Talha Tales now available on Amazon here
Context is everything in wine. Getting beyond one's own parochial influences is an important step in recognizing and overcoming bias. As a wine writer, educator and judge--this is essential.
Here is a bit of 'cultural' terroir that has shaped my views on wine over the years...
Willin...been from Taihape to Tonapah...
My first serious exposure to wine came through the ‘cool climate’ wines of Oregon while living there in the 1970s. This was during the rise of California’s spin on New World wines and--Oregonians being Oregonians--the attitude I picked up was Californication wasn't always a good thing. As a result, my tastes were formed around aromatic wines with natural acidity, relatively transparent textures and linear structures, invariably made by small producers. From the start my favorite grapes were Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris…
During the 1980s I moved to Europe to study music in Holland (Koninklijk Conservatory) and followed that with a Doctorate of Philosophy at Oxford University in England. While at Oxford I captained and coached the Oxford University Blind Wine Tasting Team and presided over the university’s wine society, The Wine Circle. Blind tasting provided an excellent opportunity to understand aspects of grape characters, wine structure and terroir from the inside out. Oxford, with its 36 college cellars, daily trade tastings and high table culture, is one of the best places to learn about wine in the world. The experience I gained in teaching others how to blind taste has proved central to how I still teach wine appreciation today. The decade I spent studying the classical wine regions in Europe has continued to shape my sense of taste up to the present.
For someone American born, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to British wine culture, which is one of the most cosmopolitan in the world specifically because it lacks the inward looking nationalistic bias of places like France and Australasia. Between competitive blind tasting and initial experiences as a judge at London’s International Wine Challenge I gained a good exposure to the classic wine regions of Europe, as well as the emerging ‘New World’ wine styles of Australia and New Zealand.
After having lived in the two central wine cultures of our time, Europe and USA, I moved on to New Zealand in 1993 to observe Australasian wine culture first hand. Over the last decade I've found myself bouncing between all three continents, with an increasingly strong gravitational pull back to my European roots.
Wine Writing and other wine experience
I published my first wine article in UK's Wine magazine in 1993. While in New Zealand I took on a job as a wine buyer and marketer for a chain of 16 wine stores for a couple of years in mid-1990s. This was a sobering experience that shook me out of any romantic pretences that wine wasn't primarily about business. I left that job in 1999 after I won an open competition for NZ's top wine columnist slot at the New Zealand Herald -- the first outsider to break into NZ's wine writing establishment. In 2001 I became columnist for Wellington’s Dominion-Post daily newspaper which I left in 2003. During all this time I had a column called the Good Grape Guide for Australia’s premier wine magazine, Gourmet Traveller Wine, while also writing wine features and other stuff.
Although I haven’t won any writing awards I have been Nominated 'Best Drinks Journalist' at the Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 & 2010. I hold the dubious honor of both having had the most nominations and losses for this now defunct award.
I have not written in Australasia since 2004, being actively blacklisted because I wrote factual, science based articles detailing faults associated with screw capped wines. Lesson learned is that it's never a healthy move to buck strongly held local religious beliefs. Since that time all my commissioned articles have appeared in European and American magazines like: World of Fine Wine, Decanter, Harpers, Wine (UK), Slow Food (Italy), Sante (USA), Fine Wine (Russia), Wine (Portugal), Enólogos (Spain) and a few other bits and pieces elsewhere. I've also knocked out overview chapters on Oregon and New Zealand for a couple of wine encyclopaedias.
The publications I enjoyed writing for the most are World of Fine Wine (UK), Slow Food (Italy), and Mondial Sauvignon Blanc (Belgium) because all encouraged me to write what I felt was worthy of discussion. Great wine editorial policy--unfettered by hidden advertorial bias--is a rare thing in wine publications today. These are good publications--specifically because none of these publications allow advertising to drive their editorial policy.
I’ve judged at least one (often more) wine competitions in Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia yearly since 1988. To be frank, I became jaded, early on, with Australian and New Zealand competitions where judges taste well over 100+wines per day, most of which are made the same formula and awarded medals at 66% rates. It's hard to believe in the accuracy of their results and what they actually accomplish in the end.
As a result I have pared my judging now back to those few that give me pleasure and provide useful feedback on the current state of wine: Mondial Sauvignon Blanc (2010-2019), Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (2004-2019), Portugal’s Essencia dos Vinhos (2006-2011) and Collection Pays D'Oc (2011-1012), and other OIV based competitions. All of these are judged 'double blind' by a wide range of international palates and severely limit the wines tasted daily, ensuring the palate fatigue endemic in big competitions doesn't happen.
In hindsight I've probably learned the most from my experience as a Panel Chairman/Super Juror for London's International Wine Challenge (1988-2003, off and on after this) which organizes wines in regional and stylistic context and is judged by people from a wide range of nationalities. For many years I judged the oldest running food and wine pairing competition, Sydney International Top 100 (2000-2008) which taught me that most wines that win medals and trophies in big New World wine competitions are usually horrible with food, whereas the lower scoring wines often shine at the dinner table.
Travel to wine regions is one of the best ways to understand the fundamental influences that culture, climate and soil play in determining wine styles. I feel fortunate to have tasted wine in these regions: Armenia, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Georgia, France (Alsace, Bandol, Banyuls, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cahors, Chablis, Champagne, Gaillac, Jurancon, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, Rhone, St. Bris), Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Italy (Piedmont, Veronese, Tuscany, Sicily, Campania, Coli, Friuli, Emila-Romana, Puglia), Luxembourg, Portugal (Alentejo, Bairrada, Beira Interior, Dao, Douro, Lisboa, Tejo, Madeira, Tras-os-Monte, Vino Verde), Spain (Rioja, Penedes, Priorato, Jerez, Navarra, Allicante, Castile y Leon, Rueda) and Switzerland. Beyond Europe I’ve traveled to California (Anderson, Russian River, Sonoma, Carneros, Green Valley, Monterey, Napa, Santa Cruz...), Oregon (all AVAs), Washington (all AVAs); Argentina, China (Ningxia, Hebei ), South Africa, New Zealand (all 10 regions), and Australia (Barossa, McLaren Vales, Eden/Claire Valley, Adelaide Hills, Victoria, Yarra, Geelong, King Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Hunter Valley, Granite ). And last but not least, Bali. I hope to visit many more in future.
Terracotta Pot (Amphora), Talha, Qvevri, and Karas Winemaking
Over the last fifteen years I’ve had the pleasure in discovering wine producers throughout the world who are resurrecting techniques derived from clay pot fermentation that dates back to the beginning of civilization around 8000 years ago. I’m honored to have repeatedly participated in the two central forums for this movement: the bi-annual Terracotta Wines in Tuscany’s Impruneta and annual Amphora (Talha) Day in Southern Portugal’s Vidigueira, Alentejo. I’ve also visited ancient sources for Qvevri and Karas production in Georgia and Armenia.