There are only two British television wine presenters taxi drivers have heard of, Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke. Who can forget their double act on Food & Drink in the 1980s and ’90s? Since then innumerable cooks have become household names but there have never been any other wine celebrities who pass the cabbie test.
As a child I assumed that Oz was Johnny to Jilly’s Fanny Cradock, looking on in awe as she came up with outlandish wine descriptions. He says in his new book, Red & White: ‘people used to think we were married’. But later I discovered that Oz is a wine expert of startling erudition and eloquence. I’ve tasted with him a few times and his knowledge and recall are astonishing. He’s written a lot of books, some excellent like New Classic Wines, but others that didn’t have the full Clarke spark. Happily Red & White is very much a return to form.
It functions as both a memoir and a guide to Oz’s world of wine and, my God, he really can write. There are passages recalling his Kentish upbringing that reminded me of Orwell’s Coming up for Air. It quickly moves on to his time at Oxford and how he took over the wine society from the toffs in a Momentum-style coup. Rather than just open old bottles of claret, Oz and co. taught themselves to taste by memorising flavours. ‘We must personalise smells. Not just any old blackcurrant jam — it had to be the one that you remembered,’ as he puts it. Oz’s Oxford team beat Cambridge at wine tasting for the first time in years. Oz then took on the might of the French and beat them. Le Figaro was edged in black for only the second time in its history.
Oz was originally an actor and spent his twenties in the theatre with some minor roles in films including Superman and Who Dares Wins. He became known as ‘the actor who does wine’, which led to Food & Drink. It was perfect timing — Britain was becoming a wine-drinking country thanks, in part, to the bold wines coming out of Australia, Chile and New Zealand, and here were two larger-than-life personalities to explain it all. Before then, as Oz puts it, ‘Northern Europe had no popular wine culture because it had no enjoyable popular wine.’
Almost alone among wine writers, Oz genuinely likes popular wines. He defends New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the wine snobs because it’s as ‘easy to understand as a perfect gin & tonic’. And he defends Chile from the charge of being boring: ‘Look at the rest of South America... being boring isn’t such a bad idea. Democracy can be boring.’
Running through Red & White is what you might call the Whig theory of wine: once upon a time most wine was backward and unreliable, then thanks to technology etc., mainly from the New World, wine improved and it keeps getting better and better. It’s a broad sweep and inevitably some bits are weaker than others but the best chapters, on Australia, Chile, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, are very good. And there are some wonderfully outlandish descriptions that will surely raise a smile from Jilly: ‘This is the Grand Inquisitor of sherries, this is the great ascetic, the flagellator, the moaning, keening hermit of sherries. It is magnificent, but you may have to drink it by yourself, wearing a hood.’ Blimey!
Occasionally it can all get a bit much. In a few places, I scribbled the word ‘cringe’ in the margins. But that probably says more about me than Oz and, I think, explains the key to his success. Wine is hard to talk about without looking like a bit of prat. Oz, however, is unembarrassable. Combine this with a deep knowledge of wine, an ability to describe flavour, charisma and, of course, luck at being in the right place at the right time, and you have the recipe for Britain’s only enduring wine celebrity. He isn’t, sadly, on our screens much these days.
In the book someone comes up to him and says: ‘Oz Clarke, I thought you were dead!’ Not by a long way. At this moment I hope there is someone working to turn this book into a ten-part series for BBC Two. They can call it ‘Who Dares Wines’.