Meet the Member: Tom Jarvis

Tom Jarvis is perhaps best known for his role as a writer for Wine Searcher, however, his career in wine has taken many different paths. Essex-born Jarvis has been based in New Zealand since 2013 and Amanda Barnes meets up with him over a glass of Grüner Veltliner in Auckland to discuss his thoughts on the growing diversity in New Zealand’s wine industry and find out what’s next for Jarvis following his shortlisting for Louis Roederer’s Emerging Wine Writer Award.

Tell me about your path into wine. Your first career was as a history teacher and you ended up as a wine writer…

I enjoyed wine from probably eight or nine years old from the family trips to Calais and my dad desperately trying to find great French wine for less than a pound. I started off having sips of those at the table, and port and 7 Up in Mallorca. By the time I was 16, I was quite interested. For my 18th birthday, a mate bought me a bottle of [Penfolds] Kalimna Bin 28.

When I went to university and got the keys to the university cellar. When everyone else was buying eight cans [of beer] for £10, I realised I could get a really good bottle of wine for that and started to learn about it. I’d studied history and then I did the predictable thing and got a PGCE. I taught for a sixth form college for a year and after that my teaching career came to an end because a lot of us were made redundant and I made the obvious jump from teaching to alcohol!

I literally went into an OddBins to buy a bottle of Wyborowa vodka to celebrate being made redundant. I woke up the next day with a third of the bottle left and an application form for OddBins lying next to the bottle. I spent a year in the shops, got into head office, and then I started to build on bringing my teaching experience into wine. I got the WSET Diploma in 2001 while still working at OddBins. I ended up working 9-5 outside the wine industry for a couple of years, but teaching and doing wine events in my spare time.

In 2009, I got approached by Andrew Eakin to help him set up Bottle Apostle. I worked for them until 2013 and took a mid-career break and wanted to freshen up a bit and did a Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University in New Zealand. After a year working for wineries, I ended up at Wine Searcher, initially for a year working on the database and then move into wine writing for them a couple of years ago.

You’ve had several different disciplines. Do you take a historical perspective or a winemaker perspective in your writing?

When I’m writing about wine, I do like to try to get a thesis in there or an idea going through. 

I like a lot of the history – finding out why a region has prospered, whereas another hasn’t. I like the holistic thing of looking at the history and the politics and the socio-economics, along with the terroir and the climate issues. Auckland’s a great example of that. I just love the fact that wine is a sort of interdisciplinary subject. Anything but the chemistry, really.

What do you enjoy about living here in New Zealand and what excites you about the Kiwi wine scene as it is today?

What I enjoy about living here, and the first factors may not be tied up with wine, are the beaches, the hikes, the amazing surroundings and the relaxed lifestyle. Even though sometimes you want to bang people’s heads together and tell them to get a move on!

On the wine side, there are so many surprises and it challenges your preconceptions. When I worked for Bottle Apostle, we had about half a dozen Kiwi wines; that was what we had room for, that was what made sense. [I enjoy] seeing the depth of everything here and some of the wines that just don’t have export volume and are made in tiny quantities.

You get to appreciate the big companies that make small volume wines from a hectare of an unusual grape. There are lots of exciting individual wines from bigger producers. There are wines that I’d never heard of, from areas I’d never heard of. One of the big surprises has probably been the Bordeaux blends from around Auckland. Some of these are from vineyards that have recently disappeared due to housing pressure. You’ve got the Pururi Hills out at Clevedon, you’ve got the wines up at Matakana. I’d never realised these wines were made. I knew about Waiheke but I never knew these still existed. I’ve been really impressed with those and the best ones can really stand up to anything Tuscany can do.

What do you hope to see in the future here? What developments do you think are particularly important for the development of New Zealand’s wine industry?

It’s a difficult one because for many of them it is about export markets. The geek wants to see some diversity in the export markets and start to see new grapes come on. But at the same time, they’re still finding new places to sell Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc too, and the USA is still cottoning on to that. You have to be realistic about predictions and expectations. I’d love to see Albariño develop a bit more and maybe find new coastal sites. It would be interesting to see a secondary red grape in Central Otago. I think it’s about fitting grape varieties to regions and finding some new specialities.

What’s the future for Tom Jarvis. You’ve just been shortlisted for a Louis Roederer award as a writer. What’s your next project? What should we be looking out for?

I enjoy working for Wine Searcher and it has the advantage of being a brand name that quite a few people know. For the last year or two, immigration rules have meant that I haven’t been able to do anything on the side. Two things happened that are good for me. One is the shortlisting for the Roederer award and that’s just come at a time when I have residency here. Residency means that immigration won’t be looking at my bank account to see whether I’m getting multiple income streams. It means I can do my nine to five at Wine Searcher and do one or two projects outside of that, with their approval and knowledge, and just keep life really interesting. That’s the immediate plan for the next couple of years.

And always with a foot in education as well?

Since I’ve been here, I haven’t done much teaching and training. I’ve run some wine events as a salesperson and really enjoyed them and I did a handful of lectures and tastings back at Lincoln. So that would certainly be something that I’d look to get back into, now that doing so won’t get me chucked out of the country [laughs].