Head of Wine Department at Plumpton College

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by Sarah Marten

Chris Foss heads the Wine Department at Plumpton College in East Sussex, which offers degree courses in Wine Business, Viticulture (vine growing) and Oenology (winemaking). The College is located just outside Lewes, in the beautiful setting of the South Downs, and boasts it's very own 16 acre vineyard producing Plumpton Wines!

Plumpton College is a Partner College of the University of Brighton, who award its degrees. Chris is also chair of the South East Vineyards Association. His sought-after graduates enter an exciting range of jobs, including roles in winemaking, vineyard management, cellar management, sales, marketing and retail buying. Some go on to set up their own vineyards and wine labels. We recently conducted the following interview with Chris, who had a lot of useful advice for those trying to develop an academic career.

What does your job involve?

My ultimate aim is to help the 85 students on our degree courses to learn everything there is to know about wine. Our courses are unique, being the only English-language undergraduate Wine courses taught in Europe. As well as teaching I also support and organise my staff team and ensure that they have everything they need.

How do you motivate your team?

Regular team and individual meetings are vital to ensure that everyone knows what they are doing. These take place in College, but we often meet up at a local restaurant. Also, regular visits to vineyards abroad, including Bordeaux or Montpellier help to keep everyone motivated! We look into bulk methods of production, as well as visiting prestigious chateaux producing wine at £100 per bottle.

What about the students?

Our students come from all walks of life. Many are mature students and we usually have some retired people. But they are all fanatical about one thing - wine! Each year there are usually a handful of school-leavers, most of whom have taken a gap year. A few will have some have previous experience, perhaps in wine retail or grape harvesting, but most are completely new to the industry. There are no problems motivating the students - quite the opposite. They are keen, enthusiastic, and ready and willing to learn as much as possible, in order to secure a job in the flourishing wine industry. Students are often attracted to the great opportunities for working across the world, from Chile to New Zealand.

What else do you do?

Developing and planning the curriculum and ensuring its successful delivery is my role. I also promote our courses, and help to attract the best students and staff. Looking after students' needs is also important, and dealing with any problems which might occasionally arise.

How much of your time is spent teaching?

I spend ten hours a week in undergraduate lectures, four hours in tutorials and a further three hours teaching short courses to the wider community.

Who do you work with?

There are three lecturing staff including myself and we also have two instructors, one of whom is the Vineyard Manager and the other the Winemaker. The team is completed by two technicians, one of whom concentrates on wine sales and the other is our Assistant Winemaker. The other lecturers teach winemaking and the business side of the industry, and together with the other staff, we all work well together and complement one another's skills.

What are your working hours?

My basic hours are 8am - 6pm, Monday to Friday. However I regularly bring work home and spend about two hours most evenings preparing and marking students' work. In addition I usually do between six and eight hours' work at weekends. This might be reading or research, or writing bids for grants. We get seven weeks' annual leave, and I always ensure that I have a month off during the summer.

How did you get into this type of work?

My mother's family owned a vineyard in Bordeaux, although I had not nurtured ambitions about a career working in the industry whilst growing up. After leaving school I went to university to study Microbiology, as I had always been interested in animals and Biology. I never imagined that this degree might fit with my family's wine business until after I completed it. After graduating I went to France and managed the family vineyard for six years, studying winemaking at the same time. Speaking fluent French was a distinct advantage for me. The practical experience I gained was invaluable.

What skills and personal qualities are important?

Hard work and perseverance are the most important qualities. You must love what you are doing, and have a real passion for wine. Anyone involved in teaching needs an empathy with people coupled with an enjoyment of working with people. This includes enjoying standing up in front of a class and teaching. You also need to be a good problem-solver, and possess excellent organisational skills and planning ability. A good academic background is also vital.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Firstly I am passionate about wine! The best part of the job for me is when the students do really well, and having left, they return to tell me how much they have benefitted from the course. There is great satisfaction in watching the students develop over their three years spent here at Plumpton College. The job is all about building their confidence and skills, something that I find immensely enjoyable.

When I first came to Plumpton College twenty years ago, we had just two rows of vines! It is very rewarding to have built up this department over the years, and to encourage the staff as well as the students. There are lots of challenges, but we see great results and the students end up with successful and enjoyable careers. Some even set up their own vineyards and wine labels. There is no better motivator than these enthusiastic and grateful students.

Any dislikes?

No. The work-load can be heavy, but I love what I am doing!

What ambitions do you have?

I would like to see Plumpton College develop an international reputation for teaching, training and research in Wine.

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started?

The importance of obtaining higher level qualifications. When I was in France I was offered the opportunity to take a higher level diploma in winemaking, but I decided against this. I've made up for this now, but it was tough!

What advice have you got for people interested in this career?

Always aim for a degree, and preferably obtain a higher degree such as an MSc or PhD. You will also need a teaching qualification, although if also have the required industry experience, you may be able to study for this whilst working as a lecturer. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of practical and industrial experience.

If you weren't in this job what do you think you would be doing?

I would still be in teaching, interacting with students, probably teaching Biological Sciences.


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