A wine maverick hailing from the UK, Steve Charters MW worked in retail for years in the UK and Australia before taking on wine education. He is now director of Research at the School of Wine and Spirits Business of ESC Dijon having previously worked at Reims Management School. The master of wine met with dbHK recently during his trip to Hong Kong where he was guest lecturing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and revealed his greatest vice and his illustrious dinner guests lineup that includes philosopher Immanuel Kant, English novelist George Elliot and comedian Ricky Gervais to name a few.
What vintage are you?
I am not a very good vintage, 1957. Not that wonderful for anything really. It’s a shame.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
I can’t pinpoint one bottle, and my love for wine is actually a slow thing. I grew up in a family that wasn’t against wine, we just didn’t drink it. When I was growing up in my teens, I developed a love for very simple and easy wine, in particular, a German sweet wine. It’s a very mundane, insipid wine but it was very popular when I was growing up in the UK. Then I slowly progressed and I thought dry red wine was very nice, so I started drinking dry red wine, then dry white wine as well, later I realised sweet wines are quite good as well. I can’t pinpoint one wine for you but if it had to be one bottle that I remember though, it was a wine I drank when I was in university studying history. We had a college history society. It was customary to pass a bottle of Port to drink. It was the first time I drank Port. It was sweet, rich and I was in college with all my friends, and I thought that was good. It did not spark my love for wine but maybe it was the first wine I can remember thinking, ‘this is good’. Again, I drank a lot of wines, but is it the wine or the situation? A lot of the wines that I do remember are not necessarily great wines, but I remember the circumstances.
What would you be as a wine?
I think about it a lot and my wine changes, and it’s often the last wine I drank. What would I be as a wine? Something that is – I hope – quite dynamic, quite lively, and that ages really well, turns out to be a little bit creamy and a bit nutty after some years in the bottle, a lot of velocity, also quite a steely backbone. Blanc de Blancs Champagne fits these descriptions nicely. If I have to choose one wine, that’s the one I choose. [Five years from now?] I think it’s going to be a wine that’s going to age for a very long time. I still like to see a long life ahead of me perhaps a Madeira. It could go on for 200 years.
Where are you happiest?
The instant answer to that is that it’s not so much of the place, but it’s the people. So family and good friends. I think everyone would probably say the same.
What’s your greatest vice?
My greatest vice should be something I like but not good for me. I was just teaching students about wine and health. I would probably say wine is my greatest vice. I love wine, I love drinking it and I try to be careful with it as well. When I did my PhD, I was interviewing a well-known Australian winemaker. This guy has worked for a big Australian wine company and is a very thoughtful guy. He said, ‘You know, every dinner I’ve gone to representing the company in Adelaide, for the last seven years, I always drive, because if I drive, I’ve got to drive back, so I must control how much I drink. I’ve seen too many 65-year-olds in the wine industry who are almost dead on their feet. They’ve ruined themselves by alcohol and life is too good to do that’. I thought that was a really good comment.
Best advice you ever got?
Before I moved to Australia, I was a lawyer. And I actually have done other things involved in wine as well. At the age of 34 or 35, I decided it was time to have a year to travel. This was before I moved to Australia. There was a guy I was working with at the time, a retired accountant, and he was very traditional, an Englishman, a bit uptight and retentive. But I was going to travel for a year, and he said: “Look Steve, just take some risks and do something you wouldn’t normally do. Take some risks and do something new.”
Your cellar’s underwater, which bottle would you dive in and save?
Actually I just moved house in Nuits-Saint-Georges, and it’s got really high humidity. And even just within a month or so, putting the bottles in there, they would get a bit moist. So I have to invest in a dehumidifier and this de-humifider is clearing eight or nine litres of water a day, so it’s nearly a cellar underwater. I love Burgundy, Champagne, but if my cellar is underwater and my house is going down, and I am going to lose my wines. I must have a bottle of Champagne, Winston Churchill perhaps. After Champagne, I would want something still to calm me down. So the best bottle of Burgundy I could pick up, probably some premier cru because I can’t afford grand cru.
What’s the best and worst thing about the wine business?
The best thing about the business is the people. It’s a communal business. The kind of people that share our passion can be lovely people to sit down with and talk to. The worst thing is also the people because occasionally you get the wine snobs. I can’t be bothered with that. I don’t want to know what you’ve got in your cellar or the wines you drank last night or how this Burgundy vintage is better than the last one. I want to say, ‘let’s pop the cork, lets’ talk about wine for three minutes, then let’s talk about music or you tell me about a film you’ve seen or a book you read or what Trump is doing in the America’. Because actually, in the end, the difference between the 2015 and 2016 vintage, which does concern me at times, is not a patch on the fact that people in Syria are just bombed. Nothing compares to that! These are the things we need to worry about.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
I don’t believe in bucket lists. I don’t think I might have to make a bucket list. That’s a fairly depressing thought.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
You could argue if it’s a good dinner party, they should all be wine lovers. Because otherwise it’s pointless they are there. We need someone who can analyse carefully what is being said, and can cut through the nonsense, hypocrisy. A philosopher I wouldn’t mind having is Immanuel Kant, because he loved wines but he did not believe you can have the aesthetic’s appreciation of wine. I think he was wrong. I want him there when we were talking loads of rubbish. I want to tell him that he was wrong there, and I want to argue with him. I think I want someone artistic, and the two art forms that I love most are music and literature. The greatest in my mind, the great English novelist is George Eliot.
She was a bit serious but lived an unconventional life, and lived with a man she was not married to for 20 years. She was willing to challenge established regulations. I need to have someone who is musical there. For me, it has to go back to Beethoven, but the trouble with him is that he is deaf so he couldn’t hear anything we say, so I probably wouldn’t go with him. Alright, he might get on the list, maybe just someone a bit lighter. Let’s say Chopin. He’s got music that’s easy yet complex. Actually I need a comedian because this is going to get really boring if there’s no one to poke fun at everyone who is talking. I would choose Ricky Gervais. He is a brilliant comedian, outrageous, he has clear views beyond comedy. He is a good one. I like Blues music, so Howling Wolf as well. There’s another wine person that would be fantastic to have dinner with. He is Louis Pasteur, the French biochemist who fundamentally changed the quality of wine. And of course my family and some friends.
Personal satisfaction (Parker points – out of 100)?
I rate wines using 20-point scale. For myself, perhaps just approaching Australian Gold standard 18.5 points. I would never give myself 20 points. Not a great Gold, but it’s been good.
Which wine would you like served at your funeral?
Champagne, absolutely! I have a much beloved aunt who died and we organised a wake. I brought a lot of Champagne, and I think she would have been delighted. I think Champagne puts you up. It’s a celebration. I hope people would remember that I enjoyed my life, not every aspect of it but I enjoyed it. And I want people to think we drank something good that represented Steve. No question about that.