Wine blogging rescued me from despair and depression.
In January 2011, I sat at my desk in a faceless, uninspiring office in central London feeling like a Pink Floyd lyric: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”.
I was bored stiff. I’d written a wine tasting note for a competition advertised by Fine & Rare Wines. I installed WordPress and pasted the words into a blank post. I felt a rush.
18 months before, I’d watched my mum die within three short months from a brain tumour diagnosed too late. She was 66. Three months later, my son died. I took a few months off work, even though my small IT company wasn’t in good shape.
Returning to work in 2010, bankruptcy stared me in the face. The company, formed out of a random bunch of freelance contracts, had never had a proper strategy and it showed. Now we had employees to worry about. I needed to find a solution, and fast.
My wife’s best friend also had cancer. She was 39. Convinced that Chinese medicine could bring about a miracle, she refused all conventional treatment. She died that summer, on her 40th birthday. My wife and I had no feelings left to feel, no tears left to cry. Others talked about pain. We just felt cold and hard.
I made some calls to another IT company who had previously expressed interest in acquiring mine. They bit, and we agreed a deal that wasn’t making anyone rich but at least avoided the shame of going under. At the end of 2010, my co-director and I, plus our two employees, left our bright, funky office in Bermondsey and relocated to a new grey corporate HQ in Temple.
Konetic doesn’t exist any more, and I have no qualms in dissing them. The company’s business was recruitment software, and it was the polar opposite of Google. There was no table tennis, no think pods, no relaxed dress code.
We were expected to wear formal attire on a daily basis. The company’s chairman insisted this was necessary “in case our clients drop by unexpectedly”. I don’t think the developers quite got it, but they didn’t have a choice. The company made grey seem like technicolor. It was not a happy or upbeat place to work.
As tradition dictates, I went from being the managing director of my own company to being the sales director of Konetic. I hated sales, and now I had to sell a product and a company I didn’t believe in.
At least I had a salary, and I’d saved the jobs of my employees. But I was depressed. I felt broken and hopeless.
Wine had long been a passion. I organised blind tastings with friends, and bought Bordeaux en primeur when finances allowed. My wife (now ex-wife) suggested I did a wine course around 2002. I think she hoped I’d vent my passion for the subject elsewhere. I discovered WSET (The Wine and Spirits Education Trust) in 2004 and it fanned the flames. I had no ambitions to write about wine, or work in the trade. I just wanted to devour information and learn.
I started my WSET Diploma in 2005 and completed the first semester with flying colours. But then my company started to tank, and taking days off to study, or squandering four figure sums of money on a course that was just for fun wasn’t feasible any more. I never went back for the second semester.
The fire didn’t go out. I met new friends who shared my love of wine. We gleefully discovered London’s first natural wine bars together – Terroirs and Green and Blue (It’s not there any more, don’t look for it).
When I saw the competition announced by Fine & Rare, I had to enter. I knew I could write decently, and it would be judged by none other than Jancis Robinson. But it was the prospect of the trip to Bordeaux to experience the En Primeur week that really got me excited.
My entry sunk without trace, but it ignited a flame. For the first time in my life, I’d written prose about something that was just pleasure. It wasn’t a business proposal, a university essay or a job application.
I tinkered with the WordPress site, and gave it a name. The Morning Claret was my idea of a joke. I tried to make the site look like a newspaper masthead. It pleased me. I tinkered with it some more during my lunch-hour. And sometimes when it wasn’t my lunch-hour.
There didn’t seem much point in having a blog with just one post, so I wrote a second, in celebration of my local cafe and its tasty selection of wines. In 2011 there were still outposts of the city where a glass of wine was acceptable at lunchtime.
Maybe it would have stopped there, but I had the bright idea of taking it to Twitter. Previously, I’d tried to use twitter to build interest in my company and our IT prowess. But it was clear that my heart wasn’t in it, and I neither made friends nor influenced people.
I refashioned my twitter persona and started tweeting about wine. Suddenly, real people replied and engaged in discussion. Some even read my blog posts. Spurred on, I wrote more.
The game-changing moment came when one of UK wine twitter’s A-listers contacted me. Robert McIntosh (who no longer works in wine) forwarded me a link to a wine blogger’s conference, and suggested that I come. I had no idea that such an event existed. It sounded like paradise – spend a few days in Northern Italy with other like-minded souls.
More importantly, it was an escape route from the grey, uninspiring desk for most of a week.
The European Wine Bloggers Conference 2011 rocked my world. There were people treating blogging like a job, doing it seriously and rather professionally. I learnt a lot – including how to add a photo to a tweet. This was pure exoticism in 2011.
Life would never be the same.
A lot happened since. Blogging no longer carries the cachet that it once did. My audience is now as much on Instagram as it is anywhere else. Influencers are the new bloggers – as reviled by the traditional wine press as bloggers used to be in 2011.
I transitioned from wine blogging as a spare time pursuit, to writing for the traditional wine press as a job. That brought its own challenges, not least how to balance a developing obsession and preference for natural wines with the need to write broadly on a variety of wine topics.
Along the way, the wine world gradually began to take the topics dear to my heart – organic, biodynamic, natural and orange wine – more seriously.
The Morning Claret always remained as a personal platform, and grew to a point where I realised I could open it up to new voices.
In 2016, I quit my final IT job (Chief Technical Officer of another company I don’t care to celebrate, this time in Amsterdam) as I realised I had a book in me.
Planning, crowdfunding, writing and self-publishing Amber Revolution (2018) was one of the scariest yet most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. Its success showed me that if you tap into a subject that people care about, the reach can be global. Now I’m ready to do it again.
This time, Ryan Opaz and I are collaborating on a book that we see as a narrative and visual journey into Portuguese wine. Foot Trodden – Portugal and the wines that time forgot is planned for an autumn 2021 release.
The loyal and passionate audience that coalesced around The Morning Claret was essential in bringing Amber Revolution to life. I’m keeping fingers crossed that your force will power Foot Trodden too. Ryan and I will shortly publish an interview where we explain why Portugal has stolen our hearts and minds.
A decade on from humble beginnings The Morning Claret remains a vital outlet for my work. Some stories just don’t fit anywhere else. In 2020, I tackled several major wine news stories, in depth and at a speed that would have been very challenging elsewhere.
I’m a firm believer that the best journalism, and sometimes even the best opinion pieces have to be independent. Publishers always have constraints.
The challenge: where does the revenue come from? I’ve seen a number of talented colleagues launch subscription-based wine sites in the last year or two. The work being done by Little Wine, Trink and Not drinking poison, in particular, is hugely impressive.
It might just be the future of wine publishing. It inspires me and I hope to follow in their footsteps.
But never mind the revenue. First and foremost, The Morning Claret opened the door to a career that I love: communicating about wine.
It doesn’t make me rich and it will never bring my child back.
But the spectre of depression is gone.
You can’t put a price on that.