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Amateur theatrics

Published:  18 January, 2007

My last article needled several women in the world of wine, forcing me to reconsider a lifetime's belief that it was the male of the species who takes himself the more seriously whereas women, closer to life because they bear it, are able to distance themselves from their own egos. But no. No way.

Fiona Beckett, Joanna Simon and Jancis Robinson MW all took exception to the idea that they depended upon rich spouses to subsidise their wine writing, and they made their feelings clear. Joanna went as far as to cancel her subscription to this magazine; Jancis protested to me, Fiona to the editor (demanding an apology). Well, while it was clear, I thought, that much of what I wrote was tongue-in-cheek, I was making a serious point: few people make a comfortable living wholly from writing about wine, and many could not do it if they did not have a working partner.

I apologise for ruffling Fiona's feathers in suggesting her husband was a motor magnate'. He buys only the odd classic car', she says, a fact I knew, and I suppose all reasonable people will infer from this that while Mr Beckett is not rolling in it, he is not impecunious. However, I would ask Fiona this: had you not a partner, of whatever financial weight, would your earnings from wine writing have enabled you to live in the way you do, have educated the kids, bought a second home in France? I put the same question, mutatis mutandis, to Joanna.

To Jancis, clearly not. She towers above her spouse in status and earning power as she towers above all other extant wine writers except dear old Hugh and that rampant Parker fellow. Jancis was irritated that I applied the term miserably remunerated' to her when this was patently intended to be a joke, and I cannot imagine any sane reader thinking otherwise. It is only surprising that she, as with her two colleagues, failed to appreciate the satirical nature of what I wrote. My God! Imagine accompanying Jancis to the flicks to see A Fish Called Wanda. I can hear her now: Bit far-fetched, didn't you think?'

I thought my last article, though a lampoon in certain respects, was making a credible point. Wine writing is not a way to make a serious living, and those who practise it should not expect to become rich by so doing. Which wine writers are wholly self-financing in the UK? Half a dozen? Eight? Less than a dozen? Out of the 261 members of the Circle of Wine Writers, that is not an impressive figure.

But how many members even expect to be sufficiently remunerated so as to render unnecessary the enforced seeking of other avenues, related or not, of income? Even a tearaway success like Matthew Jukes has, since my last article, confessed to me he must do restaurant consulting in order to trouser an adequate wage packet. Likewise my first three years of wine writing were wholly subsidised by my creative directorship of an ad agency, and it was with some astonishment, I can tell you, that I found I was able to relinquish the latter - or more accurately it relinquished me - and could still pay the mortgage and feed and clothe the kids, and my then-wife could allow her professional career to lapse (though the purchase of the odd classic car was, and is, beyond me).

Wine writing is mainly an amateur pursuit: it is not necessary to have a single qualification in order to write on wine. Only literacy and a thirst for the subject are required. Likewise, wine merchanting and wine producing were amateur in many respects before the rise of the supermarket wine department and modern oenological methods and production techniques. The amateur approach to wine writing may not be hugely profitable for the writer, but it can be rewarding for the reader. A writer who combines and connects in her writing many cultural activities is all the richer for it, and those writers who can express this diversity are thereby the most enriching to read.

Nicholas Faith, Stephen Brook, Giles MacDonogh and Andrew Barr are living examples; each has, or had, a wider cultural remit. Hugh Johnson's delicious style is wholly inspired from other fields, more disparate concerns. Style, insight, wit, wide knowledge, humanity - a wine writer with those attributes, even if s(he) is a dinosaur who considers screwcaps to be the invention of the devil and terroir to be the major determinant of wine style, will be far more worth reading than any po-faced professional prophet.

The mistake is to take oneself too seriously - wine, after all, is only alcoholised fruit juice - or to see wine writing as Mosaic prognostication.

It is a privilege and joy to write on a subject one loves, and those charms must remain, for many, its greatest rewards.