The wine consultant and Master of Wine on how Asia has made him rethink food and wine pairing, what wine in China means and the bottle he’d drink if it were his last
Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 420 Masters of Wine in the world. That’s fewer people with MW after their name than have been to space. This is partly because the exams to achieve the coveted qualification from the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine—comprised of extensive theory learning, blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper—are notoriously rigorous, taking a minimum of three years to complete with pass rates of around just 10%. In our series, Meet The Master, we talk to MWs about their journey to mastery, those formidable exams and what in the wine world is wowing them right now, from fun pairings to under-rated regions to the rapid developments taking place within wine in Asia.
With degrees in social sciences and political philosophy, wine wasn’t the expected career path for South African Cassidy Dart to pursue. But as he came to the end of his second degree that journey began, leading him to achieve the ultimate wine qualification in 2018. The following year he moved to China where he currently works as a wine consultant.
But a piece of his heart still lies at home in South Africa, where along with fellow wine lover Cape of Good Wine he recently launched non-profit wine brand Kunye, which seeks to diversify and expand the nation’s wine scene. Not only does Kunye, which means “together” in the Xhosa language, include its own wines, a Chenin Blanc and a Syrah, but the pair have produced an ebook centred on South African wine, which is available in both English and Xhosa, the latter marking the first time in the country’s history that such a publication has been produced in an indigenous language. Additionally, profits from the sales of Kunye’s wines go towards a scholarship fund aimed at diversifying South Africa’s wine landscape by helping those from underprivileged backgrounds pursue a wine education.
Dart tells us more about his own wine education, his thoughts on wine in China and what’s changed for him since her moved there.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant / impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine? If not, what made you want to pursue a career in wine?
My dad drank wine occasionally and we had wine in my house growing up, but it wasn’t like I grew up drinking his 1961 Bordeaux. For me, it all started when I went to Durham University. There were formal dinners at Durham, and we would take wine. I didn’t drink wine at the time, but one of my chums’ advice was to take a Chablis or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I remember the first bottle I took to a formal was a £10 bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I was trying to be sophisticated and look like I knew what I was doing, but I hated the wine. A few years later, I was finishing a Master’s degree from York University and I took a job at [British wine retailer] Oddbins. That was when this whole new world opened up and I started reading and tasting everything I could. I loved working there. I was able to taste really widely with people who were passionate about wine. And that was it. I thought that if I can get paid for doing this, then why not? That was almost twenty years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and how did you find the experience?
The man who hired me at Oddbins was someone who established a second career in wine. He had sold his company and taken a job as a store manager at Oddbins because he loved wine. I had sent letters to a host of people in the wine industry saying I have two degrees, can I come and work for you? And they all said I needed certain qualifications, but this guy took a punt on me. We would work long hours together and he first told me about the Master of Wine. Six years later, he had left Oddbins, gone on to work at Berry Bros. and passed the Master of Wine. I followed him to Berry Bros., then I went on to Lay & Wheeler, then Pol Roger, and finally passed my Master of Wine.
I was very lucky that my employer at the time covered the cost of the Master of Wine and was unbelievably supportive, which is crucial because it’s not just cost, but time, travel, exams, all those things. It’s without question the toughest thing I’ve done. I started it young and naïve, and I wasn’t really prepared. It was the most mentally and emotionally draining thing—the highs were very high, but the lows were unbelievable.
What characteristics or qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine? Do you have any advice for others who might be looking to achieve the MW?
I always refer people to Angela Duckworth’s book Grit. She looks at people who have achieved a lot and much of it is down to how badly they want something, not necessarily how much ability they have. I think her point applies to the MW—you have to really want it. You have to want it more than anyone else and be prepared take a risk. My personal life took a real hit—I didn’t see my wife, I didn’t see my kids, I was always travelling and never around. I failed a few times before I passed, too, and the bizarre thing with the MW is you pay, but there are plenty of people who don’t have a qualification to show for it. I think out of my year of 92 people for the tasting, only 10 passed.
What is the most common question you get asked when people find out you are a Master of Wine and how do you answer it?
There is a lot of intrigue around the tasting element, because that’s the part that is almost mythical. It’s what I’m asked about most, and particularly whether you need to be a gifted taster. My view is that you need a modicum of ability, but, ultimately, it’s down to how much you practice and who you practice with and your ability to taste under stringent conditions. There’s a mantra in the MW: taste like a detective, write like a lawyer, and so part of it is learn the criteria—know what the examiners want. Those who try to be the world’s most flamboyant tasters often won’t pass.
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
I would define overlooked as the regions that are not really successful or where there are not great brands, because for the most part there is great wine pretty much everywhere. Thinking of very niche examples, I would say dry furmint and Hunter Valley Semillon—these are world-class wines that can age, improve and are complex, and yet we never talk about them, taste them, nor see them, because they don’t have the cache. I also think it’s fashion; things evolve and change over time.
What is the most unusual wine-food pairing that you enjoy?
I grew up with the classical school of European wines where what grows together goes together, and I think in terms of the bastion of French, Italian, Spanish cuisine that’s absolutely the case and I always go home to those combinations. But, being in Asia, and particularly China, with the different flavours and the multiple levels of dishes on the table, has forced me to rethink food and wine pairing, because it’s not about expressing one simple flavour, or one simple dish, it’s about a variety of flavours and dishes. I also think the mindset is different—a lot of Asian people are, for example, happy to eat spicy food with big wines with big alcohol and big oak, so who I am to say you must drink a gewürztraminer or a riesling with your food? So, I’ve steered away from that and just tried to embrace it as a different way of enjoying wine. I’ve had Chengdu spicy hotpot and tried many different wines with it to see what comes off. I’ve had big Australian shiraz with really spicy food, which I thought I’d hate, but actually turned out okay. China makes you rethink what you think you know about food and wine pairing.
Do you have any favourite Asian food and wine pairing combinations, for example, dim sum and Blanc de Blancs?
I’m biased because I worked at Pol Roger, but the versatility of champagne has merely been reinforced by certain Asian foods. And I would say that dim sum and blanc de blancs is perfect.
Related: The Tatler Dining Guide To Champagne
Is it challenging to stay healthy working in an industry like wine and do you have any tips for those who do?
This is a question that’s not discussed enough in the wine industry. I think some of us believe that if we drink 1985 Sassicaia and 1990 La Tache at dinner, it puts us on a higher moral ground than someone drinking 20 beers, whereas the end result is essentially the same. I tend to try and go two or three days a week without any wine. This came from my doctor in England who was a wine guy and said to forget units, you just have to prove to yourself that you can go two or three days without a drink.
How has wine in China—its status and perception—changed during your career?
I only moved to China in August 2019, but I was very much aware of the wine culture here when I was working at Berry Bros. and Lay & Wheeler. My view is that wine in China has a place on the dinner table now. But what I am starting to see is that there’s a genuine interest among younger consumers, and women as well, who want to drink a form of alcohol and who like the prestige and cultural value that’s linked to wine. And I think the interesting thing is the amount of investment that is being put into wine in China, in Ningxia for instance to encourage that to become a powerhouse region, and to see whether that filters down to consumption.
What do you think of wines produced in Asia itself—are there any wines/grapes/producers/regions that you would like to highlight that you believe should be on people’s radar?
I’ve enjoyed wines from Yunnan and Ningxia and I think there’s a lot of potential. There’s still quite a way to go, but it’s moving at a fast pace and there’s no lack of investment. I’m buoyed by the moving away from cabernet and cabernet blends. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what the Chinese do with marselan and whether they can get it to be this signature grape and also what level of acceptance there’s going to be among the Chinese community in terms of consumption.
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
Wine is very social and travel-orientated sometimes, and that has completely gone out of the window, which has had its challenges. Additionally, a crisis only accelerates a change that was already going to happen, so for me it’s made me look at social media, direct to consumer, and e-commerce, where before I was a bit naïve about those things. But I do miss the travel and meeting producers and travelling to wine regions.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
I’m going to go with something that hypothetically would taste marvellous as opposed to something I’ve tasted before, and that would be Henri Jayer’s 1959 Richebourg because I’m pretty sure it would be good given the Jayer that I have drunk.
What do you love most about working in wine?
The people who work in it are tremendously generous and kind and there’s a real camaraderie amongst all of us.
Related: What Is The Future Of Champagne?