What’s the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or cicerone? Which glass is best for properly appreciating great beer? What can you expect from Arizona as an up-and-coming wine region?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with James Atkinson, drinks journalist and host of the Drinks Adventures podcast.
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- How did James land the opportunity to host wine royalty, Jancis Robinson, at his house?
- What aspects of James’ interview with Jancis Robinson stood out the most?
- How did James create an opportunity to interview a childhood idol on his podcast?
- How has rockstar winemaker Maynard James Keenan been influenced by Australian wine?
- What can you expect from Arizona as an up-and-coming wine region?
- When did James know he wanted to be a professional drinks writer?
- What were the most difficult aspects of James’ pre-drinks writing career?
- Which aspect of James’ early career would he change if he had the chance?
- What are the differences between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier (cicerone)?
- How long can you keep beer before it goes bad?
- What’s the process like to become a Certified Cicerone?
- Which type of glass is best to properly appreciate the nuances of your beer?
- What’s James’ favourite beer and food pairing?
- I enjoyed learning about the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or cicerone.
- Even though I’m not a beer drinker, it’s good to know which glass is best for appreciating great beer. That tip will be handy for my partner Miles who loves local, craft beer.
- Arizona is an interesting up-and-coming wine region. I would not have thought viticulture would be possible in such a warm region. I look forward to trying the wines someday.
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If I’m going to have a celebrity on the podcast that’s got their own wine brand, they need to be a little more involved in the production than just putting their name to it. - James Atkinson Click to tweet
I think with Arizona being a new region, people are still trying things out, seeing what works, and still refining what they do. - James Atkinson Click to tweet
When you’re speaking to producers of wine these people love what they do and they love talking about it. That can be quite inspiring. - James Atkinson Click to tweet
Cicerone is a registered trademark and no one can call themselves that legally without having completed the certification. - James Atkinson Click to tweet
About James Atkinson
James Atkinson is the creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and winner of Best Podcast at the Australian Wine Communicator Awards 2021. A lover of all fine drinks, James was previously editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® (beer sommelier) and two-time winner of the Australian International Beer Awards prize for Best Media, James has judged at several prestigious beer competitions. As a journalist, he has contributed to publications including The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Halliday, Gourmet Traveller Wine, Good Food, Selector and more.
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Natalie MacLean 0:00
What is the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or a Cicerone, apart from the type of alcoholic beverage?
James Atkinson 0:07
The title sommelier is not trademarked like Cicerone. No one can call himself that legally without having completed certification.
Natalie MacLean 0:19
Who started the Cicerone organization?
James Atkinson 0:21
Ray Daniels, a beer professional who got sick of going out to bars and being served beer in a dirty glass. The beer itself might have been sitting in the keg for too long, It was tired. If you get a bottle of wine, it can withstand a little bit of abuse. But beer, once it’s brewed, it starts degrading, like immediately. People have this idea that a can of beer is like a can of food. That you put it on the shelf and it doesn’t change, but that’s really not correct. So Ray was like we need structured education for professionals.
Natalie MacLean 1:05
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you the love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? Well that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started. Welcome to Episode 175. What’s the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or Cicerone? Which glass is best for properly appreciating great beer? What can you expect from Arizona as an up and coming wine region? You’ll hear those stories and more during my chat with James Atkinson, host of the Drinks Adventures podcast. Now on a personal note, before we dive into the show with the continuing story of publishing my new wine memoir. They say don’t judge a book by its cover. But we all do. Just as many of us buy wines based on the label. The cover can make or break a book as it’s the first impression readers have been browsing in stores or online. That’s why I’m terrified that shortly after signing with my publisher, they’re already talking about designing the cover. I thought I had months to mull that over. But no. The sales and marketing teams need the cover early in the process to help sell to their customers, book retailers. My opinions will be considered but ultimately it’ll be the sales and marketing teams who determine the final design. I may have written the book, but I’m neither a designer nor a book sales rep. A strong cover captures the book story without giving too much away and conveys or hints at the emotional journey the reader will take. It also stands out in its genre while still looking like part of it. In my case, that would be memoirs and biographies. And it’s not just about the main illustration or photograph. It’s also about the text, fonts, whitespace and other elements that together create the message. Some of my favourite book covers are among the simplest .Wild by Cheryl Strayed, with just one hiking boot. And Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, with the title word spelled out using pasta, prayer beads and petals. What’s your favourite book cover? Would you like to give me feedback on my new memoir cover as we develop it for Wine Witch on Fire? Let me know. I’ve posted a link to the blog post called Diary of a book launch in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/175. This is where I share more behind the scenes stories about the journey of taking this memoir from idea to publication. If you want a more intimate insider seat beside me on this journey, please let me know that you’d like to become a beta reader and get a sneak peek at the manuscript. Email me at email@example.com. In the show notes you’ll also find my email contact, the full transcript of my conversation with James, links to his website and podcast. How you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class and where you’ll find the live stream video version of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube Live every Wednesday at 7pm. That’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/175. Okay, on with the show.
James Atkinson is the creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast, winner of the Best podcast at the Australian Wine Communicator Awards of 2021. He’s a lover of all fine drinks. James was previously the editor of the Australian Brew News and the drinks industry publication The Shout. A certified Cicerone, beer sommelier and two time winner of the Australian International Beer Awards prize for Best Media, James has judged at several very prestigious beer competitions. As a journalist, he has contributed to publications including the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Halliday, Gourmet Traveller Wine, Good Food, Selector and more. Welcome, James. It’s so great to have you here with us.
James Atkinson 7:36
Thanks so much for having me on, Natalie.
Natalie MacLean 7:39
Ah, my pleasure. All right. Now we’re going to get into your wine career. But I want to start with a few of your favourite stories. So you mentioned that you once welcomed Jancis Robinson, editor of the Oxford Companion of Wine, kind of wine royalty. She’s also the columnist for The Financial Times of London. You welcome her to your house? What happened? What was going on?
James Atkinson 8:02
Well, that was a bit of a pinch me moment, really, because, you know, I started the Drinks Adventures podcast in 2018. And I think it was 2019. So I’ve probably been maybe a year into running the podcast. And to be fair, it was early days for the show, you know. I didn’t have a huge track record that would sort of warrant me getting a guest like Jancis Robinson on. But when the new edition of the World Atlas of Wine was published, Jancis was in Australia. And I did get sort of a generic email from a PR person sort of mentioning the Jancis was available for interviews. And I said that I’d be dead keen to have Jancis on the podcast. And soon after I just got notice that yes, Janice could do it. Where did I want to do it? And I said, well, I normally record at home. And then Jancis ended up coming around to my place in Sydney to record an episode of the show, which was a bit of a pinch me moment. I’ve got huge respect for Jancis. And even more so now because it was a great interview, the favourite sort of episodes of mine that we’ve done, but also a kind of probably gave the podcast a bit of extra credibility. And it kind of means that when people see that you’ve had that calibre of guests on, it just makes it that much easier to get other guests on. And so I’ve kind of probably been pretty lucky that things have snowballed since then.
Natalie MacLean 9:22
So what was she like? I know she’s very articulate, of course, very knowledgeable, about wine but what other impressions did you have? Like okay, forgive the perhaps typically female question, but what was she wearing? Because she’s got such a great style.
James Atkinson 9:36
And we’re expecting me to remember that as a man.
Natalie MacLean 9:39
That’s true. Nevermind, she had clothes on.
James Atkinson 9:42
If you go to my Instagram, there’s a selfie back there from a couple years ago that I took with her.
Natalie MacLean 9:50
So my mistake asking. Did you have any other impressions of her before or after the interview? I mean anything about her as a person?
James Atkinson 9:55
Yeah, I just think she’s quite a very humble person. I mean, we’re talking about who is probably the most influential wine writer or wine critic that’s still working today. Certainly one of two or three in the world. I don’t think many people would dispute that. She just doesn’t really have any of the protection that some people in the world of wine might do. I just found it to be really lovely to talk to. And yeah, very sort of just a very relaxed conversationalist. So yeah, it was good.
Natalie MacLean 10:25
Wow, that’s great. Did anything she said, during the interview, surprise you? Anything she said about wine or anything else? Or do you remember a tidbit of what she shared with you that was kind of the highlight of the conversation itself.
James Atkinson 10:37
There’s many different things that we talked about in that interview around sort of the level of work that goes into creating a new edition of the Atlas of Wine. Now, I know you’ve got a few books out, Natalie. Nothing on that scale. But I you know I had to do a 20,000 word project for someone recently. And that was enough to get me kind of going and wow, like, I don’t know if I’ve got a long form book in me really. And so I think probably just the level of dedication and the level of hard work that Jancis has put in over a career to get where she has to create the canon of wine literature that she has.
Natalie MacLean 11:14
Absolutely, absolutely. Now you interviewed one of your teen idols, Maynard James Keenan. Tell us about who he is first, if we don’t know, and why you were talking to him about wine?
James Atkinson 11:27
Yeah, it’s probably a name that some of your listeners will kind of be familiar with him. But he’s the frontman of Tool, a hard rock band from America, and also another rock band called a Perfect Circle. And he’s also got his own act called Puscifer. But more recently, he’s become known as a winemaker. He’s got a winery in Arizona. It’s kind of helped pioneer the Arizona wine region.
Natalie MacLean 11:51
Does he actually make the wine? Or does he just sort of own the winery? He makes it? He actually is the winemaker. So he is a winemaker Rockstar?. I use that phrase all the time. But he truly is.
James Atkinson 12:01
I know, there’s a lot of sort of fairly cynical, shall we say, celebrity wine projects out there these days. And my thing with the podcast has been, you know, if I’m going to have celebrity on that’s got their own wine brand, they need to have a little bit more skin in the game and be a little bit more involved in the production than just putting their name to it. You know what I mean? Maynard certainly passes that test. And yeah, I’ve just been a Tool fan since you know, my teens and probably seen Tool over a dozen times, I would say, you know, different stages of my life. And so to be able to interview him on the show was amazing. And yeah, really happy with the interview.
Natalie MacLean 12:40
Did you just reach out to him directly? Or how did you land the interview,
James Atkinson 12:44
I sort of had to find out who his handlers were, and then be very patient. That took a long time. A busy guy, obviously, and he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. That’s the other thing. So I could tell he was kind of on guard at the beginning of the interview and wondering if I was just a Tool fan wanting to talk to him rather than taking him seriously as the winemaker. And so it took all my self control not to sort of just ask him self interested questions, and we really just spoke about the wine pretty much for the whole interview.
Natalie MacLean 13:14
Oh, wow. And again, anything memorable in particular that he said or about him during that conversation?
James Atkinson 13:23
He’s been heavily influenced by Australian wine and I probably hadn’t realised how much that was the case. He’s got kind of a few friends down here. And he’s gotten to know Peter Gago, the Penfolds chief winemaker quite well. And when he was establishing his winery, he kind of had emailing Peter Gago and asked him all these winemaking questions. And they’re just such an unusual pairing of people to imagine.
Natalie MacLean 13:48
Because Peter is so reserved and I mean he’s just so well, so English.
James Atkinson 13:52
And you know, and then you’ve got Maynard who’s a rock stars rock star. So, it’s just a yeah, kind of a cool, quirky sort of backstory that I wasn’t aware of.
Natalie MacLean 14:05
Yeah. And what did you say his winery’s name is?
James Atkinson 14:08
Caduceus. Merkin Vineyards.
Natalie MacLean 14:13
Interesting? I have not heard much about Arizona wines. Presumably they do red grapes that need a lot of sun to ripen. It is that kind of when he was specializing in?
James Atkinson 14:22
Mediterranean varieties, I think.
Natalie MacLean 14:25
Like Mourvèdre or Syrah or things like that?
James Atkinson 14:28
I think they’re kind of more moved to Nebbiolo and varieties like that I believe.
Natalie MacLean 14:33
Okay, okay. Yeah.
James Atkinson 14:35
But actually, they’ve got a whole fruit salad of different varieties there. I think being a new region, you know, people are still at the point of like, trying things out and seeing what works and still refining what they do. So it’s early days for the region, and I’ve not had a chance to try the wines but from what I’ve heard, they’ve improved a lot in the last decade or so that he’s been.
Natalie MacLean 14:57
So can you remember the exact moment when you decided you wanted to write about wine, spirits, beer?
James Atkinson 15:03
Well, that was just sort of, like a lot of careers. It’s just kind of happened organically, I guess. I mean, it started with me being a journalist. I studied broadcast journalism, actually. And that was between ’97 and ’99. And it wasn’t like I had a real sort of yearning to be a journalist. But it was just, you know, I’ve kind of always been interested in the news. And I knew that maths and sciences was not my bag. And so I studied journalism. And I kind of worked as a journalist in all sorts of different verticals, as you can tell I’m into my music. I did a lot of freelance music writing early on in my career. I’ve done a lot of different business sort of trade publications, whether it’s about property or business support services, like some pretty dry, boring stuff to be fair. But I also was, you know, I was interested in wine. I was interested in good beer. I like food. And then when a job came up in, it was 2011, I think, to edit a publication called the Sharp.com.au which is read by the liquor trade over here. So, you know, buyers from retailers, and bar operators, that type of thing. And when I got that job it was a news writing job for them. I just fell in love with the industry and kind of really just haven’t left, and it’s just sort of been an evolution of different things that I’ve done since I worked at The Sharp.
Natalie MacLean 16:27
Sure, sure. And over your career, could you take us to the worst moment of your writing career? Any in particular standout?
James Atkinson 16:35
I don’t know, if there’s a particular moment, but there would definitely, I kind of just think back to some of the uninspiring sort of writing jobs that I’ve had about very dry subject area. And it does make a big difference when you’re writing about something that you’re passionate about. And also something that you’re writing about where the people you’re talking to are passionate about it. You know, like when you’re doing business, some business journalism, it’s transactional, in every sense. You know, the interviews is just sort of about money and making money and managing risk and all these types of things. And the people are not passionate about what they’re talking about. Whereas obviously, as you know, when you’re speaking to producers of wine, or whatever it might be, these people love what they do, and they love talking about it. And that can be quite inspiring, and makes it much more enjoyable.
Natalie MacLean 17:25
Indeed, yeah. Because I know on both sides of the fence, both those of us who write about wine and those who make wine, we’re definitely not in it for the money. Some wine writers or beer writers I’m sure can make a full time living have it like usually you have some other either day job or trust fund or you married up, shall we say. And the old adage, how to make a million in the wine business, like opening a winery is to start with 10 million. So I mean, it’s not about the money. It’s about the passion. So I can imagine that would draw you in as a writer, that animated sort of heat of excitement about what you do and what you’re writing about. In retrospect, would you have done anything differently in your path to get to where you are today?
James Atkinson 18:12
Yeah, I mean, the main thing was I studied broadcast journalism. And the first sort of decade or so my career, I actually kind of ended up doing mainly online and print. And I always kind of wanted to work in radio. And if I did do anything differently, it probably would have been to take my career a little bit more seriously earlier on and try and get into radio, and try and sort of make a career specifically in radio. Broadcast journalism, you know, would probably have been at the ABC, which is like, our NPR or something along those lines.
Natalie MacLean 18:45
CBC in Canada. Yep. I know what you’re talking about.
James Atkinson 18:49
Serious broadcast journalism, I would have liked to have done. I think I would have enjoyed that. I think I would have thrived doing that. And I still kind of have a bit of a interest in doing it. But I think the older you get, the harder it is to kind of take a job in government radio and go back to the start again. You know what I mean? The podcast in a way is sort of evolved from a bit of a frustration of mine that I can do that. And so
Natalie MacLean 19:13
Yeah, well, you’re doing it now. You’re doing the new radio with podcasting.
James Atkinson 19:17
That’s right. We’re in a very niche topic area. But you know, you’ve got to kind of work with the niches that you have, you know, so.
Natalie MacLean 19:25
Yeah absolutely. Well, it’s all about the longtail these days. You know, the niches. They say the riches are in the niches of the riches. But I don’t know, but riches, but at least the passionate audiences. They’re specialized. So let’s talk about what is the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or a Cicerone they’re called – and you are one – apart from the obvious in terms of the focus on the particular type of alcoholic beverage.
James Atkinson 19:51
Yea, I mean, I think firstly, that the fundamental difference is that anyone can call himself a wine sommelier. So I think if I was to open a bar tomorrow and put out a press release telling everyone that I’d opened a wine bar, I could just say that I was a sommelier and that I would be choosing the wines. Obviously a certified sommeliers is a different thing entirely. But the title sommelier is not sort of trademarked like, Cicerone is. So just their own is a registered trademark. And no one can call himself that legally without having completed certification.
Natalie MacLean 20:30
And who is the originating body? Where did that start? Who started the Cicerone organization?
James Atkinson 20:35
It’s an American guy named Ray Daniels, who’s based in Chicago, and he was a brewer and a beer professional and got sick of like going out to bars and being served beer and you know, the beer be served in a dirty glass. The beer itself might have been sitting in the keg for too long, it was old, it was tired, because beer is not like wine, you know. In wine, you get a bottle of wine, as long as you don’t kind of heat it up too much, as long as you’re reasonably careful with it, it can withstand a little bit of abuse over a longer period of time. Surprising amount, yeah. If you want to sell cellar it for 10, 15 20 years, then that’s a different story. But beer is sort of like once it’s brewed, once it’s in the package, once it’s in the keg, it starts degrading like immediately. And so people sort of have this idea that that a can of beer is like a kind of food that you put it on the shelf and it doesn’t change. But that’s really not correct. And so Ray kind of got sick of being out in bars and having terrible experiences when he’d order a beer. And he just was like, we need some kind of structured, you know, education programme for professionals working in licenced venues, bars and restaurants. That’s predominantly what was targeted at that.
Natalie MacLean 21:55
Yeah, and what is the life of a beer? I’m just curious, you mentioned that. So it’s canned or bottled. How long can you keep there before it goes bad?
James Atkinson 22:03
Yeah, I mean, it depends on the style. Okay. But really, I mean, six months, I would say is kind of probably a pretty good benchmark for most beer styles. The really sort of hoppy India Pale Ale, the IPAs that kind of dominate the US craft beer market. They’re really best within the first three months, and they kind of degrade a bit like, they degrade more quickly, because the hot characters. There’s really vibrant, fruity characters. They’re very volatile, and they just start to be depleted over time. But then there are beer styles that you can sell off if you look after them, and they tend to be the higher alcohol, more intense ones. And obviously, alcohol is a great preservative as we know. And so those beer styles that are upwards of 8%, or maybe 10 – 12%, Imperial Stout, you know, you can sort of comfortably aged them often for two or three years or significantly longer.
Natalie MacLean 22:56
Do they get better? Do they taste better with age? Or is that subjective?
James Atkinson 23:00
It’s subjective. Yeah, yeah, sure. It’s sort of about whether you like the more robust, intense sort of characters or whether you like the roasty, sort of boozy, intense characters to soften off a little bit a little bit like the tannins drop out of a sort of red wine, I suppose.
Natalie MacLean 23:19
Okay, what is involved in becoming a Cicerone? How many levels or courses or hours of study how many beers tasted that sort of thing? What does it take? Is it anything like the Master of Wine process?
James Atkinson 23:31
Well, I’m a certified Cicerone. There’s one level below that which is certified beer server, which is kind of, you know, that’s pretty easy to get. It’s a multiple choice exam that you have to take, I think, but then, like sommelier then there’s advanced Cicerone. And then there’s Master Cicerone. And master Cicerone, there’s only 20 of them in the world, I believe at the moment. And without knowing exactly what’s involved with Master of Wine apart from what I’ve heard, anecdotally, I would say that a Master Cicerone is very difficult to do, I think. Yeah, the pass. Did you say the pass rate was 10%? For Master Master of wine? Yeah, same for the master Cicerone exam. Okay. So, yes, certified Cicerone, you know, I studied for that one lot for a few months, and a lot of blind tasting to be able to distinguish different beer styles and to be able to identify common faults. So it was yeah, it was hard work for a few months. But anyone, Yeah, I mean, anyone who I think is dedicated enough, would be able to do it. And it obviously depends on what your background is. If you’re a brewer, you know, and you’ve already studied other elements of brewing other elements of the syllabus, then obviously, it’s not as much of a leap for you to become a certified Cicerone. Like for me, I’d never worked in a bar before. And I’m not a brewer. So there were sort of more the technical, scientific aspects of it that I needed to learn.
Natalie MacLean 25:01
And was there a service component where you’re serving beer to judges like there is in? I think that’s Master Sommelier programme has that part of it. Did you have to go through that?
James Atkinson 25:10
Yeah, there’s a demonstration that you have to do, which is, and the most common thing that that is, is taking apart the faucet, like a beer faucet and cleaning it, but showing how you clean it. So yeah, the whole aspect of beer service, you know, which involves the draft service is a very different sort of element of beer to what you see with wine. And making sure that the draft lines are clean and regularly cleaned and looked after is really important. So that’s one part of it.
Natalie MacLean 25:38
Oh, wow. And when you serve beer, do you recommend a wine glass or a beer glass?
James Atkinson 25:42
I mean, the best glass is the one in your hand I always say. But yes, I think you know, to appreciate it properly. I think you know, tulip style glass is a wine glass. Well, I mean, there are you can buy sure style beer glasses that are specifically for beer. But a wine glass will do just fine. Like a wine glass like and what you would use with like you would drink a sort of heavier red wine and I would say it’d be perfect.
Natalie MacLean 26:10
Yeah, that’s great. Do you have a favourite type of beer and food pairing?
James Atkinson 26:14
Yeah, I’d probably call outs you know, as like just the whole style. You know, the Belgian saison to Farmhouse style beer that kind of back in the day, it was like when the water supply was very good, was what Belgian farmers would kind of brew to satiate their workers, you know. Their workers would just drink it during the day and it was very low in alcohol. So it’s a light beer? They’ve kind of evolved there a bit higher and alcohol now and the sort of the style parameters are actually quite broad for saisons but it’s very much a yeast driven beard about, you know, the sort of the spicy fruity characters of the yeast. And they’re very highly carbonated, very refreshing, and extremely food friendly. Like you could drink them with any manner of different foods really, and they’re really good with salads, lighter foods, seafood, so yeah. Saison Du Pont is a good example of that style. Classic example.
Natalie MacLean 27:12
Oh, that sounds great.
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed our chat with James. Here are my takeaways. Number one, I enjoyed learning the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or a Cicerone. So many similarities. It’s really interesting. Number two, even though I’m not a beer drinker, it’s good to know which glass is best for appreciating good beer. That tip will be handy for my partner Miles who loves local craft beer. And three, Arizona is a fascinating up and coming wine region. I would have thought that viticulture would not be possible in such a warm area. I look forward to trying the wine someday. In the shownotes, you’ll find links to James website and podcast, my free online wine pairing class and the video versions of these conversations. That’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/175. Email me if you have a tip, sip, question or would like to be a beta reader of my new memoir at firstname.lastname@example.org. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with James. If you like this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who be interested in the wines and stories we discussed. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week. Perhaps a delicious Shiraz.
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at nataliemaclean.com/ subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers.