Stephen Brook is a renowned wine writer whose expertise lies on either side of the Atlantic, in European wine regions and in the US. Brook has authored almost 40 books in his career to date that span the wine and travel genres and is a contributing editor at Decanter. Amanda Barnes interviews him to find out more about his thoughts on publishing, his favourite wine regions at the moment, and why writing about sweet wines gave Brook his major breakthrough.
What were your earliest memories of wine and what brought you into the world of wine?
I remember tasting some very good wines when I was a teenager, but my family were not regular wine drinkers. At university, it was a question of quantity more than quality. I really got into wine by accident and I think that’s true for an awful lot of people.
I was doing a lot of writing for the New Statesman in the early- to mid-80s. They had a Christmas issue and they wanted something festive, so I wrote something about Portuguese food and wine, about which I knew just about zero, apart from what I bought at the local OddBins, which had quite a good selection of oxidised Portuguese wines [laughs].
The following year they asked me to do the same thing again, so I wrote about Sauternes, and it turned into a column. I think it was every three months and then they did a survey of readers and discovered that the average subscriber drank about three bottles a day [laughs] and they thought they better have a monthly wine column. I started to travel in order to gain material, going on press trips and all the other things that we wine writers do. That continued for a couple of years and as often happens, the editor left [and there was] a change of direction.
I started writing for Vogue, which was a treat as they actually paid expenses, which I’d never heard of before. I travelled a lot for them. I wasn’t their only wine writer, Rosemary George [CWW President] was another one. That was great fun and I slowly started writing for a wine magazine that no longer exists and Decanter. I suppose the breakthrough, if you want to call it that in this limited world of wine, was my book Liquid Gold, which was on sweet wines and that came out in 1987 and it won a prize, which was very nice. It put me on the map a bit and from then my wine writing built up.
Before wine writing, you worked in publishing in the US and the UK. How did it differ?
I didn’t work at a particularly senior level in the US, but I was editorial director of a very small publishing house. I also worked at magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly, but at a lowly level. When I came back to England, in 1976, I was an academic editor, which meant travelling to universities and keeping up with authors who were already contracted and adding new ones to the roster. I was expected to edit or publish about 60 books a year, which is a book a week. I didn’t always achieve that but I was at liberty to sign up a lot of people and travel a lot. I went to the States and to Paris to meet the great thinkers of the day. I also had to entertain and take people out to lunch and sometimes dinner, and I really needed to learn a bit more about wine, so I bought Michael Broadbent’s big tasting book. I knew the wine lists of the restaurants I habituated and checked up on what he rated. Gradually I built up some more knowledge.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt as an author?
Do the work! By which I mean, if you’re writing about a place, you need to go there. You need to talk to people and wander through the vineyards. You need to talk to the winemakers, the owners and consultants, whenever that’s possible. That way you build up a body of knowledge that you can use, both for whatever it is that you’re working on at that moment or for future projects. There are some lazy people out there who don’t really do the homework and I think it shows in what they write. I’m not going to mention any names of course [laughs]. Take it seriously. I know wine is a frivolous thing and it’s just a drink. People shouldn’t go into raptures about how it’s a wonderful art form and all the rest of it, but take it seriously even though we’re not talking about major political issues or anything like that.
What’s your perspective on the downward trend of sweet wine? Do you think there will be a revival anytime soon?
I just don’t see it and I’ve been following it now for over 30 years. A lot of people adore those wines. A small band of people, often in the wine trade or collectors, do buy them on a regular basis and enjoy them and serve them, but for the greater public – wherever it is, whether it’s in the France, the States or the UK – they’re completely off the map.
About 20 years ago, the owner of a Second Growth in Sauternes told me that he’d sold just one case of the current vintage to a négociant, and they made pretty good wine! It’s always been a tremendous struggle. Alexandre de Lur Saluces, the former owner of Château d’Yquem and present owner of Château de Fargues, said the problem with a property like Yquem is that it’s a national monument, so people might have a bottle, but they’re not going to open it. They’ll worship it, put it in a cupboard, put it on a shelf, but people are not in the habit of drinking these wines. And people don’t promote them well. They’re often made in tiny quantities, like with German TBA, you’ve got 200 half bottles. So what are you going to do? You’re going to open them for important guests, or drink them at Christmas, it’s hardly a commercial market…
There are areas like the Loire Valley that produce stunning sweet wines but again I don’t know who drinks them. I don’t think that’s going to change, I can’t see some great renaissance.
Some people will give up. You can see it in Sauternes at the moment – there are estates, First Growths, that have cut back their production of sweet wine by a half to two-thirds and are focussing much more on dry white wine. From their point of view, it does make sense. They’re still producing great sweet wine but in more manageable and more saleable quantities. That’s probably the way that people will go. You can see that in Tokaj as well, where people are producing more dry Furmints and much less of the Aszú sweet wines. If that’s the direction forward, it’s not a bad one, because the wine is still there for whoever wants it. For the vast majority that doesn’t, there’s another product on the market.
Another country you’ve been a champion of, which might be seen as slightly untrendy, is Germany. How have you seen the perception of German wines change on the UK market?
I think it has improved. You’ve had prestigious importers who recognise the quality of these wines and they’re not expensive. I just bought 20 bottles of very good German wine of the Kabinett level for just under 200 quid, including delivery. They do have a following and that following is increasing and what we’re seeing is more of a Riesling revival than a German Riesling revival. I think the wines from the Wachau are more fashionable and Australian Riesling is doing well.
German red wines are increasing in quality. I remember going to cooperatives in Baden in the south and asking to taste their Pinot Noir and they’d bring out 30 bottles. There would be Kabinett, the Kabinett Halb Trocken, Spätlese, a couple of single vineyard wines, then the whole series again as rosé. From their holdings, which were not enormous, they would produce 30 wines from 20 hectares. It was nuts. I asked why they were doing it. They said, well, Herr Müller, down the road, likes our rosé. There was no marketing strategy. That’s changed now, there are some really serious German Pinot Noir producers, like Stodden in the Ahr, who came top at a Decanter ‘Anything but Burgundy’ tasting about five years ago.
What other regions are exciting for you at the moment?
Italy! Italy’s always exciting because of the regional traditions and wherever you go, you’ve got different wine styles and personalities. You have a super class of rich nobles and Milanese textile magnates or whoever who can afford to buy good properties, invest in them and make sure the wine is of high quality. Then, as a complete contrast, you’ve got the peasants, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but [families] who from generation to generation have been involved with wine, making some fabulous wine. There’s a wealth of great wine and you’re not limited to a small varietal band. Also, quality in areas that used to make fairly miserable wine, such as Sicily, has improved beyond measure.
What are you working on? What’s your next chapter?
I’m continuing to write articles, mostly for Decanter and I do stuff for Fine Wine Magazine as well. I don’t have a new book in the works. I think it’s getting more and more difficult for book projects. They’re expensive, but the main reason is to do with the availability of the internet. I do it myself. If I go to a tasting and I want to know more about a wine I tasted, I just google it. Admittedly, the information is not always reliable on websites and producers are often out to promote their own wines, but a lot of people are not going to be carrying around a book on Bordeaux that weighs two kilos. They may have it as an eBook but I think it’s getting more and more difficult to earn any kind of living from writing mammoth books. I hope that’s not true and a new generation comes along and finds new things to write about, but I think there’s going to be an inexorable decline.
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Edited by Robert Smyth
Find out more about Stephen Brook’s books and articles online.
Stephen was a CWW committee member from 2004 to 2010. During his six years on the committee he was on the tastings sub-committee and was instrumental in organising a number of exclusive events for the Circle.