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Taste for adventure

Working lives: Master of Wine

Lawyers, accountants and City folk drink wine. Engineers drink beer.

That's the received opinion according to John Downes, and one that he is keen to change.

Unique' is an adjective best used with caution, but it can be applied to engineer John Downes with some confidence.

In addition to FStructE and MICE after his name, he is one of only 240 people in the world who can also boast MW or Master of Wine, and is one of the few working independently.

After graduating from the University of Salford, Downes joined the Manchester office of Ove Arup in 1969.

He moved to Arup's Capetown office and after a period there decided to travel overland back to the UK. Having reached what was then Rhodesia, he accepted a short term contract. In the event, he spent two and a half years working in southern Africa.

In 1977, he realised he would either have to move on or commit to Africa for good. He returned to the UK and set up his own structural engineering consultancy.

His initial interest in wine came through his wife's family.

'My wife is Dutch, and my fatherin-law has always kept a good cellar. I used to enjoy drinking his wines, but one day we took a trip into Germany and visited a vineyard.

'It was a beautiful day, the vines were all around us, you could drink the wine and best of all you could talk to the man who made it.' From that point on he began to take a real interest in the subject, reading extensively and finally deciding to sit the Wine & Spirit Education Trust's initial exam. He then moved on to the Diploma examination, the level at which most professionals call a halt.

Not Downes though. Still busy with his practice he put in the hours of study for the final Master of Wine qualification.

Was it hard? 'Well, the Structurals exam is really tough and the Civils professional review is daunting. But the Master of Wine exam lasts for a whole week with five written papers and three tastings.'

His time is now split between engineering and wine. 'I really enjoy it - it's a lovely balance'.

He writes, broadcasts and lectures, always taking care to avoid the high-flown language used by some wine experts. He also runs tastings and leads wine tours. He has even run a tutored tasting at Great George Street for a French financial group but, greatly to his regret, he has so far never spoken about wine to an audience of engineers.

His advice for wine buyers is to 'be adventurous'.

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