James Cluer

Master of Wine James Cluer gets ready for a wine tasting at the base camp of Mt. Everest.

Submitted photo

When James Cluer checks in, you never know where he’s pouring wine this day: Perhaps at the base camp of Mt. Everest, perhaps at VinExpo in Bordeaux. “Will travel for wine: might be his motto.

One of 30 Masters of Wine in North America and 300 worldwide, Cluer will be launching his first Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) courses in the Napa Valley this August at the Villagio Inn in Yountville.

WSET, based in London, offers a global program of highly regarded wine education classes for business and pleasure. Five levels of classes provide a range of training from an introduction to wine for an enthusiast to in-depth preparation for a sommelier.

A native of England, Cluer and his family moved to Napa earlier this year from Vancouver. His company, Fine Vintage, Ltd., operates wine schools in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Victoria, Kelowna, Penticton, Las Vegas, San Francisco, the Napa Valley, San Diego and Tuscany.

In January 2012, Cluer was awarded the most sought-after trophy amongst wine schools, the Riedel trophy for WSET “Educator of the Year.”

Jancis Robinson, an international wine authority and another Master of Wine, presented the trophy to Fine Vintage, which had been chosen over 500 wine schools from 55 countries.

“In essence, this means we were voted as the best wine school in the world,” Cluer explained cheerfully over a lunch at Bouchon in Yountville, as he outlined his plans for programs in Napa.

How did he achieve this? In part, he said, it’s the caliber of teachers, all of whom have WSET diplomas and many of whom are enrolled in the rigorous Master of Wine program. “In addition, we pour outstanding wines so that you will be able to taste benchmark examples,” he said.

There is, however, one essential element, Cluer said. “We make the learning fun, in a relaxed atmosphere, so you can enjoy the course.”

In addition to its classes, Fine Vintage offers consulting services to clients that include airlines and hotels. It also operates luxury wine tours to international destinations including Tuscany, Spain and Bordeaux. These include meetings with vintners and winemakers, stays at first-class hotels, and dining at top restaurants. “I must say that the tours are fabulous,” said Cluer, adding that the tours are geared to everyone from students of wine, the collector, and the novice “who simply wants a fun trip to the great estates.”

And that’s not all. Fine Vintage has a home delivery clubs for wine buyers that promises to “take the hassle out of buying wine and leave it to us … It’s what we do for a living,” he said.

The globe-trotting Cluer is collaborating on a project to present WSET classes in China.

Learning begins at home

Cluer said he was inspired to learn about wine by his parents, both wine lovers. Traveling through Europe also piqued his interest. He recalls profoundly offending a French waiter by asking for red wine with his fish. “He looked at me, and said, “Non,” Cluer said. Such early experiences led him to take a lighter approach to wine education, he observed.

Enjoy food? Get dining and recipe ideas sent to your inbox

He took his first WSET class at 18, and after attending university, he headed for Bordeaux where he landed an apprenticeship at Milhade & Fils trading company and “learned about wine from the ground up.”

At Milhade, he went on to become in charge of global exports to 18 countries and traveled the world meeting buyers, visiting wineries and building contacts with players in the wine industry.

In 1997, he completed the WSET Diploma and decided to go for a Master of Wine, a qualification issued by the Institute of the Masters of Wine in London and considered the pinnacle of professional wine achievements.. To prepare for the examinations, Cluer began working vintages at wineries in Australia and California as he toured more wine regions. Eleven years later, he became a Master of Wine and went on to found Fine Vintages.

Classes in Wine

In Yountville, Cluer will be offering the first two levels of the WSET program. Level 1, on Aug. 3, costs $299. It’s an enjoyable introduction to wine, Cluer said, which is often taken by people who just want to know a little more about wine, as well as people who are embarking on the WSET training.

For those interested in the next step, the Level 2 program takes place on Aug. 10, 11 and 25 and costs $799. Registration and payment for the courses, as well as more information can be found online at FineVintageLtd.com

“Whatever we do, we aim to provide a first-class experience,” Cluer said. “Just like in wine, quality never goes out of style.”