A Life Of Wine – Interview With Chris Kirkham
18th August 2023
In this Glass of Bubbly Interview, I speak with a man who has helped many people to discover the vast world of Wines and Sparkling Wines, as a Sommelier, Educator and partner in a French Winery, his name is Chris Kirkham. Let’s find out a bit about his life in the wine industry.
Tell Us About Yourself
“My name is Chris Kirkham, I’m 39 years old, originally from Vancouver Canada, and now reside in Funchal, Madeira (Portugal). I am the Managing Director & Assistant Winemaker for Res Fortes Wines, a boutique winery based in Roussillon in the South of France. My business partner and our head winemaker Moritz Bak lives in Maury, France full time to manage our vineyards and winery, and I commute back and forth to support him during major winemaking events like harvest, blending, etc. The rest of the time I work from my home office in Funchal or travel around the United States and Canada to meet with our customers and promote the wines. I am also a part time wine educator and wine consultant for customers in North America and Europe. When I’m not working, I love hiking the beautiful island of Madeira, boxing in my local gym, or just soaking up some Atlantic sun on my patio with a good book.”
How Did You Become Involved In The Wine Industry?
“I suppose my first exposure to the wine industry would be at 19 years old when I landed my first restaurant job in Vancouver Canada. I got a gig as a server and the restaurant I worked at had a pretty decent wine list. Since I worked there and had access to it, I started exploring through the list, tasting the wines, and learning about them. As time went on, I began to realize that I had a talent for being able to pick out flavours and identify the wines blind, which got me even more excited about wine, and I knew from that point on I wanted to work in wine, I just did not yet know in what capacity.”
What Inspired You To Become a Sommelier?
“One day, at a restaurant I was working at, the GM came to me and said “we’re trying to grow our wine sales and you know the list the better than anyone. If I compensated you, would you be willing to put together some wine classes for the other servers?” I said yes, and thus, I ran my first paid wine classes. It went well (I think), and I absolutely loved doing it, so at this point a light bulb went on; I thought ‘this is super fun and I can make money doing it, but if I’m going to charge for wine education, I should probably have some credentials’ so I decided to start my formal wine education journey which led to my doing some CMS and WSET courses, which eventually led to me working as a Sommelier and Wine Director.”
During Your Time As A Sommelier, What Was The Most Surprising Thing You Learnt?
“Something that was very surprising for me that I learned early on in my wine career was how much interest there was among wine consumers to learn about wines and get involved in wine, but how many of them don’t because they have had a negative experience in the past that stopped them from pursuing their wine interests further. This could come in the form of any number of things – perhaps they went to a wine shop and were intimidated by how many choices there were and ended up buying something they didn’t like, perhaps they had a negative interaction with a Sommelier or “wine expert”, perhaps they took a class that was too advanced (or too rudimentary) for their skill level. As a Somm I heard hundreds of stories like these, and they really shaped my approach to being a winemaker and running a wine business. At Res Fortes, our goal is to take something steeped in history and tradition, the Roussillon region having over 28 centuries of winemaking history, and create something modern and approachable from it. We do everything we can to ensure that if we are a consumers first experience with a wine from Roussillon, it will be a positive one. Whether that’s through eye-catching packaging, the modern style of the wine, exceptional quality and value, or the accessibility of our team, we are consumed with providing an outstanding wine drinking experience. We want consumers to know that we understand wine can be intimidating, and we encourage them to get out and explore what the world of wine has to offer. We want them to know they can feel confident in their purchase from Res Fortes.”
After Leaving The Wine Industry To Work In Technology For A While, And Then Returning, What Brought You Back?
“I spent nearly 10 years working in the Canadian wine scene as a Sommelier and Wine Director for some of Vancouver’s top restaurants as well as an Independent Wine Consultant, Educator, and Critic, and I absolutely loved it. It was a wonderful work life that allowed me to do what I enjoyed and have the freedom to study at business school during the day. After graduating from University in 2009, despite my love for all things wine, I decided to leave the wine industry and get into the Vancouver tech scene, or “Silicon Valley of the North” as it was becoming known. I spent the next decade working in technical recruitment, professional services sales, and IT consulting, supporting some of the World’s largest enterprises. I was very fortunate to have had some terrific leaders and mentors during this time and was able to build a successful career, and along the way learned a lot about professional sales, management, and how to run a business. But despite my achievements in business and technology, I never lost my passion for wine and always knew it was my true calling. It was almost as if there was this itch in the back of my mind that I just could not scratch when it came to my professional endeavors. So, after much stress and deliberation, in 2019 I decided to leave my executive job and start traveling the world to learn the craft of winemaking, and finally scratch that itch.”
You Also Educate People On Wine, How Rewarding & Challenging Is That To Accomplish?
“I love it. Both of my parents were lifelong educators, so I suspect teaching runs in my blood, and I find it very rewarding. But I think with something like wine, which is very personal and subjective, education is incredibly valuable. For example, at Res Fortes, rather than taking a very aggressive and traditional “sales” approach to our wines with lots of marketing, promotions, etc., we prefer to take a more educational approach and introduce our customers to this incredible region (Roussillon) and the wonderful wines that are produced here. Rather than convincing consumers of why they should buy the wine, we prefer to educate them on why we are able to produce high quality wine at comparatively low prices, and then let them make the decision for themselves. It’s very easy for a consumer to just go with what they know because there are so many choices out there and it’s easy, so introducing them to something new starts with education.
As for how challenging it is, the thing that I struggle with the most is being level specific and knowing when to be quiet. As wine educators, we’re usually very passionate about the topic (at least I hope so), so it’s very easy to go off on tangents about obscure topics that perhaps we find interesting but are not really adding value for the student. With such an immense body of information to teach from, it’s crucial to be level specific to those you are teaching, otherwise, you run the risk of alienating them. There’s no point going on an hour-long diatribe about Échelle des Crus when all a student wants to know is the difference between Champagne and Prosecco. You really need to know your audience.”
How Did You Become Partner In A French Winery?
“As mentioned above, pure luck really. I was very fortunate to get introduced to Moritz and the team at Res Fortes right at a time when the winery was winning some impressive accolades and really beginning to grow, so they needed the help. Moritz and I did a couple of vintages together and learned that we worked really well together and had very complimentary skill sets. Moritz really enjoys doing all the “business” and “sales” stuff, but his real passion is crafting beautiful wines. I on the other hand enjoy winemaking, but my real passion is meeting customers, talking about wine, and building a business. We’ve become really close over the years and have built a good relationship where we can challenge each other and support each other. So when Moritz proposed the possibility of my having more responsibility and some shares in the company, it was an easy yes, and I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity.”
Where’s The Most Memorable Place You’ve Enjoyed A Glass of Bubbly?
“That’s a tough question… But one does stand out; a few years ago a I did a sailing trip through Croatia and I remember one evening in the Dalmatian islands somewhere we popped a bottle of vintage Dom and watched the sunset while perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. That was a pretty incredible moment and one I won’t ever forget.”
Thank you, Chris, for sharing your words, knowledge and experiences with us and we at Glass of Bubbly wish you the very best for the future!
Images belong to Chris Kirkham. Glass of Bubbly was granted permission to use them.
Champagne and Sparkling Wine Writer, Focused on Bringing the Exciting and Fascinating World of Bubbly to You.