Barbara Philip, first Canadian woman to become Master of Wine

With her fiery red hair and deep blue eyes, Barbara Philip does not necessarily meet the standard clichés that people sometimes entertain about great connoisseurs of wine. She got nothing to do with the pot-bellied men with blackened teeth due to extensive wine tastings. A woman who loves her work, with ease, and who became the first female Canadian to receive the prestigious title of Master of Wine.

By Frédéric Arnould (lefred@toutsurlevin.ca)

MW! Two letters that are worth their weight in gold in the international wine world. MW stands for Master of Wine and it is the highest award offered by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. A « superdiploma » that few manage to obtain. This qualification takes several years of hard learning and an almost total dedication to wine and vines. No wonder that there has only 332 in the world. A figure which represents only a tiny fraction of the total number of candidates who fail.

photo : toutsurlevin.ca

photo : toutsurlevin.ca

But what is the moment that changed her life and has plunged her into the world of wine? In fact, it was was gradual because, after working a few years in the field of the food business, Barbara Philip and her husband began to spend their holidays visiting wineries and collecting a few good bottles. Slowly but surely, Bacchus has set his sights on her. One day, she got a call from a chef who told her that his sommelier just left the restaurant. We are in the mid 90s and by her own admission, Barbara Philip does not know what sommelier means.  She didn’t have any professional training in that matter. Regardless, the chef hired her,  and without knowing it, he gave a chance to someone who would become the first female Master of Wine in Canada. When asked if she takes special pride of being the first Canadian to hold that title, she says she is especially proud to have been the first person in Western Canada to win the title.

WSET!

She studied every evening during her class at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a professional certification granted by an institute based in London and that offers courses in fifty countries worldwide. Her official graduation as Master of Wine took place after several years until she graduated in 2007. It was obviously complex and hard to get but she found pleasure in learning. Yet study all varieties, all regions and appellations in the world, writing essays and a blind tasting of dozens of wines sometimes involves real dedication. « Full disclosure », I personally got the WSET diploma in 2014, prerequisites to start the studies of the Institute of Masters of Wine, but I am reluctant as ever to embark on the Master of Wine « adventure ». « Many are called, few are chosen, » we know the formula.

photo : Decanter

photo : Decanter

It took Barbara Philip, almost six years to complete the courses leading to the WSET Diploma and then three years to navigate through the waters to become an « MW ». The finals are particularly tough. Every morning for three days, competitors have 2 hours and 15 minutes to analyze 12 different wines. And, because I personally went through some exams for my diploma, I can confirm that time passes very quickly. Ten minutes to analyze a wine with the eye (color, color etc), nose (aromas) and palate (acidity, body, bouquets etc) and then try to guess the grape, country, region and qualify the wine in terms of quality and market potential, is not easy.

The most difficult step for Barbara Philip was writing her final dissertation on the subject she had chosen. « Can the Pinot Blanc become the signature grape of the Okanagan Valley. » Although perfect for the soil and climate of British Columbia,  Pinot Blanc, she found out, would probably never have the potential to become am iconic grape given its relatively low popularity in the world (we are far from « pinot grigio » and other « Chardonnay » in the white varieties).

Standardization of wine?

Is the world of wine constantly changing that sometimes some producers are following the market trends of what’s fashionable or not, sometimes abandoning certain types of wine to « blend » with the trends  » ? Barbara who is the portfolio manager for European wines on behalf of the BC LiquorBoard,  do not think that’s often the case for renowned wineries. But she acknowledges that it probably can not be said for some affordable products that are often alike often. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate Okanagan, Chilean or Californian wines. But during exams at the WSET, she said, you’re supposed to do so in terms of the quality and marketing capabilities of the product.

Versatility

When asked what she likes, Barbara Philip like the many tasks and the diversity of her different businesses. Whether it is tasting trips in Europein order to choose what is best for the liquor board of British Columbia or teaching courses to the WSET Diploma students in Vancouver. (Full disclosure, she was one of my teachers), What is a good wine?

photo : FA

Barbara Philip during her wine column on CBC radio with Stephen Quinn in Vancouver Photo : toutsurlevin.ca

What’s a great wine ?

From the point of view of the consumer she is, Barbara Philip denotes a very good wine like the one that’s perfect for the moment and the location she drinks it and it has to be appropriate with the right company and the right food . A good example ? A 1998 Cheval Blanc (the St-Emilion Grand Cru Classé), a wine ready to drink this year, with just a simple dish made of pork. Or a good Okanagan Pinot Blanc on a patio in the South Okanagan in September with just a seafood salad, accompanied by friends, is also the perfect wine for this moment.

Best wine ever tasted?

Hard to say, according to her. Probably a simple wine she drank with her husband, Ian Philip, with who he forms the « Barbarian » company which includes joint activities of travel, courses and other contracts in the field of wine. Something unexpected, without tacky label  and with a not so high price tag.

Her desert island wine?

If there is a fridge, it would be a sparkling wine. Otherwise, a good chianti classico.

Guilty pleasure, « unworthy » of a  Master of Wine?

Barb Philip confesses she loves sugary and acidic drinks such as a sarsaparilla cooler (same type of « guilty pleasure » François Chartier appreciates) or a Smirnoff Vodka Ice.

To learn among other things about the Master of Wine examinations and what she thinks of the Bordeaux en primeur system, listen to the audio interview here:

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