Fine Wine and Football – In Conversation with Tim Atkin MW and Phillipe Auclair

Over the last few months ARENI has interviewed ambassadors, top CEOs, professors and innovators. We’ve had some very serious conversations on why democracy was needed for the future of fine wine. We’ve discussed the multifaceted aspect of diversity and inclusion, and we’ve also envisioned how we could reinvent restaurants and maybe redefined wine lists in a post-COVID era.

In this special episode recorded in the middle of the European Football Championships 2020, ARENI talks about fine wine and football with Tim Atkin MW, the well-known English wine writer and critics, and Philippe Auclair, UK correspondant for leading French magazine France Football and author of both Eric Cantona and Thierry Henry’s biographies.

Fine Wine and Football – Published July 8th, 2021

Tim, you grew up with a stepmother, Julie Welch, who was the first woman who covered football for England. How did you decide to make your living about football or wine?

Tim Atkin MW

I actually come from a family of sports journalists. My father’s a sports journalist. My stepmother is a sports journalist and one of my brothers is a sports journalist. So I could very easily become a sports journalist, I suppose, but I wanted to be a journalist and I just got a job in a wine magazine. And because I spoke French and I spoke a bit of Spanish and I spoke some German and I’d done some journalism at university, they gave me a chance. I knew nothing about wine. I knew much more about football in those days.

And you Philippe?

Philippe Auclair

The same thing, chance., I was a journalist. I’m a musician, a professional musician under a different nam. I am a singer songwriter and arranger and conductor and things like that. I started working at the BBC World Service when I arrived in England, back in 1987. At the beginning I was really on the news desk because I spoke good English. So I was translating the news bulletins for the world service for the French service. And then somebody asked me, do you like football? I love it.

I started working with the World Service. I had a program there for BBC Africa. And then I was contacted completely by chance by France Football who were looking for a London correspondent. Perfect conjunction. I started with France Football and then went on to television and video as well.

Wine and football bring us together. They can also tear us apart in some ways sometimes, but they are also a reflection of the society we are living in. What would you say are the main things that wine and football have in common, and what sets them apart?

Philippe Auclair

They’ve got a sense of place. That’s probably a very important fact. A sense of place is absolutely crucial.

[Both Fine Wine and football] have a sense of place. A sense of place is absolutely crucial.

Philippe Auclair

Tim Atkin MW

It would be team work. Even teams with star players need a team around them. And very often you find that teams that are just star players don’t play very well together. You need the same thing with wine. Wine is a team effort. And it’s slightly unpredictable. And so that’s a little bit of a true with wine. The other thing I suppose is that football in my lifetime has become very moneyed. Football has been transformed by money. There’s an element of that with wine as well. I mean, wine is dominated by money in terms of the biggest companies in the world. And also the most famous wines in the world have become increasingly expensive. And I think have slightly distanced themselves from the fans. I used to be able to afford to buy Bordeaux First Growths. Now I just look at the prices and laugh. And I think that football is similar.

One other thing, which is adversity, I think very often you get great teams who are formed by adversity. I don’t mean a sense of aggression against other people, but they’ve been through something and learn from it. I think that’s part of the DNA of a really great team, how they deal with adversity. Great producers learn from difficult vintages. It’s always a good idea in the worst vintages to buy wines by the best producers, because the best producers make the best wines in the worst vintages. Bad producers don’t make great wines. And I think that’s also true of football that, you know, that, that great managers can make something of a diverse group of players. Whereas a bad manager could probably ruin a good player group of players.

I think very often you get great teams who are formed by adversity. I don’t mean a sense of aggression against other people, but they’ve been through something, and learn from it. […]Great producers learn from difficult vintages. It’s always a good idea in the worst vintages to buy wines by the best producers

Tim Atkin MW

What is there that we can learn from football, that they do better than us? Or when you look at the wine world, what do you think the football world could learn from us?

Tim Atkin MW

I like the loyalty of football. The fans are loyal to their clubs. And sometimes players who are loyal to their clubs. I like that. I don’t particularly like the tribalism, which can sometimes turn into violence. The big difference, obviously, is that wine is an intoxicant. It’s a drug. I mean some people would say football is a drug too, but it doesn’t actually get you high. Whereas wine in moderation gets your slightly merry, where football just puts a smile on your face when it’s good.

Is there anything that the world of football could learn from the world of wine?

Philippe Auclair

What Tim was saying about the fact that the top wine is now so remote our everyday experience. Football is about winning, which is very unfortunate. Especially today, I think our attention in football has been drawn towards a very small number of players, a very small number of clubs, a very small number of nations. When in fact there is far more to enjoy. Wine still has this thing that is being lost in football, which is diversity.

Unfortunately, there is globalization and internationalization, which means that we are losing some of the traditional national characteristics. And I’m not saying that as somebody who is harking back to a past of wonderful cultural differences between nations, I’m more thinking about the thrill of seeing, for example, Germany playing France, because the stars were different. Now, the stars tend to be a little bit same-y. I don’t want to have a Spanish Bordeaux. I don’t want it, but that’s what we have now.

Tim Atkin MW

At the top end, you almost get to the point where football is mercenaries. They realize they have a short career and they want to maximize amount of money for themselves and for all their hangers on and, and advisors and all those things. Wine has not changed quite to that extent.  

I think it’s made football a bit boring in the club game that you look at a club like Arsenal or Chelsea and you think, well there are almost no people who’ve come up through the youth system. Thirty years ago, there were very few foreign players.  

Well, continuing the parallel, it’s a bit like what happened in the 2000s with a part of fine wine, when everyone was following the recipe for success.  But what’s interesting to see is we moving away from this. We still have some people following that recipe, but we also have so much more innovation and interpretation. Is that the same in football?

Philippe Auclair

In football, success and money go hand-in-hand. The richest clubs are the most successful clubs. The most successful clubs make the most money. They can make the most money. They are even richer, so they are even more successful. And it’s a trend that I’m afraid we’re seeing, I mean, all throughout Europe. And now, you know, when we’ve got a team that does well in the Champions League, people think it’s a miracle. When 20 years ago, this was just absolutely normal. It’s as if somebody had taken the tip of the pyramid and pulled it from the top. The summit is ever further and the basis is ever bigger.

I think that one of the reasons why I’m very happy being a football journalist is that it’s a great way to investigate political and societal matters. It’s cultural essays around football, as well as some of the games. Football is an absolutely perfect microcosm. And then you look at it through a prism, so it makes everything bigger and, and, and starker. You can identify trends much earlier than you can perhaps elsewhere, or rather than people talk perhaps more frankly about them.

I’ll just take one example. I’m fascinated by the ownership model of some of the clubs.  And one of the reasons I’m fascinated by that is because these clubs are used in a kind of soft war or proxy war between various countries in the Middle East. And by analyzing how the powers behind them, I get a fantastic picture of the actual diplomatic tensions in the region. So, when you’re writing about a small subject, it’s very often a fantastic means to open a much larger window and to see a fantastic landscape. And I’m sure it’s exactly the same for team in wine writing.

I’m fascinated by the ownership model of some of the clubs. {…} By analysing how the powers work behind them, I get a fantastic picture of the actual diplomatic tensions in the region.

Philippe Auclair

Tim Atkin MW

Yes, I think that’s very true. In wine writing, you get wine critics and wine journalists. The former review wines and give them scores and write tasting notes. But the stuff that interests me is the stuff behind it. And when I write about Argentina, I’m interested in the politics of the country. Wine is not as big a part of the politics of the country of Argentina as say meat would be, but it’s still pretty bold. The reason I like wine is it gives me access to people who I wouldn’t normally meet, who could be wine makers, but they’re very often owners who are people who are very often very wealthy or have done other things. And as you said, they tell you stuff. The different, I think, with football is that football is played everywhere. I mean, I can’t think of a country on earth where somebody is not kicking. Wine is obviously hamstrung by geography. And there are certain places that just can’t make wine or don’t make it, can’t make it consistently well.

You have this division between producer countries and consuming countries. And sometimes they’re the same thing. England, though some people might disagree, is not really a producing country. It’s always been a global trading country.  And that’s the reason why London historically has been the centre of the wine world, because everything has gone through London. Although, you know, that may well change now with Brexit. I think that’s giving you a window onto, as you said, politics, economics, sociology. And the same thing is true in France. I’ve lived in France three times in my life, once in a wine region, and you really see the effect that vintages and local politics and national politics have on the lives of the people living there.

What would be the technology that has changed things for the better?

Tim Atkin MW

Drip irrigation has been one very important thing, particularly in warmer climates like Argentina and Chile. The other thing is temperature-controlled fermentation. I think stainless steel sometimes is a bit of a neutral vessel. We’re in a good position now. I mean, there’s this whole new world of natural wine which I don’t always think is as wonderful as people think or say it is. I sometimes call it primitive wine. You sometimes get off flavors and faults and people aren’t completely in control of what they’re doing, which is not something I particularly like. But I do like tradition. I certainly like a lot of tradition. But I don’t think technology per se is a bad thing.

Do we need an elite in wine and football, or is there another way to organise it?

Tim Atkin MW

I think football has an elite because it’s because it is results based. As Phillip said, there’s no disputing who’s the best team, because they win the league. I think as we’ve said already, that a lot of that is about money. Where wine is concerned, who is the elite is much more open to question. If you just based it on market price, that’s one way of doing it. If you based it on taste, then it’s obviously much more subjective. And I would say that the changes we’ve seen in the last 30 years is that the elite used to be perceived as being European, particularly French with a little bit of Italy and maybe a bit of Spain and Germany and Portugal thrown in. Now I think the elite is all over the world, and you have wines from Argentina and Australia and Chile being traded through the Place de Bordeaux. The elite of the wine world is much more fluid in a way than the elite of the football world.

This is a very shortened version of a much larger and more entertaining conversation.

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