Every year, after an overindulgent Christmas, the wine trade books an appointment with me for its annual health check. Though most of its vital signs are entirely typical for a patient of its age, it suffers from a certain… anxiety. Normally I just let the patient talk – and my god can he talk – but the same worries crop up, year in, year out. This year I intend to take him to task on three persistent concerns: ‘We need a Jamie Oliver of wine’, ‘If only there was more wine on the television’, and ‘How can we make wine more fashionable?’ Let’s try to put these unhelpful notions to bed once and for all so he can face the new year unhindered.
‘We need a Jamie Oliver of wine’
Ever since Jamie Oliver helped usher in a more accessible and informal food culture in the UK in the early 2000s, there has been a regular cry from the wine trade: “what we need is a Jamie Oliver of wine!” The first to be given this moniker was Australian Matt Skinner, who did an admirable job of reaching out to new drinkers. But rather than the Messiah he turned out to be a very naughty boy. Many have staked their claim to the title since then: none have lived up to it. And nobody will.
Food and wine are very different things. Just because a glass of claret complements a steak, it doesn’t follow that what worked for food will work for wine. We must all eat food daily to survive; wine is an occasional treat enjoyed by a minority. Eating well need not be expensive; drinking well is rarely cheap. Much of the joy of cooking is creating your own dish from raw materials; with wine, you simply uncork the bottle. An accessible, mainstream wine culture in the UK would of course be welcome, but wine needs to find its own answers to its own unique challenges.
‘If only there was more wine on the television’
Some subjects are perfect for television. Cookery, cars and home improvement all involve skills that are entertaining to watch and can offer ideas that we can use in our daily lives – after all, everyone needs to eat, move around and live somewhere. Wine, however, is not the most dynamic of subjects. It’s not even the most colourful. And not everyone drinks it – in London, one in three people are teetotal, and not all of those that do drink are interested in wine. So it’s hardly surprising that it doesn’t regularly feature on our most mainstream, and most visual, of media.
Wine already has more than its fair share of coverage: Food & Drink, Oz & James, Saturday Kitchen – and we can soon add The Wine Show to this list. Due to the essentially static, quiet nature of a glass of wine, these tend to be driven by the charisma or eccentricity of the presenters or the beauty of the landscapes they’re talking over. There are plenty of more popular subjects that see even less airtime. You see more Starbucks on our high streets than wine bars, and our national thirst for coffee certainly isn’t driven by TV shows.
‘How can we make wine more fashionable?’
Looking down at the worn red corduroys of my patient, it’s hardly surprising he’s worried about his appearance. Certain trade tastings have the look and feel of a history teachers’ convention. But yet again, he worries too much. Is beer fashionable? No; craft beer is fashionable, a small but vital and vociferous niche within an ocean of identikit lagers. Is wine fashionable? No; but go to ‘natural wine’ tasting and you’ll see more beards than a mead-making workshop in Dalston. That the wider wine trade can appear a little staid gives pockets of wine, whether it be natural, orange or Sherry, the chance to shine all the more brightly when its time in the spotlight comes around.
I hope I’ve talked some sense into my patient this year. Firstly, he must stop pinning his hopes on finding a ‘Jamie Oliver of wine’. Food and wine may be connected but they are very different fields. Besides, the wine trade doesn’t need to look outside itself to find someone to take wine to the masses; it contains plenty of characters more than capable of doing this already at a grass-roots level. Secondly, he needs to stop obsessing about television. A glass of wine isn’t much to look at, and listening to someone’s enthusiastic tasting note doesn’t make it any more compelling. There are better ways to spread the word. Finally, wine is too big a subject to be fashionable in itself; that the wine trade lacks swag might even be a blessing in disguise. My diagnosis: self-flagellation, mild hypochondria and suspected gout, but overall the wine trade is in better shape than it thinks.