After falling in love with the wine industry during her university year abroad in Burgundy, Jane Parkinson went on to become a successful wine writer and this year (2014) received the International Wine and Spirit Competition’s Communicator of the Year Award. In October her first book, Wine and Food, will be published. I spoke to Parkinson to find out how she got her big break, what her favourite wine regions are and her ultimate food and wine pairing. For more interviews go to Chef’s Corner…
When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in the wine industry?
I never drank a lot of wine with my parents at home but I did a university degree in French and spent a year in Dijon for my year abroad. While I was there I needed to do the research for my dissertation. I started to run out of time for choosing a topic and I called my tutor to ask for some advice. He told me I was an idiot and being in Burgundy meant I should clearly do it on food or wine. Wine proved more enticing and once I started interviewing people in the vineyards I knew I wanted to learn more.
What was your first big break?
After I graduated I scoured the newspapers and ended up working for a company that organises wine courses and exams. The best bit about the job was organising the wine tastings. I got to try all sorts of wines which you’d never normally try at that age. Then I got another job organising wine tastings and from that I moved into journalism. I haven’t looked back. I think I was quite lucky, I just happened to always be in the right place and the right time.
You’re a member of The Wine Gang, what does that involve?
It’s a group of five journalists and we’ve come together to found The Wine Gang. We review 200 wines, 40 each, every month. We have subscribers who sign in to the website to see what we’ve recommended. The wines are never anything too obscure, that’s the most important rule, they have to be readily available. Then once a year we organise three big wine fairs, in Bath, London and Edinburgh. We have hundreds of people along and each of us takes little groups of 10 on wine walks around the room and pick out our favourites.
Are you doing any judging this year?
I’m doing quite a lot actually. I was judging yesterday at a sherry and food matching competition. I’ve also just been invited out to Sydney next February to do some judging so I’m looking forward to that. I like doing the competitions, it’s a great opportunity to see your peers and get to know how in tune your palate is with the rest of the industry. It can also be quite humbling. Sometimes you’ll find a wine that you think is outstanding and then you’ll hear it only costs £7. It’s always great to find a real bargain.
You’ve just written your first book, what’s it about?
I have, I’m breathing a big sigh of relief. It’s been a brilliant project and I’d been dying to do a book for ages so I’m pleased it’s finally done. The book is called Wine and Food. It does what it says on the tin. Two third of it is about wine and the last third is about food and wine. I’ve been very lucky in that the publishers very much let me take any route I wanted to. I’ve written it as if I’m talking to friends. Obviously there’s a lot of factual stuff – grapes varieties, where they come from, why they taste different – but there’s lots of personal bits too, my favourite producers, vineyards I really rate.
Was receiving the IWSC’s Communicator of the Year Award your biggest career highlight so far?
I think the people at the IWSC are my favourite people at the moment. To win that award was such a career highlight. I’d previously won an award for my writing and that was fantastic but since going freelance I wanted to do more than just write. I love talking to people about wines, it doesn’t matter what level it’s at, so an award that reflects exactly what I’m about it’s very treasured. Though I do have to give a speech at a big dinner in November but I’m trying not to think about that!
Do you have any favourite wine regions?
Oh well, from an both an exciting region for new wines and beauty point of view I’d have to say the Douro Valley in the north of Portugal. It’s incredibly steep – the vines are on terraces cut into the slopes – and I don’t know how they pick the grapes but it makes everything look so orderly. There are also some great wines coming out of that region at the moment too. I’d say anywhere in Italy just because I really do love Italy. It’s a region that took me a bit of time to get my head around it but after spending time at a wine fair in Verona I’ve found it fascinating. Then there’s New Zealand. What’s not to love about New Zealand? There’s some great Chardonnay coming out of there right now.
What about your least favourite region?
I had a weird experience in Moldova. I think it was the effects of communism. It’s a hard place and it was definitely one of the more unusual trips I’ve been on.
Any tips for choosing a bottle from a wine list?
Often on wine lists you’ll see the likes of Chablis, Sancerre or Rioja, names that are familiar but they are often not the best value for money. If you look for regions from Spain, France or Italy that you don’t recognise they are probably still classic regions, just not as well known, so they may be better value.
What’s your most memorable wine-related experience?
I’ve got lots but one that always sticks in my mind is being in Champagne having just finished reading a book, called Wine and War, which described the occupation of France during the Second World War. It was a depressing book but I cracked open a bottle of very old Champagne and it really made me reflect on what I’d read.
Do you have one ultimate food and wine pairing?
There’s so many but the one that gives me the most satisfaction is fish and chips and Champagne. It’s purely from a greedy point of view. The basic fish and chips with decadent Champagne are such a good match. The Champagne is quite toasty so it really works with the richness of the batter and it’s quite acidic so it cuts through the oiliness.
Wine and Food by Jane Parkinson, photography Toby Scott, published by Ryland Peters & Small RRP £19.99.
Book photographs by Toby Scott. Photographs of Jane by John Moore.