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The Land of Oz
The Land of Oz
One of wine's most witty, inspiring writers opens up.
Not many people achieve the dream of singing and acting onstage in London's West End then think to themselves, "There has to be something better in life, right?"
That is what happened to Oz Clarke, today one of the world's most successful and prolific wine critics and authors. During a six-month break from the theater in the 1980s, Clarke scribbled out his first wine book longhand. Over the next 20 years, several more books would follow, including Oz Clarke's Wine Atlas, which is updated every few years, as well as his Pocket Wine Book, which is updated annually.
Clarke is also a regular on British radio and television, most notably Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure on BBC, which Clarke co-hosts with Top Gear's James May. The show will soon begin airing on BBC America.
Through all of Clarke's successes (and missteps, such as being banned from visiting Champagne...twice), his goal has always been to popularize and democratize wine from the bottom up. In other words, Clarke is constantly looking to be ahead of the curve, and find the next great region, variety or bottle that's worth the world's attention. He's been at it since his first sip of wine at age three.
Yes, age three. It's a funny story, like so many others of Clarke's. He also has plenty to say about people who drink too much, too often--namely, his fellow countrymen. Read on for plenty more in our full interview, and see what goes on in the head of Oz Clarke, one of the great minds of wine writing.
Bottlenotes: What was the first wine you tasted that inspired you to write about the subject?
Oz Clarke: What inspired me to remember flavors was my mother's Damson wine when I was three years old. My brother was drowning in a river near Cambridge, where my father was working. My father was trying to rescue him and my mother was having hysterics; we were supposed to be having a picnic and I saw this bottle of Damson wine there and thought, "Well, no one else is concentrating on that...so I will." I picked it up smelled it--and it smelled lovely, so I started drinking it. It was this lovely, sweet Damson wine, and it was absolutely delicious.
My brother did survive, by the way. When my father pulled him out of the river, he found me with most of a bottle of wine inside me, so he turned me upside down and gave me a good shaking, and most of it came straight back up again. It probably put me off drinking for about 15 years, but I still remember the flavor even to this day.
But the first actual bottle of wine that I thought, "God, this wine thing is interesting and exciting," was a bottle of Leoville-Barton 1962, which was at the first wine tasting I ever went to. I absolutely remember that amazing flavor of unsmoked cigars and cigar boxes, that cedary and graphite thing; that amazingly dry, yet beautiful black currant fruit. I remember thinking this wine thing could get really thrilling. That's where it all started.
I did do some writing at university to support myself. The first thing I ever wrote was some amazingly sensationalist article like, "Burgundy Vintage Destroyed." [It was] one passing thing I heard in a pub or something, and I thought this was fantastic. It took me a while to realize that you can't write precisely what you want in newspapers--you have to occasionally check your facts.
But the first bottle that absolutely turned my head was that 1962. It was the first time I've ever seen a bottle of old Bordeaux and what age does to wine. We weren't a wine-drinking family. My dad was a doctor who spent half his time down in coal mines and the other half teaching about chest medicine in London. We would occasionally have a half pint of pale ale at Sunday lunch. That was his idea of giving a chap a drink.
Given that first taste and the incident with your brother, what other disasters have occurred while you were drinking wine?
Well, of course, I can't remember most of them! Disasters normally occur when you drink too much of the stuff and you end up thinking, "I'm not sure where I live, who do I live with and how do I get there?" You do that less often as you get older. I think Kingsley Amis, the great English novelist, made a very telling remark: "Being drunk is hell; getting drunk is heaven." He's absolutely right: The enjoyable side of wine, having a few glasses, starting to smile a bit more, starting to feel a bit wittier and more attractive, all these things, that's all great. But then you have another bottle, then you have some gin-and-tonics, then you have some beer, then you have some whiskey, then you really wish the day had never started. When you see people getting really hammered, it's, "Why are you doing it? You're not even going to remember what's happened tomorrow, and you're going to have a blistering headache. And you're going to feel sick as a dog. So why?"
We have a problem with binge drinking in Britain at the moment. It happens all the time. It's cyclical, it's been going on for 2,000 years over here. We don't know who to blame for it. We think probably the Danes or the Saxons or the Vikings caused it, we say, because we get invaded so often in England, someone should have caused it. It was probably the Danes or the Vikings. You hear all these tales of people who get off their heads twice a week. And you think, "What possible pleasure is there?" I think it's peer pressure, often: "I can drink more than you can." It's a pity, because it massively takes away from it; the great delight of drinking has at least partly to do with the great delight of flavor.
What's the biggest disconnect between a wine expert and a reader? What's needed to bridge that gap?
The ability to get the ideas of flavors and textures and also the emotions of wine. The best wines are of an emotional strength. There are some vintages in different parts of the world, like Bordeaux 2005, when I first smelled and tasted the wines, they had an emotional quality. The smells and flavors sang with more than just fruit and alcohol and oak. They sang with an aria of excitement. Those are the wines I enjoy most. They could be from the center of Spain, and could only cost a couple dollars a bottle. They don't have to cost $100. I found an absolutely fabulous one last year which only cost two euros, a garnacha from an old part of Aragon--didn't even have a D.O. They said it's from a co-op in a village, and the stuff was blindingly delicious in a way that the flavors sent messages and emotions and thoughts spiraling through your head because it was such an evocation of a place that I have yet to visit. I've got in my mind the place, I've got in my mind the people.
To try and make wine writing interesting, rather than a succession of flavors and marks, is something people do struggle with. When people ask who are the best wine writers, I often say John Keats, Shakespeare, Evelyn Waugh. Those kinds of people got the most out of wine and put it on paper, and you think, "That's absolutely what one wants to say about wine." Sometimes, if my editor allows me, I decide to wander off into a different kind of world.
Tina Brown gave me a job on The Tattler magazine, and I decided I would write a wine piece each month in the voice of a different author. I did a Steinbeck, I did a Dickens, I did an Orwell and I did Evelyn Waugh. I think after about a dozen of those things [Brown] wondered if I was ever going to do something useful. I did one based on Vile Bodies from Evelyn Waugh, and I thought it was possibly the finest piece of writing that the English language had ever produced. She was not of the same opinion. Sadly [editors are] often correct. Sometimes you look at your own writing and say, "Damn that's good," but you don't necessarily have the same effect on your readers. It's difficult to know.
I do a lot of live television shows as well, and what does the audience like? It's an endless quandary. Sometimes you just have to say, "Look, this is how I want to express this, this is who I am and how I am, and if you don't like it you don't have to read me." I prefer to be in that situation where if you don't like what I write, don't read me--that's fine, go and find somebody else. I'd rather be in that situation rather than on a newspaper, where they say, "You must be readable to our audience."
What would you say is the biggest difference between British and American wine writers?
I think there's a much smaller difference now than there used to be. There used to be an upper-middle-class English, rather bookish tradition. The last generation of wine writers in Britain were almost writers as a hobby; they were businesspeople or wine merchants or academics--and not necessarily just wine writers. They wrote in a very polished Oxford or Cambridge sort of way. I don't think there's a massive difference between American and English writers [anymore]. Someone like Matt Kramer, who's a very enjoyably opinioned writer, if you put him in England the nuance would change, but the actual personality wouldn't. I hope that if I was in America the nuance would change, but the actual way I express myself wouldn't change. People like Eric Asimov on the Times, they take a serious approach to a piece. There's lots of very good journalistic writing going on in America at the moment, and things like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times overpower the stuff in Britain now. Britain used to pride itself on good journalistic stuff, and I don't think Britain is any better than America anymore. It could be the other way around.
Why do you think there aren't wine TV shows, similar to yours, on American television?
One of the troubles has been different laws about alcohol in different states. Sometimes I've found it very easy to do TV in the States--but only depending on where I am, because of the different ways that alcohol is viewed. I don't see why there shouldn't be a show based in California, New York, or D.C. But I don't know the local politics well enough to know if they'll say, "No, we're not going to have people laughing and joking about wine."
Maybe it's the historical precedent in the U.S. that people find it difficult to laugh about alcohol. We find it reasonably easy in Britain to laugh about it. We have bouts when there's drunkenness and too much drinking in society, and times when it's a perfectly normal balance. We've never gone as far as you have in the States. Prohibition wasn't just 14 years. It was a long culmination; states like Maine and Kansas had been headed for Prohibition for a long time before 1919. That 'taming of America,' it may have led to a different view of alcohol. In Europe the view was it's safer to drink alcohol than water, and it's rather nice to have with lunch.
In the north, beer was regarded as food. The great mass of working people of the 18th and way into the 19th century regarded beer as their main sustenance. That's why you have the big heavy beers, like the porters and the stouts. They were there to be full of carbohydrates and proteins, as well as the alcohol. It's all that, "Guinness Is Good For You." The porters and stouts were good for you and they are.
My dad was brought back from the dead virtually by it. He came back from India infected with hepatitis, weighing about five stone and looking bright yellow. My mum took him back to Ireland and put him up in the bedroom to die probably, and they just fed him Guinness. He put on about a stone a week on from that, and within two or three weeks he was bouncing about the place, completely recovered.
When my little dog was ripped to bits by a Mastiff in the village, the vet said we had to put him down. My mum did the same thing, she said, "No, no," and turned to my dad and said, "Owen, go to the pub and get a case of Guinness." He came back and we spoon-fed the Guinness to the dog after he had his stomach stitched up, and within two or three days he was wandering around on three legs and was as lively as ever.
You're not allowed to say that alcohol does you good in public often, but it really does.
Unlike most wine writers, you've managed to avoid controversy. What's the secret?
I've been banned from Champagne twice, and been banned from Bordeaux. I've always tried to popularize and democratize wine from a different level of, say, Robert Parker, who claims to do the same. And if you look at where he comes from and where the States were in 1980, I think he would justifiably say he democratized wine as well. I was doing it from a slightly different level. When Robert got to work the dollar was incredibly strong, and European wines were incredibly cheap in America--but they weren't for us in Europe. He popularized wines from the top down, and I did it from the bottom up.
You can avoid controversy by being dull and predictable. I've not tried to do that. I've never tried to avoid controversy. If I haven't been in any particular public scrapes it's because my skin isn't thin enough. Some of the leading wine writers are very thin skinned, and get very prickly when anything's said about them. I heard stuff said about me and I just say, "Fine, say what you think and move on, tomorrow's another day." Some of them don't; they hold grudges. Wine is just one bit of life, it's not the only bit of life. It's one of the facilitators to having a good time. Just like music is. Just like the sun coming up in the morning, it's just like the breeze in your face when you're walking out by the seas. All these things. Books, darts, food, motorcars, whatever. Wine is one of those rather than the only one of those. I think sometimes that the wine guys live in a world that's too narrow, and closed. You never see those guys drink anything. They just spit everything out. You're then just regarding it as some kind of academic exercise. It's got to be a sensual exercise as well. It's got to hit your heart as well as your brain.
What wine stands out to you as most shocking disappointment?
The wines I've struggled to understand, wine like Barolo, I frequently find amazingly overrated. I just look and look and look and I say, "Fellas, I don't get you giving this 98 out of 100 points. I don't get it and I don't see it." I've tasted other Nebbiolos from lesser vineyards and enjoyed them very much. But I find that one I've really struggled to get excited about.
Quite a few famous Champagnes are fairly disappointing since more money and thought is put into the marketing of the product rather than the product itself.
If I said I find Mouton Rothschild frequently disappointing, and then suddenly a stupendous bottle comes along and you say, "Bloody hell, what's happened with Mouton Rothschild?!" It's unpredictable rather than relentlessly disappointing because it can be completely brilliant. I must admit, I'm a positive thinker about all these things. I'm struggling to find anything negative. I'm sure I'll find something if I stay silent for 10 minutes, which is unheard of....
Out of all of your books, which was your favorite to write as well as the most useful to the everyday wine drinker?
My very first guide, which was just a serious of essays. I'd been singing General Perón in Evita in the West End. I said I wanted to stop doing this and do something else. I thought I was just taking six months out, and I was going to go back and play the KGB man in Chess, but I never did. I wrote this book and, even now when I read it, I just get excited. The idea of a newcomer to wine. It was probably the one that gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction. I was an actor and a singer, and I wrote the book in longhand on my kitchen table at night, just scribbling on sheets and sheets of paper. And then to see it published. All these scribbles of longhand, and the stains from the tomato ketchup...it's published!
The book I wrote, Oz Clarke's New Classic Wines, was the first book--I got tired of everyone putting all the emphasis on Europe and Burgundy and Bordeaux. Everything was so Franco-centric. I decided I'd write a book that would mentioned a few things going on in France, but I put that all in the back. The United States, Australia, New Zealand--this is where the new classics are happening and nobody's taking any notice. Time you did. That was a book I really liked doing.
I liked doing my atlas, too, because that allows you to write essays. Every couple years when I revise it, I think, "Which of my essays are looking a bit ragged?" So I can write a new one. So in the last one we expanded on South America. We put in much more stuff on Chile and Argentina. Those are the countries that are really making waves at the moment. So it needed a more committed approach for me, and allowed me to expand the writing, and expatiate and indulge myself a bit.
What are some of the wine blogs you read?
I check in on Gary Vaynerchuk now and again, but that's mostly to see [about] the defensive line of the Jets.... Though I am a bit of a Jets fan, I'm actually a 49ers fan. But I like the Jets well enough to survive in Gary's company.
I'm just beginning to get into this blogging thing. I'm deeply aware that some social networks are going to be very important, and some of them aren't. I don't yet know which ones those are going to me. I'm hoping to pick up on them to experience them in their forward state, rather than just following them in a few years as everyone else does. So ask me in a year.
What wine did you drink last night? Semillon. Margaret River Chardonnay. Riesling from Clare Valley. A bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. Mosswood Cabernet from West Australia. Pinot from Yarra Valley. Do you want me to stop yet? That's not all of them. I went to an award for young wine writers. I didn't drink all the bottles myself!
I was going to say, there probably is something to that British binge-drinking problem... I'm afraid there is. If I can get through 20 bottles all by myself, possibly I should change my job!