The Australian wine community has been have plenty of heathy quarrels lately.
But that’s okay because it’s how we evolve and progress, says Andrea Frost, who was shortlisted in the 2016 Champagne Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards.
Melbourne-based wine writer Andrea Frost was shortlisted in The Champagne Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards 2016 in two categories – Wine Columnist of the Year and Online Communicator of the Year. She talks to WBM about her writing career and the business of wine.
What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in Australian wine right now?
I think the most exciting thing right now are the quarrels. There’s that lovely quote by French essayist Joseph Joubert: “The aim of the argument, or of discussion, should not be victory but progress.”
I think that is a great thing to do, to say, “well, we have a problem or something feels like it’s not working or we simply don’t understand something, let’s unpack it and argue with it and see why.” As uncomfortable as it can be, progress and evolution of ideas happen though debate, discussion and conflict.
The quarrels that we are having about wine growing, wine styles, what makes good wine, are all a good and a healthy if not sometimes inconvenient and humbling way forward. On the other side of healthy quarrels there is always change. This is how we evolve and progress. And we are.
Let’s go back to the start: what is your background?
One driven by a curiosity for the world and a desire to write about it. I have spent almost the last 20 years in communications, media and publishing. The last 15 of those in various roles in wine media – I was the editor of an award-winning wine magazine, had my own wine PR business, worked at a publishing house and then in brand communications for a large corporate before I returned to writing.
It all started back in the ’90s when, after university (Bachelor of Applied Science), ensconced in the surf industry and an amateur writer, I started (as editor) the first girls’ surf magazine. After a couple of very fun years, I moved back home to Melbourne where I became interested in wine and wine media. A few steps later, with my experience in magazines and a bit of luck, I became the founding editor of the Australia/NZ edition of Wine X magazine. That was another great two years and a wonderful introduction to many of the people, writers and winemakers I still know and love in the industry today. The magazine (which was innovative, a little brash but certainly the touchstone for my love and wonder with wine) won World’s Best Wine Magazine before it was forced to retire early.
What happened next?
By then I had become interested in broader communications and (with the Liquid Ideas family) I started my own PR business for Australian wine businesses. This was the beginning of almost a decade on the ‘dark side’ in PR and marketing. During this time, I went off to the Melbourne Business School where I earned my Masters of Marketing through the MBA program and acquired a taste for bigger business. After boutique PR, a couple of years in publishing and global campaigns at Lonely Planet, I went to the other extreme and worked as a brand communications manager at Fosters.
They were all great experiences and lessons that gave me invaluable insights into wine, business and all sides of the media, but I never stopped longing to think and write creatively and independently. So I took a decade of media experience, a swagger of personal experience, indulged in more education and started writing again.
How did you get into the wine business?
A mix of curiosity, creativity and media experience. But I am not sure there was ever a beginning into wine, I grew up near the Yarra Valley so wine was not new or unusual to me. But as an adult when you consciously consider how you want to live, exploring life through the lens of wine is very attractive and a perfect landscape to take in the world.
What were your first impressions of the wine community?
It was, and still is, a magnificent culture of ‘professional passionates’ – people in business with a subject because they love it and one that enables a certain lifestyle. When you’re close to such industries – industries that are connected to the bigger ideas in life than just business – I think there is a bit more of a twinkle than if you’re in an industry that is about, I don’t know, IT systems perhaps.
I wrote this for a talk I gave at the first Wine Day Out. I think it still stands:
“The wine industry is no place for those looking for the sensible, the scalable, the practical and predictable. Success isn’t found at the top of a corporate anything. It comes from something more like the richness of our experience and the intimacy with our subject.
“Working in wine feels like a place where you can, as described by writer Wilfred Peterson, ‘walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground’.”
If one must be in an ‘industry’, I am not sure I know of a better one.
How do you feel about the current state of Australian wine?
As a writer, I am not as close to the industry as if I were a wine business owner or business journalist, for example, so my views might be a bit more romantic, but it is still a wonderful industry to be in. I also feel like there is a sort of ‘coming of age’ about the industry right now. As I said, I might be naïve in writing this, especially not having endured it at the coal face, but a decade or more of confronting business challenges in a highly competitive market place, followed by the necessary and resultant navel gazing, has evolved the industry. It feels like there is a new momentum and that we are building up a pool of not just great wines but offerings that are anchored to greater wisdom that can only come from experience.
What do you love most about wine?
I’d need thousands of words to explain it all but I am convinced that wine is the most beautiful drink in the world and I love being around a culture that is ostensibly built around that. I love that it offers a place for almost all kinds and professions – from suits to artists and everyone in between. I love that it is never the same and so requires us to react to what is, rather than what we would always like it to be, and I love that the most advanced technologies cannot replace the best things about wine – beauty, time, ageing, nature. Wine has such unique qualities it seems to be buffered against modernity for modernity sake. Finally, I love that wine encapsulates the most delightful things in life … aesthetics, literature, travel, language, culture. The Good Life, really.
And what do you dislike about it?
We can too easily forget the joy. This is quite normal and understandable in an industry and an age where current measures for understanding are not aesthetic ones but generally financial and market-driven ones, I get that. And these values are absorbed from the global culture not just the wine culture. But sometimes it is worth reminding ourselves that as far as industries go, it’s a pretty nice one to be in.
How do you make ends meet?
By never expecting to make money from writing. When I came back to writing, especially with my experience, I was under no illusion that writing paid particularly well. With the changing media landscape, it was only becoming harder. It wasn’t just my experience in the wine media but I have also been involved with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Writers’ Victoria and other literary organisations abroad, so I know that the writer’s wages are an issue. It’s not right, but no matter how intense my dreams of becoming a writer were, they were not going to change the reality. I have just tried to be good at my writing and stay close to what made me love it, not get rich from it. Having said that, if a Coppola wants to buy the film rights to my next book, I’m all ears.
What is your tasting routine?
Judging requires a fairly disciplined process, of course. It’s exhausting and has its limits but is a good way to look at a lot of wines. It’s also good practice for me as it is the antithesis of my natural way of tasting wines. I like to think and wonder about everything at length. It’s lovely, sure, but it’s also rather impractical as it takes me about year to work out what I think about anything. Being forced to make a fast judgement call is a good discipline for me, where appropriate.
I also love the passive tasting adventures that come about when you allow yourself to be led by a sommelier or wine bar owner into new and interesting wines. We have a great culture for that in Australia and it’s only getting better. Probably my favourite method is to get a collegiate, fun and knowledgeable group of friends from different wine disciplines, open groups of themed wines, turn on some music and take our time tasting. Always allowing time for discussion beyond just the qualities of the wine. I love discussion and learning from conversations so this is far and away my preferred way to learn about and enjoy wine.
Tasted any great wines lately?
I recently spent four months in London and, thanks to my columns with Tim Atkin and the World of Fine Wine, I was able to sneak into some pretty special tastings. Then, as the warm spring weather crept its way across Europe, I must admit I became a little bit Veruca Salt about Chablis and tried to drink as much of it as I could before I left. It really is beautiful and nothing tastes quite like it, especially the aged wines.
And what about from Australia?
The 2014 Calabria Private Bin Aglianico from the Riverina was a great surprise Not only is it utterly delicious, complex and exceptional value ($15), it is a great reminder of the potential that could come from the ‘new’ Italian (or other) varieties planted in Australia. This recalibration of wine and climate is an important evolution for Australian wine and makes one wonder about all of the possibilities. Given this is a reasonably new variety for Australia, just imagine what other varietal and regional combinations are as yet undiscovered?
At the other end, I have recently enjoyed some wonderful Australian Chardonnays. I couldn’t love Chardonnay more and to taste the quality that is coming from exploration of specific sites is exciting. A tasting with Dave Bicknell of a decade of Oakridge 864 Chardonnay was a great insight into his journey of those wines. And a tasting of the 2014s from Voyager Estate wines, in particular the 2014 Block 6 Chardonnay, showed what exquisite Chardonnay Australia is producing.
Where the Aglianico explores potential of new varieties paired to new landscapes, these wines explore potential quality and beauty. They are all delicious examples showcasing Australia’s future and as yet unmet potential. That is really exciting. But if you think about it long enough, most wine is an incredible thing on its own. Even the worst wines in the world can make you ask some pretty big questions, let alone the beautiful ones.
How do you feel about being shortlisted for the awards?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but in this case it really was an honour to be nominated. It was a highly competitive shortlist and I was alongside some of my wine writing heroes. I am happy to celebrate that alone. There’s also the more personal reward. My writing has not always followed traditional wine writing conventions and some of it has been quite personal. I was never quite sure how this would be received. At times, writing has been as terrifying as it has been liberating, (though typically more terrifying). To be acknowledged for that among the world’s best is probably the nicest part.
If wineries want to send you some samples, what are the rules?
Emailing first can be helpful, mostly when I am travelling. I’m trying to set something up on my website to alert wineries to tastings, but that’s to come.
How do you feel about digital/print wine communication?
I think print and digital channels are starting to find their natural places. Coming from a print background (and an editorial one) I didn’t love digital as much as print. It’s taken me a long time to admire it. But I enjoy it much more now and can see examples where the executions are just as beautiful as their print counterparts. Increasingly, more so. It is worth remembering that what does well in digital is not the same as what does well in print, and what does well in digital does not do well across all digital channels/apps. This is worth remembering whether you are a writer or marketer. And although we are in the midst of rapid and monumental change – the biggest in history – the suite of communication channels we have relied on has always changed, whether cave paintings, fireside talks, books, blogs, tweets. The material that is told through those channels is and always has been the important stuff – stories, wisdom, information. We will always need that.
Tell us about the new website
It is largely a refresh of the old one, with a place for news and updates, columns published elsewhere as well as somewhere to publish tasting notes as inspired. (Working up more of those for phase two.) The main change is that it is my name now (andreafrost.com), not New Ruby Press. I was very shy when I came back to writing this time – I could barely tweet – and I didn’t want my name so prominent. Maybe I finally found my voice.