Christopher Fielden is a well-known personality in the wine industry, having spent the past 60 years working in the trade in various roles. As he releases his new memoir, Full Bodied, Amanda Barnes interviews him about his favourite wine regions, books and why there’s no guilty pleasure in his wine closet. Christopher served on the Circle committee for 6 years from 2003 and, during that time, four years as Circle Chairman from 2005.
Tell us about how you wound up in the wine industry…
To say that I wound up in the wine industry is perhaps rather presumptuous. When and where I started in Liverpool in 1958, wine played very much a secondary role to spirits and wine was mainly fortified. This was the land of Yates’s Wine Lodges, Aussie high strength white and ruby port. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, as he was, but I wanted to use the modern languages I had learnt at school, so he had to change tack. He was also a non-executive director of a small brewery in Lancashire, so he approached some of their suppliers to see if they could take on his wayward son. Fortunately for me, one of them said yes, otherwise I might have become an accountant, his next choice.
You have travelled extensively during your career (to over 100 countries), both for building sales and sourcing supplies of wines and spirits, and in your latest book, you fondly recount many of the experiences of spending time with clients and producers. With a view of the current pandemic and ongoing difficulties for travel, how important do you think it is to build personal connections in person and visit the country? Do you think the wine industry can transition into a more virtual means of doing business?
I was fortunate to be at a time in the wine trade, when international travel became the norm. I am proud to have been one of the organisers of the first trade group visit to Australia. I think that the more travel there is to vineyard regions by both the trade and consumers, the better it is for all. I think that personal contact is essential in wine promotion. The current pandemic is, I hope, no more than a painful blip. What distresses me the most is the uncertainty as to when it will end. As I write this, there is just darkness. I hope that by the time it appears in print, an effective vaccine will have been discovered and I can plan my trips again. Yes, I feel that modern communications will play an ever-increasing role in the industry, but they will never replace the personal contact.
You spent the first half of your career as a successful and revered salesman, a skill which you describe as becoming rarer and harder to find by the day. What do you think is the art of being a great salesman in the drinks trade?
I think I was a successful salesman firstly because I would only go to a buyer if I had something that I thought would be of interest to him or her. This meant knowing what margins they wanted and how the product would fit into their range. Their time is precious. Also, I was happy to discuss any other matters of interest, be they the local football team or wines from elsewhere.
Are there any wine regions that you have a particular soft spot for, whether that be the people, wine or place?
I suppose Burgundy is my first and greatest love. I have a soft spot for Uruguay because the wine industry is so compact and I know and am friends with so many of the producers. But there are so many countries and regions that I love: Alsace, New Zealand, Lebanon… The list is long; nearly every wine country I have visited has brought me pleasure.
You have worked with many unconventional or lesser-known wine regions, including bringing the first wines from Albania and Uruguay into the UK. Are there any lesser known or undiscovered wine regions that you have been surprised that they haven’t worked out in the UK, or do you think there are any with a great potential?
If I were to go prospecting for wine now, I think it would be in the Balkans. The countries there have a long and proud history of wine production. Their wines have been successful here in the past. One has only to think of Slovenia’s Lutomer Riesling and Bulgaria’s Cabernet Sauvignon. The problem is that it is now hard to compete with the promotional budgets of the big multinational wine companies.
You have written a handful of books over your career from your first, Burgundy, Vines and Wines, to your latest, your autobiography, Full Bodied. Which book has been your favourite to write or the one of which you are most proud, and why?
There are three books I have written of which I am particularly proud. The first is Is This the Wine you Ordered, Sir? – a history of wine fraud, because I wrote this with no commission and it involved a considerable amount of research and because it was a subject which really interested me. I would like some time to write an up-to-date second edition of this. The second is what was then the WSET Level 3 text book Exploring Wines & Spirits. I like to feel that this has helped bring a wider knowledge of wine to a host of students. The third is the book that I wrote about the Japanese group Suntory. This took me into broader fields beyond the world of drinks.
What inspired you to write your autobiography during lockdown? Did find it an easy or challenging time to write in?
I do not consider this book to be an autobiography. It covers just one aspect of my life; certainly the most important one, my work. However, there are, I hope, many other things that I have achieved that go unmentioned. I perceived that I needed to find something to do in lockdown, otherwise I would die of boredom, so what had been no more than a title and the opening paragraphs on my computer expanded into a book. I also hoped that it might raise a little money for the NHS… and this is an easier way than running marathons. If there is a further lockdown, I might settle down to write the novel that each of us is supposed to have in us.
When discussing your work as a wine writer, in your autobiography you state, ‘I hope that I have been able to persuade people that wine is something to be enjoyed, rather than be pontificated about…’ Do you think wine commentary and writing have gone too far to the extreme of pontification? Do you have any pet peeves of wine communication today?
One has to respect those who have a deep technical knowledge about wine, but, basically it is there to be enjoyed, on the nose, on the palate and in company. If we complicate wine too much, it will frighten people off. They will be afraid of it, rather than love it.
You must have quite an extensive and diverse cellar from all your experiences around so many wine countries. What’s your guilty pleasure wine or drink? What is the one bottle you couldn’t survive lockdown without?
I have no guilty pleasures about wine; I have no conscience about it. I can survive lockdown with any, or indeed, every bottle of wine I own. I will hold back magnums to the last!
You can contact Christopher [email protected] to purchase a copy of Full Bodied. All proceeds of which will go towards the NHS.