Interview with Jacky Blisson MW, Learning Facilitator at Somm360
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 15 Feb 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
Somm360: Thanks for joining us today at Somm360, Jacky.
Congratulations on becoming the first Quebec Master of Wine and the 10th in Canada!
First things first, how did you begin your journey in the world of wine? What/who inspired you to make this your career?
Jacky Blisson MW: My parents were major wine lovers, especially my father. He would spend hours agonizing over which dusty bottles of wine to bring up from the cellar for special occasions. He used to ask me to sniff and rank the wines when I was a little girl. During university, I worked as a waitress at a fine dining restaurant and fell in love with wine service, but didn’t really consider making a career of it. After I finished my B.A. in Communications, I got a “sensible job” in web marketing and instantly hated it. I knew I wanted to work with wine again, but in a different capacity than sommellerie.
Somm360: Would you please give us an insight into your wine education path, and how you made the decision to put yourself forward for the Institute of Masters of Wine?
Jacky Blisson MW: My first serious wine education foray was in 2004. I moved to Burgundy and did an Advanced Masters in Wine Science and International Trade given by the CFPPA de Beaune and AgroSup Dijon. My father and I had always joked that the ultimate goal was the Master of Wine, but it wasn’t until he passed away in 2008 that I seriously started considering how and when to pursue that goal.
Somm360: You spent the best part of a decade in Burgundy and the Rhône. What were you doing when there, and how integral was this period to your educational trajectory?
Jacky Blisson MW: It was essential! When I decided to make wine my career, I knew I wanted to immerse myself completely - which meant living in a historic winemaking region. After I completed my studies in Beaune, I stayed on for almost three years, working in export sales for a Beaunois brokerage. I left to do a harvest season in South Africa, and was then hired to manage UK and North American exports for Southern Rhône Valley winery, Gabriel Meffre.
Somm360: Are you implying that working harvest is an essential experience for a prospective MW candidate? In what ways did working harvest in Burgundy and South Africa specifically benefit Jacky Blisson MW?
Jacky Blisson MW: You don’t necessarily have to have harvest experience to apply for the MW, but it certainly does help to understand many aspects of viticulture and oenology theory. For me personally, I felt it was important to truly understand how wine is made to be effective in selling and marketing it. Working harvest also gave me a newfound respect for grape growers and winemakers. That is absolutely backbreaking work! I loved every minute of it though. In Beaune, I just dabbled in seasonal viticultural work and a few days of harvesting here and there each year, but in South Africa, I spent over three months working the full harvest and winemaking season at Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-En-Aarde. It was such a beautiful place. I fell in love with the people and the wines.
Somm360: Looking back at your MW study, what do you feel are the main barriers to entry for potential candidates?
Jacky Blisson MW: You need to have quite a high level of wine education to apply (WSET Diploma, or a degree considered to be of equivalent difficulty). Candidates also need to have worked in the wine industry for a number of years, and have MWs and wine professionals willing to endorse them on their application. It is also a costly endeavour and takes a long time to complete. The shortest possible time is three years but most students take several more years to get through. Finally, the pass rate is quite low, which can be demoralizing.
Somm360: At any point in your wine eduaction/career have you encountered discrimination of any sort, and what do you feel can be done to remedy this within the wine industry? There’s definitely a positive trajectory, but are we there yet?
Jacky Blisson MW: Wine sales in the early 2000s in Burgundy was definitely a male-dominant world. Despite my degree and work experience, I was only offered entry level, administrative positions. This was the reason that I ended up leaving the region. The situation does seem to have improved in recent years though. I see more and more of my Beaunoise female acquaintances in leadership positions now. There is still work to be done throughout the wine industry in achieving pay equity for women.
Somm360: Personally, what did you find to be your greatest challenges throughout your study?
Jacky Blisson MW: I was always most nervous about the wine tasting exams. When I first arrived in France, I got a lot of jokes about being “la petite Canadienne” with the insinuation that I was less legitimate as a wine professional, coming from a non-wine-producing country (at least in French eyes). It made me doubt myself and wonder if I possessed a good enough palate to ever develop strong tasting abilities. As I continued working and moving up the ranks of my studies, I realized that being a good taster is much more about training your palate and studying the theory of winemaking, wine regions, grape varieties, etc. as it is an innate skill. This realization gave me the confidence to succeed in the MW exams.
Somm360: Where did you choose to focus your area of expertise, and what steps led you to that particular decision?
Jacky Blisson MW: I see myself more as a generalist than a specialist, though I do have particular experience with and fondness for the wines of France, Italy, South Africa, and Canada. In terms of work orientation, I am really focused on wine education at the moment. Countless articles have surfaced in recent years about the new generation of consumers drinking less wine and/or moving towards craft beers, ciders, and spirits. We need to find ways to draw newcomers into wine. We need to make it more approachable and get rid of this mystique of wine being an elitist beverage that is too complex to understand. I can get myself a bit worked up about the pretension in the wine world!
Somm360: After achieving your MW, how has your career path unfolded since? And where do you see it leading you in the future?
Jacky Blisson MW: I have been hugely grateful for the outpouring of interest since the MW news came in. I am building up a freelance business of wine writing, education, and consulting services, with clients ranging from wine region marketing bodies, wine importers, agencies, premium online retailers, and so forth. My work has been hugely varied so far, which I love. I would like to continue to build up this multi-faceted approach - potentially adding in a weekly column, and one day writing a wine reference book (when I can face the idea of writing another lengthy tome… my research paper has calmed my ardour in that department for the time being).
Somm360: What advice would you give to someone considering going down the Master of Wine route? What questions should they be asking themself before making that decision?
Jacky Blisson MW: The most important considerations are time and money. I studied for four to six hours every day. Some people can get away with a less onerous schedule but most of my MW student colleagues were in that ballpark. Prospective students need to be aware of this time commitment and make sure they are up for it. It puts a strain on your work life, your family life, and your social life. You really need to be aware of that before diving in. You also need to have the resources. There are tuition fees, travel fees, the cost of buying wines to practice blind tasting, and so forth. It is definitely worth estimating the total budget before starting.
Somm360: You have recently been working with us on Somm360’s online educational platform. What drew you to the Somm360 initiative?
Jacky Blisson MW: Having studied wine for so long, I have immense respect for anyone trying to improve their wine knowledge. The Somm360 platform is such a great tool for wine students. It is both educational and fun, with a tiered approach so newcomers and experts alike can learn. It is also a great space for wine students to engage with each other and build a community.
Somm360: Well, thank you very much for your time, Jacky.
We very much appreciate your fascinating insights.
And if I were to pour you a virtual glass of wine from our imaginary Somm360 cellar right now, what would it be?
Jacky Blisson MW: A glass of wine is always better when shared with great company. I imagine us drinking this virtual glass together, by a roaring fire, while debating some subject of utter wine geekery. For that, I would want something I could sip slowly and really savour like a really fine old vintage Madeira.