Tim Atkin MW – a man on a (wine-based) mission…
Author: Emily Miles
How do you see your role as a wine critic?
I would certainly make a distinction between being a wine critic and a wine journalist: the former, really, is about scores and tasting notes, which I do do, but it is not my main focus. As a journalist, you need to be interested in the stories which are behind the wine – the climate, the geology, the geography, the personalities, and so on. I like to think that I am a bit of both.
As a wine journalist, do you consider yourself an educator?
I like teaching people – (especially those who know less than you: they can’t answer back…!) but I am always most excited by those people who come to an event and it’s their first tasting. Too often the wine trade can be seen as unnecessarily pompous, inaccessible or prescriptive. Of course, there is an inherent paradox – that on one hand we make it extremely complicated and on the other it is something pretty simple, grape juice, which is fun and alcoholic. Somewhere between those two extremes of the obsessive wine geek and the person who drinks to get drunk is the happy medium.
How to you begin to build someone’s taste in wine?
You have to ask them what they like: the key thing is to build somebody else’s taste and not your own. You can’t find fault if they don’t like the same things as you… Saying, “what do you mean you hate this Grand Cru Burgundy?” isn’t OK. You need to take them step by step stylistically and geographically towards something they might enjoy. If you know that they like Rioja generally, then try a lightly oaked red from the South of France made from Syrah and Cinsault. It’s also important to give people the confidence to say, “I don’t like it” – that if you dislike something, no one is going to report you to the wine nerd police. It is a cliché, but to say that taste in wine is subjective is so true.
What was the inspiration behind the Three Wine Men events?
It was a coming together of three friends. I’ve known Oz [Clarke] for longer than I would care to remember, and we have always got on well. Olly [Smith] is a more recent friend, and I love his passion for wine and sense of fun. He has all round enthusiasm. Together, we span around three decades and as personalities I think we appeal to different people. Generally, we thought it would be fun to take wine to a bigger audience – too often at fine wine tastings you see the same 50 people on the wine circuit and we wanted to reach a wider group of people. Of course, it’s a commercial venture, but essentially it is three mates having fun and taking wine to the public. We do it for the love of wine, we work brilliantly together and the events are getting better and better. Watch this space…
The Three Wine Men events are a real opportunity to meet and talk to consumers. What have you learned from them?
You get a snapshot of what people are really drinking, as well as what people find intimidating or off-putting. While in the trade we all seem to love Riesling, consumers seem to find it confusing, or don’t like the flavour, or find it hard to categorise – is it going to be sweet or dry? On the other hand, while I make a joke out of dismissing Pinot Grigio, I do so at my peril because many people really like it. Everyone tastes differently, and the Three Wine Men events keep you humble and keep you in touch.
Has the public’s level of wine knowledge developed in recent years, do you think?
Massively. Even 10 years ago if you mentioned that Albariño was a great white, or Grüner Veltliner or Pecorino – they’d go “what?” Now these three have almost joined the mainstream. Events such as the Three Wine Men and programmes like Saturday Kitchen are moving people away from the bigger oakier wines to more subtle ones. And I think this is a reflection in the growing interest in food – of course people don’t cook as much as they say they do, or even think they do and we can all end up eating a takeaway pizza, but we’re definitely becoming more mainland European in our tastes.
In the wine trade more generally, what trends are you seeing?
Well of course there is a move away from the over-reliance on Bordeaux – merchants are no longer looking to the en primeur campaign to pay all their bills. It was over-priced in ’09 and ’10 and it is still stuttering. Berry Bros. & Rudd is a great example of how the market is diversifying, for example with the growing interest in Spain, Italy, Rhone, Greece and Alsace: re-discovering the classics. Now more than ever there is a growing difference between those who are buying wine to drink and those who are using it as investment (like the difference between being a wine journalist and a wine critic, I think). Those who buy their wine to drink want more variety in their cellars than just Bordeaux and Burgundy.
In which wine regions are you especially interested at the moment?
Burgundy, of course, and Italy – especially the north and centre (Piedmont and Tuscany) and also Argentina. Increasingly, I am interested in South Africa, and go there twice a year to taste wines: its old vines, new areas, comparatively cheap grapes and young talent are an exciting combination.
Was there a bottle of wine that convinced you this was the career for you?
Not really, I had wanted to be a journalist, and so the really important moment for me was when I was working for Wine Magazine after university my editor, Joanna Simon sent me to Vosne Romanée to write a story about the 1985 vintage in Burgundy. I thought, “blimey these wines are good,” – I wrote a piece about it which won an award. It is the piece that made me as a wine journalist.
So, does Burgundy still hold a place in your heart?
Yes – it’s a region which, more than any other, is about understanding the vineyards, the geology, the history, the religion, the spirituality and the personalities. For me, it is the world’s most interesting wine region.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
Anyone who’s involved in wine will say that it’s communication: if I had all the answers about how we should be doing that I’d be living off my billions on Necker Island. The way people are talking about wine has changed so much that’s it’s like the move from the quill to the printing press. Engaging on Twitter is a brilliant way to have interaction with those people who are drinking and buying wine in an intense and personal way. You can get instant feedback. Those people who think they can survive by selling the odd case to their friend from Cambridge at their club are dead in the water – the game has changed forever.