The Educator

The Wine and Spirits Education Trust’s Ian Harris is a man on a mission. Disciple Christian Davis catches up with the missionary

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.

He says: “I returned to the UK in 1995 as marketing director, then commercial director for Seagram UK, assuming management responsibility for the Nordic markets.”

Harris became a well-known figure in the industry. Latterly the company was based at what was then the famous and controversial The Ark building alongside the Hammersmith flyover in west London. He used to unveil Seagram’s brand plans for Christmas in September in time for trade press preview features, which was much appreciated by hard-pressed hacks.

Upon the takeover of Seagram by Diageo and Pernod Ricard in 2002, Harris was looking for a job and the WSET needed a new chief executive. It was a hand-in-glove no-brainer.

“I taught on the WSET Diploma on the subject of spirits for 11 years while I was working at Seagram, and I hold the Diploma,” he says. “I also occasionally go back to my first love – teaching – particularly on the WSET’s business course.”

Asked what he is most proud of from his time at Seagram, he replies: “I take pride in what we achieved with Martell, plus the agency brands of Wolf Blass and Montana (now Brancott Estate).”

So what are his favourite drinks? “Gewürztraminer – especially vendange tardive (late harvest), because it was the first wine I had to describe at the first customer tasting at Christopher’s; St Emilion, from mid-range to top-end, because it was what I drank during my year abroad in 1975/6 and kindled my interest in wine: Sauternes – as above; Malmsey Madeira, because it opened my eyes to the possibilities of fortified wine.

“Spirits: Cognac – old Martell, because it was my ‘baby’ for 12 years, and 15-year-old Speyside malt  Longmorn, because it was my best ever alcoholic drink, while taking a hot bath after a nightmare car journey from Aberdeen.

“Beer: Fullers London Pride,” he finally adds.

Lucky Man

Does Harris think he is lucky? “Yes – either that, or I have acquired a skill to be in the right place at the right time. Also, I am an optimist, so I make the best of whatever is thrown at me.” What’s left? “Lots. I feed off success and hope I will be able to do so until I draw my last breath.”

As to things he hates or would like to see done, Harris replies: “Consumers who won’t spend as much on a glass of wine as they do on a Starbucks coffee and introduce a mandatory qualification for anyone who serves alcohol, as in Australia.”

His first alcoholic drink? “After playing my first club cricket match at the age of 13. It was beer from the jug which was passed round, probably Watneys Red Barrel.”

As an ‘old hand’, his messages to the trade are: “Buyers: don’t screw the salesman/producer so much that the quality suffers – and give your customers the opportunity to try different wines, spirits, beers. Specifiers: give consumers a reason to want to experiment (education helps) and consumers: If you spend 10% more, you will get 50% more enjoyment.”

Education, education, education...

So what would be on the Harris epitaph? “He never worried about things over which he had no control.”

Harris met the Queen when he accepted a Queens Award for Export achievements. Personally, I think it should read: “I met the Queen and she smiled.”