The Master of Wine

April 2, 2008

For three-and-a-half years,” says Barbara Philip, “it was pretty much 24/7.” Over a glass of Domaine de l’Auster Faugères at Pied-à-Terre on Cambie, the 42-year-old, Saskatchewan-born wine consultant is describing her gruelling preparation for the Master of Wine exam. Philip met Andrey Durbach, the proprietor of Pied-à-Terre, back in theatre school at UBC. As actors do, they both worked in restaurants to pay the bills. Shortly after he started cooking at the Moustache Café in North Vancouver, she took over the wine list there.

By the time Philip decided to seek the MW designation, some 10 years later, she was the sommelier at the Fish House in Stanley Park. She would grill visiting winemakers at work, then head home for a glass of vino and a debate with her husband, Iain, her partner in Barbariain Wine Consulting. Her commitment paid off when, last June, she was named a Master of Wine.

Only 265 people worldwide have made the grade since the designation debuted in 1953—Philip is the second Canadian, and first Canadian woman. Before enrolling in the two-year program, candidates must persuade the London-based Institute of Wine Masters of their aptitude, and they must also be interviewed and mentored by a Master of Wine. The exam is what kills most candidates. The theory part requires 11 essays over four days; the practical component is a blind tasting of three wines each day. Only four of Philip’s 79 fellow candidates passed both sections. “It’s more than just knowing the information,” she explains. “You have to have an opinion about that information and be able to articulate and defend it.”

Compared to the exam, Philip’s Master of Wine dissertation sounds almost fun. She wrote it on Okanagan Pinot Blanc, and whether it has the potential to become B.C.’s signature varietal, a local equivalent of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. In the end, she decided, it does not. Yes, it’s well suited viticulturally to the Okanagan, and yes, it makes good wines. But it has no champion—no prominent person or producer to put it on the wine map, the way, for example, Joel Peterson and Paul Draper made Sonoma Zinfandel famous.

Philip consults for retailers, restaurants, and corporations in the Lower Mainland and teaches two days a week in Las Vegas for the International Sommelier Guild. The U.K.’s Decanter magazine has asked her to judge its prestigious Wine Awards, and the Vinho Verde Commission has hired her to give seminars on the charms of this Portuguese summer favourite in Calgary and Vancouver.

The restaurant trade is what’s made B.C. wine a success, Philip believes, with local bottles on just about every list; but she senses that the allegiance has to do more with business than with passion. “How many restaurant people with $40 or $50 to spend on a bottle would spend it on one from B.C.?” she asks. She herself is more captivated by the wines of the Loire—Muscadet, Vouvray, Sancerre, and Chinon—because of their dynamic balance of flavour and their adaptability to just about any kind of cuisine. Then there’s Spain, with its wonderfully ripe, affordable reds that deliver far more elegance and structure than just about any Aussie Shiraz under $25. And Spanish sherries, from salty Manzanilla to the sun-dried-fruit-and-nut complexity of Pedro Ximenés.

“Just maybe, I’ll open a little tapas bar off Davie,” she says, “so I can serve them all.”

 

Barb Philip's Picks

Lake Breeze Vineyards 2006 Pinot Blanc

A signature wine if ever there was one, and especially appealing at the price. From some of the oldest vines on this Naramata estate, it’s full of a sense of place—you can taste the sage and the peach flavours that define the Okanagan. Private wine stores or winery-direct, $15.99

Valdespino Fino Inocente

Philip’s a sherry advocate, determined to persuade everyone that it’s the ultimate food wine. She loves the way this fino, from a family business that’s been making sherry for 700 years, manages to be both light and earthy, thanks to its aromatic herbal saltiness. Specialty listing, $17.83

Domaine de l’Ameillaud 2005 Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne

The 2005 vintage was a blockbuster one in the Rhône, Cairanne is one of the best villages, and this domaine is one of the best producers. Philip likes this one because it’s beautifully balanced and full of juicy fruit, but has great finesse and structure, all for just $20. Specialty listing, $19.78

 

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