From drinking corked Chardonnay with his father to selecting fine wines and caviar for a Russian oligarch, Douglas Blyde shares his interesting path into the world of wine. Today Blyde is perhaps best known for his regular drinks column at the Evening Standard and as Editor of London’s Wine List Confidential but, as he divulges in this interview, his day-to-day workload is far more diverse and sees him wearing many hats – between events planner, consultant, communicator, host and writer among others.
How did you get into wine? What was your first step into wine?
I was just thinking about this. I often think it came to a moment where I was on a family holiday and we were staying at a really dilapidated motel in Mâcon. My father had pointed to the nearest pronounceable word on the wine list and it was, of course, a local Mâcon, and it was just the most horrible corked experience. I think it must have been corked. Aged 13, I wasn’t necessarily sure but I know there something wrong with it and I made the point to Dad. I was drinking the wine doused with water, so it was a bit of a cocktail. He made me think about this in a way that was quite interesting; he was obviously reverential towards it and was encouraging me to play with the wine and I got to know wine and the rituals of wine in that way.
Nowadays you do many different things in wine as a consultant, as an editor and as a writer. What would we find you doing on a typical day?
It’s a very varied day with lots of pings on WhatsApp, emails and phone calls. [It’s] a very hectic period. While I was on my way here, I was pinged by Derren Brown about rum and I’m hopefully going to send him some of my latest favourites to try. I’m about to go out to Italy to work with the owner of the Evening Standard, helping his parties go with a pop. I also help banks with events. I did an interesting Brexit tasting: the UK versus Continental Europe on produce.
I find myself doing all sorts of consultancy roles and planning events, and of course, there’s the column to write as well. Just yesterday I was having lunch with Guillem [Kerambrun] of the Caprice Group, [who was] talking about how he’s isolating his lists and putting focus on women in wine behind the bottle at Daphne’s. There’s a lot going on all the time.
You clearly have a taste for the finer things in life. You do some caviar consulting as well as fine wines. What was it in your childhood or upbringing that gave you a taste for exquisite things?
I do also have a more democratic taste for £1.29 spent on a McFlurry – that’s really good value actually for a variety of toppings [laughs]. I’m not entirely sure where the whole delight in tasting came from. I think looking towards the Italian side of my family, there have been vineyards owned or smallholdings, more for medicinal use, but there’s always been an interest in nosing things, playing with various forms of food, having the combination of different components to make something that feels better. Opening a bottle and then playing with it, particularly a spirit, creating something and making, creating, sharing the moment via a form of beverage or fine, matured artisan produce.
Most people in London will probably know you for your column at the Evening Standard. How do you come up with your column every fortnight? Where do you get your ideas, and are there any particular articles or topics that have been popular with your readership?
Early on I chose a quite provocative topic of doing a blind tasting of the wines of Eric Trump, so that’s the Trump Vineyard as it’s now known in Virginia. I held that in collaboration with The Vineyard at Stockcross and had a very interesting tasting panel amassed and we pitched a selection of those wines, including an 18% Cru Chardonnay, which was finished in Tennessee casks. So former Jack Daniel’s barrels – a gateway drug maybe to get drinkers from Bourbon onto wine. We did that against California, so it was The Judgement of the President, if you like, rather than Paris.
I tend to focus on personalities, the column is mostly an interview, but funnily enough I’ve only had one column rejected as an idea, and that was matching Mezcal with cigars – smoke and smoke, which worked quite well, but that’s the policy of the magazine to not promote smoking, which I understand. It’s generally about people who interest me and that can be restaurant designers or Guillem of the Caprice Group on his influence on various wine list projects. It’s really about the person, I think.
You’re also now editor of The Drinks Business’ new Wine List Confidential. How many restaurants have you visited in London?
It’s an awful lot. There must be another Dorian Gray stomach somewhere [laughs]. Everything happens around the table, it’s how you get to know people. I think a man who can conquer the London table can conquer the world [laughs]. That really seems to be the whole worth of London. Businesses happen as symposiums.
What is it that really excites you about the food and wine scene in London today?
I think the London restaurant scene is like the focus of the column – it’s about the people and watching where the people move to next in this Pangea of culinary London. The creativity on the plates certainly excites me. Looking at the lists, it’s interesting to see what people aren’t putting on their lists, whether they’re Bordeaux-bashing or going entirely natural. It’s a very dynamic scene with lots of factions. Looking at the training, it’s quite interesting to see that you’re getting a new breed of sommelier that isn’t necessarily trained per se as a sommelier. They’ve just seen something that interested them or they’ve moved sideways from manager to sommelier or adopted that role in addition to manager. There are a lot of broken down barriers, whether that is good or not, it certainly excites people. There are a lot of polemical sommeliers out there and I find that following them or watching their Twitter machinations can be very intriguing.
What do you like to drink on a regular Tuesday night?
It really varies. I’m at home having ice-laden cider as much as I’m having a wonderful Blanc de Blancs, or Billecard Salmon rosé or the latest English offering from the hands of Dermot Sugrue. It’s often bubbly. While my wife was pregnant we couldn’t really indulge and we saved up quite a few bottles, so we’re gradually uncorking those. But I also work on other projects which were spurred by her pregnancy, on adult soft drinks, so working to help give my opinion on, to launch and give breath to serious non-alcoholic drinks. They can be tough, they can have tannin and chilli to give you a sense of heat that you would have from an alcoholic product. [So] wine substitutes, or imposters if you like, that have the same behaviour as a glass of wine and can even work with roast meats. It’s a very varied drinks portfolio. A lot of it is packed up as my baby daughter was reaching for it [laughs]. She’s obviously got my DNA. We’re about to move house, everything is securely put away from not only her, but also sadly me.
What’s your take on non-alcoholic wine?
Generally speaking, a non-alcoholic wine is something that has been de-alcoholised and I don’t really agree with it. But, I think starting with a range of ingredients and blending something which is superb and honest is a much greater excitement and also somewhat reinventing the category that is the equivalent to a still red. Looking at sparkling drinks, I’m working with another company, there’s a product that is completely dry and devoid of sugar. They’ve patented a way of adding a certain amount of agave drops, like dosage in Champagne, to sweeten it to your liking, so giving control to people. I like the idea of people taking control of everything really, but particularly flavour.
Where do you see the future in drinks?
I can see a development in rum, particularly dark rum and I can see that taking off in various incarnations. There’s such a wonderful history and it can be – that word again – a very honest product. I think in terms of gin, I like it but I work for a Russian and vodka has perhaps taken over. I think gin has followed too many spurs and rivulets – pink, blue, there are too many actual colours in a drink that should be white and pure and [served] in a Martini-shaped glass for me. I think rum is an interesting way to reclaim that. I’ve been out to Cuba this year, investigating the whole after dinner communication with a bottle of rum, and I’m working with a company based in Barbados on helping to launch their product to a wider audience, of perhaps [those who are] currently gin drinkers.
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Edited by Robert Smyth
Photo by Martin Behrman