Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

The Birth of a Wine Writer

Written by Giles MacDonogh

The Birth of a Wine Writer

Posted: 1st March 2021

Faced with the twin plagues of Covid and Brexit, most wine writing must be on hold. Merchants are currently living on their fat; wine writers (I assume) on state handouts. It is still not clear what will remain once the fog disperses. For the time being there are no post-Christmas sales, no trade tastings, no visits to foreign vineyards, and no chance to consume meals in restaurants with specialised lists. The future of small shipments of those interesting wines that are the spice of wine writers’ lives is now in doubt, as transportation costs have risen sharply as a result of the new post-Brexit paperwork. Previously untaxed commercial samples are now subject to duty, so you need to travel to discover novelties, which for the time being you cannot do and in all probability they will never reach these shores either. What shops will offer in the future is more likely to be produced in industrial quantities. And we can expect prices to continue to go up.

I became a wine writer nearly forty years ago. It was quite by accident. The fact that I did might be ascribed very largely to one man: Tim Johnston, who was my mentor at the time. I was living in Paris and had been writing what was going to be my doctoral dissertation on the Bordeaux wine trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and spending as much time as I could in the Bibliothèque nationale. The library was in the rue Richelieu then, and round the corner from Willi’s Wine Bar which Mark Williamson opened to huge acclaim in 1980.

When I had stashed away my books, I’d drop in on Willi’s for a glass of wine; especially once Tim Johnston arrived from Provence to run it, bringing with him his considerable expertise when it came to the wines of the Rhone Valley. Like Steven Spurrier at the Caves de la Madeleine and the Académie du Vin, Tim had managed to become a respected figure in French wine circles, which was no easy feat. I got to know him a little bit then. In 1981 Tim moved to Bordeaux to manage a wine bar on the place Tourny. The bar is long gone. The site is now a branch of the industrial baker Paul.

I had planned to use the summer that year to get my work done in the Gironde Archives in the rue d’Aviau in Bordeaux. I was on a tight budget and had to find a very cheap room in the crummiest hotel around. In the evening I’d go to Tim’s bar. He understood the situation at once. When I arrived he’d line up six glasses on the counter: ‘I am trying to decide which of these Côtes de Fronsac I am going to put on the list. Try them all and let me know what you think.’

The glasses remained on the counter, and I tried them repeatedly before I gave him my verdict. Sometimes he cast similar doubts about a dish he was going to put on the menu, so I would have to try that too. Had it not been for Tim, I would have had to return to Paris a lot earlier than I did, and a lot thinner.

About the author

Giles MacDonogh

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