How does a maths and physics teacher from Brisbane become one of the world’s top Champagne critics? And, more importantly, how does he manage to survive as an independent wine critic at a time when wine columns are disappearing?
Tyson Stelzer is not only an award-winning wine critic who has produced and published more than 16 books, he’s also a television presenter, a regular wine columnist for numerous prestigious publications, and a noted wine judge. He also leads fully-booked luxury tours to Champagne.
Yet as noted Australian wine critic Huon Hooke has said of his work, Stelzer is not afraid to broach “a number of subjects that others found too touchy to handle, such as grape yields (too high, and rising), the vineyard classification (‘antiquated’)... Stelzer lets the reader into all the secrets of Champagne; the thorny issues that producers would prefer consumers weren’t aware of.”
Stelzer lets the reader into all the secrets of Champagne; the thorny issues that producers would prefer consumers weren’t aware of.
On top of all that, Stelzer is the founder and director of Teen Rescue Foundation, a charity created to reduce harmful alcohol use and its consequences among under-age teens. He has raised more than A$468,000 ($301,000) for charities over the past decade.
From high school to wine
You were a high school teacher. What led to that career — and what prompted you to change into wine?
I’d been good at maths and physics since I was at school; I wanted to go into a career where I could be around people, not just in a laboratory. So my careers advisor said, “Why don’t you consider teaching?” I loved teaching. It was fantastic to be able to inspire young people. And I did that for 10 years and worked my way up to Head of Science and had a big team around me, which was fabulous, but I got to the point where I felt that I had done everything I wanted to as a teacher, and meanwhile I’d been working in wine for five years.
What got you interested in wine? Was there a particular moment, or were there a series of moments?
I visited the Barossa [Valley] in 1998 and the 1996 vintage was in the cellars and [available] at the cellar doors. I discovered wines that had a link to a good place, and told the story of the people in a way that completely captivated me.
There were beautiful little estates like Turkey Flat and Charlie Melton who were making wines that were very much a product of the vineyard and the vintage. I started to see the role of oak and fermentation and all sorts of elements that fascinated me. I got busy building a home cellar back in Brisbane.
I started doing tastings with a group in Brisbane. They started bringing wines to taste blind, and I started winning every blind wine-tasting competition.
An immersion in wine
Were you winning by analysing the wines intellectually, or do you think you’ve got a natural tasting ability?
I had no idea at the time that my taste was any different from anybody else’s, and maybe it’s not, but for some reason, I just could taste these wines and think “It’s obviously a 10-year-old Hunter Valley Semillon”. And so I thought maybe I should pursue it further and learn about wine a bit more rigorously. I then booked a trip to Europe with my wife in 2000, and I contacted everyone from Krug to Armand Rousseau to Latour, and did every key region of France and Germany.
And did Latour say, “Sure, come and visit?”
Latour opened back vintages. I visited the Hugel family in Alsace, and we visited the great producers of the Mosel in Germany, so I learned what great wine could be. I felt confident to go back to Australia and review Australian wine in a proper international context.
I was completely amateur at that point. It wasn’t until 2002 that I registered my business as Wine Press and published my first book, and that’s when I consider I became professional. But up until that time, I was going to every tasting that was happening. On Friday afternoons, I’d be doing the rounds of every free tasting at the Brisbane wine stores, and I went to every wine region in Australia on my holidays, across the space of two years.
How did you go from tasting everything you could lay your hands on, to becoming a Champagne critic?
In 2010, I came to Europe for [wine critic] Matthew Jukes’ wedding. We had a family holiday in France at the same time, so I ended up in Champagne. In doing my research for my visits, I thought I’d just buy the latest wine guide from one of my favourite reviewers like Tom Stevenson or Michael Edwards. Lo and behold I discovered that both guides were out of print, and both were retiring, and there was no English-language, up-to-date Champagne guide. So I thought, well, maybe this is something I should pursue. I reviewed a small number of the estates that I visited over the space of three days, went back home, and contacted every importer. I asked for every sample I could get and then put together a 150-page book.
This was self-published?
I thought it would just be an e-book. I printed a few hundred copies because everybody wanted it for Christmas and that was it. And then the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards came up in the UK in 2011 and I thought, “What have I got that I can enter that’s current? I’ve got that little Champagne book. I will send that”.
"It's good to see Champagne in good hands now."
I found myself in London being presented the International Champagne Writer of the Year Award by Michael Edwards of all people, who shook my hand and said, “It’s good to see Champagne’s in good hands now”. He was one of the legends from whom I learned about Champagne. I’ve got his books and still read them to this day.
And I thought, well, maybe there’s an opportunity in Champagne to take this further. So I spent more time in the region and expanded my book.
When did you stop teaching and move into wine writing full time?
My last year of teaching was 2005. I’d spent five years working full-time as a teacher and full-time as an amateur writer, and I got to the point in the business where I thought, “Yeah, now is the time to take the plunge”. At the same time, I felt I’d achieved everything I wanted to achieve as a teacher.
An educator with a slightly bigger classroom.
Were you always thinking about this as a business, and planning ahead accordingly?
In the late ‘90s, I’d been reading books like James Halliday’s guides and thought I’d love to be able to do that. [I thought], what should I do now to put myself in the best position to become a competent wine professional? I did things like getting my benchmarks in my head, travelling to Europe, reading every wine book I could, visiting a lot of regions and taking copious notes. I started to publish with some magazines as an important way to establish a background as a wine writer.
I’m still an educator, but just with a different topic and a slightly bigger classroom than before.
Australia was a tough place for new writers during that period. It was a very closed shop and established writers could be very unwelcoming to newcomers. Did you find that?
Absolutely. It’s probably not just wine writing, but is true of other fields as well, but there is a vast disparity between those who embrace others and want to bring them in and mentor them, and those who guard their territory fiercely. There were particular writers and other industry professionals who would do their best to push people out, but there are others who embrace us. People like [wine critics] Huon Hooke and James Halliday have a wonderful confidence about what they do and are happy to support others. Matthew Jukes in the UK has been a great friend and a key colleague now for 15 years. I’d like to hope that I can be a support to people who want to find an opportunity in the industry.
Champagne can also be a very difficult place to break into. How did you win the confidence of the Champenoise?
For me, there was something of a thrill of the chase in visiting Houses and trying to get under the surface to discover what it was that made their wines unique. In many cases it took multiple visits to build enough trust. I think it's mutual respect as well; they saw that I was serious. That I was focused on recording the detail accurately and reporting it properly. That meant I could build a relationship with them. I’m answerable to my readers, but I hope that I’m fair and give my readers an opportunity to discern the great wines from the less credible wines.
I give my perspective on the wine in an open and honest way.
You are one of a handful of people who have become well known as a Champagne critic. But, of course, everybody loves Champagne and there are many who want to be Champagne critics. What did you do that other people didn’t do?
I love the diversity of the Champagne communication world. I love Essie Avellan and Peter Liem; his book is fantastic and I wish I’d written it myself.
My readers tell me they love the detail in what I’m writing, in that I try to pull apart the technical background to the wine. I try to give all the information that the Houses [weren't used to communicating] and some still don’t communicate well. And then I also give my perspective on the wine in an open and honest way.
A focus on the reader's perspective
There’s always a big question in wine writing about how much people really want to know about the technical details. What’s your experience with your readers?
Readers will dip in at different levels, and I purposely try to keep paragraphs [with different types of information] separate and in different typefaces so they can easily grab what they want. Some just want the score. Others will want to hear the story. Some will want the background. A lot of the public just wants to figure out the percentage of Chardonnay and new oak.
You started as a wine writer and publisher, but now you’ve got an events business and a tour business.
I wish there could be three of me to keep up with it all.
What other decisions did you make that took you to where you are now?
The first imperative for me was that, as a wine reviewer, I had to be totally independent. That immediately cancelled the opportunity for me to sell wine, represent wine, or be an ambassador for wineries. There are many wine writers in Australia who are retailers, who are importers, or who are consultants to wineries. I’m answerable only to my readers, so all of those things are out of the question. I needed to look for opportunities to make a proper business out of being a reviewer, knowing full well that you can never pay for private kids’ schooling from a writer’s income.
I needed to look for opportunities to make a proper business out of being a reviewer, knowing full well that you can never pay for private kids’ schooling from a writer’s income.
I thought, what can I do that lets me receive all my income from my readers and audience, but is not paid for by the wineries? As a teacher, I love presenting. I love hosting. And so the chance to host dinners and weekends that eventually spun off into tours means that all my income is coming from my audience and not from the people I’m trying to critique.
How business-like were you about it? Did you say to yourself, “I need to do this many events and I need to price it like this and I need this many people to come along?”
I had it all planned out, but the reality of how many events you can do and how much income you get from events never corresponds to the projections. I wish I could say I became a Champagne expert by purpose and design, but in reality I happened to come to Champagne and discover that the books weren’t available. I happened to win an award. There were so many fortunate circumstances. When it came to building the events business, it was very much a matter of being agile at every moment. Should I be doing a tour at this time? Should I do that dinner? Should I be doing that weekend?
How did you go from living in Brisbane to doing events in New York? Was it word of mouth? Was it marketing?
I think we’re only as strong as the giants on whose shoulders we can stand. So I was working very closely with Wine Australia to try to tap into opportunities to do some Australian wine promotions in Hong Kong, New York, and San Francisco. The only way you can do events outside of your own little zone is with multiple stakeholders. So I try to find ways to build those partnerships.
The Australian market
Australia’s wine sector is in the doldrums at the moment. What do you see ahead for it?
It’s easy to be doom and gloom, especially when so many markets are in such a state of disarray, and when global warming means that we’re seeing increasing climate extremes across Australia. But looking at the wines and talking with the makers, I’ve never seen Australian wine in a better place. There are so many spectacular wines. Tim Kirk sent me his Clonakilla Shirazrecently. I think it’s one of the best he’s ever made. I love where Australian wine is right now, and I think that we will increasingly see the great wines of Australia get stronger but maybe [lose] the bulk wines that were being dumped into China from brands that couldn’t sell elsewhere. Maybe it’s not a bad thing for Australian wine if those no longer have a place, because maybe they never deserved to have a place.
Australia is also one of the world’s top Champagne markets. Who is the Champagne consumer in Australia?
We drank a million bottles in 2000. We drank 10-and-a-half million last year. Australia is drinking more Champagne, but we are finally starting to mature as a market. Anything that wasn’t entry level — growers, vintage, rosé, low dosage — represented a very low proportion of the Australian market. We were drinking 2.8% of rosé compared to the global level of 10%. The future for Champagne in Australia is more interest in those diverse categories. Australia is drinking Champagne as an everyday drink now. It’s no longer the celebratory drink it was 20 years ago. It’s part of people’s regular repertoire.
Champagne is no longer the celebratory drink it was 20 years ago. It's an everyday drink now.
A new world for Champagne
What are the big changes you’ve seen in Champagne itself in the 12-plus years that you’ve been reporting on it?
It’s a new world for Champagne now. Climate change means that Champagne is more consistent than it used to be — sustainability is a big topic here. US Champagne consumption has skyrocketed in recent years and will only continue to do so. It’s now no longer just a luxury beverage. People are drinking Champagne throughout a meal. It’s not cheap, but it’s so cheap compared to Latour and Romanée Conti and all those other wine benchmarks. That will probably not be the case forever, because you can see that Champagne is starting to edge into the wine indices as a wine investment. It had to happen, because the cost of production has gone crazy. The price has to go up, but it’s still the last bastion of affordability and availability anywhere in the luxury wine world.
It’s still the last bastion of affordability and availability anywhere in the luxury wine world.
Other wine regions have taken note and are now making method champenoise wines, from Franciacorta, to England to Tasmania, to wherever.
Yes, it’s fantastic to see so many other regions taking cues from Champagne, not least of which is Tasmania which produces outstanding wines; the price of grapes is A$3 ($1.93) a kilo and not €7 ($7.45) a kilo. They can make wine in the same style with a similar age at a fraction of the price and do it well. The UK is doing amazing things, but we don’t see much of it outside of the UK. But there’s huge potential there. There are so many things happening in the world that it’s exciting.