Behind the scenes with a rare mainstream wine personality and “bloody good writer”
Here are a few scenes from the life of the actor, TV personality, journalist, author, and wine taster extraordinaire Oz Clarke, as revealed in—and plucked at random from—the pages of Red & White:
- At the wheel of his old Porsche 911, “Michelin Road Atlas on the passenger seat beside me,” hitting 210km (130 miles) an hour “somewhere on an empty stretch of road between Calais and my warm south,” then stamping his feet on the floor of the car and shouting, “I’m going south, I’m going south,” as he finally spies the Rhône in Lyon.
- Giving the keynote speech at the New York Wine Experience, an event put on by the then all-powerful Wine Spectator in October 1993, and watching the room of winemakers, shippers, and “devotees” empty as he bravely and presciently sets out the terrible possibilities posed to the classic wine regions of the world by climate change. “Four men—Miguel Torres from Spain, and Christian Moueix from Petrus, along with Piero Antinori and Angelo Gaja— marched the other way. They stood up and strode to the now-empty front row and pointedly sat down right in the middle, right in front of me—a gesture of solidarity I’ve never forgotten.”
- Stepping out of his front door at home in London, on any given day, and sniffing the air. “I love to […] smell the seasons changing through the aromas carried on the breeze. I can smell the rowdy uncertainty of October as summer still fights off the looming, lumbering beast of winter. I can smell January in its fogs, in its brilliant crystal sunlight, in its sludgy snow and wisps of woodsmoke. I can smell spring. I can smell sap rising, leaves unfolding, dark earth stretching and exhaling, the sweat of a long winter slumber adding its moist brown odour to the summer. I can smell summer all year. In the dark winter I can smell summer. As the sun rises higher, I can smell the dry, raw heat of summer trampling on the dewy freshness of spring.”
- In a bid to understand quite why the Austrian wine industry had got itself into so much trouble in 1985, Clarke puts “a dab of diethylene glycol on the tip of my tongue, and the result was fascinating. My whole mouth seemed suffused with richness—not sweetness, but a fat, viscous, shuddering, slabby thickness coating my palate. I could see how a splash or two in a vat of vaguely sweet wine could give the impression the wine was actually a great deal sweeter.”
- Conducting a blind tasting in Paso Robles “while swimming one-armed in a lake (the other arm? It was wine tasting) […] Have you tried swimming with one arm? And tried to guess which glass is a Sangiovese and which is a Barbera at the same time? One choke and you’re drowned.”
- On Food and Drink, the “most successful programme” on BBC2, the British public television station, from 1984 to 2002, “present[ing] the wines with a charismatic, crinklehaired, batty blonde called Jilly Goolden. […] She’d put her hand over my mouth as I was speaking—on screen. She would push me off camera as I was speaking—live. The audience loved it, she loved it, I loved it.”
It’s the latter image that will be foremost in most people’s minds, certainly in Britain, when they hear the name Oz Clarke. As Clarke says in Red & White, when the show started, “Britain wasn’t a wine-drinking nation. Our vision was to transform it into one. Wine was class-ridden in Britain. We set out to democratize it.”
According to Clarke, the pair’s mission was greatly helped by the sudden availability of “exuberant, juicy, fruity wine” from the New World. And he and Goolden did indeed go on to become synonymous with wine’s—particularly that kind of wine’s—march to the mainstream. This brought something highly unusual for a wine expert: genuine stopped-in-the-street, talked-about-in- the-tabloids fame. But I do wonder if the combination of Clarke’s exuberant, occasionally fruity presentational style—the legacy of his previous career as an actor and singer in productions such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats— and his early focus on the wines of the New World might not have had another unintended effect. Did it typecast him for a generation as the thespy wine guy, the Aussie booze booster, the inexhaustible tipsy hedonist?
Well, that at any rate was my view of Clarke when I began working in wine magazines in the late 1990s, to the extent that I was genuinely surprised when my boss at the time, Tim Atkin MW, placed Clarke at the top of a list of wine writers I should aspire to emulate. I remember Atkin being almost affronted by my surprise. There’s a serious side to Clarke, he said, the side that means he’s happy to stand his ground on an issue of principle (such as climate change) or call out winemaking snobbery, cant, and fads. But in his newspaper work and his dozens of books, he was also just a “bloody good writer, one of the best in the business.”
All sides of Clarke come together while confirming Atkin’s conviction in the pleasingly eccentric Red & White, which is part anecdotal ride through Clarke’s life and times in wine, part perceptive and very current guide to his favorite wines, wine places, and wine people. The tone is deftly brisk, and the trademark sunny personality shines through the larky asides of drinking derring-do. But there’s serious thought alongside the wit, and flashes of lyricism with the lightly worn knowledge in a book that, rather like the man himself, manages to be a whole lot of fun without being at all superficial.
Published by Little, Brown; 656 pages; $30 / £25