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Tomo Stevensono interviu vynai.com

2006-12-18

 

PasPasaulyje garsaus vyno eksperto Tomo Stevensono sutrumpintas interviu buvo spausdintas 2006.11.03 "Lietuvos ryte". Čia pateikiame pilną interviu originalo kalba.

1.      What is the meaning of wine for you? 

Some people eat to live and others live to eat. I live to eat, and wine is an integral part of that experience. I occasionally drink a good beer and enjoy it very much, but in general beer is too voluminous, and spirits are too alcoholic. Wine is the ideal balance and offers a vastly greater range of styles and flavours. How could anyone not be fascinated by wine?

2.      Does wine really deserve the SuperBooze status nowadays? 

I think you are confusing “SuperBooze” with the name I invented for an annual guide I was asked to write. Faber & Faber used to publish Superplonk, a top-selling annual guide to supermarket wine, written by Malcolm Gluck, but Malcolm took this book away from Faber & Faber and his agent auctioned the rights to the highest bidder. This infuriated some people at Faber & Faber, so they asked me to devise a new annual to compete with Superplonk. My reputation was not “low brow”, so I was not immediately interested, but neither was Faber & Faber’s reputation “low brow”. Indeed, they were and are very “high brow”. Superplonk had been the only downmarket book that Faber & Faber had published, but no one objected because they sold a lot of copies (in excess of 100,000 copies per year at its height). They offered me a lot of money for the first edition. A lot of money! So I told Faber & Faber that if I am to sink into the gutter to write this book, they must sink into the gutter to promote it. They agreed, promising a large budget for advertising and promotion. My rationale was simple: if a book is to have any chance competing with Superplonk, it had to cover more than superplonk, and do it better. So it covered not just wine, but beer and spirits too. Booze is synonymous with all forms of alcoholic drink, not just wine, whereas “plonk” is slang specifically for wine, thus SuperBooze would be a cheeky title for a competitor. Furthermore “plonker” is slang for a “stupid, foolish person” whereas “boozer” is merely a downmarket term for a “drinker”, so I suggested that at the bottom of the cover of SuperBooze, there should be a bold statement “Better to be a SuperBoozer than a Superplonker!”. However, before the first edition even hit the shelf, Faber & Faber’s outrage at Gluck’s departure had fizzled out, they were no longer interested in getting down into the gutter to slog it out with Superplonk, the large budget for promoting the book shrank, and they were not going to lower themselves by declaring “Better to be a SuperBoozer than a Superplonker!” on the front cover. Consequently sales dwindled and SuperBooze lasted for just three years. If they had not paid me so well, I would have been angry!

 3.      Did wine find you or did you find wine? How? 

Two ways, I suppose. Firstly, my grandfather owned a couple of Free Houses (pubs that are not tied to a specific brewery) and a restaurant, so food and drink were in my blood, so to speak. Secondly, I trained as a chef (at Headington School of Catering, now Brookes University, Oxford) and became the youngest catering manager in the country for one of the largest catering companies in the country, and one of my duties was to build up the directors’ cellar. Between the two, I caught the so-called “wine bug” and thought – rationally – that I should move to the wine trade, but I did not really enjoy it. I still wanted to be involved in wine, but I wanted to do something more creative. Essentially, I suppose, I wanted to find a job where I could learn everything I could about wine.

4.      You are seriously considered as Alsace and Champagne guru. Whats so special there to look for? 

I am always being asked this question, and quite often joke that it’s because Champagne is the first region I encounter when driving from England to France, and Alsace is the second, so if I’m going to specialise in any regions, for logistical it should be these two! The real reason is, however, that I have a great passion for these two classic wine regions. However, I honestly do not think anyone can truly specialise in more than one subject, otherwise they would spread themselves too thin to be absolutely at the top of their game. That’s why I prefer to say that I specialise in Champagne, and have a passion for Alsace.

 5.      How did you find out that Christopher Merret, a Briton, presented a paper on making sparkling wine to Britain's Royal Society in 1662? Where did he bring the wine for the second fermentation from? (This was some 20 years before legendary blind French monk Dom Perignon reputedly perfected his method of making Champagne). 

I first mentioned Merret’s paper in Champagne (Sotheby’s Publications, 1986), but it did not catch general media attention until a photograph of the actual document was published for the first time in my Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Absolute Press, 1998). However, even back in 1986, I was not the first person to mention Merret’s paper. For example, both André Simon and Patrick Forbes mentioned Merret’s paper in their own Champagne books in 1977, but I did wonder who had actually seen the document. For example, François Bonal, the famous French Champagne historian, referred to “Docteur Morret”! The paper was easy to track down. I simply went to the Royal Society and asked to see it. To answer the second part of your question, Merret did not bring in any wines himself, he merely reported his observations of London coopers (shippers of wines). Where did the coopers bring the wines he was observing from? He does not name individual wines, but he states “all wines” and it is not unreasonable to deduce that this not only included Champagne, but that the coopers of the time believed that of “all wine” it was Champagne that benefited most from a second fermentation. Why? Because just 14 years after Merret presented his paper (and more than 20 years before Dom Pérignon was supposed to have invented it) the fame of “sparkling Champaign” had reached such heights that Sir George Etherege wrote about it in The Man of Mode (“Then sparkling Champaign, Puts an end to their reign”). There is no proof that Dom Pérignon ever produced a bottle of sparkling Champagne.

 6.      Which among your twenty-something books has most of your soulnheart in? 

Probably my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, but on some days I think it is Champagne, or Wine Report (thanks to the efforts of 42 strategically located contributors), and yet on others The Wines of Alsace.  Long before SuperBooze, Malcolm Gluck definitely opted for the latter, declaring “It is not simply the best book about Alsace wines ever written, or the most penetrating book about a French wine region ever written; it is the greatest wine book ever written, period.” Definitely OTT (over the top), but I’m not complaining!

 7.      Any other books lurking in your PC or mind yet?

California University Press approached me earlier this year, offering to publish a fully revised edition of The Wines of Alsace, which I said I would be happy to do providing the new book is in a larger, full colour format, and foreign-language rights are pre-sold in French and German. They agreed to the larger, illustrated format, and are currently seeking co-publishers for France and Germany (the two largest markets for Alsace wine). So that is a possibility further down the line, as is a fully revised and significantly expanded edition of Champagne (taking the subject into deeper, more comprehensive waters, whereas Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine broadened the subject in a much less comprehensive way. Beyond this I have several novel ideas for wine books, the subjects of which have not been published elsewhere or – at least as important – the subjects of which have not been approached and treated in the manner in which I would do them (which is essentially the reason why my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Champagne, and The Wines of Alsace stood out). However, updating Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia keeps me busy on its own, so unless I turn publisher (which I have no intention of doing), I doubt that I will see more than a small fraction of these other ideas through to fruition.

 8.      As of the new edition of The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia: what is new and important compared with the older edition? 

The page content of the major revise in 1997 increased by 25 per cent, going from 480 pages to 600, thus that edition included many new and important additions, such as several new maps, a hugely expanded Italian section, a guide to different soils, an illustrated guide to styles of vine training (which are often spoken about, but seldom illustrated, thus readers never got to see how they looked, or what their pros and cons are), and a guide to regional oak varieties (not only showing where the forests are, but also close-up photography to illustrate the difference in grain). The page content of the major revise in 2005 increased by just over 10 per cent, going from 600 pages to 664. New and important additions include a fully-fledged Luxembourg chapter including the first serious mapping of its vineyards, hugely expanded chapters on Australia (including all totally new maps based on the new wine regions established in that country), New Zealand (re-mapped) and USA. The number of producers in these three countries has risen tremendously and this has been reflected by the greatly increased number of recommended producers in the 2005 major revise. Other important new features include symbols to identify organic and biodynamic producers.

 9.      How long does it take to write such an extended volume? 

Updating Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is a full time job. Since 2000 I have agreed to write a major revise every 5 years, and a light update two years after each major revise (thus I am currently working on the 2007 light update). A major revise allows me to expand the book, and includes the requisite budget for a major overhaul of the maps, addition of new maps, new labels and other illustrations. For a book of this size it would not be economical to make such major alterations and additions more frequently than every five years, but I am allowed to perform a light update for readers who buy this book midway between each major revise, so that is “fresher” and they benefit from more recent vintage detail. I will make important changes and occasionally insert additional appellations or other information, but for everything I insert, I have to delete something to make room, so anything added has to be significantly more important. Writing is just a part of the work. I am travelling, researching and tasting constantly for Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. There does come a time when I must confine myself to home to do the writing, and I cannot travel everywhere the day before, thus some of my updating research is older than others, and I have to request samples as I write, so the tasting never stops.

 10.  Is relatively smaller attention to Eastern European and Caucasus wines in this new edition not underestimated? 

If you are referring to the 1997 edition, when I combined many of these countries because the entire area was in a state of flux, making it difficult to pin down international borders, let alone assess the current winemaking in certain states. By 2005, however, the situation had settled down, and I was able to break this vast region back down to chapters and maps for individual countries, doubling the overall number of pages. If you were in fact referring to the 2005 edition and you believe that even doubled, Southeastern Europe deserves even more attention, then I would agree with you. I hope to do it better justice in the future, but I am constrained by space and other countries have an even greater need of expansion. Take Italy: in the 1997 edition I increased the coverage of this country from 25 pages to almost 40, the largest expansion by far of any chapter in the book, yet in terms of production it is second only to France, which in the same edition comprised of 207 pages. Expanding coverage of Southeastern Europe is one of my priorities for the future, but which do you think should have the greater priority: Southeastern Europe or Italy?

 11.  Where worldwide would you discern positive surprises in wine making? 

Since you qualify your question by the word “surprises”, I take it you are not asking where the most positive improvement has occurred, but where unexpectedly such improvement has occurred. In that case, I would have to say the USA’s Atlantic Northeast, particularly in Michigan; the light, dry table wines in the Jura, where the younger generation has stopped adding declassified vin jaune to these wines, making them fresher and fruitier; China, where so much is set to happen; Japan, where there is an explosion of premium quality wine producers; and in Lebanon and Israel prior to recent terrible events.

 12.  Why are New world wines capturing so much attention and success? 

For several reasons, the main one being that the New World is not restrained by the French model of Appellation Contrôlée laws, which the Italians, Spanish and other European countries have adopted, and which are unworkable, irrational and cost-intensive. By and large the New World has adopted the philosophy of “truth in labelling”. This means that if, for example, the label states Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, then the wine inside the bottle must be made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in Coonawarra and harvested in 2005. The only element of bureaucracy in the New World system is establishing the boundaries of the wine regions in question. There is no requirement on what varieties must be grown, the number of vines per hectares that may be planted; the method by which the vines must be trained; the maximum number of buds left on the vine after pruning; the maximum volume of crop that may be harvested; the style in which the wine must be made. No requirement whatsoever. Why should there be? Freed from these constraints, New World winemakers have been able to produce better quality wines at entry-level prices, thereby capturing new generations of wine consumers. They are also able to be more innovative at higher price levels, thereby attracting many of the more established wine consumers. There are other reasons, such as clutter-free, easy to understand labels; the reliance of grape varieties as the prime motivation for purchase (it is much easier for consumers to understand the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra and, say, Margaret River than, for example, St Emilion and St Julian); and although some New World winemakers do not being tagged “New World”, it does have a positive effect on consumers, inferring something fresh, new and exciting, whereas “Old World” is almost “Old Hat”. But the simplicity of “truth in labelling” is primarily responsible for the New World’s success.

 13.  Wine and health: does harm or benefit prevail? 

This is getting to be a trickier question as more and more seemingly conflicting evidence comes to light, and I have to read my own contributor, Beverley Blanning MW, in Wine Report every year to keep up! For anyone who is interested in this subject, her Wine & Health report in Wine Report 2007 (due to be published in September 2006) is a particularly crucial one. The simple answer to your question is the benefits prevail. There is still consistency in the large body of research about the positive effects of moderate wine consumption for a range of conditions, but especially for the Western world’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease. However, it is vital for any responsible commentator on wine to be totally honest, giving equal credence to the bad news as to the good news, and there is disturbing news emerging of important exceptions to the benefits of moderate consumption of wine. These concern [a] women, [b] the young, and [c] different ethnic and genetic groups. Numerous studies now suggest that even moderate consumption has potentially negative health consequences for many of these people. However, much of this research requires further validation. For example, one limitation on our understanding of wine is the continued lack of specific information about wine as opposed to other alcoholic drinks. It is quite possible (Beverley Blanning believes “quite likely”) that results may differ significantly by beverage.

 14.  Is the wine rating a sensible affair? 

I think that ranking producers by a 0-3 or 0-4 star-rating system is very sensible, as is rating wines by a numeric system. When a large number of wines are presented for publication, rating them numerically is not just sensible, it is essential. The reader has a right to know whether a critic prefers one wine to another or equally as well. The notes could describe two evidently very different wines, but if the critic believes they are equal in quality, only an equal score can convey the point. Stating this in words is okay when discussing just a few wines, but impractical when reporting on a larger number of wines. The more wines there are, the more necessary numerical ratings become. Perhaps there are 50 or 100 wines – how is the reader to know just by the descriptive notes, which ones he prefers and by how much? Personally, I am happiest with the 100-point system, which is not Parker’s system (he uses a 51-point system, but he numbers those from 50 to 100), but every professional should be prepared to adapt to whatever numeric system is in use. I often come across 20-point systems in wine competitions or magazine taste-offs, and find no difficulty in adapting.

 15.  Do you think the mondovinosation of wine brings American tastes and interests of big US wineries to the fore?

Perhaps, but Mondovino knocks Michel Rolland, whose globetrotting consultancies promulgate perceived American tastes, so it was not producer/interviewer Nossiter’s aim to do so. Whatever effects it did have were primarily restricted to the wine trade and its critics, not the general public, as it was shown in just 8 theatres in the USA, and grossed only £210,000 worldwide. Some people loved the film, some people hated it, but whether it was good or bad is not the point. The fact that it is a serious film is what really matters. It has been demonstrated many times the public in general do not want to be “educated” about wine. The only way to increase general awareness of wine is to do so as a by-product of something else, thus Sideways informed a much wider public about wine while they were laughing. The public went to see Sideways because it was a comedy, not a documentary about wine, but it got the message across all the same, grossing $71 million in the process.

 16.  Does biodinamic wine making make sense? 

Biodynamics is the astrology of agriculture. If you examine some of the more esoteric aspects, they clearly have no validity. The idea, for example, that Saturn or Mars can exert any influence on any vine growing on the planet earth is ludicrous. However, if you ignore the myth and mythology, and merely concentrate on how naturally the vineyards are worked, Biodynamics can clearly be seen as some sort of super-organic farming variant. There are good wines and bad wines made by biodynamic producers, so it is obviously not a magical formula. You still have to have a passion and talent to make exceptional wine. But in the hands of naturally gifted winemaker, biodynamics can improve the quality and sometimes even change the style of the wines being made. For example, since JosMeyer in Alsace went biodynamic, the quality and finesse of their wines has noticeably increased. The same may not be said about Zind Humbrecht. They made great wines, but they also made great wines before Olivier Humbrecht converted to biodynamism. The wines are different though. Many of them are sweet, sometimes very sweet. He does make dry wines, but only when the wines “want” to be dry. In Olivier’s interpretation of biodynamics, the wines are left on their fine lees until the fermentation has stopped naturally, and that usually takes well over a year. He neither stops a fermentation, nor encourages it to continue until a wine is dry. So the style of his wines has changed according to the whims of yeast enzymes! 

 

 17.  Wine authorities you do rely upon? 

I have great respect for a number of fellow wine writers, particularly Jancis Robinson and James Halliday, but most of the best regional and ancillary subject specialists are to be found in the 42 contributors to Wine Report. For ampelography, Pierre Galet encyclopedia is my bible. I find myself in agreement with Robert Parker on Burgundies more than Bordeaux, and I cannot leave out Hugh Johnson because, if not for him, none of us would have a job!

 18.  Any alternative passions beside wine? 

My wife! Then wildlife, reading, chess, and swimming.

 19.  What are your wines of choice on a daily basis?

Well Champagne, of course. Dry Rieslings from Germany, Alsace, and Austria. I enjoy good dry Riesling from anywhere, but it is rare to find wines of finesse from this grape beyond their traditional homes. I tend to drink quite a bit of Sauvignon Blanc because that is one of my wife’s favourites, and the best examples from Marlborough are hard to beat. I rarely bother with the old classics from Sancerre or Pouilly because so many are disappointing, and those that are good are too expensive. If I do rely on any Loire Sauvignon Blanc, it is the modest Touraine Sauvignon Blanc from Levin, which is British owned (by David Levin, proprietor of the Capital Hotel next to Harrods in London) and made by Thierry Merlet, who once worked at Petaluma in South Australia and his New World influence shows through in the wine. Some interesting Sauvignon Blancs are starting to emerge from South Africa (The Berrio from Flagstone is a favourite) and to a much lesser extent from Germany (Bernhart in the Pfalz makes a good stab at the Marlborough style). Pinot Noir is our favourite for red because at its best it makes wines of elegance and finesse, and this is the antithesis of huge, black, high-alcohol wines that have become the vogue for so many other grape varieties or blends. Burgundies of course, but also from the California’s Russian River and Santa Barbera districts, Central Otago in New Zealand and Germany, where lots of superb quality examples can be found, but at very high prices (Bernhart in the Pfalz is an exception, and is probably Germany’s best value Pinot Noir).

 

20.  How much traveling do you do per annum?

Between 60 and 120 days, depending on whether it’s an intensive writing year or an intensive research year.

21.  Anything you might regret about wine and being wine writer?

The only thing I regret about wine is that if you drink too much, you get a headache! But even that has a positive side. Whenever I’m foolish enough to drink too much wine, the next day I do not want to touch the stuff, and that tells me that I have not succumbed to alcoholism, because an alcoholic never has a day when he does not want another drink. The amount of alcohol consumed by most people in my line of work or the wine trade itself is well above “moderate consumption”, so we must be constantly aware of the danger. As for regrets about being a wine writer – you have to be joking! It’s the best job in the world. I have an open invitation to visit any winery in the world, and when I get there, I am privileged to taste almost any wine I want, including those no longer commercially available. Some of the richest people in the world would pay a fortune to have the experiences I have had. Every day I get up looking forward to work, and there are not many people who can say that. I even get a buzz when I’m chained to the desk  bashing out text.

22.  A wish to nascent wine culture and wine enthusiasts in Lithuania, thank you.

 I hope that Lithuania’s burgeoning new wine drinkers enjoy the experience of discovering the wonderful world of wine as much as I did, and still do. Coincidentally, my publishers told me just the other day that negotiations are underway for a Lithuanian-language edition of Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. I hope that it comes to fruition and it gives me the chance to visit your country one day.

 

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