Renowned critic James Suckling an accidental wine writer

James Suckling. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JAMES SUCKLING
James Suckling. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JAMES SUCKLING

James Suckling joined a wine magazine after chancing on a newspaper advertisement

Thirty-three years on and renowned American wine critic and writer James Suckling, who studied journalism in Wisconsin, Madison, is still writing about the drink he loves.

In a recent interview with SundayLife!, the 56-year-old, who used to write for respected wine publication Wine Spectator for 29 years until 2010, says he had always thought he would be the kind of journalist who would "bring down governments".

"It was post-Watergate," he says, referring to the political scandal that rocked the Nixon administration in the United States in the 1970s. "And I thought I was going to write the really great stories. My dream was to write for The New York Times."

The former senior editor and European bureau chief of Wine Spectator - he joined the magazine fresh out of journalism school in 1981 - is best known for rating Bordeaux and Italian wines. He currently runs a consultancy and website dedicated to wines and all-things wine-related.

The Los Angeles native, who was a part-time crime reporter while in graduate school, ended up taking a job with the wine magazine after chancing on an advertisement in The Los Angeles Times. At the time, the magazine had just 800 subscribers and an office that was run out of a garage in San Diego, he says.

He recalls: "I needed a job, so I said to myself - I'll do this until I get a real one. And now, here I am, still writing about wines.

"I started looking at the job as a journalist, trying to analyse why a particular wine was a certain way, looking for the angle, looking for the story. That still drives my interest in wine today."

He moved to Hong Kong four years ago from Tuscany, Italy, when he left Wine Spectator.

On why he decided to move to Hong Kong, he says: "I wanted to move to Asia to be part of the wine movement and growing wine culture here."

Since Hong Kong introduced its zero-tax - the exemption of all duties on wine - in 2008, the city has "solidified itself as the capital of the wine world", he says.

He adds: "Other capitals for fine wine, primarily London and New York, are mature markets. But Hong Kong is so dynamic and it is so easy to ship wines here.

"More fine wine is being drunk in Hong Kong, and also other parts of Asia, than any other part of the world."

He was in Singapore for the DFS Masters Of Wines And Spirits event last month, to talk to consumers about its selection of wines that included rare big bottles, a vertical collection of Chateau Margaux magnum wines spanning 45 vintages, and other top names such as Lafite Rothschild and Harlan Estate.

Ask him about the sophistication of the Chinese market and what he thinks of wine drinkers from China buying up famed wine labels and in turn jacking up prices of top wines including Burgundies, he says: "Snapping up big names is typical. But the great names of wines are like the great names of watches or fashion. In China, there's a lot of emphasis on face value. It still matters what you drink. But all of this doesn't bother me."

On the other hand, what he is interested in are the people who regularly spend US$20 (S$26) to US$50 on a bottle of wine. He estimates this number to be about 350,000 to 400,000 in Hong Kong, and it is still growing rapidly.

These are the people who are hungry and keen to learn more about wines, he says.

The writer, who has two children aged 20 and 16 from a previous marriage, was first exposed to wine through his father, now 85, a lawyer and fine wine collector.

His father's collection included Bordeaux first and second growths, as well as California wines from estates such as Robert Mondavi and Beaulieu Vineyard.

Suckling moved to Paris in 1985 and later to Italy. Living in Europe may have influenced his style preference for wines.

He thinks the trend of bold, ripe and jammy wines is going out of fashion.

He says: "That was a trend that Robert Parker (famed American wine critic) championed. We are friendly competitors but that's just not the style of wine I like to drink."

In Europe and Asia, he says, people like to drink wine with food. "It is hard to drink jammy wines with foods, particularly Asian food, which is very complex. Big, heavy, jammy wines are much less appreciated in Asia."

He has also noticed that in Australia - once known as Ground Zero for jam juice, he says - is also moving away from huge, monolithic wines.

But wine drinkers will always look towards traditional Old World wine regions, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, when it comes to top wines.

"The nice thing is that in Asia, drinkers are curious. They will try the classics and also try and find new classics (in the New World)," he says.

Across the globe, quality has also increased significantly due to more knowledge on viticulture, storage and wine making. For instance, growers have learnt to reduce yields in order to obtain quality, concentrated fruit.

In China, however, the quality of wine has not improved as much. The climate, terroir and soils for growing grapes are not ideal, he says.

Moreover, the culture for production is also different - growers, who have always lived by the mantra of the more that is produced the better, cannot reconcile that reducing yields is important for wine grapes.

He says: "I haven't really been excited about Chinese wine. I would really like them to make excellent wine. If the label said France or Australia or California, it still wouldn't be a good wine.

"Chinese wine has to be judged on a global scale. And if it's not up to scratch, then I'm sorry. I have hope for wines from China, but right now, I'm not very impressed."

rltan@sph.com.sg

Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan