wa2.gif (4241 bytes)

abut9.gif (3095 bytes)

abut12.gif (3207 bytes)
abut10.gif (3636 bytes)

abut11.gif (4039 bytes)


Stuart Walton 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 questions...

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 it like?

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 was published?

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 hope?

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 and price-lists.

Back to top