This was supposed to be an interview. I’d done my research and listed my questions. But three bottles of wine later, Oz and I were talking about life, wine, politics, farming, situational drinking, hopes and regrets. The interview had taken all day, a Monday, during actual daytime, and any structure had broken down into a self-help session, mutual love-in and generally pleasant buzz.
Oz Clarke took two years to write Red and White: An unquenchable thirst for wine (Little, Brown) which was a finalist for this year’s Andre Simon Drink book awards. It’s part memoir, part wine guide. It’s easy to read, entertaining, with anecdotes, stories and the voice of the wizard – Oz – who is a born teacher. The rhythm of the book is compelling, driving you onwards, you can hear him talking to you, enthusiastically, all that knowledge gained over years showering over the reader. It’s not dry. It doesn’t talk down to you either.
Oz is probably the most famous and influential wine expert in the UK. Currently he’s appearing on Saturday Morning with James Martin on ITV, travelling around the UK tasting wines with the public. He’s best known perhaps for appearing on the original 1980s series of Food and Drink with Jilly Goolden. Together they transformed the UK from occasional wine drinkers (5% of the population) to wine enthusiasts (85% of the population). They also created the idea that wine experts were quirky personalities.
The first chapters of Red and White describe his journey from Oxbridge student who showed a preternatural gift for wine tasting to wine professional. Oz started as a singer and actor, mostly musical comedy, appearing in Evita and other West End shows. That accounts for his deep resonant actorly voice. So he’s a wine person who can perform.
I’ve just returned from Hungary where I did a wine tasting session at Tasting Table. I mentioned to our teacher Sebastian that I was interviewing Oz and wanted to take him a bottle as a present. Sebastian became very excited, he was a big fan, particularly of The history of Wine in 100 bottles, (which I’ve since bought) and started to pull out stuff that Oz simply should try. I plumped for a dry (not the usual sweet) Tokaji, made by a Frenchman, Samuel Tinon, in Hungary, and tasting rather like vin jaune but without the nail varnish.
We decide where to do the interview. I want to take pictures so I need daylight. We go up to the first floor; straight-away I can see this is a house dominated by a child. It is full of toys: stacks of jigsaw puzzles, a place in the centre of the floor for practising cello, dolls everywhere.
This is all for Oz’s three year old daughter, his first child.
Was this all a bit lastminute.com?
“No, not at all. Now I’ve had a child I don’t know why we were resisting this for so long. My wife decided she wanted a kid. It’s always the woman who decides. I only know one bloke who made the decision. “
We descend to the basement where a cluttered room, full of books and bottles lining the walls, serves as Oz’s writing den. Next door is a small cupboard with his cellar containing perhaps 250 dusty bottles.
What is the rarest or most expensive wine you have?
“I honestly don’t think in terms of expense. Rarest? Has anyone got another bottle of that? It’s a bottle I’ve had since university. It’s a wonderful German estate. Look at the colour. Kabinett. Slightly sweet, from a great vintage ’64. Single vineyard, the weingarden.
“Here’s a Riesling 1964. It’s 55 years old. The wine is just there.
When do you decide to open one of these bottles?
“When the moment comes. It’s just if anyone I like is round the house. One of the most common moments is during the Six Nations Rugby. My mate Adrian, it was the two of us watching the rugby last year, we drank two bottles Pichon Lalande and a bottle of Hermitage Lachapelle. If you talking about value, we probably scoffed about 2.5k worth of wine. But it didn’t cost me that. That cost me about a fiver and that cost me three pounds.
“I’m currently ageing a Cloudy Bay 1987. I don’t know how it’ll be. It might be dead as a dodo.
There’s a food writer who experiments with ageing cans of food.
“My friend James May hates any healthy food so I’m ageing cans of food for him. Here’s a Fray Bentos kidney pie in a tin with a sell by date of 2013. It needs a few more years I think.
We go upstairs and Oz opens a Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2003 vintage champagne.
“So this wine is 15 years old. They said these wines won’t last. But every wine has a last hoorah in it. Mmm. All that apple freshness, it’s nutty. 2003 is a warm vintage…
So do you know what the weather was like in every year?
“All the main areas over the last 30 years yes.
That’s like a super power!
Are the glasses important for you?
“These are my Irish glasses. At the moment Zalto is the most trendy. It’s very cold. The angular shape. It makes the wines taste angular, focussed, austere and intellectual. I prefer Riedel. The wine tastes better. I’m in a minority there.
“I have a tremendous memory for smells. You’ve got to get it going when you are young. You can’t start at 50. You need to have a rich smell memory life from a young age. Like Proust and the madeleine.
It’s like synesthesia, where some people hear music and see colours.
“It’s exactly that but with smell. The things that matter most to me is not wine, but sunshine, wind, rain, the seasons.
You are a person almost entirely motivated by smell.
“Yes. And taste IS smell. When we are ill, our sweat smells different, our breath, our saliva. It’s the sense that has given me the most pleasure and most agony too.
“The day I got into Oxford opening the letter of acceptance, ‘We are delighted to tell you…’ I can immediately smell the dust on the paving stones of my school.
“Grief has a smell, anger has a smell. Your sense of smell is your original sense. When we came out of the primordial slime, we couldn’t see, we couldn’t hear, we could only smell.
“There is only a single nerve root from our brain which controls smell.
“That’s why I’m terrified of getting a cold. I have a flu jab every winter.
I guess you literally can’t do your job if you can’t smell.
“This global warming situation is absolutely critical.
Very good for Britain?
“In the short term, but by 2050, they reckon that rivers in Southern England won’t have enough water to irrigate. By 2070 the Thames Valley will be too hot to grow grapes and make wine.
“This country takes this very seriously. We’ve taken carbon emissions seriously, we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Carbon emissions are something like 40 to 50% per cent lower than they used to be.
I’m going to ask you about Brexit.
“I think that it’s been an appallingly handled politically the last four or five years. I think David Cameron should ashamed of himself. You don’t hear from him much. A former prime minister. I think he’s appalling. I’ve got a certain amount of time for Mrs May. The Labour Party is probably even more split than the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t made a single statement where we know what he thinks.
Well we do know, he’s a lexiter.
“20 or so seats unexpectedly went to Labour in 2017 and 18 of those seats were university towns. Canterbury has been conservative since 1832 and now they are Labour.
The young people that voted for Corbyn don’t know do they?
“To be honest I’m not a Brexiter but the only two choices we have is either stay in the EU or leave. Every single thing we have been offered by politicians is worse than staying in.
Do it properly or don’t do it at all.
“Exactly. I’m interested to talk about it. There is nothing awful about the EU, but there are large number of things that are irritants. They are irritants more than anything else. Margaret Thatcher had the right approach, walking in and laying down the law. Edward Heath was a patsy.
“When it comes to wine, it depends partly on the pound. The EU should say yes because they do an enormous amount of business with us but they seem to want to rub our noses in it. We’ve not had any proper negotiators. I mean David Davis.
“Dominic Raab is rather good. But they’ve got their best people… Guy Verhofstadt, Michel Barnier and we haven’t got anyone. Our people are so incompetent, it’s as if they are still waiting for a decent negotiator. It’s like Manchester City playing my club Gillingham. No offence to my club.
“I have to get into it. The way that young people use it is so advanced. It’s endlessly personal. Jamie Oliver and I talked about doing YouTube stuff. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, you would spend all day doing it.
Was he thinking about doing a wine channel?
“I want to do Booze Tube. That’s the title. Jamie’s a good chap.
“I’m wondering if I should offer our next series, with James May, to Amazon. Online is where it’s at.
I’m not a fan of Saturday Kitchen. It’s all men.
“It’s terrible isn’t it? When you have chefs like Sally Clarke. I don’t think James Martin is too bad like that.
“On Food and Drink we had Anthony Worrall Thompson who was a top cook. He cared massively about English food.
I know he got into trouble. He seemed to be a figure of fun.
“Yes he was amongst food geeks. I’m a figure of fun around wine geeks. I’m a populist, I’m talking to the public. The wine geeks want to sit around with a small amount in their glasses. I don’t agree with the heavy markers, the Robert Parker approach. Wine is about enjoyment. I’ve got people who don’t know anything about wine, and you give them a really smart Albarinho. They can get it. They don’t know the word. The character they may not like it. But they can get it.
What about Natural Wine?
“Some are good. I’m not affected by sulphites though. If sulphites keep the wine longer, keep the wine brighter, then why not?
I liked in the book that you understand why not everyone ‘gets’ Pinot Noir.
“It’s delicate and ethereal. And that can mean, it slips across the tongue and you think what happened? And then you think what have I paid? I’ve just spent £50 on that bottle.
I assume you’ve drunk Romanée Conti.
I’ve not drunk it. I’ve tasted it. I’ve been there a couple of times.
“Nowadays it’s all ‘cinéma’. You are lucky to get half an hour in the winery. There are so many Japanese and Americans waiting there, to get in.
Do they charge you to taste?
“No. You just can’t get into DRC at all.
Is that what wine people call it? DRC? I’m gonna use that from now on.
“Yes (laughs). I had the 1966 Romanée St Vivant and Grande La Cheseaux and I drank them with my friends on a lawn in Hampshire in the summer and we had a bottle of Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet and we were just so happy. We were rolling about and having a really happy day.
It was like good drugs.
“Possibly. I can remember the tears on the label of the bottle. I had a really happy day with my friends.
In which you are not noticing the drugs but the effect? It sounds like it has an almost homeopathic effect.
“Cheap wine can be just as good as expensive wine. I was in Tuscany where I eloped with a lovely girl. We took a bus out to the edge of Florence, to a village and the hills had this blue haze about them and we were madly in love. We bought some salami and a lump of that salt-less bread they have in Tuscany. I went into a small shop and asked:
‘Can I have some wine?’
He said: ‘Where’s your bottle?’
‘I’m sorry I don’t have a bottle.’
“He tutted and then went into the back of his shop, went to a big barrel and squirted this pinky red, fizzy, acid, red currant juice wine into a bottle which was relatively clean. Filled it up to the top and banged some kind of stopper in it. It cost less than the bread. Was it the perfect bottle for that day? Absolutely. If it had cost 100 times as much would it have been better? No I think it would have been worse.
Wine and food matching
“My feeling is, there is inspired matching. but a lot of the time it doesn’t actually matter. Most modern wines are pretty nice to drink by themselves and pretty nice to drink with most food.
“You and I could eat a different food culture every day and half of those foods have no wine culture whatsoever.
I’m not a slave to it at all, but there are certain wines, like a sweet Tokaji with blue cheese, it’s just sublime.
“Yes like a vin jaune with comté, it is such a perfect match, sometimes I like to chew them all together, put a square of cheese in my mouth, then take a swig of vin jaune.
Meat, fish, farming and fishing.
Meat. I truly believe we all have to lessen our meat intake.
“Funnily enough I think if we did it properly, I don’t think we have to lessen our fish intake. Do you remember that book ‘End of the line’? The great banks of New Foundland, you could virtually walk on the sea, they were so full of cod. That hasn’t recovered. In Britain, Norway, Russia, we seem to be doing a relatively good job. Would Brexit allow us to run our fish stocks better? Would our fisherman do it?
I went to Alaska and it was amazing, you could walk on salmon. They were horrified by what Europe had done to our fish. Maybe we can save it.
“It’s statistics. Who knows? I am a bit fed up. I’ve stood on the beach at Southwold at dusk and asked what are those lights out there? They said they are French trawlers. They can’t be more than half a mile out there! I got the reply: ‘they know that we have only one fishing protection vessel and it’s in Newcastle right now’. But they are taking all our fishes.
They are taking the piss.
“Yes. The Irish box has been heavily plundered by the Spanish. Did you know that Vigo in Galicia is the biggest fishing port in Europe? A lot of our fish is taken straight from the Irish box and the North Sea.
That’s why our fisherman are so frustrated. That’s one of our exports. That’s what we’ve got. Why are we giving it away?
“If they land it in Scotland, in Aberdeen, Berwick, or Peterhead, process it and sell it to the French, that’s ok. Unfortunately it’s not landed there, it’s taken out to a mothership, a factory ship. These people are raping the waters for weeks on end, shoved into frozen storage, then it goes back to Vigo. We lose the fish and don’t earn one penny from it. I completely understand Mrs Thatcher saying, which do I make a stand on? CAP or CFP? There are far more votes in agriculture than in fish. That was 30 or 40 years ago now.
Interviewing all these carrot farmers this year, what pissed them all off, is the EU subsidies, they are subsiding failing farmers. One thing all the farmers said is there are no more family farms anymore.
“There are, but they are few and far between. Often it’s just a tenancy.
I was interviewing quite young farmers in their 30s, but they were frustrated because they’d have to win the lottery to buy their own farm.
Often they were brought up on a farm, but it was sold to a conglomerate. It’s all conglomerates now. There are about six organic carrot farmers and six conventional ones.
“So there are only 12 basic carrot farmers in the UK?
“I looked at the figures for the USA, there are something like, a horrible figure like, a 100 family farms close every day. Oklahoma or Kansas, the entire state might be owned by four or five farming companies. They are hard-nosed businessmen. You don’t pay your fees, you are off. You only have to read Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck.
Two farmers a week commit suicide in France. Probably the same here.
“Before I had my daughter I travelled a great deal. Last year I went to Hungary, Singapore, Russia.
“I could have been off every week. Twenty years ago I suspect I spent three months a year abroad. But my agent said you can either be a wine writer who spends a lot of time on trips or you can write books. I chose to write books. But I love travelling. Coming back, you are always convinced that you are coming back from somewhere special, with a special echt. I need the endless churn of knowledge (that you get from travelling) in order to write my books though.
“With the James Martin Saturday show, none of it is in the studio, all my travels are outside, on the road, around England. In January we did Manchester, Oxford and Hampshire. Our next journey is Salisbury. We did Winchester in October. Peter and Suzie’s wine fair is good there.
But you don’t want to miss a minute of your child’s upbringing?
“No I don’t. I’m so lucky. I’ve been incredibly lucky all my life. With chance meetings, with people who needed to give me a kick up the arse, with Peter Bazalgette who got me on Food and Drink, with Adrian Webster who encouraged me to write books. I’m a singer, an actor, a wine taster… I can’t believe it.
So you just followed your passions…
“I have no regrets. I have one regret, it’s the silliest in the world. My dad was a doctor in the coal mines. He worked his arse off in the mines every day. He said you must never ever think you are better. He used to work late and he used to work long. One day he got off early, parked the car and said ‘Ok kids who is coming swimming with me’. And I said no, I didn’t feel like it. All these years later, I regret that my dear hard-working dad came home early and nobody wanted to go swimming with him. I was 9 or 10. I was just lazy.
“My dad was the chest physician. He worked in the Brompton and he also worked in East Kent. We had a coal mine a mile away from where we lived. The Kent coalfield.
I went to Durham recently, there are no coal mines left.
“Yes. But there is quite a lot of coal scavenging now. On the slag heaps, there is so much coal around, they just used to throw it away. Now with modern techniques, they can easily extract the 30% coal.
You’ve got knowledge of so many different areas…
I’ve got more knowledge that nobody wants to know about than anyone else in the world. I find myself thinking why does nobody else want to know about this? Steam engines or gear shifts or something.
“You asked me about regrets? I think some of the greatest achievements in British TV over the last few years have been in Natural History. I would absolutely have loved to have been part of that revolution. I wanted to study Geography at school, they wouldn’t teach me. Why? They said it wasn’t academic enough.
“I’m as interested in the natural world in Parson’s Green as say, Kazakhstan. David Attenborough is supremely the star. I know people who work on his shows with him. He’s fantastically nice and slightly grumpy. Probably because he’s 92. (laughs). I talked about The Blue Planet in the book.
But what you are doing is geography and geology. Wine is that.
I know. Until you get involved in vineyards and places. The atmosphere… different places have a different atmosphere. Some kind of magical spiritual thing, you don’t have to be a religious person to catch the spirituality of it. It affects the way I look at vineyards and people.
What’s the earliest wine?
8000 years….Georgia, Anatolia, Armenia. We are talking about the earliest wine made on purpose. A thousand years later, in ancient Persia. Then Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt.
Isn’t it a shame that the Muslim world doesn’t drink wine?
It is a shame. There is one winery in Syria. A very brave one north of the border. There is one in Jordan. Chateau Musar in the Lebanon. It’s hard. Hizbollah is the dominant character in Lebanon. But Christianity has done some terrible things in the name of love.
It was a long time before water was safe to drink. Wine is part of the joy of life, like friendship and books and the sun coming up in the morning. The fact you chose the right shoes to go out, when it started raining an hour later. Wine is a rather wonderful member of that group. If I had to give up wine or music. I think I’d give up wine.
Really? I think I’d give up music.
I was a singer and a musician. If I sit back and am fed up or lonely, I put on a piece of music and it takes me away. I could then have a gin and tonic instead.
Oh so the giving up of wine means you can still have other alcoholic drinks? In this fictional choice?
I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that.
Do you have any health implications from wine tasting and drinking?
Every six months I check my liver, my cholesterol. And if it’s too much, I pull back for a while.
Are you a good spitter?
Yes. But Charles Metcalfe is the best.
Do you prefer speaking or writing?
If I’m speaking, I prefer writing. If I’m writing, I prefer speaking.
Oz Clarke’s latest book is Red and White. Get it. It’s a really good read.