Professor, which wine should I have with turkey?

An engineer works part time in Oddbins to indulge his passion for oenology. Olga Wojtas pays a visit

December 18, 2008

It is a fair bet that most Oddbins customers in Nottingham have no idea they are being served by an award-winning professor of engineering.

However, Glenn McDowell's Saturday job is not a reflection on the low level of academic pay - but on his love of wine.

"It's not about the money at all. I would do it for free, it's such good fun, and such a good way of keeping my knowledge up," he said.

Professor McDowell, a geomechanics expert in the University of Nottingham's engineering faculty, grew up a non-drinker in Northern Ireland. It took a maths problem in the third year of his engineering course at Churchill College, Cambridge, to turn him to alcohol. He had been struggling over it for more than five hours, so in frustration he accompanied a friend to the bar, where he had a couple of pints of lager. He then solved the problem in 20 minutes. The experience made him realise there could be a place for alcohol.

It clearly had no adverse effect: he graduated with a first-class honours degree and stayed on at Churchill for a PhD, where he was introduced to "wonderful dinners with fantastic clarets". These included a bottle of 1961 Chateau Pontet-Canet, which he bought for £12.50 but now retails in the shops for a minimum of £300.

He won a prestigious Goldsmith's research fellowship, followed by a lectureship at Nottingham in 1998 and a chair in 2006. In the past ten years, he has published more than 50 papers in international journals.

"That's probably why I got the chair. I don't just get funding to do stuff and (then) don't write about it," explains Professor McDowell.

His research group in the Nottingham Centre for Geomechanics, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is helping to improve the safety of the railways. It uses computer modelling to investigate how railway ballast breaks up, and the group hopes to help create ballast that needs minimal maintenance.

He has been awarded a silver medal by the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, and has also won a Lord Dearing Award for Teaching and Learning.

"The two things go hand in hand. You can't really be a good researcher in my view if you can't explain a difficult theory at a fundamental level to a bunch of undergraduate students. For academics who do purely teaching, I don't know physically how they do it. If I give a two-hour lecture, I'm absolutely exhausted at the end, I put so much into it."

A good time to sit down and relax with a glass of wine, perhaps? Professor McDowell has built up an enviable cellar during family trips to France.

"I don't buy in supermarkets, but directly from chateaux, and it means so much more to you when you crack open a bottle. It's a fascinating subject in terms of the way (the grapes) are grown and the importance of climate."

Professor McDowell decided to boost his knowledge by taking the International Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Advanced Certificate in Wines and Spirits. It usually takes a year to gain this qualification, which Oddbins managers must have. But Professor McDowell studied in the evenings for two months, then took an intensive week-long course.

"The first wines would arrive at 9.30 in the morning and we were tasting 18 wines a day and analysing them. Of course you have to spit it all out because otherwise you wouldn't remember anything."

There was a blind-tasting exam and also a written exam covering winemaking, matching food and wine, and the Loire Valley.

"It meant I was able to walk into a job I wanted in Oddbins. The guys in there are very, very knowledgeable and treated me as one of them from the start," he said.

"I wanted to do Saturday because it's tasting day and you get to open a few bottles. But there's a lot of shifting boxes around as well. I'm sure I'll get the sack after Christmas when they don't need the staff. But I've managed to sell a lot, so they might keep me on."

Professor McDowell is contemplating using his Oddbins earnings to fund the WSET diploma, a flagship qualification seen as the stepping stone to becoming Master of Wine.

He has just returned from external examining at Cambridge, popping in to Churchill College to pick up the wine for Christmas dinner, a couple of £19.99 bottles of Nuits-Saint-Georges. But for those without access to fine burgundy at discount rates, what does he recommend?

"With roast turkey, I'd go for something that's really rich: an oaked Rioja, or Ribera del Duero - liquorice in a bottle - or Northern Rhone. If it's turkey in a creamy sauce, then an oaked Chardonnay or a red Bordeaux," he said.

"For dessert, you can stick with the wine you've got if it's rich enough for the sweetness. But I'd open a bottle of dessert wine, a Chilean late-harvest dessert wine, pure Sauvignon Blanc, very fresh and acidic, making your mouth water. I'd have that with Christmas dessert and a bit of cheese."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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