Oz Clarke on Wine Writing, Trends and the Race to Find the Next Big Thing
There are topics that generate an intimidating fascination on most people; wide and complex, it is not until a modern day Prometheus shares their fire, than mankind sees them more clearly, off their pedestals and in a more approachable light, that of a TV screen. “Servantless American” Julia Child did it for French cuisine in the sixties, Sir David Attenborough has done it for the animal kingdom since the days of black and white cheetahs, more recently Neil deGrasse Tyson has chosen nothing less than astrophysics to unravel and, since the early eighties, Oz Clarke has done the same for wine.
We spoke recently with Oz as he visited Ireland to take oenophiles for an Australian Wine Journey at the National Concert Hall. The British wine expert, author, broadcaster and actor was invited by O’Briens Wine for an evening exploration of some of the contemporary wines coming from down under.
Son of an Irish woman, he is well acquainted with the country and Irish audiences are also familiar with him, specially those who met him as the face of the BBC’s Food and Drink for almost three decades.
Oz is one of the world’s most influential wine people and his transition from being “the actor that knows about wine” to a game changer has been well documented.
Reflecting on how his role has evolved over the last thirty years, he finds that things have come full circle: “When I started in wine, people didn’t drink it at home”, he says, and the amount of information available that was approachable was appallingly meagre.
Nowadays, “it’s almost gone too far”, he says. Oz points out that the the quality of wines at all levels is remarkably higher and the variety incredibly bigger. “I sometimes think that in the last twenty years or so we’ve made so much efforts to democratise wine and to make it understandable to everybody that we almost don’t need us anymore, we almost talked ourselves out of a job.”
Counter intuitively, as wine becomes mainstream, its media presence goes niche. “It’s very interesting how in Britain for instance, most of the broadsheet newspapers are saying we don’t need a wine column anymore” says Clarke, just as consumption is higher than ever.
He remembers a recent conversation with the editor of “a big newspaper” in which Oz lamented the disappearance of their wine column, “we all know about cars but you still have a motorist column”, he told the editor, who was “completely nonplussed.”
In reaction to that, Oz points out that there is a move “significantly lead by the bloggers and the onliners which are starting to say there is something very special about wine” and just like “a decent car, a new painting or a ballet that’s coming on to the national theatre”, it deserves to be written about with passion and care.
The audience is definitively there, but “a lot of the editors are not really interested in helping us find an audience, we’re going to have to find it for ourselves with hard work.”
In a way, therefore, it’s almost as if I’m going back to where I started.”
Oz on Wine Trends and Fashions
Just as there’s a booming movement of people willing to share stories about wine, there is also a refreshed passion to create new and exiting bottles. When discussing the pros and cons of trends and fashions in the world of wine, Oz considers that they are “great, they keep wine lively, they keep people interested, they give us something to talk and write about.”
But as in fashion, only some trends are genuinely exciting and useful and in twenty years they’ll still be of great importance.
As examples he quotes Channel, Vidal Sassoon or Yves Saint Laurent, whose work is still relevant after decades. “We think about organics, biodynamics, orange wine, the Natural Wine movement, qvevri, concrete eggs, amphorae… all this kind of stuff, and as long as it’s getting people excited and animated it’s all tremendous, but when it goes wrong is when they start making ideology out of it.”
Respecting each other’s opinions is key and while Oz acknowledges there are “brilliant people who completely pursue the natural line”, the problem comes when some regard themselves “as the only arbiters of a high moral ground, which I have to say with the greatest respect, it’s not so.”
On the Obsession to Find the Next Big Thing
Just as winemakers are keen to innovate and revive, and wine media is eager to break the news, sommeliers are on a race to discover what’s the next big thing and serve it to their customers, and Oz wonders what happens to the previous next big thing?
The sommelier movement is important, a lot of them are lucid, are desperately keen to state their opinions, I think that probably what happens often is they chase the next new thing too much.”
For Oz, sommeliers go the extra mile to spot the next new thing because “that’s one of the ways you can estate your importance and say look my relevance to the world of wine” however, “what happens is that the previous next new thing is discarded before it can even establish itself.”
I think that it’s a danger because we’re running out of next new things.”
What eventually happens, he warns, “is that looking for the next new thing all the time, we’ll end up, if we’re not careful, going through every single thing.”
Finding a new region or a reviving a forgotten grape variety takes time “places like Marlborough in New Zealand, Aconcagua Valley in Chile or Gualtallary in Argentina” didn’t happen over night and Oz warns that “eventually the danger with wine is that if you’re looking for the next new thing all the time, you’re pushing out to the margins”, and you might reach a point when you’ll need to question the very concept of what’s wine in order to keep innovating.
What wines do you like to drink?
“Depends… If i’m in a wine area in the world, I would like to drink their local wines, not their fancy cuvées, just the stuff that the local people drink. And I do like Bordeaux a lot, I like mature Bordeaux, and I get a lot of pleasure from storing and maturing Bordeaux. I like New Zealand Chardonnay and Sauvignon and Kabinett Mosel wines from cool years are absolutely divine.”
What other drinks besides wine do you enjoy?
“I love good beer, and I’m so pleased that craft beer is taking off in Ireland. I love gin, it’s cheap to make, you just need an inspiration, you can make very good gin without a lot of money and I also like good cider, with good sourness.”
What’s the last book you read?
“Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh.”
What music are you listening at the moment?
“I do a series of concerts with a group called The Armonico Consort, so the most recent stuff I’ve been listening is their recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers.”
What are you planning?
“I’ve two books coming up in the next 12 months and another three books coming up in the next fifteen months. If you see me walking around with a haggard look on my face it’s because the third book still has to be written. I’ve also have a series of concerts this year and a new television series.”
What have you been avoiding?
“Starting getting my book written. Talk to any book writer and ask them what are they avoiding, it’s writing the next chapter.”
What have you recently started getting into?
“Performing on stage again, my last role was General Perón in Evita and I though I didn’t want to do that anymore, but in the last thirteen months I’ve done fifteen concerts and I never thought I’d do it again. It’s too frightening, it’s extraordinarily terrifying to get up there and do it.”
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.
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