The wizardry of Oz
You’re probably familiar with Oz Clarke as Britain’s best-known wine critic, James May’s TV co-star in seeking out unusual beverages and one of the Three Wine Men along with Tim Atkin MW and Olly Smith.
But did you know he was the youngest ever British Wine Taster of the Year in 1973, won the last ever World Wine Tasting Championship in 1982, and played the first villain to be arrested by Superman in the 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve?
Clarke, who was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at OLN's Drinks Retailing Awards 2015, went from West End actor to the prolific author, household name and face of wine tasting he is today in what he calls "a serendipitous riot".
After captaining the wine tasting team at Pembroke College, Oxford, he joined the England wine tasting team and chalked up a few international victories – along with some front-page coverage – that started to get him known as the actor who knew about wine.
He was on a theatre tour with Sheila Hancock when the editor of the Sunday Express called to offer him a job as the paper’s first wine writer. “I’d do all this stuff in the Sunday Express offices then go and sing a show in the West End. It was a wonderful life.
“The wine-writing scene back then [1980s and early 1990s] was pretty lively. Most of the old wine guard had been people who did other things. But then a bunch of us wanted to change the world – me, Joanna Simon, Tim Atkin, Anthony Rose, Robert Joseph. We’d all come from something else, none of us had been in the wine trade. I was possibly the first person who tried to look at wine from the consumer’s point of view all the time.”
At that time the off-trade was dominated by high street chains, mainly owned by breweries, most of which don’t exist anymore – such as Augustus Barnett, Victoria Wine and Threshers. “All of them offered an entirely uninspiring range,” says Clarke. “The supermarkets were only just beginning to get going. I remember as a young actor discovering M&S wines, and it was a revelation. Oddbins was just starting out. It was the kind of hero we were all waiting for, because it took the oddball rather than the mainstream approach.”
These days, Clarke believes supermarkets on the whole do a decent job selling wine. “When there’s a good ethos, even the ones that you wouldn’t have thought of a year or two ago are doing remarkably well. Supermarkets are tremendously important when it comes to popularising wine. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons all have some good own-label stuff.”
It was thanks to his acting that Clarke became the critic to pioneer the New World wine revolution in the UK. A Royal Shakespeare Company tour of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler with Glenda Jackson and Patrick Stewart took him to Melbourne, Sydney, San Francisco, LA, New York and Washington. “I’d land and go out into the streets looking for cheap wines. They were called things like Shiraz and Riesling – strange words I didn’t know – and they tasted spectacular. I realised it was the future of wine.”
The wines Clarke discovered out there became the “heroes” he championed on the BBC’s Food & Drink programme with Jilly Goolden from 1984 to 2002. “We had 7-9 million people watching us and we used to say: don’t worry about what it’s called, just go into the shop and say you want Ozzy’s wine or Jilly’s wine and they’ll know what you mean. We’d broadcast on a Tuesday night and the shops would be empty by Wednesday lunchtime. So we had to have heroes, and Australian Chardonnay was the best.”
Is wine still as exciting nowadays?
“No. It was entirely new then, so it was the sheer thrill of something that had never existed before.”
It may not be a revolution, but exciting wines are being made. Clarke tips Australia, Chile, Greece, Croatia – “if it can be persuaded to put slightly less Serbo-Croat on the labels” – and the Douro.
He also points to English wines. “But it’s not just about English wine: there’s excitement about English cider, there are all the bakeries and farmers’ markets that keep opening up. There’s a middle class revolt coming up – we need to be a bit more caring about our own country.”