Introducing The Bath Magazine’s new drinks columnist Tristan Darby, who talks to Georgette McCready about his career as the founder of the Bristol Wine School and the launch of the Great Wine School in Bath
A lot of people love music and wine, but very few manage to combine both passions as part of their working lives. Tristan Darby, proudly Bath born and bred, is a singer, actor and founder of the Bristol Wine School. He has 20 years’ experience in the catering and wine trade and enjoys sharing his extensive knowledge of the world’s wine in what he calls his own brand of ‘vintertainment.’ He uses skills learned from his years as a professional theatre actor, alongside his natural charm with people, to educate, entertain and inspire those who attend his wine workshops, tastings and food-pairing events.
The Bath Magazine is delighted to welcome Tristan as our new drinks expert and over the coming months he’ll be sharing news and views about wine, along with thoughts on gin, whisky and craft ales. He may even, he laughs, touch on the art of ciderology.
So, how does one go about getting a job as a professional wine taster, we asked, leaning forward eagerly . . . “In short, I left school at 16 with no qualifications,” says Tristan. “There was a lot of family stuff going on and I ended up leaving school and having to get a job.”
And so began years of work in the kitchens and restaurants of Bath, rising from pot washing in Binks, through cooking at the Walrus and the Carpenter (both former Bath establishments each with their own distinct reputation) and the Jazz café. Tristan also worked at the Bath Spa Hotel and Lansdown Grove, gathering both chef and front of house skills along the way.
Then he was prompted to consider where his life was taking him: “One evening a lecturer from Bath College happened to be in and he asked me what I was going to do with my life. I hadn’t really thought about it, I was working hard and playing in a band in the evenings. We hung around places like Moles, they were good times and my music meant a lot to me – it still does.”
And so the young Tristan ended up taking a two year course in performing arts at Bath College before fetching up in Manchester and launching his career as a professional actor. This time included stage work, musical theatre and school tours, which he recalls fondly as sometimes tough audiences that it would be a challenge to win over.
Tristan Darby, founder of the Bristol Wine School and one of the founders of the new Bath Great Wine School
Perhaps it was facing such a bunch as a group of rebellious teenagers in Birkenhead that equipped Tristan for managing even the most daunting of audiences.
He was back in his home city, juggling acting with various agency jobs in catering when Will Baber, who was running The Tasting Room in Larkhall (the Tasting Room is now in Green Street) said he was looking for someone to help him lead wine tasting workshops.
Will tested Tristan’s palate, found it to be ideal for the job – not everybody possessing a nose for expert wine tasting – and then handed him two large books on wine to study.
“That was my homework, and my moment of revelation,” says Tristan, “the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Here was a subject that fascinated me.”
Armed with his new-found knowledge Tristan was ready for his first wine tasting group, Which turned out to be a hen party of 18 giggly women, ready for a good time and accompanied by a large, naked inflatable man called Roger.
“I went a very strange colour at the sight of them,”admits Tristan now, who bravely ignored the background of Will’s laughter to entertain the women to an evening of fun and wine.
And from that baptism of fire Tristan’s reputation grew and soon he launched the Bristol Wine School, which ran informative sessions for people curious to learn more about the wonderful world of wine, out of Averys, Bordeaux Quay and the Hen and Chicken in Bristol. Over the years his workshops have evolved. While some might combine tapas and sherry, others cover traditional wine regions or wine producing countries, generally with a quiz to get people involved. He leads corporate groups to English vineyard Three Choirs in Gloucestershire and takes part in drinks industry tastings in London.
“…the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Here was a subject that fascinated me.”
The Bristol Wine School recently hosted the President of the sherry region, Beltran Domecq, for a sherry tasting which Tristan co-hosted to a packed restaurant at Bordeaux Quay, and have other similar events lined up with other wine regions and local spirits producers.
Most recently Tristan has teamed up with Great Western Wine in Bath. “I really like what they’re doing, they’re very progressive and going from strength to strength.” The new partnership has spawned The Great Wine School, which has so far hosted events at Great Western Wine’s shop at the foot of Wellsway, the Allium restaurant and at Chequers.
Tristan is very keen on helping people match wine with food. He’s largely vegetarian by choice, although he calls himself a demitarian, eating meat when the professional occasion arises. He’s currently dining out in Bath and Bristol as part of his role as judge in this year’s Good Food awards for the respective cities.
When he’s not working Tristan enjoys spending time with his five-year-old daughter. He also performs as part of a jazz quartet and with a group of friends as The Foxes, which plays regular gigs at Chapel Arts Centre.
Sometimes Tristan’s love of music and knowledge of wine combine. He was invited to sing with a wine trade supergroup, Skin Contact last year to raise funds for Comic Relief. On drums was one of his teenage heroes, Matt James who had been the drummer with Tristan’s favourite indie band, Gene.
As they took to the stage at the Islington O2 Tristan was somewhat star-struck: “There was Matt the Hat playing drums, with me up there singing. It was amazing! It was the nearest I’d ever get to being the lead singer of Gene. We raised around £10,000 too and went for a few beers afterwards with Matt, which absolutely made this fan’s night.”
Busy he may be, but Tristan is very grateful where his career has taken him. He smiles:“It’s a good gig, this, a great gig.”