Q&A with Laura Kent – Yorkshire Wine School

Picture of Laura Kent holding a tasting session
Learning and tasting with Laura Kent

Independent Yorkshire Wine School opened its doors earlier this year above wine bar and restaurant Ham & Friends.  We caught up with Laura Kent to find out what it’s like to run a wine school oop norf.

Q. Fantastic that you have your own school opened in Leeds. How happy are you about that and what does it gives you?

Yes, really delighted that the venue has finally opened. There were so many hold ups due to difficulties with the building. But now its open, we can run WSET Courses through the week, which was always difficult previously because meeting rooms are in demand this time of year.

More importantly, it gives us a base for our operation- somewhere all the staff can work out of; somewhere we can keep and organise stock; somewhere we can hold meetings and show people around even if we aren’t actually doing a tasting. This essentially means we can do everything a bit better and a bit more efficiently.

But the single biggest thing is probably the enhanced experience it offers people coming to our tastings. We now have a purpose designed tasting room with all the bells and whistles- aroma kit, wine tasting equipment and of course a huge number of wines on site for people to taste.

Wine tasting generic picture

Q. What’s an average day like?

It depends if it is a weekend or a weekday. During the week myself and my colleague Su will be doing admin- answering enquires, making bookings, updating the website and also organising all the stock, tasting notes and presentations for upcoming tastings. Weekday evenings I or my colleague Richard will be hosting our evening tastings; many days we have two events as we have venues in York (Hotel du Vin) and Sheffield (Sheffield Tap) too.

At the weekend I am usually teaching WSET professional courses through the day, we also run Introduction to Wine Saturdays at our three venues plus also Harrogate, myself or Richard usually do two of those a month.

Q. What did you do before?

I was a manager for Oddbins wine merchant in Newcastle for about five years before I did this. A job I enjoyed very much but unfortunately came to an end when Oddbins went in to administration. Fortunately, I knew about the Local Wine School network because I was also working part time as a presenter for Newcastle Wine School, so the redundancy from Oddbins actually gave me the chance to take the plunge and do something for myself.

Q. Did you not want to be a train driver growing up?

Not a train driver but I did want to film wildlife documentaries- I fancied myself as the next David Attenborough! But he is still going strong and I have wine now!

Q. Do you have a favourite wine, region or country?

Not really an absolute favourite as so much depends on my mood and whether I am eating food, whether I am just having a glass by myself or sharing a bottle with friends- they all call for different wines. I guess if pushed to pick a country it would probably be Italy- there is so much diversity of wine styles there- they pretty much have a wine for every occasion.

Map of Italian wine regions
Italian Wine regions , map courtesy of Wine Folly

Q. Who do you educate?

We see a massive range of people coming to Wine School; lots who are coming for a social and fun event but end up being really engaged by the ‘education’ aspect of it and find it starts a huge interest in wine.

Others who are already professionals within the wine industry and want the accreditation that our WSET courses offer.

“We also have a lot of people coming who are working in ‘normal’ jobs, but secretly dream of packing it all in and pursuing their love of wine by starting a new career. For them, Wine School is a step in the direction realising that ambition.”

Q. What do your customers like the most when they sign up to a course?

I suspect it’s that we don’t take things too seriously- there’s no snobbery about wine here- and that our events often have plenty of interactivity, so there is plenty of opportunity to meet people and share a joke and a good time as well as learn a little bit about wine.

Q. Do you educate the trade too?

Yes, our WSET Courses are very popular amongst the trade- probably between 30-60% of our WSET students already work in the trade or are aspiring too. I also teach professionals on an ‘in-house’ basis- going in to places like The Box Tree, (Michelin Star restaurant in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, Corks Out wine merchant The Reliance Leeds and Friends of Ham to train the whole team with one course.

Picture of The Box Tree, Ilkley
Picture courtesy of The Box Tree

Q. Is food and drink a big focus for you?

Yes of course! Many wines simply don’t taste at their best unless they are enjoyed with food, so even if it’s just a small slate of cheese and charcuterie there is always some food to have alongside our wines. We do specific events which address food and wine matching like Chocolate and Wine Pairing, lots and lots of Cheese and Wine Pairing sessions and even restaurant evenings at places like Olive & Rye, where we enjoy a tasting menu with a matched wine to each course.

Cheese and wine matching at Olive & Rye
Cheese and wine matching at Olive & Rye. Picture from Leeds-list.com

Q. What’s you’re USP?

Wine tasting for Everyone! Plenty of places offer wine tastings but nowhere has the range of events that we do, so there really is a wine course for everyone in our offering.

Q. How has 2017 gone for you so far?

It’s been a very very busy year (but I seem to say that every year!), developing Sheffield as our newest location and of course the wine school opening in Leeds has given us plenty to work on and grow. We also became the first provider in the UK of professional Beer Training Courses which equip people to sit their Cicerone Beer Server exams that required a huge amount of time and work to move in to an area which I had previously only run fun and informal tastings in.

“Probably finally getting the keys to the venue on Merrion St, or perhaps the challenge of providing lots of WSET Courses in a really short period of time when we managed to secure some funding for local businesses to use- that was tough but extremely rewarding to know that so many small businesses had been able to do so much intensive training because of the funding.”

Q. Most challenging moments of the year?

As is so often the case, the biggest challenges have also offered the most satisfying experiences. So I would give pretty much exactly the same answer as to the previous question!

Q. What are your big goals for the business for the rest of the year?

Just getting Christmas right really- it’s an important time of the year! We sell lots and lots of gift vouchers and they’re vitally important, not only because of the monetary value of the sales, but because those are all new wine school people who’ll we’ll be seeing next year and we’re hoping that once they’ve been introduced to us, they’ll want to come back many more times!

Q. What do you see as being the big trends/ influences on your part of the industry for 2018?

People are perhaps more interested in a wider range of drinks these days- WSET now have Sake courses! We’re putting on more advanced beer sessions- both professional qualifications and beer and food pairing. We are also offering WSET Spirits Courses; people are as keen to learn about the gin in their G&T as they are about World of Wine.

Q. What did you get up to on your summer holiday?

I don’t usually go on holiday- haven’t done for many years- like most self-employed people! What I have been fortunate enough to do is being hired to teach WSET Courses in central Spain- in Ribera del Duero and Rioja. If you can’t take a full on break, then working abroad in beautiful wine regions is surely the second best thing? We did manage a quick driving trip to Savoie and Alsace to learn about styles of wine produced there and even bring some back for some fascinating one-off masterclasses back here at the Wine School in Leeds.

Q. What did you read?

Ha ha ha!! My emails mostly!

Q. What hidden gems did you find to eat and drink?

You’ll have to come to our Alsace Masterclass next year to find out!

Q. What are you drinking now in autumn/winter?

During this season at the Wine School it’s all about warming red wines and eventually Port- especially matched with cheese! We’ll also be enjoying some fizz, especially Champagne as we get a little closer to Christmas.

Q. Best autumn/winter song?

Got to be UB40 Red Red Wine, surely?!

Yorkshire Wine School at Ham & Friends
7 Merrion St
01133 350545

WIne tasters on a course at Yorkshire Wine School


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