“Where are the new people? Come on, step up to the plate.” An interview with Oz Clarke

Oz Romania
Oz on the left, me on the right

Growing up in 1980s Britain, there wasn’t much wine on UK television, but I still have clear memories of Oz Clarke’s boundless enthusiasm on the BBC’s Food & Drink show. I was too young to drink but even so it made an impression. Oz is still on our screens today, and in the intervening years he’s employed press, radio, events, books and social media to spread the word. I can think of no other wine expert who has enjoyed such a lengthy career in mainstream UK media: he has a unique perspective.

Earlier this year I accompanied Oz and some fellow wine writers on a press trip to Romania (from left to right: Oz Clarke; John Wilson, Irish Times; Leslie Williams, Irish Examiner; Philip Cox, Cramele Recaş Winery; me). It turns out his fame isn’t restricted to the UK; it would be hard to imagine Barak Obama getting a warmer welcome at some of the wineries we visited. With his reedy, resonant voice retained from his days as an actor he cuts quite a statesmanlike figure. So I was surprised to hear he once lived in a squat in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in London. During the flight back to the UK I spoke to him about his journey in wine so far and how wine in the media has changed over the past three decades.

Oz has always been an incisive taster; he captained the wine tasting team during his years at Pembroke College, Oxford. So when he heard about a national wine tasting championship shortly after completing his studies, as a poor student he entered in the hope of winning some prize money. He came second, beating Sir Hugh Greene, then Director of the BBC, and the ex-Home Secretary Reginald Maudling.

But more importantly it kickstarted his writing career: “A bloke sidled up to me after I’d got my prize for coming second and said ‘I’m starting a wine newspaper called What Wine? – would you like to write a column for it?’” He seized the opportunity, writing a series of “sensationalist columns for enough money to take girls out to dinner”. But “it finally failed to continue when I wrote a beautiful lyrical piece about the Mosel Valley and how I’d been sitting watching the sheep gambolling in the vineyards and the ladies in their dirndls downing jugs of Riesling and I’d obviously never been there.”

From here Oz moved into acting, but always kept a hand in wine. “I was at the National Theatre when I was squatting in Manor House, on the 8th floor of a council block. I had to go into the theatre to wash in the morning… I didn’t have a telephone, hot water, electricity, I had nothing.” At the same time as playing various roles in the West End, he joined the English wine tasting team that went on to beat Germany and France. The press lapped it up: “because I was an actor I was always on the front page of the papers in costume with a glass of wine and I became known as the actor who knows about wine”.

His tasting prowess got him noticed again, this time by the editor of a national newspaper. “I got this phone call asking if I’d like to meet the editor of the Sunday Express. ‘Well you obviously know about wine’ he said ‘but can you write?’ It was one of those times when you could either say ‘Oh I don’t know’ or you can say ‘yes!’ So I said ‘yes – I can write’. And he said ‘would you like to be the Sunday Express wine writer?’ Straight from nothing into a Fleet Street job. And that was because of being part of the English wine tasting team and having my face on the front of the papers.” From here it was a natural next step to start writing wine books.

Grabbing opportunities with both hands is a recurring theme when talking to Oz. “There was a new TV show called BBC Food & Drink and they were going to do a blind wine tasting live in front of an audience. The bloke who was supposed to be doing it had terrible cold feet and dropped out at a day’s notice, and the producer said ‘Get me that actor who knows about wine!’” Oz rushed to the studio the next morning.

Oz stood on stage in front of the audience. They could see the name of the wine but he couldn’t. “I saw this golden coloured wine in front of me and I thought well that’s got to be an Australian Chardonnay. I’d done pantomime and I started playing the audience: ‘look at that colour, it must be from somewhere hot’ – a little tittering in the audience – and I said ‘well there are hot places like France and Italy’ – silence – ‘but I think it’s more likely to be from the southern hemisphere’ – another little titter. “Eventually I got to a point where I was able to say ‘I think this wine is made by a chap called Murray Tyrrell, it’s called Vat 47, it comes from the Hunter Valley near Sydney in New South Wales and you can get it in Waitrose for £2.99.’ The place erupted! And I remember coming off and the producer Baz saying ‘that was fantastic, I didn’t know we could make wine tasting into showbiz. One thing though; you realise you forgot to taste the wine?’”

Oz went on to be a regular on Food & Drink, and also at the annual BBC Good Food Show. Events are still important to him. “I’m doing Taste of London, London Wine Week, Three Wine Men – we do between four and six of those shows a year. Three Wine Men particularly I like because you have to meet your public, you’re just tearing round the room all the time meeting the public; meeting the public and learning from them. I learn a bit through social media but I learn more by having people in front of me, taking selfies and chatting: what’s the kind of stuff that you like, what does wine mean to you?”

Although Oz runs his own Twitter account, at nearly 50,000 followers he finds it hard to find the time to interact online as much as he would like. He’s witnessed the birth of Facebook and Twitter during his career; does he feel that there is more wine in the media today compared to when he started out? “No, less I’d have thought. There wasn’t social media when I started out, there was a lot of television and radio, regularly doing wine, wine was in the studio all the time, bottle after bottle of wine being opened in radio stations, half an hour of national radio, chatting away with wine in front of us all the time. I don’t think that’s nearly so much the case now. Political correctness has spoilt some of it, times change… Political correctness about bad behaviour, nervousness about litigation, and nervousness about anything that is not relatively conformist. Again, that’s another reason why one ought to slightly welcome people like the natural wine brigade.”

Oz is no stranger to controversial wine trends like natural wine. When New World wines were reaching our shores for the first time, he was one of the first to champion these new styles. “The 1990s was a fantastic time to be a wine writer because there was a revolution going on all around us… I suffered immense disapproval all the time from the establishment, they couldn’t bear the idea of a young whippersnapper coming in and saying there was a new thing that they didn’t like. Their little cosy world was being turned upside down by people like me and Jilly Goolden. They did not like it a bit.”

And he’s still open to new styles. “What’s happening on the fringes of wine, involving either the natural wine people or what has come back from Georgia, the qvevri wines and the orange wines, these are all exciting things.” What he is less keen on is the militant positions of some natural wine supporters. “It’s when they get an AK47 out, aim it at me and say ‘you’re wrong and I’m right’, that’s when I find it less amusing. I think some of the people that are in that camp, they don’t seem to want to take anyone else’s point of view… and it’s a real weakness in a person’s position if they can’t take pleasure in what someone else thinks that disagrees with you.” Nonetheless, this proliferation of new styles is providing plenty of new topics to write about.

Finding an outlet, however, is another question. “In a funny way there’s a lot more to write about now. The wine world is much, much wider, but I’m not sure editors want you to write about it. A lot of editors seem to just want a shopping list… it’s a very easy way to get copy down, but it’s not very interesting, it’s not very enjoyable. It’s like writers that all they do is write wine tasting notes. I think that must be such a boring life… If your wine writing just ends up like that you’re missing out on all the beauty of life of which wine is just a strand.”

I wasn’t old enough to drink when I first watched Oz on Food & Drink. But what I saw sowed a seed that became a lifelong passion. I’m sure that many other UK winelovers owe him the same debt of gratitude. After several decades “banging the drum” about wine, his love for it remains undimmed. But despite the growth of blogging and social media, he clearly feels that wine is less visible than it once was. “I think the outlook for wine is very optimistic, the fact that we are in another golden age of wine, but I don’t think we’re in a golden age of communicating about wine… Where are the new people? Come on, step up to the plate and try and amuse and entertain an audience, so they walk away thinking ‘I’ve learnt something about wine’ as well as having a smile on their face. Not easy to do.”

Oz Clarke’s new book The History of Wine in 100 Bottles is out now.