Andrew Jefford isn’t like other wine writers. Browse his Instagram account and you’ll find not a bottle in sight. Check his Twitter and you’ll find a steady, quiet stream of haiku – or, as he prefers to describe them, “short texts”. These feeds are – like Jefford – gently honest; absent of ego, flash and fanfare. His prose is poised and purposeful, each word carefully considered yet never weighed down by pointed effort. He is a rarity in the world of wine: a writer whose (main) topic happens to be wine.
“I was always a huge reader. It always meant more to me than anything else,” Jefford tells me, thinking back to his childhood. But wine was omnipresent. As the son of a priest, it was a part of family life, consumed “on high days and holidays”.
“I remember first tasting Champagne with my brother, at the age of 10 or 11,” he says. “It was the first tasting note we agreed on: it tasted like vomit. Things got better from then on, happily.” The slight, wiry wine writer smiles, seeming almost sheepish about the wines that he’s since enjoyed.
Aged 16, Jefford decided to start making wine – brewing up grape juice concentrate and whatever else he could find– to supplement supplies at Sunday lunch. The transformative effects of fermentation hooked him – but it was the concept of terroir that reeled him fully in.
He was working at a local hospital, but after his shift – armed with The Penguin Book of Wines and André Simon’s A Wine Primer – he’d venture out to browse the shelves of “French Wine Farmers”, a wine shop in Norwich. He vividly recalls taking home a bottle of Chianti and being struck by the magic of travelling through a glass. “That’s full of wine. And every drop in there came from a vine in Tuscany. I’m drinking Tuscany!” he recalls thinking.“ And I’ve still not got over that. It’s amazing.”
Wine took a back seat when he set off to study English at the University of Reading, before embarking on both a Masters and PhD. The lure of words led him into publishing – a background which, along with his academic approach, defines his writing today. He spent four years “editing mediocre copy into something readable” – but eventually had had enough, and leapt at the chance to write a book on Port.
From there, he wrote articles for Margaret Rand in Wine Magazine, then Decanter, where he’s now a Contributing Editor and his monthly column is the stuff of legend. He was, for a number of years,The Evening Standard’s drinks writer, penned features for The Financial Times and is a regular in The World of Fine Wine. He’s authored several books – including the deservedly totemic The New France. Published in 2002, it looked beyond Burgundy and Bordeaux, shining a light on the nation’s varied wine scene at a moment when it was going through a revolution. If that wasn’t enough, he’s dabbled in radio, presenting for BBC Radio Three and Four.
While wine might be his mainstay, he’s written extensively on whisky and other spirits (including his respected book on Islay, Peat Smoke and Spirit), as well as travel and perfume. But writing, rather than any particular topic, is his real trade. His editorial experience has been key: his prose is intelligent, considered and a masterclass in eloquent economy – something that he finds all too often lacking elsewhere.
“One of the problems is that a lot of [wine writing] is online, so there aren’t space constraints,” he decries. “[Wine writing] tends to attract quite large egos. They do write three times more than they need to – because they think it’s all wonderful.” It’s perhaps the lack of ego in Jefford’s writing that sets it apart. He seems to approach any topic unbiased and open – still with the wide-eyed joy of that first bottle of Chianti. Wine remains, to him, “dead exciting”.
“It’s a great shame that fairly early on the rest of the journalistic world decided that wine was a ghetto,” Jefford laments. “It embraced wine with gusto initially – probably in the 1990s – then it all got very boring once we passed 2000 and they just asked everybody to offer recommendations and that’s it. Newspapers are no longer a great school for wine writing in the way that they once were.”
It is an industry, he feels, sorely in need of imagination. “There’s such a weight of detail to communicate that people never get their head above the waves of the detail.” And that detail, the intricacies of wine – or “its enormous apparatus of geekdom” – are the challenge. He hopes that his latest book, Drinking with the Valkyries – a collection of his work from the last 15 years, “could climb out of the wine ghetto – to anybody who enjoys language, enjoys storytelling, enjoys the interrelation of place and flavor that wine can offer”.
But, by his own admission, wine is “never going to be a mass market popular subject”. While the industry was long obsessed with finding its own “Jamie Oliver” – someone to bring wine to the masses, food is an essential part of life – “whereas wine need be a part of nobody’s life”.
Wine has, undoubtedly, come a long way – “vastly democratised” – but he worries about the “top end of things”, where wine has become so exclusive as to be “almost a plutocracy”. Wine criticism, for him, is intricately linked to the category’s self-imposed segregation, with “its relentless focus on points, excellence and things being better than other things – hierarchy, rather than difference”.
He’s long been vocal about scoring, feeling like Hugh Johnson that – although they may be of practical use to consumers, who undoubtedly want them – they are “philosophically untenable” and “disempowering”.
“You’re being misled to some extent if you think the 96-point wine is always better than the 94-point wine. It’s miles more complicated than that,” says Jefford, who scores wines reluctantly.“ And very often the 89-point wine can be better than either the 96- or 94-point wine.” His advice to wine drinkers is simple: “Trust your palate.”
Despite his impressive resume and effortless intellect, Jefford’s modesty shines through in our conversation – as we dash from the dangers of climate change (“Misery throughout the Third World – but the Bordelais and Bourguignons are raking it in”) to a fascinating co-fermented 15-variety blend from a Lirac estate (Ch. de Montfaucon’s Vin de Mr le Baron). And while the 68-year-old might be softly pensive in the written – and spoken – word, there’s such energy to the man himself.
He’s invariably described as a wine thinker, a philosopher-cum-writer, as well as – of course – a poet; but it’s impossible to pigeon-hole Jefford, his ideas, or his voice.
Andrew Jefford’s book Drinking with the Valkyries, published by Académie du Vin, is out now.