Updated: 7 days ago
On the final day of the best week of my life, I sat in a 2 Michelin star restaurant, enjoying the food, the wine and the afterglow of winning the Golden Magnum.
A fellow academician brought the room to silence, tapping his glass enthusiastically, a hint of drunken mischief in his eyes.
"Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, this year's winner Rob Wade would like to
make a speech".
It was a villainous but amusing ambush. I was to stand and give a speech to the luminaries of
the champagne industry, and I had about fifteen seconds to prepare.
It was surreal. Just a few months before, I hadn't even heard of the Champagne Academy.
I was in the process of pivoting my career as a chef into opening my own restaurant
consultancy, and had taken the level 3 WSET course as part of that process.
I achieved one of the highest results in the country and was invited back to take part in a live
competition with the other top scorers. It was great fun. Sort of like speed dating, except you’re grilled about the relative merits of botrytis, rather than your career prospects and
thoughts on child rearing.
Someone from WSET called to tell me that I’d done well in the competition and had been
selected for the Champagne Academy Scholarship.
‘Lovely’ I thought. Assuming it to be a day of tastings and lectures, maybe at one of the usual
London venues. I honestly didn’t give it much more thought for a while.
My attitude changed as I read and heard more and more about it; to the point that for the
week before we set off from King’s Cross on the Eurostar, I didn’t dare cycle to work in case
a side swipe from a delivery van put the whole junket in jeopardy.
There were too many astonishingly good wines to list, and too many great people and great
moments. It would become tedious in the retelling, even if I’d enjoy reliving it.
But a few snapshots perhaps…
On a tour of the Charles Heidsieck cellars, Christian Holthausen was pointing out a Jeraboam of Champagne Charlie from the 1980s, of which so little was made that they never even labelled it. There were just a few bottles in existence.
“Let’s crack it open” someone said jokingly.
“Great idea” replied Christian.
And we drank it right there in the cellar. There was a bar down there and fine glassware of course. We’re not savages.
At Pol Roger, Hubert de Billy dazzled us with his kindness, charisma and good humour. His
expertise and enthusiasm were so infectious that I left his company feeling more expert and
elevated myself. I opened the magnum of Pol Roger I’d won on my 40th birthday, with fish
Of all the tastings, perhaps the most baffling and extraordinary was of three identical NV
Champagnes, all aged for over 20 years but in different formats: bottle, magnum and
The larger formats were fresher on first pour but changed rapidly in the glass with each
subsequent taste. The single bottle was more aged on first taste, but more stable in the glass.
We flitted back and forth between the formats for the longest time just appreciating the
extraordinary nuance; the thousand things a grape can become after it leaves the vineyard.
Even the size of vessel it ends up in can change its nature entirely over time.
On the final day of the scholarship, as we drank yet more exquisite wines in the gardens of
the restaurant, we gathered round to find out who would be this years Golden Magnum winner, and would be heading home with the sixteen magnums.
We’d put together a sweepstake of sorts, choosing each others names randomly out of a hat with €160 going to whoever chose the winner.
I’d had no particular motivation to win the magnums, and certainly no expectation. I was
ecstatically happy to have taken part, and so was more focussed on my horse coming home in the sweepstake.
We were so much enjoying the fine wine and the fun and commiserations as people’s dreams of winning either the magnums or the sweepstake evaporated…that I didn’t realise my name hadn’t been called. There were only two of us left.
The other remaining candidate had stated on day one that she was here to win the magnums and would present them to her dad as a gift. She was smart and focussed and studious. I felt like I was fending off 7 days’ worth of hangover.
As her name was called, leaving only me, a yell of delight erupted. Not from me - I stood in stunned silence. The yell was from my friend Julian who’d had me in the sweepstake.
As a sort of thank you for lining his pockets, it was he that announced my intention to give a speech.
My memory of the speech is hazy but I believe I kept it short and everyone was kind enough
to laugh in the right places. Thankfully I hadn’t had quite enough Champagne to attempt it in French.
Vivid memories - like vivid wines - stay fresher for longer, and so it’s strange indeed to think
that this all took place nearly 9 years ago. In my mind I can still taste some of the wines. I
could pair food with them on memory alone.
I’ve been asked a few times what advice I would give to someone seeking to win the Golden
Magnum. My simple and most emphatic advice would be: don’t.
That is, don’t try.
Don’t focus on the end point of what will be the best week of your life. Don’t turn your colleagues and comrades into the competition. Don’t prioritise a material win over the pure and joyous experience of being with a group of exceptional people, in an exceptional place.
Don’t try to know more, and do better, when you’re surrounded by world leaders in their
field who are genuinely invested in helping you and educating you.
Forget about winning. Enjoy every moment of this extraordinary gift because you cannot beg, steal or buy it at any price.
When I sat the WSET exams 9 years back, I was still a full time head chef. Everything that
came to pass from those exams undoubtedly propelled me forward onto the next stage of my career. It gave me confidence. It showed me how much I could achieve and how much I had to offer.
Most people who go out on their own will suffer a degree of imposter syndrome. ‘Who am I
to be telling them what’s best’. But with each positive experience, that feeling disappears.
At the start of 2012, the year of my Champagne Academy Scholarship, I was between
careers. In 2019 Shortly before the pandemic hit, I was being poured Laurent Perrier Grand
Siecle at 30,000 feet as a client had paid for me to fly first class to oversee the launch of his
new restaurant empire.
Things change. Life - and careers - move and evolve. I don’t attribute my successes - or many
failures - to any one cause. But that week spent in the heart of Champagne was undoubtedly
Champagne Academy Golden Magnum winners for the last 10 years
2010 Marcin Schilling
2011 Helen McEvoy
2012 Rob Wade
2013 Katie Exton
2014 Cat Lomax
2015 Chris Rogers
2016 Sophie Birbeck
2017 Chris Goldman and Lisa O’Doherty
2018 Will Clayton
2019 Julie Dupouy