Oz Clarke is a British wine writer, TV personality, and well-known authority on wine. His unpretentious style has made him one of the most recognized wine critics in the U.K. Oz has written numerous books on wine including The History of Wine in 100 Bottles, Bordeaux, Grapes & Wines (with Margaret Rand), World of Wine, Wine by the Glass, and most recently Oz Clarke on Wine: Your Global Wine Companion. Prior to wine writing, Oz was a full-time stage actor and appeared in West End hit shows such as Evita and Sweeney Todd and toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has made frequent appearances on BBC TV and radio earning awards for his informative and entertaining wine broadcasts. Oz has also won numerous writing awards including the Glenfiddich, André Simon, Louis Roederer, Wine Guild, James Beard, Julia Child, World Food Media, and Lanson awards.
Read more about Oz in the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: What is it about wine that moves you?
Oz Clarke: I need to be in the mood to be moved. And, honestly, that’s my responsibility. Clearly some wines have an emotional vitality that you can’t predict but which I adore. But I must give the wine an emotional context. I have sat at tables of black-tied guests reverentially sipping the world’s greatest wines and I have felt nothing. I have offered obeisance at tastings of the world’s greatest wines, and I have felt nothing. And yet I have lounged in a warm meadow with a rough country picnic, a liter of rough country red, and the girl of my dreams. And the wine, so utterly full of life, so furiously appetizing – and whose name I never knew – has moved me more than any thousand-dollar label ever has.
KM: Is there a lot of overlap between acting and writing about wine in terms of skills needed?
OC: Yes. Writing is a bit like performance art for me. As I write I speak the words. I listen to how they sound, what effect they may have, how clear my message is, how evocative my descriptions, how uncluttered my jokes. If it sounds right as I speak it, I leave it. If it doesn’t sound right, I start again.
KM: The wine industry today must be quite different than it was when you first started writing about wine in the 1960s. What about the industry do you feel has changed most?
OC: I was an actor until the middle of the 1980s. I changed careers at just the right time. The old world of fusty, class-ridden snobbery was being brushed away. A new dawn of populist, welcoming, democratized wine was being ushered in, where pleasure and good flavors were all that mattered. Nowadays, we take such things for granted. But we shouldn’t. New forms of snobbery intrude, new forms of elitism take shape. But, at its best, our modern world of wine is marked by endless choice, freedom of opinion, well-founded radicalism, self-confidence, bravura, courage, and a new and wholly welcome emphasis on sustainability.
KM: What’s the hardest wine concept to write about?
OC: Beauty. Can a wine be beautiful? Art. Is a winemaker an artist? Can a wine experience be artistic? How? Emotions. Ah yes. Emotions I find a little bit easier.
KM: Did you have a writing mentor? Tell us about him/her.
OC: No. I tried to learn – and still do – from reading great authors and attempting to borrow just a little of their brilliance. Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Keats – these kinds of writers are my heroes.
KM: Oz Clarke on Wine: Your Global Wine Companion was just released this fall. What inspired you to write this latest book?
OC: This is a book full of things I want to say, not facts and figures and clichés. I’ve been meaning to write it for years. Each year I experience more, enjoy more, suffer more, have more to say. So, the book kept getting bigger and bigger. I thought I simply had to write it now, before it became too heavy for me to carry.
“I have lounged in a warm meadow with a rough country picnic, a liter of rough country red, and the girl of my dreams. And the wine, so utterly full of life, so furiously appetizing – and whose name I never knew – has moved me more than any thousand-dollar label ever has.”
KM: What’s the best and worst thing about the wine business?
OC: Best. Tasting, drinking, eating, laughing, loving, travelling, being endlessly surprised and eternally renewed.
Worst. People asserting that they are right, and others are wrong, in our world of taste and fashion and opinion where subjectivity, personal preference, and sometimes, emotional illogicality, are so important. Cult snobbery. Fad snobbery. Herd mentality. Dismissal of the good because it isn’t “correct”.
KM: I won’t ask about your favorite wine, but is there a type of wine that you really don’t care for?
OC: Over-extracted, over-oaked, over-alcoholic, over-ego’d, over- self-indulgent wines, usually red. Wines with spurious sulphides pretending to minerality.
KM: In your opinion, what is the most overrated trend in wine today?
OC: An obsession with low sulphur and wild yeasts. All good winemakers are reducing unnecessary sulphur use and every single one should be able to make up his or her own mind about levels without being preached at. Using a vineyard’s own yeasts is supposed to maximize ‘terroir’. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the wine just makes me say – oh dear, another wild yeast wine. In these cases, can I taste the ‘terroir’? No. I can just taste that they used wild yeasts.
KM: What sort of books do you read for pleasure?
OC: 19th and 20th Century English novels, 20th and 21st Century American novels. Political biographies. History with ‘attitude’. Books on railways. Elisabeth David.
KM: Where are you happiest?
OC: When I get to bed early and can sleep late. When I notice the days really are getting longer. When the Spring sun first warms my brow. On any clifftop or beach or headland gazing out into the unknown – wondering – what is out there? How can I get there? When I’m on the edge of the world rather than at its pulsing heart.
KM: In all the incredible achievements in your lifetime which would you consider your greatest?
OC: I’m still here. I still face every day with excitement as to what it might bring. I don’t have time to grow old, so I shan’t.