#48: Thailand

Year: TBC
Grapes: TBC
Producer: TBC
Alcohol: TBC
Source: Catherine Raynor (we’ll fill in the rest of the details for this one when we get home!)

Year: 2014
Grapes: Colombard, Chenin Blanc, & other white grapes
Producer: Siam Winery
Alcohol: 12.5%
Source: Sam Harris & Chris Phillips

Year: 2013
Grapes: Tempranillo
Producer: PB Valley Khao Yai Winery
Alcohol: 14%
Source: Andrew Sinthunont

Liv trying to describe the feeling in her mouth when she drank the Thai rosé. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

Some people (most people?) hate job interviews, and with good reason. They’re stressful, unpredictable, and often frustrating – how many times have you absolutely killed it, only to see someone less deserving get the job? I know I’ve been there on multiple occasions, and it’s an awful feeling, exacerbated by the realisation that you have to go right back to square one somewhere else, ready and eager to run the same gauntlet all over again.

But.

But. I have to admit. I kinda love them.

It’s a little masochistic, but I’ve loved interviews ever since I went through the Oxford University entry process at 17. For all that I felt terribly out of my depth and borderline-terrified of the men in front of me, I got such a buzz from the whole thing. The chance to go in there and talk to incredibly smart people about interesting things? Yes please! It was very much my kind of adrenaline rush.

Of course I eventually learned that interviews do not always involve talking to incredibly smart people. Interviews are given by nervous junior staffers, bored HR professionals, and ruthless managers who’ve already made up their minds that you are Not The One. They’re rushed, sloppy, aggressive, or just plain dull. Even so, that buzz has never really gone away.

Because interviews – like first dates – are about possibilities. Even the ones you secretly know are going to suck carry with them just the faintest hope that they might surprise you. They also take place in controlled situations, which has always been my favourite way of meeting new people. Stick me in the middle of a networking event – or fresher bar night, or group blind date (ahhh, 2001..) – and I’ll hover round the edges, never quite sure how to strike up casual conversation with complete strangers. I’ve got better at the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it thing over the years, but it still doesn’t come naturally.

Put me in an interview room, though – or on a first date, or in a meeting with a new client – and I’m immediately at ease. At that point it just becomes a great chance to chat to someone new and (hopefully) interesting, in an environment governed by norms that you both understand. And that’s enough for me: in the moment, at least, the process matters more than the outcome.

That works both ways. Shortly before Christmas, I interviewed a candidate for the first time since I left WH Smith in 2012. As lots of you will know, grilling someone else is actually the best way to brush up on your own interview skills – and vice versa – but it’s also a useful reminder of why we put people through that (ultimately exquisite) torture in the first place. In most industries, hiring someone isn’t just about ticking boxes on a job description or interrogating their CV, and the applicant who looks great on paper isn’t always the best fit for your team or organisation. There’s a cultural component too, which isn’t so easy to quantify, and which requires you to have a human conversation with anyone under consideration.

It’s those conversations that reveal something about who the candidate really is, and how they think. The second of those is important because no matter how closely their previous experience mirrors the job you’re hiring for, it’s inevitable that they’ll encounter new situations and new challenges when they work for you; in most roles, someone who can think through unexpected problems or complex questions in a pressured environment, and give structured/insightful answers, is more likely to thrive than someone who can’t. A good interview ought to tease out that quality – or expose its absence.

The question that got me thinking about this topic is one I was first asked by a recruiter 3-4 years ago, and which I stole for the pre-Xmas interview:

“Do you prefer to know a lot about a little, or a little about a lot?”

Like most good interview questions, there’s no right answer – but a good answer can take many forms, ranging from an organised, one-sentence summary to five minutes of discussion and debate. It also largely defies cookie-cutter responses, and instead forces candidates themselves to think about how their brains work, and what that means in a professional capacity.

Anyway, it was on my mind because of something that happened last night. For the last couple of days we’ve been staying at a (beautiful) wine lodge in the (beautiful) valley that snuggles up to the (beautiful) Andes mountains. The owner speaks very good English, but the guy we’ve seen most of – and who served us dinner both nights – neither speaks nor understands more than a handful of words. And that’s completely fine. We’re in his country, so the responsibility to bridge any language gap lies with us, not with him. Willy Brandt was only right up to a point: ‘If I’m selling to you, I speak your language; if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen’ is a great mantra to keep in mind when conducting business relationships, but on holiday you ought at least to have a go at cobbling together some basic phrases, whether you’re buying, selling, or just making conversation.

Unfortunately, my Spanish is only marginally better than his English [EDIT: Liv says I’m being overly modest here. I’m really not]. I can rattle off various pleasantries, I know the numbers and days of the week, and I can recognise a bunch of words on menus/billboards/road signs/etc. It’s deeply unimpressive, but I muddle through, helped by smiles, hand gestures, and patience on the part of whoever I’m speaking with.

So between us we’ve sort of made it work. Communicating with someone across a fairly impenetrable language barrier is all about putting in some effort, and getting a bit creative with how you phrase things – verbally and non-verbally. That’s what makes it such a fun challenge.

After dinner last night, we ended up in the bar area with another couple, who I’d heard speaking German over dinner. They smiled at us as we took our seats, and I offered a friendly ‘guten abend’ in response. We exchanged a few words, after which the woman turned to me and said “wow, so you speak Spanish and German – well done!”

Intended as a compliment, it made me wince a bit inside. Because of course I don’t. I don’t speak German and I really don’t speak Spanish – I get by. And I have no excuse for either, by the way. With a German grandmother, a half-German mother who also teaches it at secondary school, and a Spanish ex-girlfriend, I ought to be at least semi-proficient in both languages; instead I rely on some basic vocab, plus the extra bits and pieces my brain has decided to retain over the years, and whatever I can quickly pick up when I’m back in those countries. The same is true for French and Polish.

When it comes to languages, at least, I know a little about a lot.

I think that’s true in other areas too, however much I might occasionally wish it were the other way round. It’s why I wasn’t really suited to academia beyond my BA – I enjoyed bits of my Masters, but struggled to pull together a decent thesis, and wouldn’t have lasted long on any respectable PHD programme – and perhaps why I’ve ended up in consultancy. I’m good at rapidly acquiring a base level of knowledge on a given subject, and at building that up to a point where I can hold credible conversations with people who know it inside out. I lack the patience and discipline to go much deeper than that; to devote all of my time and focus to mastering a particular field or topic.

For the work I do, that’s no bad thing. Stick me on a new project, or in a different team, and I’ll be up to speed fairly quickly on what’s required. I’ll learn the basic vocab and stock phrases, and use those to gather information, analyse data, and slowly solve the puzzle in front of me. You don’t need to be an expert in someone’s line of work in order to solve their problems or improve their business – you just need to know enough to help them direct their expertise in a more effective way.

In a world where Google can give you the answer to just about any question in a matter of seconds, perhaps we’re all moving steadily in that direction. Cobble together a solid enough foundation – one that enables you to understand the principles of whatever you’re studying or discussing – and let the Internet do the rest. If it’s all there at your fingertips in a matter of seconds, why go to the trouble of retaining vast underground reservoirs of information? Just tap into a whole bunch of different wells as and when they’re needed.

Except the world needs people who do more than ‘get by’. It needs fluency, and it needs experts. Effectively harnessing and utilising information means finding the right balance of breadth and depth – and the latter cannot be provided by Google alone. Subject-matter experts provide context, experience, and the means of formulating the important questions in the first place, whether or not they then require help answering them. They are the ones who can identify risks and dependencies, or immediately understand the long-term consequences of seemingly inconsequential decisions.

That’s why it was so dangerous for Trump to hand ownership of big chunks of foreign policy to Jared Kushner, while simultaneously leaving half the vacancies in his State Department unfilled, and for Michael Gove to tell the world that people in Britain ‘have had enough of experts’. It’s also why I ask that question in interviews. Some roles require people who know a lot about a little, and some require people who know a little about a lot, but all organisations need the right mix of both – and if some of them have already thought about which way they lean, and what that means for how they work with those around them, so much the better!

Wine Info

From the Monsoon Valley website:

Monsoon Valley Classic Range is blended from Thai and international grapes varieties grown at the Floating Vineyards of Samut Sakorn and Monsoon Valley Vineyard respectively. On the nose well ripened melon and mango with hints of banana. Light and refreshing body with honey and apricot on the palate, finishing with smooth acidity.

From the PB Valley Khao Yai website:

One of the very first large scale and highly professional wineries in the tropical country was established since 1989. The vineyard settles beautifully on a valley over 2,500 rais (400 hectares / 1,000 acres), 350 to 380 meters above sea level, guaranteeing a well-conditioned climate. The present wine selection available at the PB Valley Estate are Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Shiraz, Tempranillo, Durif, Dornfelder and Cabernet Sauvignon but the expansion to more varieties of grapes in order to produce more PB Valley Quality wines will include Pinot Noir and others.

Wine Verdict

Chris

Gosh, where to start with these! We were ‘lucky’ enough to be given not one, not two, but THREE Thai wines by lovely friends over the course of the year, and each one was very…interesting. Actually, that’s not true: one was bad in a very uninteresting way, but the others at least had character. I think. Here are my notes on each:

Rosé

Oh my word – this is *very* sweet. Not quite Blossom Hill sweet, but yes, it’s not subtle! It actually has quite an appealingly fresh, fruity nose, but that fruit doesn’t come through on the palate as anything much more than pure sugar. There is a consistency of flavour though, and if this is what they were aiming for, you’d have to call it a well-made wine – just not one I’ll be rushing out to drink again!

4/10

White

Oh, this is gross. Way too sugary, just blunt-force sweetness with no real flavour or subtlety. Like a cheaper version of the rosé, which is definitely not a compliment. I can maybe see how it would go with Thai food – sweeter wines nicely offset the spice and heat of south-east Asian curries – but you’d still have to work hard to get me to put more of this in my mouth.

2/10

Red

Success! Or it’s not bad, anyway! I like the little bit of fizz, and it’s got good, dark dryness going on, but there isn’t a huge amount beyond that and it’s a little bitter. I think it would benefit from being chilled a bit before drinking, as that might have smoothed out some of the harsher notes and made the most of the effervescence. Drinkable.

Oh, and it may be coincidence, but this was the only one brought back for us from Thailand (thanks Sinty), rather than bought in the UK…

6/10

Livvy

Rosé

I don’t think it’s that much of an understatement to say that I didn’t have the highest expectations for this wine! It had a strong…odour and was a pale orange colour. And, wow, it was very sweet! The first taste was a fruity but then the sweetness overcame it and this sickly aftertaste expanded to fill my mouth and throat, like in the video! Despite the sweetness, it didn’t have that syrupy richness that makes sweet wines delicious and just tasted like a bad Blosson Hill rosé.

My closing notes on this wine were that it was ‘unpleasant mainly because it’s not to my taste rather than genuinely bad’ but I suspect I was clutching at good straws…

4/10, no. No, no, no…

White

‘Ooh, this is something else’ said Dan as we force-fed him this wine before Christmas drinks! And I think that about sums it up! A sweet wine with a mild flavour that became less offensive the more we drank, take from that what you will! It was fruity and smooth and tasted like bad rosé…although not as bad as the Thai rosé!

5/10, feels generous but it’s better than the rosé

Red

Oh my, I’m sorry but Thailand do not make good wines! This had a really usual taste that somehow reminded me of tomatoes!! (‘Spaghettios!’) It was…fizzy…and did have some depth of flavour created earthy tones, but these were almost lost in the tannic aftertaste. It was more drinkable than the others, but it wasn’t exactly a difficult competition to win…

6/10, the best of a bad bunch!

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