Tim Atkin is a Master of Wine, journalist, presenter, wine judge and photographer. He writes for a number of publications, as well as running his own award-winning website, timatkin.com. Tim kindly set some time aside for an interview with Liv-ex’s Sarah Phillips. The interview will be published in two parts. In the first, published below, he discusses his career in the world of wine, wine writing and the changing role of the critic.
How did you get started in the wine industry?
I did a French degree and during my year abroad I lived in Avignon. I’d love to claim that I spent every weekend in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but I didn’t. To be honest I wasn’t that interested in wine and I coasted through university like most people without any idea of what I was going to do afterwards to earn a living.
I ran a magazine called The Idler with two mates and when I left, I applied to a magazine company for a job and they said, “oh you sound interesting, there’s a job going on a wine magazine. Do you know anything about wine?” And I said, “Not really”. And they said, “Well, there’s a job going and they would like to interview you to be an Editorial Assistant”. So I went out and bought Serena Sutcliffe’s Wine Drinkers’ Handbook – which I still have – and read it overnight. I turned up to the interview wearing my father’s boating jacket and carrying a copy of the Literary Review because I thought it would made me look more intellectual. And I got the job.
The magazine company I got the job on also ran something called The Good Van Guide. So I could have got a job on The Good Van Guide. I could have been Mr Van.
What happened next? What triggered your interest in wine?
I liked the journalism more than I liked the wine. The wine trade in 1985 was very male dominated and you know that old line “your first son goes into the army, your second son goes into the church and the third one – the stupid one – goes into the wine trade”. It was a bit like that really. In those days I thought “I don’t think I’m going to stick this out for very long”. I wanted to get into political journalism or sports journalism. Then the more I did it, I thought “actually I quite like this”. I started to travel, which is one perk, but I liked the people who made wine much more than the people who sold it.
The older I got the more the wine trade changed – I think the wine trade has altered massively for the better in this country – and I became more and more fascinated by the subject. I remember talking to Brian Croser, the Australian winemaker, and I said, “don’t you ever get bored of wine?” and he said, “How could you get bored of wine? It’s geology, geography, it’s politics, it’s economics, it’s sociology, it’s people, it’s flavour”, and I thought, “You’re right – what a great job”. So I sort of spent five years thinking, “Do I really want to do this?” – being a bit English and miserable – and then I thought, “Actually I do want to do this”.
Then I was lucky. I got promoted to run the magazine I was on, Wine & Spirit, because people left above me, and then I won a wine writing award, and then I got the job at The Guardian as their wine correspondent. Aged 27 I was suddenly The Guardian’s wine correspondent, having barely been to Bordeaux. I learned very quickly just by doing it, and I hope by having an open mind, and just by being a journalist first and foremost; asking a lot of questions. I have always been good at asking questions.
Now what you do is so diverse. How do you manage all the different parts of your career?
When I got a job on The Guardian it became comparatively well paid and in those days you could live just from a newspaper column. Now, unless you have very modest expectations, you can’t. What has happened is that we have all had to diversify. My column in The Observer, where I was wine correspondent for 17 years, got reduced in size at just the right time. I left and it meant that all of the things that I do now – the diverse portfolio – emerged out of that. To be honest I am more fulfilled now than I have ever been.
I still think of myself as a writer, but I think more accurately you’d call me a communicator these days. I write, I taste, I judge, I teach, I give speeches and I take photographs. And I also publish other, award-winning writers on my site, timatkin.com.
As a communicator, what makes you different? What’s your USP?
I suppose enthusiasm – but other people have that. Also an open mind. I don’t have a fixed view of what is fine wine or what isn’t fine wine. I like to think I am reasonably approachable and that I’m not a wine snob.
I write about lots of different areas – but not hundreds. I have increasingly decided to specialise in certain places. Rather than being an intellectual windsurfer where your knowledge isn’t that deep, you don’t cover as much ground but your knowledge is bit deeper. So I mostly write about Burgundy, South Africa, Argentina, Rioja and Bordeaux.
Can you tell us what led you to study for the Master of Wine?
I got half way through the Diploma course and the person giving the lecture about Portuguese wines was quoting extensively from an article I’d written. I thought, “Why am I doing this? Why am I paying to do this if somebody is just using my material?” So I gave up. That was 1987. Then, in the late 1990s, people started asking me if I could help them with blind tasting. Friends who were doing the MW would come to my house and I’d line up wines and ask, “What’s this? What’s that?” Having done this for a few people, I thought, “I could pass this” and in slightly a foolhardy way – and I do like exams and I am competitive – I thought I’d do it. And so I did it.
In a previous interview, you said: “Wine writing is changing for the better as at least one dinosaur waddles off into the sunset”. Can you explain what you meant by this?
I was referring to Parker, but he is just the main representative of a certain type of wine writing. I’ve never met him and I’m sure he doesn’t care what I think. But I think that his approach is outdated. With a few exceptions, he doesn’t appear to feel the need to go to places, talk to people, walk through vineyards, and try to understand what they are trying to do. He is a kind of uber-critic who just judges what’s in the glass. This is not the sort of wine criticism that appeals to me. I think that you are missing out on a lot of those things that I talked about – the 98% of things that make wine interesting. If wine is just a liquid in a glass in front of you then I don’t really want to do that.
For all that, it might have been a bit unfair to call him dinosaur, because I do respect his work ethic and his honesty. I’m less convinced about the kinds of wines that he appears to like: ripe, fleshy and high in alcohol. For me, they are not the way forward. I think that more and more wine drinkers are moving away from those wines, though not necessarily the trading platform and market in general. I think the trading market is still dominated by the post-1982 Bordeaux world, which is a world that he helped to create.
So how about blind tasting?
I enjoy doing it. I enjoy challenging myself and I think it leads to discoveries. There is a place for it. But the type of wine writing that I like is about stories – about people. I think that makes wine interesting. So that involves talking to winemakers about their wines and often tasting with them. I want to learn from them and I’ve got enough experience to filter out the bullshit while I’m tasting. Sometimes I just ask people to be quiet for a moment or two.
I do points. I’m a child of Parker – not literally – but if it is just a case of saying, “this is 98 points and it tastes of blackberries” then it’s not very interesting. I mean, you are looking at centuries of civilisation – Western and otherwise – and it ultimately becomes too reductive and maybe even a little absurd.
And that is why I focus on just a few places. I like to go there and spend time talking to people and visiting their vineyards. And think that every year I learn more about them. In my view that makes me a better critic, one who understands those regions better.
I’ve just spent two weeks in Rioja visiting 72 bodegas. Not many critics do that. I don’t do that in Bordeaux, to be honest, as much as others do because it is not my primary focus. I review Bordeaux because it is an important part of the fine wine world and market. And it’s there, like Mount Everest. But I’m happier in Burgundy, the Cape, Argentina or Spain.
There’s quite a lot of rivalry among Châteaux in Bordeaux and among the trade. Is there rivalry in the critics’ world?
I think there’s probably a bit. As is always the case with these things, there are people that you like more than others. Some people are my friends, and some people are people I would not particularly choose to spend an evening with. But that’s fine.
I think what is happening now is that there are about twenty critics worldwide who are reasonably important in different areas, and I think that’s good because you get diversity of opinion. I might not like the same wine as Jancis [Robinson], Jancis might not like the same wine as James Suckling who might not like the same wine as Neal Martin – but I don’t think that is a bad thing. We’re all different; we all like different wine styles.
I think it’s time for consumers to grow up in a way. Consumers should say, “I don’t want to be told by just one person” and follow that person as an oracle. Instead, look at a variety of things the way you would if you were buying a car or a hi-fi system. You would look at different reviews – a pool of opinions. I think that is positive. I really do.
What would be your view on an average or consensus score for wine?
I think it’s dangerous. I sometimes get accused of marking too highly in South Africa, for example. It is a country I am very passionate about and I think the wines are underrated. On the other hand, I don’t often over-score in Montalcino, for example, as some people do. But at least you know my scores are my scores, for better or worse.
I like what you guys [Liv-ex] do during En Primeur where you can look down a list of individual critic scores and say, “five people really liked, for example, Lafleur or Pétrus this year – it’s probably pretty good”. If only one person liked it everyone else gave it 85 points it probably isn’t very good, unless you happen to think that person’s palate is the one that always chimes with yours. I think an average score is a bit dangerous personally.
Do you see the role of critics and writers changing with the role of the internet and peer to peer sites such as Cellar Tracker and Vivino?
Yes, probably. There are more and more points of view. What may happen, and this is partly wishful thinking, is that, because there is so much noise out there, really good, informed criticism will become increasingly important. It’s a paradox in a way: the more information there is, the more useful reliable information becomes.
On the other hand, I have always been a democrat. I like diverse of points of view, even when they aren’t necessarily ones I share, so there’s something very positive about consumers rating and discussing the wines they’ve bought and drunk. Why should only professionals have a view? Why should it not be the person that walks into their local Wine Rack? Their point of view may not be as informed as mine, because it is what I do for a living, but theirs is still a point of view, and if they want to exchange it with each others, that’s great.
The second part of Liv-ex’s interview with Tim will be posted later this week. In it we discuss the wine industries in Bordeaux, Spain and South Africa.