22 January, 2020

Sarah Ahmed: navigating the drinks industry as a wine writer

Sarah Ahmed: navigating the drinks industry as a wine writer

Sarah Ahmed, winner of the Honorary Australian Women in Wine award at the 2017 Australian Women in Wine Awards (AWIWA), talks to Ray Ruano about being her own boss and the competitive field of wine writing.

The founder of The Wine Detective, a blog which focuses on the ‘inside track of Portuguese and Australian wine, Sarah Ahmed, has always loved telling ‘stories'.

From essays at school, to preparing cases when she was a lawyer from 1988-2000, and when she quit law for wine altogether, she's always had an undying love for the written word. Since 2005, Ahmed has been writing full-time about wine.

“Having started my wine career in retail, I realised that communicating with customers via my newsletter and tastings allowed me to [focus on] what really excites me about wine – the people, places, techniques and tradition (or innovation) behind it,” she explained.

While she did not take her writing seriously until she went freelance, Ahmed spent two to three months a year visiting wine regions to present tastings and wine courses.

“I gained first-hand insights which I really wanted to share with a wider audience than presenting tastings allowed, so pursuing a career in writing became a goal.” Ahmed added.

Challenges in the wine industry

When asked about the obstacles faced in the wine business, Ahmed believes the biggest challenge is earning a living from wine writing.

“Unfortunately, it’s a highly competitive field and a significant portion of people writing about wine have other income streams,” said Ahmed. “[They] are independently wealthy or prepared to contribute for free in return for profile, [so] it’s a ‘buyers’ market.

She mentioned that the cost of living has increased exponentially whilst the rates of pay have changed little if at all in over a decade.

“This has been very challenging for me (I could not get by without also presenting tastings, judging etc).” Ahmed said.“I still receive lots of requests to write for free or for derisory amounts on the basis that it’s good for profile-building.”

Although this has been a challenge, she’s at a stage in her career where she can decide what projects she wants to take on as she has invested into building her brand through her blog.

“However, of greater concern for anyone who values good critique, is the impact down the line on independent and diverse writing, especially fresh perspectives and new voices,” Ahmed said.

Being your own boss

Ahmed recalled her time as a lawyer and a key message in the book, True Professionalism by David H Maister — 'believe passionately in what you do.’

This message impacted her perception as a writer.   

“Never compromising your standards and values is much more achievable when you work for yourself,” Ahmed said.“Choosing my areas of focus and what or whom I choose to write about, especially on my blog, keeps me motivated and excited by my work.”

Portuguese and Australian wine

In terms of her focus, her past as a lawyer contributed to her ability and opportunity ‘to go deep, as opposed to wide.’

Over the years, Ahmed has contributed to online, radio, magazines, and books.

Some respected works include magazines titles such as the Decanter, a wine and wine-lifestyle magazine published monthly in about 90 countries, and The World of Fine Wine, an award-winning magazine, website, and app accessible internationally to wine enthusiasts.

“When I joined the wine trade, I worked for Oddbins [the high street wine merchant], who had a massive range of interesting Australian wine,” Ahmed said. “This, together with an intensive Wine Australia trip in 2004 [and my contacts], built my passion for the country’s wines and ‘can do’ wine culture."

As a WSET Diploma top graduate in 2003, Ahmed had the confidence, profile, and platform to successfully pitch for her first paid writing commission.

This project resulted in a research opportunity to work on the sixth edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW, which then turned into another opportunity to update the Hugh Johnson’s Annual Pocket Wine Guide for Portugal.

“Both the Portuguese and Australian wine scene have evolved considerably, especially Portugal, since I launched my freelance career as The Wine Detective.” Ahmed said. “I am much more attracted by countries and regions with a dynamic wine scene, who are still forging their wine styles and reputations."

What makes Portuguese and Australian wine so special?

“Portugal has an incredibly important USP in its native grape varieties (over 250) [with] some unique traditional winemaking techniques which the current generation are applying intelligently in an excitingly original fusion of the best of the old and new,” Ahmed said.

As for Australian wine, she believes the culture is special in a non-traditional way.

“In Australia, I’d say it’s the innovative, collaborative wine culture which is special—very dynamic and ‘can do,’ with a dogged pursuit of excellence,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed uses the Chardonnay renaissance as an example of this to convey how quickly the wine industry can turn itself around.

Diversity and the field of writing

Ahmed made it clear that credibility and integrity is everything.

“Be well researched, open-minded, professional and independent. Don’t be afraid to focus on what interests you,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed encourages others to be mindful and proactive about telling the whole story.

“The big, established companies can dominate the discourse with marketing budgets to support tastings, press trips, samples, and advertising,” she concluded.

Ahmed also discussed her experience as a woman who has worked in male-dominated fields, such as law, then wine, and said that one naturally begins to question received wisdom and the establishment.

She shared a comment by The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist activist group founded in 1985, about their 2016 exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, which brilliantly reflects her take on the responsibility of being a wine critic and ‘curator’ of tastings (notes).

The project consisted of responses they received, or did not receive from 383 European museum directors who were invited to answer questions about diversity.

“With this project, we wanted to pose the question ‘Are museums today presenting a diverse history of contemporary art or the history of money and power?’ We focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair. Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors. Unless museums and Kunsthallen show art as diverse as the cultures they claim to represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.”

To see more of Ahmed's work, visit The Wine Detective here.