Like wine? Love writing?
Every year the Young Wine Writer Award, run by the Circle of Wine Writers and sponsored by Pavilion Books and Wine Australia, seeks out fresh blood. This will be the eleventh such prize – and I can’t believe how time flies, because I won the first one back in 2001 and it still seems like yesterday.
It’s a great opportunity. I remember being distinctly unconvinced about whether to enter or not but there’s nothing to lose and winning really can open lots of doors and prove a career-changing moment.
For general details on the competition, please see the following pdf: Young Wine Writer Award
More specific details on how to enter can be found here: How to apply 2011
On a related topic, I recently wrote a piece for Jancis Robinson’s excellent website, the last in a series of articles penned by former winners of the Young Wine Writer Award. You can find the piece on Jancis’ website – alternatively, you can read it below. It’s entitled (by them, not me) ‘How to be a wine writer’.
How to be a wine writer (originally published on www.jancisrobinson.com)
When I was approached, as the first ever winner of the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award, to pen a piece for this illustrious website, I must confess to mixed feelings.
Initially, there was the thrill of writing for one of the wine world’s most erudite, diverse and (so Jancis stresses) polite audiences. But then this gave way to a fear of failure: how not to feel daunted in such company and by the roll-call of eminent names featured regularly in these pages?
Then, of course, came the thorny issue of which topic to choose.
South America? But people must surely be getting tired of me banging on about that. Plus I could do with a break… So what about food and wine, a topic I’m lucky enough to explore on TV and, more recently, in our new competition What Food What Wine? Ah, Matt Day was already lined up for food and wine. He’s like that, Matt. Brilliant cook too. Damn him.
Then it was suggested that I write something from a personal perspective about the award and what’s happened since.
It sounded like a nice compromise so I said yes. But then all the nauseating faux pas committed in self-congratulatory and optimistically revisionist memoirs by the likes of adolescent footballers and glamour models began to haunt me.
So once again my pen faltered, and I missed the deadline.
But then conscience kicked in. I had said I’d write a piece, so write a piece I would. What’s more, given it tied in with the Young Wine Writer award, perhaps I could at least be of some small service by giving other aspiring writers an insight into the way I’d gone about things and the lessons I’d learned?
I remember vividly going on a fantastic trip to Argentina with Matt Day after he’d won the award. We plotted how to overthrow the established wine writing hierarchy. We even consulted one wine writing sage whose pitiful advice for us aspiring hopefuls was: ‘Emigrate to the US’. Needless to say, this left a bad taste in the mouth.
So here, in the spirit of positivity and with the pseudo-seniority of being the first ever winner of the award, is my two-penny worth for all aspiring writers, broadcasters, bloggers, award-winners and general wine communicators. (With the ultimate caveat, of course, of just trying to emulate Jancis…)
1 – Head off-piste. I had little interest in wine before the turn of the millennium. After graduating, I headed out to Chile to work as a staff writer on a news service (writing being a firm ambition). My boss, seeing my amateurish enthusiasm for visiting the local vineyards, commissioned me to write a tourist’s guide to the local wine scene. It was unexpected; I was entirely unqualified; I had a very promising and sensible job lined up back in the UK that I was going to lose… I leapt at the chance. Haven’t looked back since.
2 – Get lucky. See point 1. They say you make your own luck (as a famous sportsman once deadpanned: ‘It’s funny, but the more I practise, the luckier I seem to get’). Being a subscriber to the chaos theory of life, I’m not sure this is entirely true. But you do need to seize your chance when you get it. In my case, I was lucky that the opportunity was so glaringly obvious as to be unmissable.
3 – Grow big ears. The best communicators are those who listen to others. When I came back to the UK after Chile, I worked in the (now sadly defunct) shop of fine wine merchants Justerini & Brooks in St James’s. My boss Mark Robertson (now at Goedhuis and surely one of the nicest, most genuine men in the wine trade) knew about my writing ambitions and virtually forced me to enter the Young Wine Writer award, allowing me time off work and thus increasing his own workload in the process. Looking back now, I have much to thank Mark for. I’ve also become a serial award-enterer.
4 – No pretence: be yourself. It’s tempting to try to be someone or something else in an attempt to get noticed. It seldom works. I remember my first screen test, with a famous director and anxious agent on hand. I thought I’d impress them by speaking publicly the way I’d been taught – loudly and thoroughly declaimed. I lasted three seconds before the director erupted, ‘Cut! What the f&%@ was that??!!’ After that, I was myself. It worked fine.
5 – Be grateful. In this profession perhaps more than any other, personal relationships matter. No one gets anywhere in the world of wine and the media without the generosity of others, and in turn acknowledging and repaying that debt. I owe huge debts of thanks to the likes of my wonderful MW mentor Julia Harding, to mad gringo Steve Anderson who first game me a job in Chile, to publisher Hilary Lumsden and TV’s James Winter – not least to Susie.
6 – Get a website; be a brand. What was the pithy definition of brand that I learned by heart for the MW exam? ‘Sustainable differential advantage’. Make yourself heard however that may be (a website and social media certainly help, but building presence across all channels is important). Give people a reason to listen to you and remember you above others. It’s more difficult than it sounds but this is the basis of any sound career that has you as the main commodity.
7 – If all else fails, laugh. I was walking along one of Southwark’s scruffier streets recently when I was accosted by three ominous looking lads. ‘Ain’t you that wine fella from the telly?’ barked one of them. This took me by surprise; I said yes. Whereupon his friend, clad in low-rider jeans and oversize hoody, uttered the memorable words: ‘That rosé you recommended the other day. That was well dirty.’ I laughed. So did they. We went on our ways. It made my day.
8 – Be catholic. (In the sense of ‘all-embracing’ rather than any religious bent.) Making a successful career as a commentator demands time, money and patience. You’ll need to be prepared to have many different strings to your bow to make it worthwhile – speaking, writing, broadcasting, humping boxes, hosing down vats at 3am… I’ve driven tanks, abseiled into the void and attended a Romanian beauty pageant in the name of wine. And that was just the enjoyable stuff.
9 – Aim high. The easiest way to get to the top is by taking it one step at a time, but you have to an idea of which direction to go in. I can thoroughly recommend taking on the Master of Wine in this sense – a wonderfully challenging and rewarding process whatever the end outcome. It has served Susie and me incredibly well already in our endeavours like launching our wine school and setting up our wine club – and we’re newbies.
10 – Be brief. As Albert Einstein once said: ‘If A is success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z… X is work; Y is play; and Z is keeping your mouth shut.’