John Stimpfig – a career in wine-writing decanted



After 20 years spent pouring his vinous enthusiasm into the column inches of leading newspapers and magazines, John Stimpfig has been installed as Decanter’s Editorial Content Director. Here, the 2012 Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of the Year talks Chinese Cabernets, his hopes for Bordeaux’s revival in 2015 and the magnitude of Serge Hochar’s legacy.

What does your new role at Decanter entail?

I’m looking at our magazine, digital editions and website, and while we have a great product there’s always room for improvement. It comes down to working out what’s going to interest our readers, and then providing them with the best writers, content and stories. I’ve been a contributing editor at Decanter since the mid-1990s, so the way I see it is I’ve always been a part of the extended family, but now I’m a part of the immediate one.

What do you enjoy about being a wine writer?

First and foremost I just enjoy drinking good wine, but it’s also about the panoply of people you come across. There are a great deal of characters still coming through, and some great wines with them. I also like how wine encompasses so many different elements: not just people but business, culture, history, geography, science and technology. What’s also refreshing about this business is – partly due to its fragmented nature – it’s not particularly hierarchical. If you want to speak to someone, you give them a call and they tend to pick up the phone themselves. Making wine is certainly a labour of love, but it’s also a privileged position to be a part of this industry. We’re working with a wonderful product which gives people immense pleasure.

Was there a particular epiphany that steered you towards a career in wine writing?

I took a year off to go to Australia. Before I went I was a wine neophyte, but out there I got to visit the Hunter Valley and Barossa and quickly developed an interest. When I returned to the UK, it was coincidentally at the time when WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) was launching its courses to the public for the first time, and a friend of mine I’d been in Australia with suggested we enrol on one together. That was the epiphany for me – I was captivated. I wanted to dig deeper and that spurred me on to do the two-year diploma. I wasn’t even working in the industry then, I was a PR copywriter for a management consultancy firm.

Why do you think Decanter and Berry Bros. & Rudd have developed such a close bond over the years?

We have good relationships with a number of wine merchants, as it should be, but when you meet a star like Jasper Morris MW – who is Regional Chair for Burgundy at our upcoming Decanter World Wine Awards – his knowledge of that region is so impressive he’s someone you simply want to have on board. I should also mention Demetri Walters MW, who is holding a masterclass at our first Mediterranean Fine Wine Encounter on Saturday 7th March in London; he has some fantastic wines lined up – from Spain, Roussillon, Italy, Greece and Château Musar.

As a wine journalist, do you consider yourself an educator?

My job is to entertain, inform and educate, and each component is as important as the next. Once you get the wine bug you crave knowledge, and this informs what you choose to drink, when you drink it, who you enjoy it with and how you talk about it. This, I think, provides you with more understanding and pleasure, and that is what wine is all about.

What’s your take on the growing trend for ‘natural’ wines?

I’ve tasted some fantastic natural wines and some disappointing ones. In a way it’s a return to the past, and there are some very laudable elements within the movement. I have a slight issue with the terminology though, because it implies that everything else is ‘unnatural’.

What are the pervading trends in the industry at present?

I’m hoping this is going to be Bordeaux’s comeback year, with a great en primeur campaign. Bordeaux seems to have been missing from people’s tables of late. They’ve had some tough vintages over the past three years and yet the standard of winemaking there has never been higher. They tend to have great years in multiples of five, so fingers crossed 2015 is a big year for Bordeaux. I love all the classic wine regions – I’m a fan of the Rhône in particular – but for value I’m drinking a lot of Australian Riesling at the moment. Being exposed to so many wines encourages a ‘Catholic’ taste. You’re discovering all the time, and this makes you realise that you never know it all – far from it, in fact.

Have you sampled some of the emergent Chinese wines?

We hosted a Decanter Fine Wine Encounter in Shanghai last year, which included a masterclass from a number of Chinese producers. Grace Vineyard had some amazingly complex Chardonnays – the Tasya’s Reserve from 2003, 2007 and 2010 – that were very good and very vintage-specific. There were also some top Chinese Cabernets at the event, including Grace Vineyard Deep Blue 2011, Domaine Franco-Chinois Reserve 2011 and Silver Heights ‘The Summit’ 2012.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry during your career?

The globalisation of the market. We’ve seen this explosion of interest around the world with new markets having a dramatic impact on pricing and consumption. China in particular has been a fascinating rollercoaster ride: it has driven up prices, and more recently, seen them come down again. Now it’s almost as if the China phenomenon never happened. Yet having witnessed the level of interest in Shanghai, in the long-term China will continue to have a huge influence. We encountered some very sophisticated young consumers at our event. They were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and passionate – in this regard it felt much like one of our London Encounters.

We can’t sign off without asking for your reflections on the late Serge Hochar. What mark has he left on the wine world?

He’s left an extraordinary legacy behind him. He single-handedly transformed the Lebanese wine industry. He was an extraordinary catalyst and an extraordinary man. Château Musar is one of those wines that, once tasted, is never forgotten. It’s also one of those names that is incredibly evocative. When you’ve met the man and learned the history behind Musar, it’s such a tragedy that he has died. Serge was Decanter’s first Man of the Year back in 1984, so earlier last year he hosted a dinner for us in London to celebrate the 30th anniversary. It included numerous other winners from the intervening years including Piero Antinori, Michael Broadbent, Gerard Basset, Miguel Torres, Angelo Gaja and Ernie Loosen. It was a great dinner with many wonderful wines from these famous names including, of course, those of Serge. It was typical of his generosity of spirit.

Find out more about Decanter’s inaugural Mediterranean Fine Wine Encounter on 7th March, at the Landmark Hotel, London.