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Interview with Australian wine expert Matt Skinnner

09 April 2008

Matt Skinner came to the public eye as Jamie Oliver's wine-loving sidekick, and over the past few years he has rubbed shoulders with a host of celebrities. Now, though, he has decided to head home to Australia. Has he had enough of the elitism in the UK wine trade? Absolutely not, he tells James Aufenast

Matt Skinner has been keeping himself busy since he moved back to his native Australia. As well as being Jamie Oliver's wine consultant, and overseeing the list at Jonathan Downey's Match Bar Group, he has been filming a new series for Australian TV, and has been around the world promoting and researching the latest edition of his book, The Juice.

Tanned, bright-eyed, and wearing trainers that are almost blinding in their whiteness, a "Zoo York" T-shirt sitting fashionably under a purple-pink jacket (a risky colour for some chaps, but it works on him), Skinner is a boon for TV producers looking to find someone for the wine slot on their food programmes. He has appeared alongside Antony Worrall Thompson on Saturday Kitchen, and on ITV's Saturday Cooks. And he's also ideal for book publishers seeking to crack the mass market. His Juice series has managed what few wine books achieve: significant sales. So why has he returned to Australia?

"I want to see more of my family. My brother has twins the same age as my daughter, and we've visited twice in two years. I'd like more kids, too, and I want them to grow up the way I did, with the kind of lifestyle we had. I'll still oversee the Fifteen operations, and the Match Bar Group, and publish with Mitchell Beazley. I'm just plonking myself in another city. Everything else stays the same."

It sounds ideal: the picture-book home with children playing in the garden and the beach round the corner. But it won't be that simple, surely? Although Skinner will be back to Europe three times a year, it's hard to envisage he'll have the same control from 10,000 miles away. There must be more to it than that. Does he find it too stuffy in the UK?

A long pause, and then he rubs his nose and laughs, almost an admission that there might be something in this. "Look, I've had the chance, because of the people I've worked with in the UK, to grow professionally and personally," he says.

Skinner is being far too diplomatic, though. In an interview with Polly Vernon of The Observer a couple of years ago he told her: "If you think of the wine industry as a pie, then the snobs are a tiny slice of it. But they're the slice that f***s it for everyone."

It got him into trouble. A friend read the piece over the phone to him - he was in Australia at the time. "All I could say was ‘shit, shit, shit'," he remembers.

The Circle of Wine Writers took the greatest offence. "They thought I was referring to them," Skinner says. "Although that's not necessarily the case." Maybe he was talking about the industry as a whole?

"It's definitely getting better," he insists. "Things are freshening up, with younger sommeliers and writers coming through."

But it's a bit late to rein in such comments. There was a backlash with the publishing of his first book, Thirsty Work. Skinner was slammed for bad spelling and inaccuracies. "Some of that was justified. I'm fact-checking my new book to within an inch of its life," he insists.

In the thick of it

So isn't this all about incompatibility: the trendily dressed, relaxed Australian being at odds with the more buttoned-up UK market? Skinner wasn't here long, arriving in 2002 in the thick of the Fifteen ballyhoo, and much of the reason he has made it is because of one man: Jamie Oliver. After a meeting at Melbourne's Flower Drum restaurant they both knew it would work. "At the time I was just glad of a free feed. I had no idea who Jamie was, and we just hit it off," Skinner recalls.

Skinner was so utterly un-star struck because he hadn't been hit with the Jamie-promo baggage as we had in the UK at the time. For his part, Oliver saw the wine version of himself in Skinner - the type of person he had yet to meet in the UK wine trade. Help for Skinner came in the form of two Masters of Wine for the opening Fifteen list: consultant Peter McCombie, and Liberty Wine's David Gleave. Since then he has managed on his own, with more Fifteens opening under his management of the drinks purchasing.

And now, Skinner has moved back into winemaking in Australia, at Phil Sexton's Giant Steps winery in the Yarra, which suggests he wants to get his hands dirty after so much time talking and buying.

"I do admit that wine is still too elitist in the UK: it could still loosen up a bit more, and change could happen quicker," he says. "But when she was quoting me in that Observer piece Polly was going for the sensationalist angle. In the past five years, there has been a lot of change."

And in many ways the article was an accident waiting to happen. Like most of the consumer media, Observer Food Monthly staff felt that wine needed sexing up - so they surrounded Skinner with beautiful women lolling all over him on the opening spread.

"Wine isn't particularly visual," admits Skinner. "It's either red or it's white. You need something else in there to make it work. With Oz Clarke and James May it has been a travelogue format that has made it successful, plus they're both really quirky. Food has pieces of a puzzle that you can put together before the camera, whereas with wine, it's ‘here's a glass of Chardonnay'."

True love

It sounds as if Skinner should be doing something else, but he insists: "God, no, I love wine. You've got me totally wrong there. The bottles I put in The Juice aren't my real passion. Leflaive, Domaine Romanée-Conti and Ramonet are favourites, but if they went in, no one would buy the book."

Many of his readers would be shocked to hear that he doesn't love those £5 Chilean bottles as much as his eulogies seem to suggest. But that's part of being popular with a mainstream audience, as well as being a part of the wine industry. Thanks to Fifteen, and now with the Match Bar Group, he has also had a toe in the larger celebrity world as well, and perhaps it has all got too much for him.

"I've served de Niro, Clinton, DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Madonna - even the Queen. Funnily enough, going to the Palace made me the most nervous. It was the whole ceremony that surrounds her which did it for me."

Skinner met the Queen at a day celebrating the top Australians working in London and Her Majesty couldn't understand why the Australian standing next to Skinner was employed by the Conservative Party. "‘That makes no sense to me at all,' she said," recalls Skinner. "Then Ben O'Donoghue, a chef with Jamie Oliver, quickly shot back: ‘They need all the help they can get, Ma'am.' She dissolved into fits of laughter."

But Her Majesty was also curious about Skinner's presence in London. "‘The Commonwealth makes fantastic wine,' she insisted, ‘so why do you need to be here?' I tried to explain if someone wants to learn about wine that you have to come to London, that all the good wine is here."

In fact, the Queen, as it turns out, knew more about Skinner's motives than he did. She guessed right, where he had it wrong: that he's more comfortable in the trade Down Under.

This article first appeared in Harper's magazine

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