Simon Woolf: Winner, Best Editorial/Opinion Wine Writing
interview by Richard Siddle
Here Simon Woolf, who writes regularly across both traditional wine media and his own blog, The Morning Claret, explains to Richard Siddle, chairman of the BDWA judging panel, what the inspiration for his winning article on Italian winemaker, Frank Cornelissen, was as well as sharing his overall approach and views on wine writing and what advice he would have for others.
Why did you enter the Born Digital Wine Awards?
“At first I wasn’t planning to. Industry-specific awards can be very inward looking, but BDWA is trying to change that, so I thought why not give it a go. Being recognised and respected for what you do is a great feeling.”
Why did you choose the pieces you entered?
“I selected three pieces where I felt I’d achieved the desired flow and literary style – pieces with a good story and decent structure. I wasn’t too concerned with the subject matter, although I favoured pieces that got a strong reception when they were written.
“That said, the winning entry was a bit of an outlier – it didn’t get a great deal of traction when it was originally published.”
How did your winning entry come about and what was the purpose and aim for writing the piece?
“I visited Frank Cornelissen while I was on holiday in the Etna region. Admittedly a bit of a busman’s holiday as both my partner and I are committed wine geeks, and we love visiting wine regions together.
“His reputation for being controversial, and the fact that his wines are pretty divisive was a given – so I was pretty sure I’d get a good piece out of it. Tim Atkin MW accepted my pitch, with the proviso that I made it objective. Tim can be pretty anti the natural wines phenomenon, whereas I’m generally sympathetic.
“I’m the only one writing about the ‘crazy stuff’ on Tim’s site, in fact I play up to that a bit, so it contrasts with people like Hosemaster who like to put the boot into the natural wine sector as often as they can.”
What is your wine background and how did you start as a writer?
“I’ve been a keen amateur for a good 15 years, working my way through WSET courses up to Diploma, but I never published a single word.
“In 2011, a combination of boredom at my then job, and a competition run by Fine & Rare Wines incentivised me to write a few paragraphs about claret (my first love in wine).
“I didn’t win the competition, but it did kickstart the blog which became “The Morning Claret”.
“Then I discovered the DWCC conference (then called the European Wine Bloggers Conference), which introduced me to people who were actually doing it professionally. I thought ‘Bloody hell, I need to up my game here’!”
How would you describe your approach to writing about wine? What makes you stand out?
“I’m aiming for beauty and artistry in the writing, as well as the subject matter. The stories we have to tell in wine are often quite gentle, although they may have huge resonance. It’s impossible to keep people’s attention unless you reel them in with every sentence.
“Either it has to be attention grabbing, or it has to flow so easily and smoothly that you just keep reading. I’m better at the latter I think.”
How do you see wine writing in general?
“I read an awful lot which is either just communicating information in a fairly boring way, or functioning as a basic travelogue (we went here, we did this, we tasted that, it was great).
“The challenge with online and the blogosphere (if that’s still a valid term) is that there are a ton of self-proclaimed experts. I like to think I can tell the pretenders from those who really know what they’re talking about, but it can be hard. Opinion versus considered opinion.
“On the plus side, being able to read on demand about almost anything, however niche and obscure, is such a privilege. Twenty years ago when I got excited about something I went to the book shop and bought a stack of books. Now I spend an hour Googling.”
What other wine writers do you admire/respect/read?
“Paola Tich’s writing has the punch and clarity that you’d expect from a seasoned journalist – something missing from 90% of wine writing. Andrew Jefford always has a unique angle and is never less than poetic. I read Robert Joseph and W. Blake Gray to be shaken up and entertained, Richard Hemming MW for his refreshing take and super readable style.
“Erika Szymanski covers mind-blowing subjects that no-one else even considers – and with panache and dry humour. RIP Old Parn.”
What other writing do you enjoy outside of wine and publications /websites that you read outside of wine?
“Modern fiction, especially Haruki Marakami and John Le Carré, cookery books, non-fiction about whatever is currently obsessing me. In the last few years it’s ranged from photography to cryptography to modern art.
“… and books on how to win writing competitions.”
What advice would you give to your fellow wine writers or someone looking to write about wine for the first time?
“Broaden your outlook as much as possible. Taste as much as possible, travel as much as possible. Read as much as possible, not just about wine.
“Re-read yourself at regular intervals and note the weak points. Then improve them.
“Try to find new angles. It’s hard to get excited about another blog post or article about region X or winemaker Y. Follow the story, not your preconception of what you thought the story was going to be.
“Take advice from as many people as possible, then ignore it all and do what your instinct tells you.”
Oh…and what are you going to spend your BDWA prize on?
“It’s a toss up between a bottle of Armand de Brignac, a palate of Echo Falls Fruit Fusion White Peach and Mango or an overpayment on the mortgage. I bet the last one’s going to win.”