• Simon Reilly

Are wine writers worth reading?

Those who have read Wineloon before may know I have a deeply boring day job that has nothing to do with wine, which leads me to drink wine (and occasionally write about it) of an evening.

Two things happened recently which have led me to the conclusion that I may be over the hill – unfortunately this sad realisation applies to the day job and the wine writing.

The first thing came about at the day job – a meeting with the CEO of a start-up business who looked like he’d come straight off the Young Enterprise Scheme. My initial impression was quashed as soon as he opened his mouth. He was a very impressive individual; eloquent, balanced, ambitious and confident, without a whiff of arrogance. He was 29.

I am 41 and don’t yet feel past it (that said, I think the professional football career I once hoped for has probably passed me by) but having met this guy and reflected on the 29 year old me, I do wonder if I may have wasted the odd year or two working out where my next drink was coming from instead of doing something more useful (I'm humming the theme tune to "Why Don't You?" as I write).

The second thing happened in a wine-writing rather than a day job capacity. I attended a tasting at 67 Pall Mall, the private members club in St James for wine lovers, in aid of a charity called Magic Bus, which provides mentoring programmes for under-privileged children in India. Full disclosure; my wife is office manager and company secretary of Magic Bus UK, so good old-fashioned nepotism got me an invite.

The tasting was hosted by a very impressive, professional, eloquent, again confident but not arrogant, sommelier called Terry Kandyliss. He looked barely old enough to legally serve wine, let alone lead us through seven very interesting wines from around the world, including the excellent Bruno Paillard Premier Cuvee and the rarest of beasts, a delicious Nebbiolo from outside Piemonte; Henschke’s “The Rose Grower” 2013 Nebbiolo. I later discovered he had in fact been awarded the UK Sommelier of the Year in 2016. Not “young” sommelier of the year, but the big kahuna.

This led me to ponder the link between those young people pouring the wines in our restaurants and wine bars and hacks like me who write about them.

Terry Kandyliss is not alone. More and more I find myself marvelling at the knowledge of these seemingly schoolboy sommeliers, yet most wine writers I read are much older. As an example, the Roederer Awards, wine writing’s self-proclaimed Oscars, has an “emerging” category for young, up-coming writers. The category is aimed at writers under the age of 35 or those who have only been writing for 3 years. Whilst a 35 year old wine writer is deemed by his peers to be young, I’d imagine a 35 year old sommelier would be considered a veteran these days.

Aside from their age, are wine writers actually in a position to provide interesting content?

To grab a reader’s attention, a wine writer needs something interesting to write about. This normally involves actually having done something interesting that people want to hear about. Whilst going on a press trip with a bunch of other wine writers might seem exciting to those not in the trade, is it really going to provide something worth writing about, other than tasting notes and some snippets from winemakers about the current vintage conditions?

For a handful of the best wine writers, yes it will be. They will identify trends in the trade that less astute observers will miss, and communicate those in a concise and witty manner, with passion, that readers will enjoy reading and feel informed.

For the most part however, it will be just another uninteresting technical article about a wine region with some tasting notes and scores out of 100, written by a journalist who got into wine and took the Master of Wine exam.

Of the wine writing that I have found memorable, those that I think about years after reading, those which have influenced my wine writing and wine drinking habits, there are three that stand out. Of the three, only one was written by a wine writer. The other two were by people who work in the trade, just telling stories about what happened to them and how it made them feel.

And coming back to those schoolboy sommeliers, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear from them? Surely they have something interesting to tell us from working the floors. But lets not stop there, I want to hear from the wine merchants, importers, supermarket wine buyers and the winemakers too.

I think there may be a gap in the market, a wine magazine not written by wine writers but by people in the wine trade with some interesting stories to tell.

Now there’s an idea…

You are probably wondering what those three pieces of wine writing are, so I suppose I should tell you;

“Adventures on the Wine Route” by Kermit Lynch (a US wine merchant) is as vital now as it was when he wrote it 30 years ago. The chapters on Beaujolais, Loire and Provence have influenced my wine drinking and writing more than anything else I can think of.

An article written by Tony Laithwaite that I read a few years ago after someone had shared it on Twitter. I have googled it and can’t find it unfortunately but its out there somewhere, I think probably on the “Tony’s blog” section of the Laitwaites website. It was fascinating because he wrote it. It was just Tony telling the reader how he set up Laithwaites, what happened and how it made him feel. It was long and detailed, but real and inspiring.

The final piece is an article by Jon Bonne, an American wine writer, published by Punch Drink last year which reads like a love letter to Cote Rotie and Cornas. It was written with passion. As a direct result of reading that article I have a case of 2015 Levet in my cellar.