Could this be the most enthusiastic man in wine? An interview with Olly Smith
Author: Emily Miles
Olly, most people know you for your spot on Saturday Kitchen and your newspaper column, but Berry Bros. & Rudd regulars will be familiar with your Three Wine Men events. Can you tell us how it all began?
The Three Wine Men was an amazing confluence of the right thing at the right time – Tim [Atkin MW] and I had worked together, and we got to talking about how there’re wasn’t enough out there for people to really get in touch with wine. “We should take wine on the march!” Tim said. We mulled it over in the pub with Oz [Clarke], and he seemed to think the idea of a wine roadshow was a good one too. By the time I next saw Oz, Tim had signed us both up.
The three of us are so different, but the thing we come together on is wine. Tim is very serious, he’s an MW; Oz is just unparalleled as a wine communicator – he’s a national treasure and one of the most exciting personalities, and then there’s me with my loud enthusiasm. We are like a wine vortex: between the three of us there should be something to draw most people in. It’s like the Stargate of wine…
And what about the Three Wine Men events themselves?
We really wanted to take people on that individual journey through wine – your tastes develop and change not only through your life but also depending on the season. For me, what has been extraordinary is just how many real fans wine has – we see everyone from the guy who wants something decent to drink with his pork chops on a Tuesday to the person who really wants to explore and get to know new independent producers.
Having the chance to meet the producers gets people really turned on to wine too. When there’s a producer with us it’s like we’ve brought Bruce Springsteen on stage. This guy made my wine? That’s amazing!
Have you noticed consumers becoming more educated?
I’ve learned more from The Three Wine Men than from doing anything else – it’s a dialogue and a conversation which is what I love and what wine should be about. The consumers I meet are interested in things that are off the beaten track – Greek wines, Macedonian wines – there’s increasing awareness about Brazil. These guys are tasting beyond the big headline grapes – it’s like Glastonbury: the big varieties are Pyramid stage – well these people are interested in all the smaller tents and stages too.
What do you enjoy most about being a wine critic?
It’s easy for people to pick up their Pinot Grigio and not look any further than that, but it’s my job to get them into more adventurous stuff. A good starting point with someone who is new to wine is for them to tell me their favourite flavour – be it capers or Monster Munch – and I love trying to find them the wine that will excite them.
On Twitter (@jollyolly) I am like a naughty doctor with his prescription: whether you’re having a romantic meal, a night in watching the Sopranos or want something that will impress the boss there is so much out there that will suit and I love getting people into it.
You’re someone with a fresh take on the wine industry. How do you feel about a company as traditional as Berry Bros. & Rudd?
Working with a company with that kind of heritage is, for me, the perfect coming together of tradition and the pioneering. I love the heritage of wine; there is such depth to it. While I come across as pretty informal and enthusiastic, for me Berry Bros. is a real icon: it’s like the Isle of Wight festival – you wish you could have been there and then suddenly you’re working with them. I don’t know how better to put it than to say I buy my wine from you – at Pinot Central recently in Otago [New Zealand], I tasted the Felton Road Bannockburn Chardonnay 2012 and it was instant and unwavering attraction: I bought a case on the spot.
What trends are you noticing in the wine world at the moment?
South Africa is growing and growing – Swartland specifically. When I went there some years ago I wrote a piece for Decanter and likened it to a football club where the players have turned into managers: it had growing maturity coupled with amazing vibrance and age-worthiness. People are really interested in South Africa as a future centre for fine wine as well as fun wine.
For those people looking for a classic style, Italy is the place to go, but that’s established: Portugal, on the other hand, is wide open. Somebody should pick up the ball and run with it! Economically it has endured, and now it is such an exciting time. When I tasted there recently selecting my 50 Great wines, there were so few faulty wines – the overall standard was truly exceptional.
With Portugal – the flagship of the Douro aside – for me the most exciting region is the Dão: the wines have both elegance and complexity, especially in the hands of great winemakers such as Julia Kemper. At a dinner party, these are the kind of wines which will have people rolling around in an ecstasy of what they’ve tasted. If you like Rioja, you’ll love it. For whites, Beira Interior is where you get some of the absolutely stunning high-altitude wines: these crisp whites are like running up hill and plunging your face into a mountain stream – crystalline and incredible, like a shower of diamonds.
And so, to your latest project: the TV show…
The future of wine conversation might well be on the internet but television is close to my heart and so when I had the opportunity to work with my friend Jeni on Jeni & Olly’s West Coast Wine Adventure – a road-trip from food-loving Portland to San-Francisco. It was wonderful, editorially, to have a free hand and just talk about the best and most intriguing winemakers. We visited real rockstars at Ridge, for example, where – when you’re in the boiling sun and next to the gnarled old vines, you can just see why the wines are so intense and concentrated. At the other end of the spectrum were winemakers such as the Mariani brothers at Scribe who were truly interesting and innovative, high-end producers.
The spectrum of what we encountered and tasted – from the wines of young, bearded trendies through to Burgundian-style winemakers was thrilling. I can’t get enough of it – and wine just doesn’t get the airtime it’s due: to say it’s elitist, or that it all tastes and looks the same doesn’t cut it as an excuse any more. There is a story behind every sip and that gets me up and running in the morning every day.
Jeni and Olly’s West Coast Wine Adventure premieres on 5th March at 8pm on the Travel Channel.