Thomas Choong graduated in 2019 and is our first alumnus from the Armed Forces. How did he manage to fit in his wine studies alongside active service? Read on to find out more…
What sparked your interest in wine?
My father was my biggest inspiration and still is to this day. One evening in my early twenties I had dinner with him and a family friend, and they were blind tasting wines to test their knowledge. He managed to narrow it down to the correct grape, region, producer and even year. I couldn't believe that a mere drink could be so expressive and complex.
With curiosity, I accompanied him to a local wine tasting group he attends - the Nottingham Wine Circle (NWC) - a diverse group with members of all ages and backgrounds that come together weekly to share their passion and knowledge. One member had brought along a 1965 Bollinger and I was hooked - I’d found my raison d’être.
How did you hear about WSET and what inspired you to start your WSET journey?
I’d been bitten by the bug and had an appetite to learn. The Nottingham Wine Circle had quite a few WSET alumni and an MW, so they were quick to recommend WSET. Education seemed like the natural route that would not only broaden and deepen my knowledge but deliver a neutral stance too. Wine is subjective, and we are heavily shaped by the opinions of those around us. I needed to form my own style and understanding.
My philosophy is to drink less but better. Through education, we can appreciate and enjoy alcohol more without excess consumption.
I love studying wine - it has so many aspects; the history, language, culture and geography of a region, the biology and agriculture behind vine growing, chemistry within winemaking, business and marketing for distributing and importantly the people behind the wines. Finally, learning how to taste and develop your palate not only opens the door to the huge range of wines in the world but allows you to enjoy other drinks and food more too. Once I’d finished my Level 3 Award in Wines, I wanted more, and when I saw that distance learning was an option for the Level 4 Diploma in Wines, I was instantly interested.
What does your day-to-day role in the Armed Forces involve, and how did you manage your WSET studies alongside it?
As a Royal Engineer, our motto is ‘ubique’ meaning ‘everywhere’. For me, this not only represents location but also our role within the army too - which is immensely varied. First and foremost I am trained as a soldier, then a combat engineer and ultimately as a tradesman (a draughtsman providing technical drawings for construction design). Every day has the potential to be completely different, which is why it took me nearly four years to finish my Diploma.
The day before my D2 Wine Business exam, I kayaked 125 miles over 24 hours, from Devizes to Westminster in an international canoe race. This is something we had prepared for at a 12-week training camp - I kayaked in the day and studied in the evening. The other units just as challenging, balancing careers courses, exercises and a baby born 3 days after the course started.
Once I’d finished my Level 3 Award in Wines, I wanted more, and when I saw that distance learning was an option for the Level 4 Diploma in Wines, I was instantly interested.
The final exam - D3 Wines of the World - was the hardest academic test I’ve ever done. At times it could be overwhelming and there were plenty of 1am meltdowns prior to exam week! I believe a quality that personnel in the Armed Forces possess is the ability to work through adversity. When things get hard, we step up and we excel. I had to have this approach to pass such a demanding course.
I was studying whilst on a 6-month operational tour of Iraq, with no access to wine, limited resources and not a lot of time to prepare. I knew I was up against it and I often thought if I can pass this, I can do anything. Sheer determination and perseverance (along with some stubbornness not to fail) got me through.
Are you hoping to inspire others in the Armed Forces to develop their wine education? How do you plan to do so and how do you think it will benefit them?
The Armed Forces is constantly evolving, we are fitter and healthier than ever before. We have a rich history and culture associated with wines & spirits (just think rum, port and the origins of gin and tonic) and this is something to be embraced and celebrated. As I work towards my next step of becoming a WSET educator, my philosophy is to drink less but better. Through education, we can appreciate and enjoy alcohol more without excess consumption.
My next stage in wine will have to be a careful balance between educator, influencer, host and, of course, making sure I find time to attend the odd tasting evening in Nottingham with the old man.
If you have been inspired to take your wine knowledge to the next level, don't forget WSET qualifications are available online. To find out more about WSET’s Online Classroom, and for a taster of what to expect, click here.