As Ireland’s only female Master of Wine, there isn’t much about the industry that Jane Boyce isn’t well versed in. She meets LAURA MURPHY to talk about life in a traditionally male dominated business and Ulster’s growing interest in learning more about it
IN pre-nineties Northern Ireland, men and women had fairly pre-defined roles when it came to the purchasing of alcohol.
Women, to put it bluntly, generally didn’t. Purchase drink, that is, unless they were ordering it over the bar, throughout the course of a night out with friends, or a romantic meal with their other half.
The local off-license was off limits; a male dominated territory which hubby would have been the one to call into on the way home from the Chinese on a Saturday night if his beloved fancied a bottle to accompany her sweet and sour chicken in front of Blind Date.
After all, she deserved a treat after spending a busy afternoon doing the weekly grocery shop. Stewarts, Crazy Prices - that was her domain. Until the birth of the all-singing, all-dancing supermarket ‘super store’, where it was as easy - and suddenly acceptable - to pop a bottle of plonk into your trolley alongside packets of peas, tins of beans, and tonnes of toiletries.
Bamboozled, women - and men - could stand for hours in the alcohol section of Asda, eyeing up endless rows of bottles of red, rose, white, sparkling and more, confusedly wondering which would be the perfect accompaniment with this Sunday’s roast.
And so a new thirst for knowledge about the grape and all its offerings was sparked, and slowly, as people had more disposable income, and the era of the cheap flight was ushered in, offering insights into other, more ‘civilised’ countries and their cultures, wine-drinking was no longer solely a pastime for the wealthy.
It was becoming more affordable, more accessible and more enjoyable, and the people of Ulster wanted to improve their palate.
“People are more interested in wine tasting now,” says Jane Boyce, who I meet at James Nicholson Wines, for a chat about her interesting (and enviable) sounding career as the Crossgar-based business’ fine wines manager.
“They see that you can just have one glass of wine with a meal, in the sunshine, and you don’t have to get drunk - and it can just be a very nice and healthy accompaniment to a meal.
“As you get more interested, your taste becomes more sophisticated, and as you have a bit more money to spend, you can learn a wee bit more about it.”
Of course, as one of Ireland’s four Masters of Wine - and the only female in the whole island to have such a title - Jane, who has over 30 years’ experience in the wine industry, came to work in the Northern Ireland drinks trade at a time when seeing a woman walk into a pub, briefcase in hand, was an unusual sight for regular male punters frequenting their favourite watering hole.
Although born and schooled in her native Northern Ireland, the Banbridge woman studied higher education in England and France before honing her profession in the wine industry in London - ‘the wine industry capital of the world’ - eventually returning to the province to get married and start a family.
But first things first; I’m intrigued by this ‘Master of Wine’ title (which seems a tad sexist) and what exactly it means?
“Master of Wine is the highest qualification in the wine trade,” explains the 53-year-old mother of two, as we sit over mugs of coffee in the wine tasting room at JN Wines’ plush premises in Crossgar.
“It involves sitting four written exams. The first paper for example, is all about viticulture - vineyards. Right from choosing a site for a vineyard, to all about different soil types climate, grape varieties, planting and horticulture, all the different pruning methods, organic viticulture, diseases of the vine, pests in the vineyard. right through the whole annual viticultural cycle really, manual harvesting, machine harvesting - everything that happens in the vineyard.
“The second exam is vinification and that’s everything about wine making; what temperature you ferment the grapes at, how the wine is made, all about quality control afterwards, and then third paper is the business of wine, all about marketing economics, trading.
“The last paper is one essay, two hours long, and the topic is something very broad, for example, ‘how would you sell wine to a Martian’, or ‘ wine; art or science?’
“Then there are three practical papers; 12 wines which you are given blind and you’re asked questions about them, or to identify what they are or compare their qualities. The first paper deals with white wines, the second red and the third fortified, sparkling etc.”
Jane adds that whilst achieving this qualification “doesn’t really actually qualify you to do a particular job, it does make you a specialist and a very well respected specialist in the wine business.”
And that is certainly the case with her; currently, Jane’s role at JN Wines sees her having to travel Europe and beyond to buy in fine wines, as well as advising private customers, restaurants and hotels on wine choices etc.
Interestingly, it was Jane’s combined love of languages and geography when she was a schoolgirl that led to her eventually seeking out a career in the wine industry.
“I love looking at maps and planning routes and things,” says the former Ashleigh House School (now Hunterhouse College) student.
“I didn’t want to do a traditional language course so I went to Bath university - they are ‘vocational’ business orientated. I did European Studies so I had a year in France as an assistante in a school, and when I was there I did my dissertation on Cognac region.”
Jane found that studying the geography of the area plus being given the chance to speak French led to a classic “light bulb moment that this was definitely the business for me.”
Even more interestingly, Jane admits that she was never much of a wine connoisseur during her young adulthood.
“I never liked beer so as a student I would have probably drunk the odd glass of wine, and it wasn’t something we ever really had at home - we had the odd bottle at Christmas of Blue Nun but nothing more than that.
“I had had summer jobs in restaurants, so I was interested in food, and then I began to become more interested in wine.
“When I came back to uni I applied for a graduate trainee job in London with one of the big wine companies and I got in. That was a great opportunity. I had a couple of months in shipping, then a couple in buying, a few in merchandising, so you saw all aspects of the business, plus they put you through your wine exams.
“After that, I decided to marry my husband back here (in Northern Ireland) so I started looking around for jobs. Wine was really just starting to take off here. I’d written to a couple of companies and Jim O’Neill, who was managing director of Holywood and Donnelly, had just taken on the wines for Hastings Hotels Group so wanted someone to look after that.
“I became wine development manager.”
Jane says that at this time, during the 1980s, very few women worked in the drinks trade, and I ask her what it was like to be part of a male dominated world.
“I suppose I always liked a challenge - in a way I was quite confident in my own knowledge. The big difference that I really found was that you had to sell yourself before you could sell anything, and still the same is true in Northern Ireland. That’s very much the way Northern Irish people are.”
Jane then moved to Gilbeys (drinks wholesalers) where she took on a more marketing orientated role, eventually returning to JN Wines a few years later after Jim Nicholson himself contacted her.
By this stage, she had two sons, and so for the duration of her career, worked three days a week, as she still does now.
“I’m lucky enough, since because there are very few people with my qualification, I’ve always been able to choose my hours.”
She decided to “go freelance” whilst studying for her Master of Wine qualification, and the work offers poured in. She appeared on a TV show with the late Ulster chef and restauranteur Robbie Millar, called Table Talk, and wrote wine columns for a variety of publications both here, in the south of Ireland, and in London
“On top of that I was doing wine courses and a bit of consultancy work for a few hotels and restaurants,” she adds.
“I was lucky in that I wasn’t the main breadwinner in the family, and if I had been it would have been tougher I guess, but there always seemed to be some opportunity that came up.
“When things tailed off in the south a bit, Bill Wolsey approached me about coming on board at the Merchant before the place opened, and I still do that. I was involved with Lough Erne (Golf Resort) at the beginning too.
“It’s a very people orientated business, and I love the stories - the difference between the big brands and the ones that we do here is they’re all about people, and when you’ve met the people, or read about the people and their family and their dog running around the vineyard, every time you look at that wine, you’re just remembering the person who makes it. That’s what I love about it.”
It certainly sounds like a career with a difference, and one which Jane has no hesitation in recommending to the province’s graduates of tomorrow.
“If you thought about going into merchant banking and you want to earn a fortune, it’s not the business for you, but if you want a very nice lifestyle and meet interesting people, travel a bit, eat good food, and drink good wines, then I would say yes, it’s a good career.”