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.
Tim had begun life as a wine trade trainee at Château Cantenac Brown, and he knew the region well. At the weekends he and I and his wife Steph used to explore the countryside and above all the vineyards. When I went off with just Tim I rode on the back of his motorbike. If Steph came we took his car. He wangled me in on the tastings he was invited to. I remember visiting Mouton for the first time and driving to Fronsac to call on a château-owner with a Francis Bacon triptych decorating his office wall. Tim had friends in various châteaux, we’d have a pleasant lunch in a bistrot somewhere, or go to that lovely café near the ferry at Lamarque and drink Bass beer with brown shrimps called ‘chevrettes’.
And I made other friends through Tim. I went up to Château Loudenne to spend the night and look at their extensive archives. I remember visiting Jenny Bailey (later Dobson) at Château Sénéjac and a picnic on the Battlefield of Castillon. My sister, pregnant with her daughter joined me for a few days in my hotel. What had seemed like a grim prospect of a month on my own in Bordeaux turned into a memorable summer.
Tim’s job didn’t last long and he came back to Paris. The fly paper for almost all my wine contacts in France was Steven Spurrier’s empire in the Cité Berryer. Apart from Tim, almost everyone – including Jenny and Mark Williamson – had worked for him at some stage. One of the oddest Spurrier old boys was the late Ivan Paul, the scion of a family of rich maltsters near Ipswich who kept a wine shop in the rue Vaneau and got into endless scrapes.
His fellow Old Etonian Charles Lea proved more level-headed and went on to found the highly successful wine merchants Lea & Sandeman in London with Patrick Sandeman (another who went to a sadly early grave). Through the Académie I met the leading lights of French wine writing like Michel Bettane, Michel Dovaz and his friend Muriel de Potex, who had a vicious parrot and lived nearby in Montparnasse. Joel Payne the Texan editor of the indispensible GaultMillau Guide to German wines was another Académie man who worked for a while behind the bar at Willi’s.
My initiation into the world of wine writing came when Tim was asked by the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce to write an article on Beaujolais for their magazine. He said he couldn’t do it alone and asked me to write it with him. I am sure he would have managed it if he really wanted to. I think another commission came later from the same source. Even if I was increasingly drawn into tasting wine and attending major events, I was still just a historian whose interest in wine was confined to a period before the First World War. Wine writing only became (an unreliable) source of income when in the spring or summer of 1984. I was asked to take over the editorship of a consumer magazine owned by a clutch of seedy Marseillais brothers based in an office above the Champs Elysées. They wanted me to sell advertising space, but I refused, and wrote wine and food articles instead.
When I returned to live in England at the end of the year there was still a little translating work on offer from the circle around the Académie du Vin. I knew little or nothing of the much vaunted wine scene in Britain, even if Steven Spurrier had opened a wine shop in Fulham and lived close to my sister in Clapham. In France we tasted almost exclusively French wines. In England the range was naturally much broader.
In 1985 a friend commissioned a commercial radio series about drink called ‘Grape & Grain’. Together with a team of professional broadcasters we recorded interviews with members of the British trade about drink. I was still working on my thesis, even if I had lost my connection to the University of Paris I. In the time I had to spare I was in the Reading Room of the British Museum and hoped that I might be able to interest a publisher in a book on the subject. Apart from a brief trip to Ireland to taste whisky (my first to the land of my fathers), I didn’t budge from Britain all year.
The following year I began to travel again. I even went back to Bordeaux to do a piece for the boys in the Champs Elysées, a remarkable trip that involved never-to-be repeated treats like a lunch at Yquem, and a dinner at the Bordeaux home of the Prats of Cos d’Estournel. I travelled with the Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker and Robert Joseph from WINE magazine, the force behind the recently created Wine Challenge tasting tournament. With Robert I finally came into contact with English wine-writing. As for the Bordeaux thesis-cum-book, it was reluctantly abandoned, although a long fragment was published last year. Instead I started another book on gastronomic French history and in November 1987 that became my Opus I.
(Ed)An important companion book to Brillat Savarin’s masterpiece by a contemporary gourmand.
Rich with insight into the dining habits of late 18th century France