like, so wine has been the glue of our many joyful, convivial reunions over the past two decades.

Many joyful vinous moments shared together

He and my mother were both endlessly supportive of my endeavours during those challenging years of preparing for the Master of Wine exams, even to the point of accompanying me on my dissertation research trip (which was to Beaujolais, the third river of Lyon!), mopping up the inevitable tears when I didn’t make it through the tasting exam or pass the dissertation on the first attempt, and throwing me a celebratory dinner when I finally got the gong in 2013, at which Dad made a very enjoyable speech about my admission into the ranks of the Irish Wine Geese.

Graduating as a Master of Wine in 2013

Our most recent special vinous occasion was the happiest of all – when he walked me down the aisle at my wedding in 2022, which appropriately enough took place at an English wine estate.

Happy memories

So you see, then, that the vinous threads sparked by my father’s love of wine have woven themselves robustly throughout my life – and it is thus no accident that my own passion for wine has been so enduring. To me, the multi-faceted nature of what some may define as a mere ‘beverage’, as I wrote about in 2010, is what makes it so captivatingly diverse. In short, this simple ‘beverage’ of fermented grape juice is in reality part of a richly-textured tapestry of human experience and endeavour, and it fascinates me endlessly.

Thank you, my dear father Noel, for enriching my life in this way. I am truly blessed to have you as a dad, and I look forward to sharing several fine bottles with you for your 80th birthday this Christmas Eve.

Anne was awarded Circle of Wine Writers Young Wine Writer of the Year in 2010. You can read a selection of her writing here.