Ex-City partner now a wine expert
This week we talk to Sarah Ahmed, a former equity partner who left 12 years in law behind to immerse herself in the world of wine. She now writes about wine and runs tailor-made wine tasting events and courses under the guise of “The Wine Detective”.
mtl: Hi Sarah, thanks for talking to use. Tell us about your background in law.
Sarah: I decided to study law because I had good grades and doing a professional course seemed like “the right thing to do” – I was never very excited about it though. I am originally form Yorkshire and did my articles at what is now Pinsent Masons in Leeds. I qualified in 1990 and moved to the international arbitration and construction department at Clifford Chance for 4 ½ years.
I found the long hours and corporate culture there punishing and I also wasn’t wildly stimulated by the work. My next move was to Anthony Gold on the South Bank which was totally different. The firm has a big commitment to legal aid and politically I felt more comfortable working there. I was made partner within six months of joining and indeed had moved on that basis.
My role at Anthony Gold was to head up the commercial department. This involved a broader range of work than at Clifford Chance and I found it more stimulating, particularly the professional negligence legal aid cases, which were the most rewarding part of the job, because winning them made such a big difference to the people involved. I became an equity partner and was involved in the management of the firm. Despite all this apparent “success” I still wasn’t really enjoying it and in 1999 I resigned without knowing what I was going to do next. I decided that I could always go back and that it was better for me to take a chance.
mtl: Where did the idea of the Wine Detective come from?
Sarah: While I was still working as a lawyer I did a wine course and I just loved it! I’d been drinking the same old stuff and tasting an older, developed wine for the first time (Moulin Touchais 1986 - a sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire) really stands out in my mind as the moment when I realised wine was capable of great complexity.
As an equity partner, I had to give a year’s notice and during that time I had several life-coaching sessions in which I explored my values to figure out what I was going to do when I left the firm. I decided that you only live once and I wanted to do something that I would really enjoy.
Although outwardly successful in law, I felt that I was bigger than my job allowed me to be. Law is so full-on and I was ignoring many things that I enjoyed such as cooking and art.
I thought about legal journalism and marketing for a while and took a short journalism course at the London College of Printing. It came home to me that legal journalism was not for me when one of the tutors said that the secret to Piers Morgan’s success (he was then editor of the Daily Mail) was down to him being able to stand in the shoes of his readers. As I wanted to escape being a lawyer, it didn’t make sense to pursue this.
At the back of my mind I had a fantasy to do something wine-related, but I wasn’t quite sure what and I was very dismissive of doing something which seemed relatively trivial - it somehow seemed wrong to do something I liked as a career choice! The life-coaching helped me to realise that actually this is one of the best things which you can do and I owed it to myself to at least explore it – nothing ventured, nothing gained.
In the end, when I left Anthony Gold in 2000, I went to work at Oddbins. I was drawn to their non-stuffy image compared with that of traditional wine merchants whose conservative environment reflected some of the things I did not enjoy about the legal profession. I also just wanted to enjoy myself for a while, without putting myself under a lot of pressure. Starting as a shop assistant at Oddbins helped me to develop an understanding of wine from the bottom up. Having been thrown into a very specialist area at Clifford Chance on qualification, I wanted to give myself a chance to get to know the subject thoroughly.
As well as gaining plenty of knowledge from working on the shop floor, Oddbins also sponsored me to take the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s exams, which took three years. It is a pretty laid-back company, I was also able to take unpaid leave to work in a winery in Spain to get some grass-roots knowledge of the subject. If you are doing what you really want to do then you communicate this to other people when you are working and it has led to lots of fantastic opportunities for me in the wine industry.
My big break came in 2003 when I obtained the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s Diploma. I was the top graduate for my year which is a big deal in the wine trade as roughly 3000 people take the exams each year and only about 300 pass. I won the Rouyer Guillet Cup which many wine trade luminaries have won, like Jancis Robinson MW. I was also given three bursaries which allowed me to spend three months in South Africa and the Loire studying the Chenin Blanc grape variety and to visit wineries in Portugal and Alsace.
This raised my profile in the trade and I was asked to do my first bout of wine judging (a competition in France) and to write about Chenin Blanc for a new magazine called “The World of Fine Wine”. This gave me my all-important break into journalism, which is highly competitive and I’ve not looked back since. I was invited to visit Australia’s wine regions by Wine Australia after my Diploma busary trips in 2004 and when I returned I decided that it was time to leave Oddbins. In the end I had worked there for four years which is longer than I had intended, but it was the perfect launch pad for me, especially after I spent the last two years as the fine wines manager in their Farringdon City store.
Having made a big jump before from law to wine, it wasn’t so hard to decide to branch out on my own. I had already been presenting my own “The Wine Detective” wine tastings while at Oddbins. In February 2005 I went freelance full-time and I now write about wine, run wine courses and tastings as “The Wine Detective” for corporate entertainment and for individuals and also present tastings for Wine Australia around the country. I have been offered a few jobs in the trade since I started and the salary and security are tempting but I like the fact that working for myself really lets me focus on what I most enjoy and it’s difficult to argue with that.
mtl: Was it hard going from being an equity partner to working freelance?
Sarah: My salary obviously took a massive nose-dive and I had to rely on savings for a few years which meant that I was both earning much less and cutting into my savings considerably. I didn’t have a massive City salary behind me for the last five years as a lawyer, but I had been careful to save as I was never entirely won over by law.
It was the little things that I noticed most e.g. not treating myself to coffee and cake, as I had planned for the big things. Also I used to cycle to Oddbins to save money and I absolutely hate cycling! Another thing was the drop in status. I hadn’t thought that it would bother me so much but encountering some people who came across as patronising and arrogant in the City branch of Oddbins was difficult, though also interesting. I realised how impatient I had often been in the past and how rude one can appear.
At the end of the day it has been very much worth it. Part of the whole change for me was working out what are the most important things in life to me, rather than other people’s definitions of success. I realised how ambivalent I was as a lawyer. I now feel very closely aligned with what I am doing. It is much easier to work your way through the world when you are happy with your work and I sometimes cannot believe how lucky I am to be doing the things which I do.
mtl: How do you find it working for yourself after being in a big organisation?
Sarah: Mostly I love it. I have a lot more control over my life, complete autonomy and I can do what I want. Also, if I make mistakes then at least they are my own! There is not so much compromise being self-employed. Obviously working from home saves time too and no cycling!
The disadvantages are (and I didn’t think about these in advance as much as perhaps I should have done) that I have to do absolutely everything myself – as well as the writing, tastings and courses there is the pr, marketing, sales, admin, finances etc. to deal with. I have learned that you need to book out holiday in advance or you won’t take it. Also as I am not highly paid I have to put though a decent volume of work so I still work long hours. The difference is I really enjoy what I do and it’s all to my benefit.
mtl: How does your lifestyle compare?
Sarah: I can afford the things I really want. If you earn less you focus on what is really important. If you don’t enjoy work then you compensate yourself with what you earn and reward yourself with expensive things for sticking it out. Now I don’t have to compensate myself. I am fortunate in that I get to travel through work in an exciting context. I meet fantastic people in beautiful places who also love what they are doing. I am invited to lots of very nice dinners and tastings, so I get to live a nice lifestyle through another route. I am lucky that by the time I left law I had decent savings and had bought a house to get on the property ladder.
The only thing that troubles me is the pension side of things, but then most people worry about whether their pension will be enough… My quality of time spent working is so much higher than it was as a lawyer as I enjoy the trade so much and other people in the business share that enthusiasm – it’s a very generous field to be working in.
mtl: How do you look back on your legal career?
Sarah: I have no regrets as at the time I made the choice I HAD to do it to prove myself. You are very young when you decide to do law and your reference points are often other people’s reference points. We make massive life choices very early on. Also I had no idea about my current career at that point. Being a lawyer allowed me to travel a lot and I got a lot of things out of my system – having a sports car, staying in swanky hotels, first class travel etc. It was an amazing opportunity and part of the value-shaping process. I had those material things and ultimately decided that I could do without them.
If I hadn’t done law for as long I also couldn’t have made the choices that I did. If I had left earlier then I wouldn’t have a nice home and the security that it gives me or the savings to subsidise my career change.
mtl: What did you learn from being a lawyer which helps you in your new career?
Sarah: The forensic and analytical skills that I learned as a lawyer are perfect for tasting as a glass of wine, when scrutinised and not knocked back (!) can give so many clues about grape variety, where it’s from, how old it is etc. The good news is that wine is a lot less dry than law in every sense of the word!
mtl: Would you go back to law?
Sarah: God no! I would rather do anything else! It shut down who I am as a person.
mtl: What tips do you have for lawyers wanting to do their own thing?
Sarah: Do it! Jump off the cliff! The life-coaching exercise was very useful as focussing on values is very important. Deconstruct what you are really interested in. It is easy to be seduced by the corporate high-earning culture and what it can buy you. But maybe it isn’t for you. Create the space to stand back and think about it so that you can lead yourself to where you want to go.
It is great to be at a place where you feel more aligned and at one with what you are doing. Without life-coaching I doubt I would have had the courage – and might have compromised by doing something where I earned less and still didn’t enjoy it very much. Go for broke! Have courage in your convictions but make sure you know what your convictions are.
mtl: What are your plans for the future?
Sarah: To carry on with my freelance career both presenting wine tastings and writing about wine. This year I have been pushing the wine writing and as a result, I now write a page each month for Wine & Spirit magazine’s “What Wine Buyer’s Guide” and was asked to undertake research for the next edition of “The World Atlas of Wine” which is written by two of England’s foremost wine writers, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. The writing business is highly competitive but it gives me the opportunity to travel and talk to winemakers which is what I enjoy most. Ultimately, I would love to write for a newspaper.
Next year I am spending a month in Australia undertaking journalistic research but also doing two weeks work experience at Cullen, a top winery who work bio-dynamically. This involves focusing on the health of the vine and increasing their natural resistance by improving the biodiversity of the soil and the vineyard.
It is all about treading more lightly on the planet and making the most of its natural resources so biodynamic practitioners only use products of animal, vegetable and mineral origin rather than chemicals and apply those in line with natural bio-rhythms. It’s going to be really interesting.
In the long-term I would like to have a go at making wine myself. At the moment though, I am very happy to be based in London. Because it’s trading nation when it comes to wine, I get the opportunity to taste so many different wines from around the world which is perfect for the work I am doing now.
mtl: How much wine to you actually drink?!
Sarah: A lot less than I used to and probably less than the average person! As I taste and, crucially, spit, hundreds of wines a month I have to be careful of my liver! It is definitely a matter of drinking quality over quantity.
mtl: Sarah, thanks very much for talking to us and good luck with your business.
Click on www.thewinedetective.co.uk for information about tastings, courses and Sarah’s latest vinous meanderings.
Graduated from Manchester University - Law
Chester College of Law
Training contract at Pinsent Curtis, Leeds
"The Wine Detective"