interview: quizzing the 'myth shatterer'
Stuart Walton is a bit of a thorn in the side of the UK wine trade.
Whereas most wine writers try their best to keep a positive outlook
and avoid rocking the boat, Stuart really does tell it like he sees it. His book
You heard it through the grapevine (reviewed here)
was subtitled 'shattering the myths
of the wine business'; published earlier this year, it has caused
quite a stir. His most recent book is Out of it: a cultural history of
intoxication. Both books were included in the Guardian's 'Pick of the
week'. Wineanorak thought it would be fun to ask Stuart a few
Wineanorak: You were a newspaper wine columnist for a while. I’d
guess for most wine geeks this is their idea of a dream job. What was
Stuart Walton: It was nice in that it gave me a certain amount of
prominence at an early stage in my career, but frustrating in other
ways. It was 1993, and the golden era of newspaper wine writing was on
the wane, in the sense that the commissioning editors were beginning
to decide they didn’t want in-depth wine coverage, just shopping
lists of recommendations. I had a particularly obtuse commissioning
editor on the Observer, which took a lot of the satisfaction
out of the job.
WA: Following on from this, what’s your opinion of the
recommendations made by the newspaper wine columnists in the UK? Could
they do any better?
SW: They do their best, poor lambs,
under very trying circumstances. They’re mostly constrained to
recommend wines mainly from the high-street retailers, who have begun
to fail the wine-buying public quite badly in the last few years, so
there isn’t generally much to inspire.
WA: The criticisms of the wine trade contained in your book must
have caused quite a stir: what sort of response have you had since it
SW: The big retailers are far too concerned not to rock the boat
with members of the press, so even though I’ve been quite nasty
about a couple of them in particular, they haven’t crossed me off
their invitation lists. The critical reception of the book in the
press has been mixed. Generally, I’ve had good reviews from
non-specialist critics (I am the only author so far to have been made
Pick of the Week in the Guardian twice), and bad ones from wine
writers, who seem to think that all wine books are written for other
wine writers, and don’t realise that just because they know that,
for example, most Chianti is garbage, that the general public will
also axiomatically know it too.
WA: Overall, Through the grapevine had a slightly glum view
of the future for wine retailing in the UK. Are there any signs of
SW: Of course. There are still some hugely impressive wines being
sold, even within the narrow parameters that the high-street retailers
work in. And I think the obsession with lightly oaky Chardonnay will
come to seem as boring to the buyers as it does to the rest of us. And
don’t forget there are still many fine independent specialist
merchants such as Lay & Wheeler, Morris & Verdin and so on,
who deserve to be supported.
WA: You’ve stated that wine writing is now dead as a branch of
serious journalism. Do you think it’s possible for writers to be
free of the conflicting interests that have beset wine writing over
the last couple of decades? And how?
SW: No I don’t. The chief problem lies in the fact that there are
too many wine writers and not enough work to go round, and so the less
scrupulous among them – which is most of them – stoop to taking
money from commercial involvements in the wine trade, either through
selling wine, doing PR work, having their recommendations sponsored by
the likes of Gallo wines or writing advertorial. As long as you’re
being paid by vested interests, then you will forever be the monkey
and not the organ-grinder, but the extraordinary thing is the degree
to which they have managed to blinker themselves to the squalid
reality of what they’re doing. What is the point of consumer
journalists if they’re going to spend three-quarters of their time
in bed with and snuggling up to the very commercial interests they
should be criticising?
WA: Which wine writers do you admire, and why?
SW: I still think Jancis Robinson has a crystal-clear, evocative
but unpretentious style, and Andrew Jefford, while he can be a touch
over-florid, is nonetheless original and engaging. But the great
majority can barely string a meaningful sentence together without
wallowing in clichés or revolting affectation. The great wine prose
stylists have largely gone to a better place now, leaving the way
clear for people who’ve come from PR and advertising backgrounds, or
just people who quite like the idea of receiving free wine samples for
as long as they can still move their limbs unassisted.
WA: Finally, what do you make of wine on the internet?
SW: Well, it’s there. You’ll expect me to approve of your site
Jamie, and Tom Cannavan’s www.wine-pages.com
is excellent, otherwise I wouldn’t have offered to write for it. And
for sheer ranting hilarity, I do recommend www.superplonk.com,
which is written by one of the greatest shopping-list compilers of
them all. But I do draw the line at the wine companies’ own websites
that pretend to feature disinterested journalism in between the plugs
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