From scrubbing fellow wine critic Charles Metcalfe naked in the showers at Oxford University, to still being the most respected, loved, and recognised person talking about wine on our TV screens – Oz Clarke is a one off. A personality of the highest order, always a regular at every major, and minor trade wine tasting, still eager to learn, share and talk about his passion for wine – or beer, or music, or Gillingham Football Club. Here he talks to Richard Siddle about his life in wine and why like Peter Pan he has no intention of growing up and taking the world too seriously.
It’s hard to be able to share or encapsulate Oz Clarke’s life in wine in just one 2,000 word article. Thankfully he has done that for us in his brilliant new book ‘Red and White’ that is supposed to be about wine, but is really all about his love and passion for life and what makes him such the character he is.
You are sharing a stage with Charles Metcalfe at next week’s London Wine Fair to talk about your life and career in wine. You go back a long way don’t you?
It was Charles who first got me into the world of wine during our days at Oxford. He had gone there from a smart school and was in a smart college, whereas I had come from not such a smart school and as not in such a smart college.
We actually first met in the showers when we both performing in an opera – by Gluck – together. I died at the end of the first act, and he died at the beginning of the second, so we would both be in the showers scrubbing all the stage blood off each other. He had also become boss of the wine and food association and got me to join. He has been a mentor and friend ever since.
Tell us about your latest book ‘Red and White’ which is now available in paperback?
Well, I can tell you what it is not. It’s not a memoir, although, it does have lots of stories about my life in it. I wanted to write a wine book that people would think was a bloody good read. I wanted it to be the first wine page turner, so that people really need to turn the page to find out what happens.
It’s all about what I think is interesting about wine. Why did I first get involved in Chianti? Well, it was sex and lying in bed with a lovely girl from Newcastle with nothing to eat or drink in the house but a bottle of Sassicaia 1968 that we drank out of a tooth mug. But from there I also started to discover Antinori and Gaia.
This is not a geographical wine book. But if you want lots of wine facts then there are lots in there to find, but it is also stories about what has excited and amused me about wine. I find it hard to read a lot of the general wine books out there. They can be useful to use, but I want to give you something that is fun, fact and fiction.
It’s probably also the most personal book I have written. From the first paragraph it tells the story about how I started drinking at the age of three. My brother had fallen into a river on a family outing and whilst my dad jumped in to save him from my drowning, and my mother was distracted, I decided to drink the damson wine that was part of the picnic. Fortunately my brother survived.
The trouble is I want to tell all my stories and my publisher wants to keep some of them out. So we end up with about a 50/50 compromise. So half the sex has been sanitised and only half the sex has been kept in.
You also talk a lot about your life before wine?
A lot of the book is about how I grew up in the country and how as a family we grew all our own vegetables and fruit and kept chickens, geese and a pig. So from a very early age I would basically be my mum’s little helper, sent out into the garden to pick whatever was ripe and ready to eat. I did not go to school until I was six so spent all that time around my mother helping her to make jams, chutneys and just loving and enjoying all the smells, tastes and aromas. I learnt very quickly how you use your smell, touch and taste to know what was ripe and ready by the season. My life has been full of a love of flavours and taste ever since. Skills I learnt from a very early age.
You have clearly taken that on into your wine career?
A lot of my wine tasting is all about taste and smell. Whenever I am teaching people about wine I aways ask them to go back to the emotions they felt in their childhood about the smells they can remember from growing up. The black jam on your bread, but what kind of jam, what was the smell of the bread? What time of the year was it? By using those memories of taste and smell it is often a good way to help people look at and better appreciate the wines they have in front of them.
I often get amazing flashbacks to my childhood days when I am tasting wine. You have to remember how powerful our original sense of smell was when we were growing up. It is what w relied on. Now that we are all in this strange world of wine we try and use words to describe our most primal sense of smell.
How did you go about writing this book? I try and write how I speak. Which might mean I jot all over the place, but that’s how I do it. I will sit in my office, in the quiet, and talk as I write. I have to hear the words, and if it flows and starts to bounce off the walls then it will hopefully bounce of the page too.
Having travelled the world multiple times where next do you want to visit?
I have to keep travelling to keep my heart alive. It’s why in recent years I have been travelling to countries that I really need to know more about like Hungary, Georgia, southern Russia, Romania, Croatia, even the wines of the Douro Valley. A lot of things you might know about wine, is because you were there to see it, to talk to the winemaker. That little comment that helped unpick a lock. Yet, you might go to another winery and just not click. That’s the way it is.
How do you see the current state and future for the wine industry?
The beauty of the wine world is that it is constantly re-inventing itself. It’s like going back to the future. have been banging the drum about global warming since 1993. I can remember doing a talk for Wine Spectator and telling a room full of winemakers that they may soon not be able to plant Merlot in Bordeaux, will have to have Roussanne in Mâconnais. Look at planting Syrah because of global warming. They did not want to hear and some started to leave the room. But I will never forget. Miguel Torres, Angelo Gaia and Nicole Antinori all came forward to sit on the front room. They got it and they were they had my back. I will never forget that.
Not we are seeing the revival of all these indigenous grape varieties that were once dismissed as not being popular enough. It is great to see this new young generation of winemakers who are willing to go back to what where their grandparents were doing and the grapes they had in their soils. It’s exciting to think the future for wine could be sitting in old vineyards in Spain, Greece and Georgia. And all credit to these winemakers who are going out there and using them, like Steve Parnell in the McLaren Vale or the young turks in the Barossa Valley. These are grapes that have been through decades, centuries of fire and brimstone, of hail, and frosts.
You have lived through many wine eras, any you wish hadn’t?
We have to ask ourselves how did we let the Parker era happen? How did we allow the first half of the last century to happen? When the great monsters of wine were created. Wines with such high alcohol and high PH that were undrinkable, but yet we were told would be wonderful in many years time. How did we sit on our hands to allow that to happen? But it’s the same when you look back at the history of music. I have fallen in love with baroque music. The sheer thrill of hearing that early music. I can remember being a great romantic for 19th century music when people throwing it in the bin. Only now are people starting to re-appreciate that music for what it was.
Do you still have any outstanding ambitions?
To do more of the same. It is great to be back on television recommending and talking about wines on the James Martin Saturday morning TV show. TV is still extremely relevant and to be on prime time on ITV is great. We also don’t have any price limit on the wines we choose or where they come from. They don’t need to be supermarket wines. There is a great sense of achievement when we get it right.
The TV slot includes you talking to average shoppers about the wines they like. You have always seemed to have an uncanny knack of being able to talk to anyone about wine?
Well, I really like members of the public and not many people do. I love going out and talking to people. It’s when I am at my happiest. First of all you have to realise that there is always a reason why someone likes a particular wine over another. You just have to find out what it is. People want to have an opinion and just need a little help to give it. They are looking for a pathway so they can get just a bit more pleasure from the wines they drink. That is what my book is also really about. A pathway to pleasure.
Most people can be OK at tasting wine, if they know what they are doing. I try and use as little advance language as I can. A lot of that comes back to discovering who they are themselves. What memories do they have, and helping them go back and re-discover them.
We also have to realise that wine in itself is unnecessary. But it is about pleasure, like music, like the sun, the wind, the trees around us, they all help make our lives a little bit better. I am always mystified when I go to a trade tasting to see the number of wine experts walking around and tasting in total silence, with their heads over their notebooks and iPads. They are not even smiling. I want to say to them, stop marking every wine out of a 100 and enjoy them for what they are. Share your love and experiences with each other.
With a four year old child you still don’t have much spare time for yourself?
You’re right. I don’t have time to get old. Your passport tells you how old you are, but I am not that age. I am still very young at heart. One of the greatest things about wine is that every year is a re-birth, a re-invention, which is the greatest way to stop yourself from getting old. There has always been a lot of Peter Pan about my life.
- Oz Clarke will be appearing at the London Wine Fair on stage in a special Q&A session with Charles Metcalfe looking back over his career and life in wine on May 21 at 2pm.
- You can buy your own copy of his book Red& White here.