Multi award-winning consultant, author, newspaper columnist, and one of the UK’s best-loved wine personalities Olly Smith really is as busy as a bee. We persuaded him to sit still for a few minutes to talk about the inspiration for his new podcast, what advice he would share for aspiring wine communicators and what he really thinks of the other Three Wine Men.
Your brand new podcast A Glass With…, produced with Richard Hemming MW, has been very well received (we loved it!) – what inspired you both to make it?
Wine inspired me to make it! I’ve always believed that wine is a social beacon that draws us closer together; whether it’s over a meal or a chat, or in a particular place, wine has always made me feel more deeply connected with my surroundings and with the people I’m with.
One on one, it’s incredibly powerful and sets you on a conversational safari of shared imagining. It’s a duet, it’s intimate and it’s magic in its surreptitiously unifying power – with wine it’s easier to forget ‘you and me’ and just be there as us.
The inception of the show came about with Richard over a glass or two of wine. He’s remarkably attuned to the social power of wine and aside from our friendship I’ve long admired his determination to bring people together with wine, especially when it’s for a good cause such as his stewardship of Skin Côntact fund-raising for Comic Relief. He’s also an absolute hoot to get tiddly with!
Describing A Glass With…, you have said that “everyone can dive into this podcast – it’s not just for wine lovers”. Would you say this is reflective of your general attitude towards wine?
Absolutely. I see my role in wine as listening to what individuals actually love tasting and recommending them a top bottle at a budget that suits, to pair perfectly with a particular dish, and ideally enjoy in great company!
Where you buy is also key to enjoying and submersing yourself in the world of wine – I encourage everyone to build a solid relationship with their local independent wine merchant.
it’s magic in its surreptitiously unifying power – with wine it’s easier to forget ‘you and me’ and just be there as us
As a multi award-winning wine communicator, having been named one of Debrett’s 500 2015 and even served as the UK’s drinks ambassador to China, what do you think has been the secret of your success, and what advice would you offer others looking to share their passion?
Be a bee. Let me explain...
I may dress like a circus run by Flash Gordon but I feel about as comfortable in my own skin as it’s possible to be, although I couldn’t have done any of it alone. I feel very lucky to be married to the world’s greatest and warmest soul; Sophie is a huge part of the wiggle in my waltz, the spice in my sneeze and the glow in my heart.
I think if you’re lucky enough to do a job that makes the sun shine more often than not between your ears, at the very least you can share some of your luck, enthusiasm and good fortune. I love the immense creativity and risk-taking of every wine grower who dedicates their life to bottling liquid pleasure to send out into the world.
But people are what matters most. The goal has got to be for everyone to guide one another and themselves to deeper understanding of how we all fit together. It’s tantalising. We’re born and we die alone but along the way we do this giant conga. Some get left behind, it’s up to us to reach out and keep everyone together. Engage, take an interest in other people and be as authentic and invigorating as you can.
And keep bees, that’s a great thing to do. Bees are the best at living for one another, pollinating a wider world and creating more honey than they need to so they can share it around. Be a bee.
How important do you think the role of influencers, like you, is in shaping the national palate?
For me, it’s less about thinking about how important it is and more about thinking of new ways to engage people, whether they’re new to wine or established fans.
I’ve been involved with Saturday Kitchen on BBC 1 for more than a decade – it’s an honour to be trusted with something like that for so long. The Mail on Sunday has a colossal reach and as for my work on Radio 2, it really is immense to be able to share the word on great food and drink on such a scale. I’m always touched by the response of people who stop me, engage me on social media or bellow from an open window that they’ve followed a tip and loved it.
How important do you think it is for wine authorities like yourself to embrace new platforms to reach and empower today’s consumer?
It’s vital. I’ve got a really exciting project coming that I can’t say too much about, but every time I speak about it I feel like I’m living in the future. The tools of communication change, but building content that engages is all that really matters. Even if you start with a yoghurt pot and a piece of string, soon you’ll find someone will pick up the other end.
But I also think it’s important to look back to learn and evolve. One of my favourite books about wine is ‘Horace & Me’ by Harry Eyres. I connect with his emotionally-charged translations of this great old Roman poet with radical depth and immediacy, especially this excerpt which deals with the soul of wine, the power and creativity of wine and the god of wine himself, mighty Bacchus:
“My words will soar, O Lord of the Wine Press
And they will not die; I am drinking deep,
Taking the risk, binding my bow with vine shoots”.
That’s worthy of any wine lover’s headstone!
Drawing upon your experiences as a consultant for multiple venues and establishing your own bars, how important do you think wine and spirits education is to the hospitality industry?
Hugely important! Ultimately, it’s the people serving the wine who have the biggest chance of transforming a wine moment into something that may change the direction of an entire lifetime of enjoyment. Connecting the right choice with the right budget at the right moment is a massive skill and the hospitality industry undervalues it at their peril.
Learning to think on behalf of somebody else’s tastebuds is absolutely vital – and to do that you have to be up to speed with what’s new and delicious across the seven seas of wine.
I’m a big fan of WSET’s work and I remember my Advanced Certificate (now the Level 3 Award in Wines) many moons ago with great fondness. Now with four of my own Glass House wine bars on board P&O cruise ships to keep up with, that’s a lot of trend-spotting, team-building and staff training to prioritise. Hats off to my team!
You’re one third of the instantly recognisable Three Wine Men – who would you pick as your desert island companion if you had to choose between Tim and Oz?
I do love you, WSET, but that’s an impossible question – if I took Tim, he’d get bored of my prattling and eat me, and if I took Oz he’d find a way to ferment me and drink my soul.
Can I not leave them both down the pub and run off to the island with my bees?