Ebullient is an apt word to sum up Ian Harris, the chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. At the risk of sounding a bit creepy, it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking this man.
When he took over the WSET back in 2002, it was quite a sleepy organisation, seemingly content to muddle along running courses for enthusiastic, at times inspired, students who obviously wished to better their knowledge of wine in order to forge a career in this industry.
With the various courses leading up to the Diploma, the trust had, along with the Master of Wine, one of the best known wine qualifications in the world. The MW may be seen as the Rolls-Royce of wine qualifications but the WSET Diploma is the Bentley – less elitist and exclusive, more accessible and, yup, more fun really.
(Anecdote: a recently qualified MW told me once that on seeing the Diploma exam questions, he thought they were more specific and therefore difficult than MW exam questions. “If you can write and substantiate what you are saying, it’s relatively easy,” he said.)
Anyway at a critical stage in his life and career, Harris took over and shook the place up. Over subsequent years he has transformed the WSET into the biggest global organisation of its kind. The business has grown six-fold in 14 years, and last year more than 61,000 students took a WSET qualification across 66 countries.
So what’s the man all about? Well, he’s a youthful 60-year-old, married with two daughters in their 20s, who still cycles from his home in south Croydon, just outside London, to the WSET offices near London Bridge. Not a journey for the faint-hearted. He had a hip operation a few years ago so his hockey went out of the window. “As I get older I guess I am limited to golf, cycling and skiing,” he says ruefully.
Harris takes up his story: “I have enjoyed a lifelong career in the wine and spirit industry since leaving London University with a French degree in 1977. Having left school with the intention of becoming a teacher, I decided, following a year spent in Bordeaux, that the wine and spirit industry seemed ‘more fun than teaching’.”
For those of certain vintage, Harris started working for Christopher & Company: “One letter to one company resulted in one interview, at the end of which I was offered a job.” He moved to its parent company Waverley Vintners two years later, where he was its first wine development manager, designing and running sales courses.
After 10 years with the Waverley group, in 1987 he joined Canadian drinks giant Seagram, initially as a national account manager in the UK.
Upon Seagram’s acquisition of Martell Cognac in 1989, the company needed someone with sales and marketing experience (and fluent French) to manage the integration and transfer from the previous distributors. His career at Seagram included a two-year posting in 1993 as global marketing manager for Martell, based in Cognac.