Wine Column: ‘Superstar’ Oz Clarke revisits Long Island

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11/01/2010 7:43 PM |

COURTESY PHOTO Wine writer Oz Clarke (left) and Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, during Mr. Clarke’s recent visit to the North Fork.

Oz Clarke first came to Long Island in 1987, to visit my own winery, Hargrave Vineyard (now Castello di Borghese). I was astonished that he made the effort to come to this new little corner of the wine world (by train, no less), because he was a busy superstar among international wine savants, having already made his mark with a witty and authoritative pocket wine guide (“Oz Clarke’s Wine Book”). Knowing that he was an Oxford scholar whose professional career began as a singer and actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I expected he would be an arch snob and quite “toodle-oo pip-pip” toward our humble efforts. Instead, he embraced all he tasted with enthusiasm and insight.
Since then, Oz has grown in fame while retaining his original and irreverent charm. He has branched out into television and radio, and tweets like a meadowlark. There is nothing dry about his book “Grapes and Wine,” a definitive guide to varietals, and his newest publication, “Let Me Tell You About Wine,” is a pleasure-filled introduction for newbie wine enthusiasts. Just last month, the French government gave him its ultimate compliment, making him an Officier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole. Not exactly a Knight of the Round Table, but close. He joins the august society of Louis Pasteur and Catherine Deneuve.
Oz got his start tasting wine at the age of 3 when, on a family picnic, his older brother fell in the river. “While my parents were rescuing my brother from drowning, I found a bottle of my mother’s damson plum wine, and drank it all … it almost killed me, but it gave me an endless love of wines that taste like damson plum.”
A scholar at Oxford, he joined the University Wine Society thinking it was a cheap way to entertain a date. The first girl he took there, Francesca, wore green “from head to toe: green hair, green spangles, green body paint.” He wore his best T-shirt and jeans. When he opened the door to the tasting, he discovered all the other tasters were men — all wearing pinstripe suits. That was the end of Francesca, but the beginning of his education in fine wine. He got excited about flavors.
On Oct. 17, Oz brought his enthusiasm back to Long Island, this time at Bedell Cellars, where he came to talk about — well, how to talk about wine. He believes anyone who loves flavors can become a good wine taster. It’s not hard: “If you can tell the difference between a cup of coffee and a cup of tea — that’s like the difference between sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Or a banana and a haddock — that’s like the difference between pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.”
You’ve got to be in a good mood, says Oz, to taste wine. “When you’re angry, or nervous, or in a bad mood, you have a bad taste in your mouth — your mouth dries out; a pre-homo sapiens response, and everything tastes bitter.”
Oz advised us to be careful what we eat and drink before tasting wine. Coffee makes everything taste like coffee for a half-hour. Chocolate intensifies bitterness. And kippers are most dangerous. Their fishy flavor lingers for 48 hours.
Tasting wine should not be a solitary occupation. “Start talking,” says Oz. In describing wine, we use a borrowed language, making associations from specific experiences that have emotional components. For example, when Oz describes “black currant” in wine, he remembers the smell of his mother’s black currant jam, which she made in autumn, just as school started. That smell brings back the terror of the new school term, along with the homely comfort of his family kitchen.
Oz hates wine bullies, those critics who judge wine, but are “so geeky, they never get squiffy.”
“You have to drink wine, enjoy wine, and be true to yourself,” says Oz. Everyone’s perceptions are different: “If you don’t find a flavor in wine, it isn’t there for you.”
Oz is dismayed that wines in many parts of the world have become “thick, solid, dead fruit wine,” made in response to critics like Robert Parker who reward big, alcoholic wines with high scores. That’s why he admires the freshness of Long Island wine. Leading the group in a tasting of Bedell’s Musée (a Meritage blend), he said, “Long Island wines are like what Bordeaux used to be — the choice to have at meals. It makes the mouth water, and makes food taste better. It has a brightness; an optimism!”
As Oz admired the wine swirling in his glass, he added, “Isn’t it good to be alive? That’s what wine drinking is about.”

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.