The Liberty Wines Apprentice is a varied, two year programme which includes two vintages and experience of all aspects of the UK wine business. Since its launch in 2007, we have had a phenomenal response to the Liberty Wines Apprenticeship scheme and some outstanding candidates.
Applications for the position of Liberty Wines Apprentice 2013-15 are now closed. We will be recruiting again for our eighth apprentice from June 2014.
Read on for more about the experiences of our previous and current apprentices and click the link below for details of the two year programme.
The role is a varied one with the aim of giving the incumbent a detailed, yet wide-ranging knowledge of all aspects of the business while providing the various departments with help at times when they need it most. The Liberty Wines apprentice will therefore follow a programme which also encompasses training through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
The programme runs for two years from September 2013. We expect the candidate to study for WSET Diploma by block release during the apprenticeship which will be funded by Liberty Wines.
The programme includes time spent within customer services, marketing, sales and sales support as well as credit control, finance, shipping and IT. During the first year there is a month in Europe helping with the vintage plus two months vintage in Australia or New Zealand during the second year.
There is a four-month special project which brings the apprenticeship to a close.
I had the good fortune of working part time at Liberty for a couple of months before I applied for the Apprenticeship. It gave me an opportunity to get to know everyone in the office and to speak at length to the current Apprentices about their experiences. Both of them, as well as Nicola Gutman – the first ever Apprentice who still works at Liberty full time – gave me their thoughts on the opportunity, and encouraged me to apply as it would teach me a great deal. Coming from a completely different industry (film music), this sounded like a great way to get to grips with the wine trade and I put forward my application.
I had taken the Intermediate WSET course but outside the WSET text books, I had very little knowledge and the Apprenticeship promised a wonderfully broad possibility of experience. The application process was extremely daunting, having had very few previous jobs that involved formal interviews, and in the final round I had my first experience of putting together a presentation. I grilled everyone I knew with links to the wine trade and got their opinions on various 'hot topics', which were surprisingly varied and sometimes opposing, which gave me my first insight into the complexities of the worldwide wine business.
It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know a few of Liberty Wines' producers... and note the very different methods employed at the different sized wineries.
When I was told I would be spending my first vintage experience in the South of France, you can imagine my surprise when over the course of the following month I found myself mostly in the company of New Zealanders.
I was struck instantly with the revelation that the Languedoc, from the end of August until mid-late October, is teaming with winemakers from New Zealand who have been imported for the season to make wine for the French!
I was even more surprised to find the French most uncharacteristically stepping back and nodding obligingly, while the New World winemakers offered their knowledge and expertise on how to make a fresh, fruity, affordable, early-drinking wine that is guaranteed to export successfully. "What has happened to the French??" I was asked each time I revealed to friends and family this new attitude in the South of France.
On my arrival in Pomérols at the end of August, I was greeted by a storm of biblical proportions which delayed the harvest by a few days. That and threats of hail storms to come left us all on tenterhooks, with fears that the Languedoc would face the same fate as Burgundy and Champagne this year. Thankfully the hail bypassed us and the grapes survived unscathed. The few days' delay in harvest gave me the opportunity to have a grand tour of the winery before work began.
I was heartily thrown into the winemaking process at 6am on a Monday. Cave de Pomérols is an incredibly well-run, efficient cooperative that produces our Monrouby, Vignes de L'Eglise and Baron de Badassière wines. I was confined mainly to the "white" side of the cellar, concentrating on next year's Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Picpoul de Pinet for Liberty Wines, as well as helping with the cave's "house" wines.
I found the yeast inoculation process fascinating, not least for the different methods used by Graeme Paul (our very own imported New Zealand winemaker) and the French Chef de Cave. I was also initiated into the powdery world of fining agents and yeast boosting additions, which proved a particularly lively experience when applying them to the outdoor cuves on a blustery day.
During my stay at Pomérols, Graeme and I went up to visit Camille Cayran, another of Liberty Wines' producers in the Southern Rhone, to check on this year's ferments and to sample some wines that were ready for bottling. I was also able to drive over to Mas La Chevalière (a large winery with high quality control and all hand-picked fruit) near Beziers, and Domaine de Sainte Croix (a very intimate, family-run business) near Mezes to make the acquaintance of the winemakers there. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know a few of Liberty Wines' producers, improve my French and note the very different methods employed at the different sized wineries.
Next Spring I will go to Graeme Paul's winery in New Zealand. Now that I have seen his vinification methods applied to wines in France, I am full of anticipation to see how very different the resulting wines will be from fruit grown in the Southern Hemisphere, using the same methods of production. It will be interesting to note how much of the difference comes down to the growing methods, soils and climate.
Although it came as a surprise to be using New World methods to make wine in France, this experience of New and Old World experts working together soon gave me a much firmer understanding of today's wine market on a global scale. Liberty Wines is built on the ethos of finding well-made wines from all over the world, which express the local sites and the characteristics of their origins. Combining the knowledge and methods of both traditional and modern winemaking strikes me as the best possible way of achieving just that.
When I had finished my interview for the Apprenticeship at Liberty last year I was invited to sit down and have a cup of tea with the incumbent and former Apprentices, so that I might question them on what the job is really like.
“It all seems pretty straightforward,” I remember thinking. “What on Earth am I going to ask them?”
True, in a way- because no answers they could have given me would have really told me what I was in for! Yes, I knew I'd be working in lots of different departments. But there was no way they could have told me what it would be like to see wine and the wine business from so many different angles in such a few short months.
I spent weeks learning the intricate network of logistics which takes wine to far-flung customers; ringing up courier companies, and moving boxes. How many cases fit on to a pallet? How many kilograms is a case? I came to see wine as freight, and was amazed by the unseen links in the chain between the producer and the end customer.
Pumping in 40 degree heat
Plantagenet Wines was the first producer to appear in Western Australia's Great Southern region, when Englishman Tony Smith bought a farm in Plantagenet Shire and planted it with vines. 1974 was the first vintage; the next year, he bought an apple packing shed in the small town of Mount Barker and converted it to a winery. It was to this prestigious spot I arrived in early March, ready to get stuck into the 2012 vintage.
I was greeted at the winery by renowned winemaker John Durham and his right-hand man Jez; who, as soon as I'd dumped my bag, whisked me away for a look around the vineyards. So within three hours of getting off the plane I found myself in the back of a golf buggy, clinging on as we whizzed up and down rows of Riesling. That weekend was the hottest Mount Barker had had for quite a while â 40-degree hot, in fact â so the Js were concerned that the grapes' baume (sugar ripeness) would shoot up overnight.
Thankfully, later that day I was allowed to collapse in the Vintage House, the digs I was to share with Jez. This was a cheerfully rudimentary affair but to me the squeaky camp bed and barrels for furniture were heaven after 20 hours in the air!
The next day saw this pasty Englishman booted up and ready to go. The two hot days over the weekend had indeed sent the grapes rocketing to ripeness, so that day the white varieties began hitting the receiving bins in earnest. The earliest-picked were from the younger vines, destined for Plantagenet's Omrah range. It was fascinating to taste the fresh juice as it came off the press; such is the quality of the fruit from those vineyards that the varieties were clearly discernible. The Semillon juice was rich and waxy, the Sauvignon green and zingy and the Riesling, the Great Southern's darling grape, beautifully taut and limey. I soon stopped marvelling over the grapes, though, when I found myself scraping them out of a pneumatic press!
And so began work as usual for the first few weeks of my vintage. The Sauvignon and Riesling gradually gave way to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, then Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet. All arrived in small one-tonne crates which protect the fruit from being crushed under its own weight. Through the de-stemmer they went, and either straight into one of the two revolving presses (for the whites) or into a tank ready for inoculation (reds).
Once the stainless steel tanks had started filling up with fizzing reds I was tasked with looking after them. Embryonic red wine needs a lot of attention, I learnt, to coax colour, flavour and tannin from the skins of the grapes into the juice. This was to be done by pumping juice from the bottom of the tanks and spraying it over the floating mass of skins; or, more vigorously, plunging the skins down into the juice by hand. I was often to be found sweating away over the open-top tanks of small parcels of Cabernet and Shiraz, plunger in hand! Seeing the juice take on deep colour and develop recognisable aromas of the variety over the course of the fermentation really brought to life what I'd learnt on wine courses back in London.
The weather continued gloriously day after day. Often I would wander into the lab to find Jez exclaiming with delight a perfectly ripe sample - no adverse conditions forced us into harvesting at any other than the perfect time for all varieties. The only real hurdle I noticed was that a few vineyards had been nibbled by Silvereyes, a bird pest common to Western Australia - but Jordan, the nonchalant vineyard manager, simply made sure any affected grapes weren't picked.
The run of fine days came to an end over Easter. We gloomily watched pixelated clouds block out the Great Southern on the weather forecast, and prepared for the worst. The last remaining parcels of Cabernet were picked quickly before the rains came. The other cellar hands delighted in asking if I felt at home as the deluge hammered on the winery's tin roof!
The sun was shining again within a day or so, and all of a sudden it was my last day. As a parting gift I was told to tread a batch of Sangiovese barefoot while most of the laughing winery staff watched, camera phones in hand! I suspect it was revenge for my part in the water-bucket warfare we cellar-hands had been waging for the past few weeksâ¦
I was genuinely sad to be leaving such a beautiful place and some of the kindest, most welcoming people I've met. Despite Plantagenet's prestigious heritage their wines are still simply products of their unique region, made by local, proud and deeply passionate people. The 2012 vintage looks to be absolutely terrific â with the possible exception of the Sangioveseâ¦!
An in-depth perspective on an industry from so many viewpoints
Then, just as I thought I knew what I was doing, I was plucked out of the office and packed off all over the country to visit customers with the Sales team. I found myself marching between restaurants and shops, price lists clutched earnestly under my arm, tasting through samples with sommeliers and buyers. Wine became a commodity- was it the right price point? Would this sell at this time of year? Could this one feature on the 'by the glass' list?
Then I was whisked away again, and found myself booted up and scrubbing out fermentation vats in the South of France. Wine then became tanks of bubbling grape juice that arrived as fruit from the fields, to be fastidiously cared for on their way towards the bottling line. I found myself wandering through vineyards judging the ripeness of the grapes, and elbow-deep in buckets of frothing yeast. I began to see wine from a producer's point of view.
This is the real value of the Apprenticeship, and what makes it such a unique experience. Nothing else out there gives you such an in-depth perspective on an industry from so many viewpoints. It is just as fun and challenging as I thought it would be, but I had no idea just how much it would broaden my horizons!
After a long and nerve wracking interview process I was offered the position as the new Liberty Apprentice in August 2009 following on from Nicola and Michelle. I had just spent a few months working at the opening of the first London restaurant in a rapidly expanding group and having spent the previous 4 years managing a couple of smaller, independently owned bar/restaurants I knew very well what it was like to be busy! This was my opportunity to make the step into the wine trade.
I‘ve been equally busy over the last 2 years doing a variety of jobs within each area of the company. It has given me a great experience of how Liberty Wines operates, a greater understanding of the wine trade in general, and with the opportunity to meet and spend time with a number of winemakers, a much greater understanding of viticulture and the production side of the industry.
A fantastic way of gaining well rounded experience in the trade
Studying for the WSET Diploma helps to complement knowledge and experience you pick up from working and tasting so it's a fantastic way of gaining well rounded experience in the trade.
For me personally the winemaking was a real highlight. This year at South Pacific cellars in New Zealand, I took a more hands on role making additions, plunging the Pinot Noir daily, helping with inoculations, preparing and filling barrels and a huge amount of cleaning tanks and digging out Pinot Noir skins! I was given 800kg of Pinot Noir to make some wine myself so I made a couple of barrels using a small open top dairy vat. Natural yeasts with some nutrient additions only, the ferment went well once I got it warmed up! Spending some time in the vineyards and working as a cellar hand gives you a chance to see the winemaking process in its entirety.
Michelle Lawlor and I were the first apprentices. Before joining Liberty, Michelle had worked in a restaurant in Covent Garden, with the responsibility of maintaining the wine list, and I was a City lawyer...
I'd been looking for an opportunity to join the wine trade and the apprenticeship presented a great opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts of the trade.
It's a hectic and intense learning experience. One month you're sitting at a desk organising customer events and supplier visits, and the next you're on the other side of the world digging grape skins out of a tank.
Broad and varied industry experience
The great advantage of being an Apprentice is the breadth of wine industry experience you gain, from making wine to sales, logistics, marketing and finance. It really offers an insight into where your strengths and passions lie.
The absolute highlight of the two years for me was working the two vintages.
The first was in Friuli with Michelle. After a gruelling twelve hour shift in the winery we'd amble to the local osteria for primi, secondi and large glasses of vino rosso!
My second vintage was in New Zealand: another intense, boot camp-like experience with a great team of people. I was collecting samples in the vineyards, plunging the pinot noir tanks, testing sugar levels, racking whites, doing inoculations, cleaning the presses, monitoring temperatures, tasting the ferments, digging grape skins out of tanks, and of course cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning...