Episode 139: Master of Wine, James Cluer
One of the most influential personalities in many facets of the wine industry is Master of Wine, James Cluer. He’s the owner of Fine Vintage LTD, but there’s so much more to his story. From wine education to luxury tours, wine jobs to wine making – and let’s not forget those super fun videos – James enlightens us on the many roads that led to not only his wine lifestyle, but also how he’s opening doors for others.
Interview with James Cluer, Master of Wine
James Cluer, MW, is not only an accomplished educator, he’s the founder and owner of Fine Vintage LTD, which provides top-notch courses at all levels, and luxury wine tours. With offices in Napa Valley and Vancouver, Fine Vintage LTD operates in 13 (for now) locations, and was recognized as WSET’s Educator of the Year in 2012 with the prestigious Riedel Trophy.
In addition to providing consultancy services to Qatar Airways, cruise companies, hotels, resorts and major wineries, he has also appeared in Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Drinks Business, TIME Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Bloomberg, Forbes, Condé Nast and a myriad of other publications.
His entire story – and there truly is so much more to it – is fascinating and can be found here.
It all started in Hong Kong
This is not a typo, as you may remember our last guest being influenced by Hong Kong during early stages of his wine career. Perhaps there’s something in the water, because it all started in Hong Kong for James, too. When he was only 18, his parents were living and working in Hong Kong. Being wine lovers, they decided James needed to get to work after high school, and subsequently got him his first job working for a wine importer, a friend of the family.
Because James doesn’t do anything small, he started his wine studies at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 (most of us start at Level 2 or 1). He would study on the bus while commuting to and from work. To be clear, 18 is the legal drinking age in Hong Kong.
The Finer Things in Wine and Work Life
James finished the Level 4 diploma in 1997 and immediately went into the Master of Wine program the following year. Ten years after applying he became an MW in 2008; we enjoyed listening to his thoughts on the process where theory and tasting exams are concerned.
While all this was going on, Fine Vintage was in its infancy, albeit as a sole proprietorship. The first order of business was in the importing capacity, mainly of French wine, which made affordable Petit Château wines, which are often of great quality, value, and ready to drink, available to the Canadian market. According to James, there were some “good home runs” in the selections they brought in.
Bitten by the Teaching Bug
The Cluers moved to Vancouver in 2002, and James began teaching the wine education courses for UBC (University of British Columbia). Because it dovetailed nicely into his MW studies, it was a natural fit. He found it so enjoyable that it inspired him to open his first school in 2005.
As of this recording, there are at least 13 Fine Vintage LTD schools (and new ones opening) around the world. In addition to WSET courses, they offer their own brand of courses on subjects such as Sensory Analysis, the Business of Wine, as well as those pertaining specifically to the Canadian Wine industry.
An important touchstone of the Fine Vintage philosophy is that of their reputation for not skimping on the wine budget for the classes. They believe that by pouring the best samples, including wines that “give people a thrill,” they can be proud of the learning experience they offer.
Tours, Travel and Taste
James took his first tour group to Bordeaux, France after frequent insistence by clients. Because he used to work there, spoke the language, and had contacts with prestige châteaux, he started looking into the feasibility of offering a tour. This was eight years ago.
The Fine Vintage approach to the quality of these tours is incredibly refreshing. Cost is not the primary consideration; first class accommodations, wineries, meals and experiences are always at the forefront of the planning process. These first class tours are now offered in Tuscany, Champagne, Burgundy, Spain, and a new Napa Valley experience, among others
In fact, Val has been on one of these tours, and still considers it the “trip of a lifetime.” He has many repeat guests, including several people who have actually been on – get this – all of the Fine Vintage tours!
For current tour offerings, visit www.finevintageltd.com/Wine-Tours/.
Wine Jobs and World Domination
A very important aspect of the Fine Vintage model is the Wine Jobs websites. In about 1998, James was looking for a way to earn some money to support his family. During that time, there was no mechanism in place to advertise or apply for wine-related jobs in Canada. WineJobsCanada.com was born.
This “hub” for Canadian wine employment became a benchmark for sites in England, the US, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Hong Kong. This is an accomplishment that gives James great satisfaction, ultimately, because it helps people and the industry as a whole. We joked that this was his next step to “world domination” in the wine employment realm. But if you think about it, it’s quite the legacy he’s created!
Video Storytelling at its Finest
And if James and the Fine Vintage team haven’t already set a stratospheric bar for excellence, video storytelling is yet another rung on their first class experience ladder. The origins of the his “JC’s Wine Route” videos came at the suggestion of a videographer/designer friend, and in the Okanagan Valley in Canada. These videos focus on wines, wineries, and winemakers around the world.
But what we really wanted to dig into were his high-altitude tasting videos for Qatar Airways. The Judgement of Everest (which started as a joke) was not only entertaining, but served several purposes: an evaluation of the effects of altitude on wine; a chance to get away and clear the mind.
This exercise was also repeated at Mt Kilimanjaro as well.
What’s new, however, are the “One Minute Wine School” videos. Before it’s all said and done, there will be about 400-500 regional videos. Each one is about one-to-two minutes long. The Mosel Valley, series, for example, is in 44 parts, and James believes that students of wine could do well to watch the entire series if they really want understand the area in-depth.
Dodging a Bullet
About 25 minutes into the interview we switched gears to talk about the fires that broke out in October, particularly in Napa Valley. From where we were sitting on the veranda of the Silverado Resort, the charred remains of structures and vegetation were quite visible nearby. James is a local resident, and he recounted his harrowing experience.
The first home his family ever purchased in Napa Valley, for example, was about 500 meters from where we were sitting, and is now gone. This was one of the estimated 8000 structures destroyed. He believes the wine industry, in terms of production, “dodged a bullet” as the vineyards did act as a fire break. In the grand scheme of things, the number of wineries damaged/destroyed (fewer than five actually had significant damage, according to Napa Valley Vintners presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference on 11 November) compared to the total number wasn’t as large as it could have been.
James was in Vancouver when he heard about it, and took the first plane back to California. Meanwhile his wife, kids, and pets had to evacuate in the middle of the night as the fire, fueled by 50-60 MPH wind gusts was moving quickly through the valley.
He says the best way to help recovery efforts is to “buy Napa and Sonoma wines, because you’re going to buy wines anyway.” We agree.
Connect, Learn, Travel, Taste
All of this information on James and his incredible story (as well as those of his team), the courses, the videos, blog, and even their wine club can be found on www.finevintageltd.com.
Listen to the entire episode, including his funny wine story. It’s hard not to smile while listening and typing the end of this interview summary. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Our next book is a recommendation from Patron and friend Cathey Love in Tennessee. It is the autobiography A Glass Full of Miracles by Mike Grgich. We’ve pushed back the date a bit due to some travel, holiday, and logistical events.
We love this suggestion Cathey posted on our Facebook community page because of two reasons: Mike’s daughter, Violet Grgich, was a guest on this podcast a year ago in Episode 79; and 2017 marks Grgich Hill’s 40th anniversary.
Also, with regard to the devastating California wildfires, Grgich Hills is safe and open for business.
- Please use the #W25BookClub on social media!
- You can easily order the book right here.
- The Book Review Episode will record on January 25th, so you have some extra time to get in your comments!
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