Article by Giles Watkins.
There are tougher gigs for a writer than being asked to chat to a real enthusiast about what they do, and for a wine lover to be asked to interview a wine tutor must rank as a pretty easy assignment. So I jumped at the chance to interview Beth Keating, owner and head tutor of the North London Wine School.
We met at The Queen’s in Regent’s Park Road, a favourite of us both with a good range of wines by the glass. Beth turns out to be both seriously enthusiastic about wine (she once took out a bank loan to buy a £550 bottle) as well as being very knowledgeable without being pompous – a great combination for a wine tutor and also a tribute, she says, to her training whilst working with the Primrose Hill wine merchant Bibendum.
It all started with ballet. A Royal Ballet School Junior Associate from age seven, who then attended their White Lodge school from age eleven, Beth went on to become a soloist with the company. So how did that lead to wine? “Ballet demanded incredible discipline, especially in the area of diet, so I became increasingly interested in food and drink. I eventually became fascinated with wine, and dreamt of becoming a sommelier.”
Everyone else Beth knew who’d left the Royal Ballet went on to teach: normally ballet itself, or yoga or Pilates. But Beth started her voyage in wine by shadowing a sommelier whilst waiting tables and doing the hard yards in a friend’s restaurant, and soon moved from hospitality to focus on wine exclusively by joining Bibendum. This was where she really learnt her trade, studying for all four levels of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams and having the opportunity to taste a wide range of wines every day. “Looking back on it is amazing,” says Beth. “There would be up to forty different bottles open in the office. And then I’d get an opportunity to listen to a wine-maker present his wines. I always found that listening to the person who actually makes the wine teaches you more, and of course their enthusiasm is infectious.”
I always found that listening to the person who actually makes the wine teaches you more, and of course their enthusiasm is infectious
It was while at Bibendum that Beth became a wine educator herself, graduating through working with the trade to running informal wine groups at people’s houses in Primrose Hill, then becoming a WSET tutor before taking over the North London Wine School full time earlier this year. And now that she’s got over the initial challenges of running a business herself, Beth has a schedule of exciting events stretching out over next year, including WSET courses.
“We have something for everybody who loves wine: Old World vs New World, food and wine matching, organic and biodynamic wines, even an orange and blue wine evening.”
So what type of people come to North London Wine School events? “All sorts! We get couples who’ve chosen to come to a tasting as a date night, and people who have been bought an Introduction to Wine course by their partner so that they can indulge themselves for eight weeks. People come on their own, or else groups of women turned up for our sparkling wine event, which made it our biggest date so far. “One thing these groups seem to have in common is minimal use of the spittoon. They are certainly getting their money’s worth.”
Sourcing the wines from retailers, wholesalers, online businesses and direct from producers, the first year of running a business clearly requires significant effort. After years of travel, Beth is focused on building the business locally at present. So if she could go anywhere in the world to taste wines today, where would it be? “Sicily, because of the fascinating experimentation happening there at the moment, working with newly discovered indigenous varieties. And Minervois in the Languedoc, which is coming on in leaps and bounds for quality and value whilst retaining an inimitable style and character in their wines.”
Asked about the growth of her business, Beth adds: “I think venue is very key. I’m personally very fussy about a place having the right atmosphere; it could really make or break an experience for me. A formal masterclass or WSET qualification requires a more structured space, whereas a private party for our wine enthusiast evenings needs something more relaxing and informal. After all, a lot of people come from work in the evenings and they deserve a comfortable seat and to unwind! We often hold events at the London Irish Centre on Camden Square, which has had a huge refurbishment and is a really friendly, sociable space. Most of our evening sessions run 7–9 pm, but many people are still there at 10.30 pm. chatting and enjoying the wine.”
More important of all, I sense, is the community experience that Beth is clearly creating: a sociable environment in which to learn about what you really like about wine and develop some confidence in your palate, along with being able to make better choices when buying wine. People come along with friends, make new friends and are guaranteed an evening of entertainment. “On the whole I think people go away feeling happier,” says Beth ? something that clearly delights her.
Photography by Lars Christiansen