Justine McGovern is a woman with a mission. She’s the captain, the quarterback and the cheerleader of California wines in Ireland, a one person team that keeps on winning thanks in big part to her unstoppable determination and her mix of magnetic personality and can-do attitude.
“I’m kind of obsessed, but in a healthy way”, she says as we share a cup of coffee while talking about her efforts to bring wines from California closer to wine lovers in Ireland. One of these is the highly anticipated California Wine Fair to take place this month, on the 28th of September at The Shelbourne Hotel at which oenophiles in the country will have the unprecedented opportunity to taste over 400 wines from the Golden State.
Justine, who’s originally from Dublin, started her career in the finance sector after graduating in Law. “I suddenly realised this was not the obvious choice for my personality”, she says, as the overly serious environment contrasted with her lively nature.
“My father bought me a wine tasting course for Christmas and I became hooked on the courses and reading all around the world of wines.” She went on to work for Searsons Wine Merchants and then for the Wine Development Board of Ireland, where she was able to complete her WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits.
A wonderful opportunity fell on my lap when I was there and due to my relationship with our client the Napa Valley Vintners, they asked me to take on the role of the Napa Valley Vintners Irish Office”, she recalls, “from this I set up on my own business and haven’t looked back since, over the years I have worked with many different and exciting clients from the world of wine.”
She considers “California, one world in one place” and she has shown a passion and hard work that got her noticed by the California Wine Institute. She begun working with them, initially organising their annual tasting. “This role has changed dramatically and now I work as the Director of the Irish Office, building the brand California Wine here in Ireland and Northern Ireland.” She works closely with her UK colleagues with whom she’s currently developing a vision and strategies for California Wines in the UK and Ireland for the next 3 years.
The Making of #CaliWineFair
Justine’s drive has been instrumental to bringing California Wine Fair into Ireland. When she started planning it last year, she was aiming to get 18 tables but to her amazement the event grew to almost double in size, and with 34 tables she decided to go big and host it at the Shelbourne Hotel.
She celebrates the “upswing in interest in Ireland about California Wine” and mentions some of the high-profile exhibitors and guests of the event: “We have Kelli White, author of Napa Valley Then & Now, who gave an incredible masterclass at Press Restaurant, Napa, as part of the UK and Ireland trade and Media trip and we just thought, we have to get Kelli over here for the tastings.” She also mentions Chef Ryan Stringer, of Ely, “who has trained with Cakebread Cellars and will be preparing California style food demonstrations.”
On Goals and Challenges
The fair is only one of numerous projects on her calendar which includes tastings, classes, social events and networking, lots of networking. Increasing and improving the offer of California wines in the country and motivating wine drinkers to familiarise with the region is the ultimate goal.
One of the challenges she’ll face is the perception that some consumers might still have about most California wines occupying only extremes regarding both quality and price.
“California wine produces top quality wine at all price points, from entry level all the way through to iconic wines”, she says, and while the middle ground of affordable wines with personality was overlooked in the past, she points out that “now we are seeing more brands coming into the middle bracket here in Ireland such as MacMurray Ranch, Gnarly Zinfandel, Brazin and Beringer. A great tip is to look for Zinfandel and red blends from Lodi and Central Coast.”
She praises the introduction of seven new lines of California wines by O’Briens, as an example of retailer upping their Cali wine game and she lets us know that the Irish and UK offices will merge after the fair, which will allow her to work closely with London’s Justine Knock MW and Damien Jackman.
On Staying Motivated and Embracing the Californian Way
With so many projects happening and very high expectations, how does Justine stays focused and motivated? The answer is so simple that it has to work: “I am a big walker, so if I don’t feel on fire, I get up and go for a walk, you never feel the same after a walk.”
She has some of her best ideas during her daily walks down the pier in Dun Laoghaire in the morning or maybe heading to Dalkey in the evening. She also turns to music, specially to Desert Island Disc on podcasts, and “if all of the above doesn’t work, I drink loads and loads of coffee!”
“I find other people’s lives so motivating, when you see what others can accomplish from adversity or through hard work, It’s fascinating”, she adds and plenty of people in the industry will be acquainted with the power of her positive thinking and ability to inspire. In fact, she lets us in a non-wine project she has set for herself: “I’m writing a book on motivation and on reaching your potential.”
Regarding the aspects from the Californian way of living she has embraced, she highlights the food. “The salads and the fresh ingredients, I love eating and I love eating lots of things mixed up together, so hey, presto Salads!” She’s also a very outdoorsy person and says she likes to go and jump in the forty foot throughout the year. “I don’t swim, I just flop about but I come out feeling freezing and ready to take on the day. I hear the pacific is even colder, so I am not sure if it is as cold as the Irish Sea in March, but I would love to go for a dip when I visit California in October”, she travels to the region twice a year.
If Justine was to identify herself with a wine from California she says she’d be a Pinot Noir. “If I look at it this way, I enjoy people and I get so much energy from mixing with people, even a quick chat, that if I translated this to wine and its obvious partnership with food, I think I would have to be a wine that works well with many different types of food, so I am going to go for food friendly versatile Californian Pinot Noir.”
Energetic and upbeat, insightful yet cheerful, and with loads going on but with a well achieved balance, we can’t but agree with her choice while we prepare ourselves to enjoy the wave of California wines she’s helping bring to our shores.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.