Hailing from New York, Catherine Abert is a neuroscientist with a sideline in gastrophysics and mission to explore the relationships between wine, food and the brain. Bubbly, enthusiastic and prone to uncontrollable laughter and long sermons on food molecules, Catherine passed her WSET Level 2 in Wines and Spirits with Merit in November 2018. She has just begun her WSET Level 3 in Wines and is currently undertaking an internship as a sommelier at Barcelona’s 5* Hotel Majestic, in association with Wine Courses Barcelona.
We sat down to talk WSET, her experience as an intern and convincing little brothers to start their own wine education. We begin pre-interview and mid-conversation- over to Catherine!
You were talking about your brother…
Yes! I have a really cool thing to tell you. I went home for (Christmas) break and I had taken this wine course with you. I’d always kind of liked wine but then I was really interested and my family are like: you just keep on talking about wine, be quiet (!). I made (them) go to a really cool vineyard that’s on the outskirts of Maryland… My brother’s always said he doesn’t really like wine. When I took him to the tasting, he was saying the same thing. He said: ‘I really hate buttery wines’. And I asked, what do you mean by that? That’s a strong word, what are you talking about?!… He’s goes to school in Ithaca and they have a really big viticulture programme there. So he took the wine course! He started taking it because I kept telling him; he studies engineering and he’s always saying that there’s not a lot of love. I really think if you want to meet people and if you want to do something interesting, you need to do a wine course! And he’s taking it and he called me on the phone to tell me he’s never met so much passion as from the teacher, the people. He was telling me on the first day that the class is actually famous for people meeting their husbands and wives. And it’s because of the passion!! He also came back to me yesterday, he was on the phone with me and he said: I just want to tell you, that you were right about that buttery thing and that I’ve changed my mind completely about red wines. I almost wanted to cry!
That’s amazing! So, tell me, what brought you to Barcelona?
I came here very specifically for gastrophysics; the research that I knew was happening here. I knew that El Bulli did very interesting things and that they’d just opened up their foundation. I knew that in terms of Spain, culinary-wise and for innovation, it had to be Barcelona. It was intuition, honestly. And I like it much more than Madrid!
Good answer! So you had just graduated. What’s your degree in?
Neuroscience and behaviour.
So where did gastrophysics come in?
I’ve always been interested in food science and I was interested in the fact it wasn’t regarded as something artistic, it didn’t have the same merit as painting or music. Food in general and combining flavours is such an intense art form. To be able to think of that flavour and know how you can put it together. In a sense you’re creating something visual, but underneath that you’re working with senses that you can’t see and taste at that moment… When I took neuroscience I was trying to think of a way that I could study why my brain was interested in these aspects… I think for most of my childhood and then (as an adult), smells and sounds have shaped all the memories I have. They shaped everything about life and they’re how I remember things. In September I’m starting a Masters in music at Barcelona university… I’ve been working with smell and I want to bring in the sound aspect a little bit more.
Why did you decided to take a WSET course?
When I was living in Long Island, my friend’s family run a vineyard there and she had just taken the WSET 2. She would bring bottles of wine round and we would try them. She exposed me to that and we would talk about grapes and agriculture too… Then in September last year we went to France and she had friends who ran a vineyard in Burgundy. So we went… and did the harvest for the day and we got to talk to the winemakers… That was a real exposure to the wine world, seeing that passion from the people but also just picking the grapes, getting right down into that earth- that’s some hard work! But that really got me inspired and then after that I thought: I really want to learn more about this. I hadn’t tasted Pinot Noirs like that before and was very new to any wines. It really blew me away.
What did you enjoy most about the course?
Your passion! Truly! Meeting Ejiro (a fellow student), that was lovely. And then I really loved all of the information you gave us. I could drool over it! (In particular) anything that was related to the actual harvesting of the grapes and what made that grape turn into that particular wine was really interesting to me.
What would be your advice to future or prospective WSET students?
I can say what I told my brother: if you don’t think you have enough passion in your life, you should take a course related to wine. You meet people who care and that’s a really cool thing. You don’t see it so much in other fields. I’ve noticed this with friends who don’t know anything about wine but now they know I’m interested in it: people are scared of wine! They’re afraid of saying something wrong about something that is so historically prestigious. It seems a really refined thing to like but it doesn’t have to be. (By doing the course) you can build your own opinion and not be afraid to speak up about it.
You’re now using your qualification in your internship as a sommelier at Hotel Majestic in Barcelona- tell us about your role there.
The menu and wines change regularly. My role is to recommend people wines according to what they are eating and also to promote regionality and Catalan wines and local grape varieties.
One thing I love about Catalunya is the passion for regionality… For the most part, you’re in Spain so you’re getting Spanish wine. And here specifically, you’re getting Catalan wine. And that’s very special because I think you get a way better connection to what you’re drinking and the reason behind it.
So what’s next for you?
Well, WSET Level 3 is coming up in May!
And why did you decide to do Level 3?
I need more knowledge! I want to work with wine and I want to do the music thing and I want to see how I can blend both of them together. And I’d love to get more Catalan wines into America. Maybe set up importing them into New York. But that’s a big goal!
Also, Ejiro and I are planning an event that pairs the sound stuff with wine. We’re calling it Vinesthesia (a play on the perceptual phenomenon synesthesia). We want to see how we can pair wine with fun sensory experiences. We’re going to work with a DJ and taste four or five wines highlighting female producers from Catalunya.
Do you have any tips for those wanting to get started in a wine-related role?
Don’t be scared to get involved. Just start by taking a course… and start early! Have that passion for as much of your life as you can!
Favourite place to drink wine in Barcelona?
I like going to places in your neighbourhood. 14 de la Rosa just opened up in Gracia, which is my neighbourhood. They’re a really sweet couple from London and they just opened up a space the size of this room. They’ve always got Cuban music playing, but like the softer kind…
And what kind of wine would you pair with that?
I’m thinking like a funky, juicy red. Would that do?
Sounds delicious! So you heard it here first: Vinesthesia and the best wine for smooth Cuban tunes. Huge thanks to Catherine for her time and wishing her the best of luck for WSET Level 3. If Catherine has inspired you to grab a glass and get involved, then start your own wine journey with Wine Courses Barcelona today.