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Published:  23 July, 2008

The choice of Matthew Jukes as IWSC Communicator of the Year may raise a few eyebrows among the experts, but as Barbera Scalera reports, his no-nonsense approach and huge media success have helped communicate wine to millions

Each year The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC), in conjunction with Veronafiere, organiser of Vinitaly, chooses one individual or organisation to honour with its prestigious Communicator of the Year award. The purpose of this accolade is to recognise the voice that has most effectively communicated the subject of wine to the public in the past year. Previously, the award's recipient was always highly respected but never particularly controversial. Former winners include the usual suspects, such as Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. More recently the award's scope expanded to include organisations, such as Carlo Petrini's Slow Food and Vinopolis, City of Wine. Perhaps this gave pause to some wine trade pensioners with time on their hands to contemplate the merits of these organisations versus the traditional journalist. For the rest of the trade, however, it was business as usual. Last year, a few unfortunate Americans, denied the experience of winner Andrew Jefford's enriching diatribes, might have muttered from behind their Wine Spectators about British egocentrism. But according to a number of well-established wine journos, nothing will have prepared the competition for the seismic activity on the eyebrow scale that this year's winner will trigger. The IWSC, however, has never felt more grounded in its choice. And no one will have their world rocked more, nor suffer greater shock, than did the recipient of this year's award, 2002 Communicator of the Year, Matthew Jukes. I couldn't even believe that I was nominated and when I heard who the other nominees were, I knew instantly that I wouldn't win,' says Jukes. His bewilderment is understandable, given his renowned colleagues on the 2002 shortlist: Karen MacNeil, the US wine and food author, was nominated for her book The Wine Bible, a superb and eminently engaging compendium of information, a real magnum opus and a great achievement', according to the panel of independent judges. Italian organisation Le Donne Del Vino was nominated for its constant and innovative promotion of wine and the culture that surrounds it', through its numerous events. From the UK, Simon Woods was hailed for his extensive work, particularly The Which? Wine Guide 2002 book; and Tim Atkin MW was lauded for his frank and full approach as a journalist and his responsibility to his subject'. Finally, from France, La Revue du Vin's Michel Bettane was recognised for his increasing international importance and his message - a counterweight to the internationally dominant American approach'. Michel Bettane is a hero!' exclaims Jukes, and I could never do what Karen MacNeil did - write a comprehensive encyclopaedia on wine.' So what happened when Jukes was informed that he was joining the ranks of wine gurus Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson? I couldn't speak for an hour and then I couldn't call my parents fast enough, and other people in the industry who have been supportive of me over the years. What a great reward for putting in all the hours and the effort!' It is Jukes' extraordinary effort and vast audience that won him the Communicator trophy. His column in the Daily Mail reaches almost eight million people, with another 253,000 a month reading his Woman & Home articles, and thousands a year attending his seminars. Most impressive is his influence on BBC1's primetime Saturday game show Friends Like These, where Jukes has had up to ten million viewers per show. This is a revolutionary audience size for wine communication, and exactly the type of mainstream programming required to broaden wine's customer base.

Man of the people This is not, however, just a numbers game. Circulation means nothing unless you succeed in educating and influencing your audience, and this is where Jukes really works his magic. In a February 2002 survey of UK retailers, the IWSC asked which wine writer had the most influence over their customers. The answer was, unanimously, Matthew Jukes. His accessible writing style and soft-sell method of wine education completely demystifies this formerly elitist genre. The enthusiasm he instils into every review inspires consumers to get off their couches and into the shops, a power many journalists lack, according to the retailers. Examining his tasting note on the 2000 Miranda Rovalley Ridge Petit Verdot, one can begin to understand Jukes' influence over his readers: Petit Verdot is a red grape variety that is rarely bottled on its own and usually plays only a minor supporting role in a blend. This is because it's a bitter little fellow that rarely ripens fully - its name means "little green one". But you can rely on the Australian sun to do its thing, and this is a fabulous opportunity to experience the full majesty of this variety. Blackberry juice is the main theme, with smoky oak and a burnt, herbal, almost Italian element lurking beneath the superbly intense chassis. I urge you to give it a whirl, as few people in the world have ever had a 100% Petit Verdot.' This is a textbook Jukes wine review. It is not intimidating in its use of wine terms or overwhelmingly informative. There is just enough information on Petit Verdot to make the consumer feel in the know, and give them the confidence to purchase this wine. The education is delivered in bite-sized pieces, encapsulated in a candy-coated, fun and accessible give-it-a-whirl' tasting note. One can easily imagine Daily Mail readers savouring the experience of serving Rovalley Ridge while explaining: You know, very few people in the world have ever had a 100% Petit Verdot!' People learn bits and pieces from me,' explains Jukes, sound bites that they can take away with them and remember forever. I give them the framework and then they fill in the rest.' Jukes' method of wine communication has undoubtedly paid off. He has already sold 70,000 copies of his Wine List 2002 book, outselling Hugh Johnson's latest pocket wine guide to become the largest-selling wine book in the UK. He gives fair warning to producers and stockists, because his reviews often help to sell out a product's entire allocation in under a month. His influence also seems to transcend price points. The average cost of his reviewed wines is 8.50-9 a bottle, well above the average consumer purchase price. Jukes recently reviewed a 55-a-bottle Rioja in the Daily Mail and the entire allocation (120 bottles) was sold the same day. No one wants to know how to save money when buying wine,' claims Jukes. They want to know how to spend it.' With such a strong influence over so many consumers, one might wonder where the controversy comes from. Primarily, the issue is language. In a previous Harpers' article, 2001 Communicator of the Year Andrew Jefford answered the question: Which matters more: knowing your stuff or writing well?' by stating: Writing well. Many wine writers seem to forget that they are writers first and foremost, and tasters and "experts" only secondarily. Knowledge and tasting skill are useless without the ability to communicate their insights in a lively and memorable way.' And herein lie both the weakness and the strength of Matthew Jukes. He does not write well'. His grammar is not always correct, nor is his English proper, sophisticated or elegant. Thus one would think that he fails Jefford's test of a good wine journalist. Yet he communicates his insights' in a more lively and memorable way' than anyone else on the scene, and this is the secret of his success. Jukes is well aware of the controversy, and not afraid to talk about it. I will never win the Glenfiddich Award,' Jukes acknowledges. Joanna Simon said my book had a "distinctive motor-journalist style", basically insinuating that I was the Jeremy Clarkson of wine writing. Well, guess what? Jeremy Clarkson is a huge success and sells a lot of cars! I use modern language in my writing because it works. Modern language is used in respect of every other lifestyle subject; it's used to describe food, so why not apply it to wine?' His informal use of language is part of a larger philosophy on the dos and don'ts of wine communication: Don't talk down to people,' implores Jukes. People aren't stupid, but traditionally the trade has treated them like idiots!' Thus he speaks to his audience on their own level, in their own everyday language, and they love him for it. In response to Jefford's requirement for a wine journalist to write well, Jukes will tell you, I am not a wine journalist. I am a member of the wine trade. First and foremost, I will always be a wine buyer. I only started writing because so many people were asking me to.' And so Jukes would lose more points in the Jefford school of journalism, because Jefford answered a would-be journalist's question on whether she would become a member of the wine trade by saying: You will not. You'll be a journalist. Once you cross the boundary you will begin to erode whatever reputation you have managed to build.' To Jukes, however, being a part of the trade makes him a better and more knowledgeable communicator. I don't just know about how a wine is made or tastes; I know when it will arrive in the country, the stock availability, the margin, the agents and the stockists.' The responsibilities he takes on as a result of his trade background seem too much for one individual. For the Wine List 2002, Jukes did all of his own tasting, writing and research, right down to the address, phone and fax numbers of the 250 independent retailers listed. When asked if he is still doing his own research for the 2003 edition, he stubbornly replies: Still? Always! I will always do all of the research myself.' And this is only the start of Jukes' differences from numerous better-known wine authors. Out of the 250 top wines written up in Wine List 2002, over 200 are still available almost six months into the year. Jukes prides himself on writing up products that are coming onto the market, rather than bringing out a book filled with wines that sold out a year ago. He purposely covers the stock of local retailers as well as the supermarkets and multiple specialists, and avoids reviewing wines with unreasonable margins. The 2003 edition of his Wine List will not be an edited version of 2002; it will be a complete rewrite. The goalposts of wine are constantly moving,' says Jukes, so things change dramatically from one year to the next.' To keep up with these changes, Jukes tastes 25-26,000 wines a year. People think I am rude at tastings because I don't talk to anyone, but I am in a zone. I just want to find the best wines available.' The people he does talk to at tastings are the buyers. In contrast with many journalists' closed-lip policy at tastings, Jukes will pull Nick Room aside at a Waitrose tasting to tell him just how much he loves Nick's new 2001 Cheverny. As a buyer himself, Jukes knows how nice it is to have someone reinforce your decisions. He extends the same courtesy to PRs, following up every sent sample with a thank you and a frank opinion of the product - good or bad. But Jukes' biggest sense of responsibility is to his audience, whom he perhaps knows better than any other wine educator. I listen to my consumers, interacting with thousands of them a year during my seminars, and reading thousands of e-mails and letters. I also track the sales of every single wine I review.' Tracking every sale may seem a bit obsessive, but it allows him to see which products his consumers enjoyed, and which ones didn't work. As a man not just for the people but of the people, he is often the sole journalist at consumer tastings. If you go to Oddbins' customer tastings and follow around the pissheads from the City, you will find them lingering at the table with the wines that they most enjoy, so I can learn what they like.' Dedication? Definitely. Obsession? Probably.

So where did he come from? Jukes inherited an interest in food and wine from his parents at a very young age. I was 12, I read Taste by Roald Dahl, a short story from Tales of the Unexpected about a wine taster, and knew that I wanted to do that for real when I grew up.' At university, he was struggling through a Physics degree (in between rugby games) when his mother bought him a ticket to see Robert Joseph give a wine lecture. I was 19 and already knew everything Robert talked about in his seminar, so I asked him what to do and Robert pointed me to an opening at the Barnes Wine Shop.' Jukes never looked back. At Barnes he came under the expert tutelage of the late consultant James Rogers, who taught him how to taste and develop a commercial' palate for crowd-pleasing, good-value wines. Completing his WSET classes up through Diploma in just 18 months, Jukes moved on to Greens in the City, learning the classics and selling them to corporate dining rooms. I was no good at sales, but I knew that I wanted to be a buyer, and to be a better buyer I had to see what the sales side was all about.' He then became the salesman to prestige accounts for a Beaune ngociant and soon found himself inside Bibendum restaurant, boldly blind tasting Joel Kissin on his Jacquart Ros versus the current Bibendum listing. Not only did Jukes win his spot on the wine list, he won the position of wine buyer for Bibendum, and was consequently one of the UK's first restaurant buyers employed solely to buy wine. Bibendum's list was rapidly revamped into the award-winning selection that Jukes calls the front-bumper vanguard of evolution in the wine industry'. Despite its 800-1,000 listings, Jukes ensures that Bibendum's list is still reprinted with approximately 40 new products each week. Jukes has bestowed his buying skills on other worthy candidates, such as The Crescent and The Chutney Mary group. More importantly, he spread his knowledge beyond restaurants and began to teach the general public. His dulcet tones were first heard on the GLR radio show, a breakfast/drive-time talk show where he was given free rein to do what he does best: inject a sense of fun and discovery into the formerly stuffy and clandestine world of wine. In between interviews with the likes of Randall Grahm and Francesca Planeta (before they were widely known), Jukes would match music to particular wines and even bring in bands such as Feeder to blind taste on the radio. Despite the contests for cars, holidays, etc., it was Jukes who would always generate the most calls - just to win a 5 bottle of Merlot. He went on to do a series for Channel Four called Wine Hunt, which attracted a million viewers. This was followed by his primetime spot on the BBC's Friends Like These, the Daily Mail column, the books and, simultaneously, the lectures. I would lecture full time if I could,' admits Jukes, who believes that wine communication is best done in person, informally, in an interactive fun and friendly atmosphere, with a glass of wine in hand. When asked what can be done to reach more people and better communicate the wine message, some of his natural enthusiasm turns to frustration. I'm told that up to eight million people will see my Daily Mail column in a year; I have the best-selling wine book in the UK and the largest TV audience, so I can't do any more. The future for wine communication should be through mainstream TV, but commissioning editors are not brave enough to add wine programmes to their networks. They are not willing to take a small gamble.' He feels the same about popular publications - Why isn't there a wine column in Hello! or Time Out?' - and hopes that by receiving the Communicator of the Year award he will inspire some of the younger generation to start writing about wine. If I can do it, then so can they,' encourages Jukes. Anyone who is intimidated needs to remember that wine is just a drink.' This is just the type of irreverent Jukes statement that provoked one of the UK's more traditional wine writers to warn that the trade might laugh when they heard that Matthew was named Communicator of the Year'. But to this, the IWSC replies: go ahead and laugh. After all, over 21 million consumers a year are laughing, now that they have finally found someone who takes the fear, snobbery and inaccessible language out of wine. The retailers are rejoicing that someone out there is actually inspiring consumers into their shops. The IWSC is jubilant that it has found the embodiment of its Communicator award. And Jukes is laughing, too, all the way to the top of the best-sellers' list.