The Wine Evangelist

Karl Wells
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Tom Beckett has been sharing his love of wine for decades

We were six for dinner, three couples. Tom Beckett and his wife Maureen had been regaling us with stories of a trip they'd made to India a few years ago. Now Beckett was quietly using his analytical powers to evaluate a 1998 Le Polane Valpolicella I'd pulled from storage. I was listening intently as he gave me an elaborate description of what he tasted in the 10-year-old wine.

In the middle of our conversation about the wine, Beckett sensed another guest was listening with special interest to what he was saying about the Valpolicella. Like an evangelist, albeit a quiet one, he began to include the other guest in the talk which subtly turned into a passionate mini lesson on wine appreciation. Tom Beckett had made yet another convert in his ministry to promote the joys of wine. He's been making them most of his life, one at a time. Unlike Elmer Gantry, who was a phony, this evangelist is the real thing, a true believer.

Tom Beckett is as enthusiastic about wine now as he was when he first discovered the grape 40 years ago at university. - Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

We were six for dinner, three couples. Tom Beckett and his wife Maureen had been regaling us with stories of a trip they'd made to India a few years ago. Now Beckett was quietly using his analytical powers to evaluate a 1998 Le Polane Valpolicella I'd pulled from storage. I was listening intently as he gave me an elaborate description of what he tasted in the 10-year-old wine.

In the middle of our conversation about the wine, Beckett sensed another guest was listening with special interest to what he was saying about the Valpolicella. Like an evangelist, albeit a quiet one, he began to include the other guest in the talk which subtly turned into a passionate mini lesson on wine appreciation. Tom Beckett had made yet another convert in his ministry to promote the joys of wine. He's been making them most of his life, one at a time. Unlike Elmer Gantry, who was a phony, this evangelist is the real thing, a true believer.

Beckett is a quiet, articulate, unfailingly polite human being. Now in his late fifties, this avuncular gentleman appears to be completely comfortable in his skin. This is especially true when he's among a small group of friends and the chitchat turns to the subject of wine.

Born and raised

He was born and raised in Ontario and moved to Newfoundland in 1978 to become director of highway planning and research. Currently he holds the position of deputy registrar for motor registration. There is a tenuous link between his professional life and his all-consuming interest in wine. In 1968, while studying at Queen's University in Ottawa for his chosen career, Beckett made homemade wine for himself. Thus began a love affair with fermented fruit juice.

He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a wine snob, or, someone he personally describes in the following way:

"They only drink wine that is rated over 95 percent by Robert Parker (American wine critic) or only drink First Growths or equivalent and who make sure you know what wines they consume. They do not want your opinion of the wine in the glass at the moment."

Beckett is interested in all wine. He even has an appreciation for offbeat wines that many are quick to dismiss - like birch sap wine. He also supports efforts by some to grow quality Pinot Noir grapes in Newfoundland (at Gambo and C.B.S) and possibly begin commercial Pinot Noir wineries here.

Special microclimate

"Gambo has a very special microclimate, being an amphitheatre with a lovely southeast exposure on the Gambo, Dark Cove side. I believe the Pinot Noir grapes are now five years old and should be assessed this year as to the potential quality of the wine they can produce."

So, how would Beckett describe a "quality" wine?

"Brilliance and clarity of the liquid; a colour typical of the grape type or at least between pale green and deep amber gold for a white wine and between dark purple black and a deep mahogany for a red wine; evident aromas rising to the nose which require more than five words to describe their complexity."

These days Beckett is still an active member of the local chapter of the Opimium (wine) Society, which he helped found here in 1979. He also operates a small business called Beckett on Wine (www.beckettonwine.com). Among the many wine education services that Beckett provides is a special service that finds wine from a person's birth year. Recently, he gave his wife Maureen a bottle of Offley Vintage Port from her birth year. He told me he would always remember her exclamation of delight on opening the birthday present.

Thirty years ago when Beckett arrived in Newfoundland, the NLC stores offered a limited selection of wines. Apart from a very good selection of French wines, German wines and port, it was slim pickings. These days the situation is different. The Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Commission stores carry a broad selection of wines from around the world. However, Beckett still sees room for improvement.

Improvements

"I would like to see an Enomatic dispenser in every NLC outlet, not just in Howley Estates. At least one white wine and two red wine selections should be customer driven at each store. The wine representatives should only receive listings if they volunteer to conduct wine tastings for NLC staff of the listed wines. This calls for a pricing co-operation by the NLC. And ... Wine Fest should be expanded to include more seminars and a sit-down tasting in a quiet atmosphere of the quality products rather than in the rough and tumble of the stand-up taste in the aisle with an elbow in the back."

Beckett's passion for his pastime does not appear to be flagging.

He is as enthusiastic about wine as he was 40 years ago making kit wine as a student at Queen's.

I'm glad that, unlike me, he didn't develop an interest in brewing beer. Otherwise this article might not have happened and that army of our own wine evangelist's converts might not exist.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute and judge with the Cuisine Canada/University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards.

Organizations: Queen's University, Opimium, Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Commission Queen's Cuisine Canada University of Guelph

Geographic location: Newfoundland, India, Ontario Ottawa Howley Estates

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