Tim Atkin MW has one of the most recognisable voices in wine communication today and has established himself as a wine critic for his own eponymous site, TimAtkin.com, in addition to writing for several other publications. Amanda Barnes interviews him on how he entered the wine world, the state of wine communication today and what he plans to do next.
What was your first memory of wine? How did you get into wine?
My very first memory, which should’ve put me off for life, was that my parents drank Mateus rosé, and I actually did find a photograph of a Mateus rosé bottle on one of those very large televisions that they had in those days. They had a lampshade on it and had re-used it and recycled it. The first time I really started tasting wine was probably at university. I was actually the treasurer of a very prestigious bar at Durham University College but the bar was best known for its collection of whiskies. I think we had the best collection of any university bar in the country – well Scotland might have had a better one, but certainly in England. For my year abroad, I lived in the Southern Rhône, in Avignon, and I started to get a bit more interested in wine then.
You studied foreign languages and European studies and got a job working for a wine publication. When did the click happen, when did you start falling in love with wine?
That’s a good question. I think I spent the first 10 years thinking I should do something else. I thought I like wine but to start with I thought it was a bit pompous and male dominated and in 1985, it was very pinstriped, if I may use such a term. It was quite old school and the New World was just beginning. I think it was with the introduction of Australians – I thought [to myself] that I like these people, they’re a bit more fun. They’re not people who belong to stuffy Gentlemen’s Clubs and St. James’s, who are not really my kind of people. The Aussies kind of opened it up for me. I’d been doing it for five, six or maybe eight years and I thought that I actually really enjoy it. I did have a long phase when I thought I’d like to write about politics, or sport, or something different but then I realised that wine was a really great gig and that there are so many great things about wine, whether its history, sociology, geography, geology, meeting amazing people and the access it gives you to peoples’ lives and to some incredible places. It’s just remarkable, we’re very lucky to do it really. Whether or not the next generation will still have the opportunity is another question. So it took me about 10 years to realise how lucky I was. I’m still here, just.
You’re very journalistic in your approach and you’re also a wine critic and taste a lot of wine. How was that transition? Did it take a long time to train your palate or did you have a natural affinity?
I think when you start tasting wine, you’re always frightened that you don’t know as much as the next person, but pretty quickly I caught on to things. You get these buzzes in rooms and people are influenced by one another. Oz Clarke, who’s a good friend of mine and always has been, was very encouraging to me and said you should always trust your own palate. Listen to other people and learn from them, don’t be bombastic and overbearing and impossibly self-confident, which I tend to be a lot of the time, and listen to people, and I did that and after a while you release well actually I’m quite good at this and can taste and see differences between wines. I think doing the MW made me feel confident and feel one of the better people in this group.
The criticism bit is interesting and I used to think of myself as a wine writer. I’m still a wine writer but now I’m a wine communicator and a critic with it, and a critic is someone who rates wines and now gives them scores, and I didn’t do that historically. I think that with the demise of many newspaper and magazine wine columns, there aren’t that many outlets. I then started doing my own reports around 2010 on various places that I loved and liked writing about. That meant I had to give wines scores and stick my neck out a bit, classify things and be a bit more controversial. In some ways the change was forced upon me, but I’m really glad it was as it means I’m autonomous now and means I don’t depend on some new editor who comes in and asks who’s this bloke, he looks a bit old or a bit boring and do we need a wine column, and suddenly a large chunk of your income has gone down the pan.
How do see the future of the wine communication industry?
I think it’s really hard for journalism. It was much easier for me getting a job at a wine magazine, Wine and Spirit, when I was 23 or 24. You learn on the job, which means that someone’s sending you out to tastings every year. In those days I was paid the princely sum of £8,200 a year, which is not very much but it was enough to kind of pay a basic mortgage and live alright in London. Now you’d starve to death, even on the equivalent salary. If you’re just a freelance, selling pieces to magazines, there’s not enough money in it. Unless there’s someone supporting you or a trust fund [behind you], I don’t think wine writing as such is a career.
People are also now so used to free content that they question why they should have to pay when you charge for it, or they try to get it for free off someone else, and that pisses me off. It’s so much work to do good content that I think people should support wine writing. I think wine writing is a career and is a skill, whatever people think – it’s not just getting drunk! I think people should differentiate between that and a crap blogger who’s never been edited by anybody and can’t string three words together. Nothing against bad bloggers but bad blogging has muddied the waters a bit and people just think it’s all words. Good words are worth supporting. I’m very grateful to people who buys my reports because it helps me make a living and the people who steal them, well screw you [laughs].
Are there any styles of wine writing that you would like to see more of in the wine world and any that you would like to disappear?
I think the most boring articles of all are people telling you about verticals of wine they’ve tasted that you’ll never get the chance to taste, which is basically a form of public masturbation. I mean, who cares? Tasting notes are rarely thrilling, they’re ok as a way to understand a wine, but I think it’s the stuff around wine that makes it more interesting and that’s the kind of writing I like and those are the people I try to use on my site. Funnily enough, today a young wine writer wrote to me to ask if she could do some stuff for my site. I wrote back to her and said I like one of those ideas and could she do two introductory paragraphs for me as she would write the piece, and it was brilliant. I’m going give this person a go. That’s how you establish voices. I can’t pay people a fortune, but I pay more than the Guardian online does [laughs].
I think we need more younger voices who understand more about modern communication. To the generation in their 20s and early 30s, there’s an opportunity for you to do interesting stuff, but don’t do it in the slightly boring, formulaic way, what a friend of mine Richard Neill, who used to write for Decanter, called it – ‘the everything’s getting a bit better piece’. If you’ve got opinions don’t be afraid to say them, speak out loud and speak your truth.
Today it’s been announced that you’re the new critic for Burgundy at Decanter. What do you think is exciting today in Burgundy? What are you looking forward to getting your teeth into?
I spend a month in Burgundy already and I might end up spending more now. It’s not a hardship for me, I love the wines, the place and I find it fascinating. What I’m looking forward to is not writing about the same old people. Many of the importers in England import the same wines as each other. I’m looking forward to getting out there and finding some new names. I’ve got a list of about 20 new names that I’m looking forward to going to see. Fifteen of those might be mediocre but five might be gold dust. I think the critics job is to find the new and upcoming stars and get behind them, and I try to do that anyway wherever I’m writing about. I think what’s happening in the Mâconnais is really exciting and it’s still affordable for people to buy vineyards and there’s a lower barrier to entry for people to come in and create their new things.
What’s next for Tim Atkin?
I don’t think that I can do any more physically. There are places that I love and would like to write about, Barolo being one of them. I don’t speak Italian, but I can understand it and I think just to understand Barolo would take me a decade. All the other places I write about I’ve being going to for 20 or 30 years. I’d love to write about New Zealand more, but there are only so many hours in the day.
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Transcribed and edited by Robert Smyth
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