Richard Lane is a Friend of the Circle and writes for a medical journal by day, but is a wine enthusiast by night and became the world’s first blind WSET Diploma student last year. Amanda Barnes interviews him about his experiences in studying wine without vision, as well as finding out his pet peeves about reading wine writing as a visually impaired reader. Richard also shares his favourite wines from his time living in South West France and explains why he’ll be uncorking Romanian red this Christmas.
You are the first blind WSET Diploma student. What have been the greatest challenges regarding studying wine without sight? And have you discovered any strengths?
It is odd to think that I have nearly got through the Diploma without being able to see a wine label or even the colour of wine in the glass; some may think that an advantage as I am not distracted by visual appearances; perhaps the greatest challenge I find is more the business of reading, writing notes and memorising information for all the six ways the Diploma is assessed. Being in my early 50s, I have not studied seriously for over 30 years, so my main battle is to make sure my brain is in good shape by exam time, and I have learned not to study too hard too soon – otherwise the information may not be there when I need it. I do struggle to remember producers’ names, and wonder whether the lack of reinforcement from visual stimuli of wine labels, pictures, etc, makes this aspect of wine study harder. I would also like to take this opportunity to debunk a popular myth: other senses do not really compensate, so just because I am blind does not mean I have a great palate or am an enhanced taster. I find aromas and flavours as challenging as most other people.
You are a writer as well as a wine enthusiast, what do you see as the greatest weaknesses of the wine writing community in terms of reaching a greater blind audience? Are there formats that you find much more accessible, and others which are impossible to read?
Actually, technology for blind people is pretty good these days – I feared upon losing my sight that I might end up tuning pianos or weaving baskets, but in this technological era there is plenty of help around, mainly from talking software, called screen readers. I use Jaws screen reader on my laptop to read and write notes, and the Apple equivalent (called Voiceover) to do texting, WhatsApp, and to read the new digital WSET study books (a revelation).
The best advice I would give writers and digital publishers is to ensure they have followed basic accessibility design guidelines in site design, so that blind people can maximise their technology for a high-quality reading experience. I am no website designer or engineer, but some sites are obviously well designed with disabled readers in mind as one can perform a series of short-cut key strokes to navigate through sections of a long article; or I can do a key stroke to list all the page links and cue my screens when the text label for each link is ‘click here’ rather than something meaningful like ‘Rueda wine region’.
Audio is obviously a good format which is increasingly popular in the mainstream, such as with the increase in podcasts – I used to present and produce these for The Lancet medical journal and hope to develop some wine-education related audio projects when I get further along in my wine career.
Having been born with sight, and becoming blind at the age of 24, do you remember how the transition period affected your appreciation of taste? Were you a wine lover before, or did you only discover wine after losing your sight?
I would like to say that my sense of taste became enhanced after losing my sight in my early 20s, but that was not the case. I became more interested in food, and later wine, more because I was maturing as a human being, and I wanted to explore how or if my view of taste might be different to others from my blind perspective; but there was no obvious conclusion to draw. Like many people, my early wine memories are of cheap table wines from France and Italy, and notorious German labels from the 1970s and 80s that cropped up at student parties at university. Later on, it was a general feeling that wine was interesting and required further exploration, although it has only been in the past five years when my true wine passion has evolved.
What was the ‘ah-ha’ moment for you in wine which has spurred you on to do the Diploma with a plan to move into wine education?
The moment came when I was visiting friends in Belfast five years ago; our friends were members of the Wine Society and brought out a few wines to taste; I immediately realised the quality of the wines, and the contrasting aromas and flavours between them, and was hooked. I immediately joined the Wine Society and installed their app on my smartphone – it was and still is a beautifully simple app to navigate blind. Another friend told me about WSET courses soon after this, and I immediately enrolled in Level 2 and passed well; but I was hungry, or rather thirsty, for more knowledge, and quickly enrolled for Level 3, a huge step up, but again did well. I remember then saying that the Diploma would be a step too far…then, after a wonderful sabbatical year in SW France, near Bergerac, the first thing I did upon returning to the UK was to enrol for the WSET Diploma.
While you were living in South West France, did you discover any favourite or under the radar wines, regions or pairings?
It was a fantastic experience and fulfilment of a life goal to spend some time living in France. Bergerac was very interesting as it is perceived as the poor brother of neighbouring Bordeaux [the whole vineyard area of the two regions is joined]; and while there are some very ordinary Bergerac wines, as there are very ordinary Bordeaux wines, the fascination with the Bergerac region is its variety: a myriad of appellations covering all wine colours and styles. The Pécharmant appellation near Bergerac has some very fine – intense wines made from Bordeaux varieties, comparable with good St Emilion but not at Right Bank Bordeaux prices [Tanners have a good one], which tastes incredible with the local winter speciality, confit de canard. Another great source of wine there was at Chateau Tour des Gendres, an organic outfit run by a legendary winemaker called luc de Conti. His ‘Gloire de mon père’ red is sold through Wine Society for around £13 and would be a brilliant accompaniment to any hearty meal. The world famous Monbazillac sweet wines were also on the doorstep.
I also have to mention that we spent a lot of time 200km south in the Languedoc, definitely my favourite French wine region as so much is happening there with some brilliant estates cropping up in the hillier areas to mitigate the increasingly hot and drought-ridden summers of the Midi. Some seriously good, and very affordable, wines are being made here, and not always within the appellations. The wide IGP profile is enabling much creativity.
As we are coming up to Christmas, what are you usually drinking in the festive period at the Lane household?
That’s an interesting question; the wine racks are rather reflective of my Diploma studies at the moment. We’ll definitely pop open some champagne after an excellent autumn trip there to help with the Diploma sparkling wines exam. Other temptations that we will succumb to will include some fine Tasmanian Pinot Noir and a few delights from the likes of Alsace Trimbach Riesling and some medium-sweet spätlese from von Schubert in the Ruwer Valley – the latter for the Christmas pud, perhaps. And there is always plenty in reserve from SW France if required. But at some point, I look forward to opening and assessing a premium Romanian red, mainly made from the indigenous Fetească Neagră grape, that is, you guessed it, the next Diploma study challenge: assessing the export market for Romanian wines.
Photo taken by Rita Kardos, Richard’s fellow WSET diploma student.