Jancis Robinson on the Wondrous World of Wine
Jancis Robinson wrote the book on wine. Literally. The author of the first four editions of the definitive Oxford Companion to Wine, she has also published 20 books on the subject and more than 1,500 articles for the Financial Times, for which she has been the wine correspondent since 1989. Immersed in the industry for nearly five decades, she also helps select wines for Queen Elizabeth II as a member of the royal family’s wine committee. Whether writing about winemakers’ recent embrace of non-chemical farming or the rise of bag-in-box wines, Robinson has an acute awareness of the forces behind her field’s constant evolution, and gives her readers context so that they can understand what it all means. Her primary interests lie not just in the flavors of wine, but rather in the stories that wines tell about where they came from, how they’re made, and what they reveal about the world.
Robinson’s long-view perspective on wine touches many dimensions. With encyclopedic knowledge, she’s equally comfortable detailing the value of ancient vines as she is explaining when to buy a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino versus Rosso di Montalcino. Deciphering topics such as South Africa’s top sommeliers and “new world” Pinot Noirs is, at this stage, practically second nature for Robinson, whose curiosity about the age-old craft of winemaking evidently never wanes. A trailblazer and a nimble scholar, Robinson, who holds a master’s degree in mathematics and philosophy from Oxford University, hosted the first ever wine-focused television series—and has produced, written, and presented several others—and was the first wine writer to become an M.W., or Master of Wine, a rare distinction. In addition to her work at the FT, Robinson pours her expertise into her jancisrobinson.com website, where she and a team of well-versed contributors report on topics that span everything from alternative packaging to the best wines to buy at Tesco. In 2018, she even designed her (handmade, dishwasher-safe) version of the ideal wine glass. Far from stuffy, Robinson’s approach to her subject takes a friendly yet authoritative tone, flecked with her distinctive insight and British charm.
A supporter of the recently launched Regenerative Viticulture Foundation, a global nonprofit working to improve soil health, Robinson also helps amplify the many ways in which the climate crisis is impacting the wine industry, such as harvest dates and “smoke taint.” “We can’t afford to sustain the status quo,” she says of the current moment on this episode of Time Sensitive. “We’ve got to renew. We’ve got to regenerate.” By Robinson’s account, the wine world is in more flux today than ever before.
On this episode, Robinson speaks with Spencer about the power of old vines, the trials of translating taste and smell into language, and why some of today’s most thoughtful producers are packaging great wines in cardboard boxes and cans.
Robinson speaks about the biggest changes she has witnessed in the wine industry, including those arising from and amidst the climate crisis.
Robinson expands on how rising temperatures are affecting wine production and packaging. She also discusses the importance of soil health.
Robinson reflects on the many temporal elements of wine, such as the significance of ancient vines, and bottle aging and storage.
Robinson recalls her childhood in Northern England, her time at Oxford University, and her first trip to America—specifically, to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She also tells the story of what led her to writing about wine.
Robinson talks about the joys and challenges of being a wine writer. She also discusses her work as a producer and presenter for various television shows, and answers rapid-fire questions about grape varieties, regions, and vintages.
SPENCER BAILEY: Joining me today in the studio is the wine writer Jancis Robinson, who is a Master of Wine and has been the wine correspondent at the Financial Times since 1989. She is also the author of books including Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course and The 24-Hour Wine Expert. Welcome, Jancis.
SB: We’ll get there.
JR: Okey-dokey. And the doorstop, called Wine Grapes.
SB: You began your wine-writing career nearly fifty years ago, in 1975, when you were hired at a wine trade magazine. You’ve described that period as “virtually prehistory as far as modern wine is concerned.” I was wondering, if 1975 was prehistory, where are we now, when it comes to wine? And how are you thinking about these past decades, this evolution of time, in terms of the industry and all you’ve seen, heard, and learned?
JR: I do feel lucky to have such a long perspective on the world of wine. I would say that the world of wine is in more flux now than I’ve ever known it. This may be true of all spheres, I don’t know. It’s only that I just happen to know about wine. But it was interesting. In the late-twentieth century, wine producers all over the world all wanted to make virtually the same wine, which was a copy of the two most famous wines, then, in the world, which were both French: red Bordeaux, from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and white burgundy, from Chardonnay grapes.
So they were ripping out the local grape varieties, and planting these French imports, no matter where they were, and trying as closely as possible to copy these two archetypes. Since then, there’s been the most enormous change. And I’m not sure exactly what caused it. I suspect it was more producers, just getting fed up with one recipe. I don’t suspect that consumers were all crying out for a change, but I may be wrong.
But now, of course, we just have so much wider range of different sorts of wine, made all over the world, with a preponderance of trying to express what a particular place can produce most happily. Which is usually in a well-established region, with the great varieties that were indigenous to that place. So they’re pulling out the Cabernet and the Chardonnay, and have been planting, or recuperating, local varieties.
Also, they don’t all want to make the same style of wine. We’ve now got people making classical wines—people making copies of ancient wines. When I say “classical,” I mean traditional favorites: making natural wines, making orange wines, putting—a whole new subject—putting wine into packages that aren’t even bottles. It’s fun. And then, using grapes to make drinks that are not technically wine. It has just exploded, really. Which is lovely for someone like me, who has to find something to write about. There’s no shortage of stuff to write about.
SB: You’ve really had a front-row seat to this world.
JR: I have been very lucky that my career has mirrored the popularity of wine drinking. Certainly in the U.K., and followed by the U.S. I think it would be much more difficult now to set out to be a wine writer who actually gets paid for their work than it was when I started out. Because there are far fewer paid outlets, far fewer newspapers with wine columns. I was lucky. I made the world’s first television series about wine [The Wine Programme], and had a certain career in presenting TV shows about wine. Nowadays, that’s pretty tricky. You’ve got to do it yourself and stick it on YouTube, and—
JR: Yes. No, I have been very, very lucky. I have worked very hard, but I have also been very lucky.
SB: What have been some of the most major shifts you’ve witnessed in wine? And how do you think they reflect some of the larger changes that have happened—or are still happening—culturally, societally, at large in the world?
JR: Firstly, to perhaps expand on what I’ve already said, this whole grape-variety thing mirrors what’s happened in food production and valuing—say, heritage apple varieties, or heritage tomatoes. Which, I think, is certainly a reaction to the over-industrialization of food and drink production. After the Second World War, what the world needed was quantity, not quality. And there was the great white heat of technology, and farmers suddenly found that, instead of painstakingly hoeing or weed-pulling, they could just spray with this magic stuff called Roundup or whatever, and the job was done.
Of course, the current generation of wine producers are really snooty and critical of their parents, who did that. I don’t blame them. They had different priorities, and they didn’t realize that all these agrochemicals were going to completely stuff up the planet—in particular, the health of soils. So it was horses for courses, really. But it’s not surprising when we look at the state of nature today, with this lack of biodiversity, with soils that have been denuded of life. Today’s farmers, artisans, food and wine producers want to return to the ways of their grandparents, and a more traditional, nonchemical way of farming.
That’s been a big movement, a big phenomenon: the embracing of organic and, to a certain extent, dynamic ways of growing vines, in my sphere. There was such a vogue at the end of the twentieth century for deep-colored, alcoholic, quite oaky wines, that—Newton’s law; for every action, there’s a reaction—so it’s not surprising that, in this century, we’ve seen a move away from that, and wines that are much paler, with lower alcohol and higher acidity rather than very, very ripe.
SB: That was sort of a Robert Parkerization?
JR: It’s anti-[Robert] Parker, I think. It’s a reaction to the power of one very able but omnipotent, and arguably too-powerful, critic. The end of the twentieth century had wine producers all over the world just wanting to get Parker points. So they were all making the same wine, which was not necessarily what he liked. And certainly, he always said he didn’t just like that sort of wine. But it was perceived that that was the sort of wine that he liked. So the wine world, to a certain extent, at a certain point, got very boring, because everybody was making these sorts of wines.
I think wine producers realized that, while their employers were urging them to make these kinds of wines because they got high points and therefore would sell, they realized that they weren’t actually very good to drink. You could have half a glass, and it was pretty impressive. But they were too strong, too emphatic. They didn’t go that well with food. So wine producers started to make wines they did actually want to drink, and also express where they were, rather than an idea perceived in a Baltimore ex-lawyer’s head.
You were asking about trends, so that’s less oak, less alcohol, more acid, more Indigenous varieties, more local expression. There was a great vogue for sticking the name of the grape variety on the label, but now, probably, the vogue is to stick the name of as small a geographical unit as possible on the label, often single vineyards. Many producers now are making a range of wines, maybe using the same grapes, but from, say, three or four different vineyards to show that terroir exists, that exactly where you are does shape the style and flavor of the wine.
SB: So much of this connects to the climate crisis, which is this—
JR: And wine is a bit of a canary in the coal mine, as far as that’s concerned.
SB: It’s a literal hot-button issue for the winemakers. Just this week, New York Magazine published this alarming article—probably not alarming to you but to the general public—by Benjamin Wallace titled “When Smoke Gets in Your Wine.”
JR: Well, that’s a whole nother thing. It’s associated with climate change. But there are just so many aspects of wine that are influenced by our warming summers. Harvest dates, for instance. In the time I’ve been writing about wine, overall, with exceptions, they have advanced by about two weeks in pretty much every wine region. The grapes are just ripening that much faster, because the summers are hotter. The winters are getting warmer, so in spring, the vines are budding earlier.
But we’re still getting spring frost in, say, April. So they’re doing much more damage, because the vines are that much more advanced. Instead of just affecting a vine with a cane with no leaf on it, they’re actually freezing baby buds, so therefore, completely shrinking the potential crop. Then [there’s] hotter summers, drier summers, tinder undergrowth, and wildfires—not just on the West Coast of North America, but in Australia, as well, and Greece.
SB: And there’s a term for this predicament, “smoke taint,” that people don’t really want to say, but it’s happening.
JR: It is. And it’s really difficult for producers because, A, it’s sometimes not immediately obvious—it builds in the bottle. So they may be putting a wine on the market that, in a few months, tastes pretty nasty. B, if they’re really fastidious about it, and don’t bottle the produce of any grapes that might have been affected by smoke in the atmosphere, then that could be a whole year’s income, gone. Some producers were insured. But as a result of the increase in wildfires, particularly in California, I think I understand that insurers are now refusing to insure against it. It’s really difficult.
SB: You’re involved with, and a supporter of, the recently launched Regenerative Viticulture Foundation. It’s a U.K.-based nonprofit that’s working on improving soil quality, as I understand it.
JR: Soil health, absolutely. Although you say it’s U.K.-based…. It happened to be launched in the U.K., but the people behind it…. At the launch, for instance, there was Mimi Castile, from Oregon. One of the major forces is a guy who makes wine in Provence; one of their academics is Scandinavian. So it is an international nonprofit, really.
SB: Focused on biodiversity and carbon sequestration, really as a means of addressing the climate crisis and—
JR: And making the soil healthy again so that it can produce good-quality crops without a need for agrochemicals.
SB: You mentioned earlier that this is an issue that all farmers are facing. And several years ago on this podcast, I interviewed Andrea Illy, the chairman of Illycaffè, who’s really pushing this notion or idea of “virtuous agriculture,” which really connects to this. I feel like every farmer on earth can’t not be thinking about these issues. Could you speak to the hope and promise of this program, what this regenerative viticulture, or virtuous agriculture, could lead to?
JR: It’s really about thinking about the long term. In a very, very simplistic way, perhaps I could sum it up: Sustainability is the great buzzword of the moment. In whatever sector you are, everyone’s claiming to be sustainable, and there’s a certain amount of greenwashing going on about it. But do we want to sustain the status quo? In a very simple way, no. We can’t afford to sustain the status quo. We’ve got to improve the situation at the moment. We’ve got to renew. We’ve got to regenerate. We’ve just got to make things better. Because at the moment, we are going to hell in a handcart, looking at it in the big picture.
As someone who maps the world of wine and every few years produces The World Atlas of Wine, it’s been extraordinary to me to see how the shape of the world of wine has changed because of climate change. If someone had said to me, even fifteen years ago, that Norway would be producing wine, I would have said, “You must be joking.” But now pretty much all the Scandinavian countries have some vineyards—not Finland yet, but I wouldn’t bet against it. England has been a huge beneficiary of climate change. There have been beneficiaries. Canada. And Germany, now, is ripening all the grapes. Every grape doesn’t have to chuck in a whole load of sugar, because the grapes didn’t ripen properly, and they taste so tart and horrid.
So I suppose there have been some short-term good things, in wine, that have been brought about by climate change. But we can’t just keep on moving closer and closer to the poles for agriculture and viticulture. We’ve certainly got to stop carbon emissions. I don’t know if you want to move on to this, but it really educated me, quite a few years ago, to discover what causes wine’s greatest carbon footprint. Do you know what it is?
SB: No clue.
JR: It’s glass bottles. The production and transport of glass bottles emits far more carbon than any vineyard or any cellar, even though fermentation naturally gives off carbon dioxide. Really thoughtful wine producers are trying to capture that carbon, but it’s a heck of a business. And it actually doesn’t save the planet nearly as much as thinking carefully about whether all wine needs to go into glass bottles. Because glass bottle–production is very, very greedy of natural raw ingredients. And particularly, you need really high temperatures for a glass furnace. At the moment, it’s all fossil fuels.
So you’ve got these marketing people—and a lot of consumers—thinking that putting across the idea that the heavier the glass bottle, the better the wine in it. In fact, they are doing so much damage by using really heavy glass bottles. If there’s one message I’d like to get across to your listeners, it’s do not worship heavy glass bottles, and rethink the need for glass bottles anyway. Glass is a brilliant material. It’s inert, it doesn’t react with wine. If you’ve got a wine that you need to keep in a cellar for years and years, there’s nothing better than a glass bottle. But, well over ninety percent—probably well over ninety-five percent—of all the wine sold in the world is drunk if not within hours, then certainly within weeks of purchase. There’s actually no need to put it into a glass bottle.
SB: Yellow Tail?
JR: Yeah. That, I’m sure, is drunk on the way home. [Laughs]
Also, glass bottles are very wasteful of space. They’re not only heavy and fragile, but they’re wasteful of space. If you think about it, they’re round, so you can’t pack them like cartons or a bag-in-box. And then they’ve got that space at the neck, which is completely empty. So a lot of thoughtful wine producers are beginning to put much better quality wine into boxes. Or cans. There’s a lot of talk about, “How are we going to get young people to drink wine?” Well, I don’t think it’s surprising that young people on a budget are not running towards a package which is seven-fifty milliliters—so it’s six to eight drinks in it, so it’s therefore quite expensive—and you need a special implement to get in it: a corkscrew.
So I’m a big fan of cans, because they’re smaller, they’re more affordable, and you don’t need a special implement to get into them. And they don’t break. So I think it’s horses for courses. And reusable bottles…. If only we had effective recycling. But I think in the U.S., it’s even less effective than in the U.K. In Northern Europe, they’re pretty good at recycling. And the Nordic countries love bag-in-box, because the monopolies that sell all the alcoholic drinks there have been really good at explaining to the consumer how much better for the planet bag-in-box is than bottles, shipping them around.
But I just think, if we don’t have an efficient recycling system, or a reusable-bottle system, which would be another good thing—particularly in areas perhaps like New York or Napa Valley or something, where there’s high wine consumption per head of population—it’d be lovely to have those systems in place. Then, do think more favorably about packages other than glass bottles for everyday wine. Obviously not for the fancy stuff.
SB: So time is something that’s just very, very central to anything, all things wine: to making it, to aging and storing it, to enjoying it.
JR: To the best wines. Yeah, definitely.
SB: From a philosophical perspective, where does your mind go when you think about time and wine?
JR: It goes to [laughs], funnily enough, a book that I compiled in—I think it was published in 1989, and it was called Vintage Time Charts. It was an attempt to help people understand how wine ages. I took various paradigms of wine, like smart red Bordeaux, and a Mosel Riesling, and a vintage port, and things like that. And literally charted on a graph, for different vintages—I think it was a span of ten different vintages leading up to 1989—how I thought they would age, how they got better, and then they got worse. And the curves were different, according to different sorts of wine.
Although, as I just said, that only a small proportion of wine deserves aging. That is the most interesting proportion of wine, and it’s the wine that us wine geeks adore and spend our time thinking about. But I do think that the consumer is left, often, pretty high and dry about when to drink the smart wines. Obviously a wine merchant, it’s in their interest to encourage people to drink wine as fast as possible, because then they’ll come back for more. But that’s not always the best advice. Often, you’re kind of murdering a wine to open it too soon, even though today’s wine producers, or those that are aware of market forces, are trying to make wine so that you could drink it earlier, but often it’s not at its optimum. So this book was an attempt to help people get more information. Which, I suppose, is what I’ve spent my entire working life doing.
SB: Let’s turn specifically to the growing of vines and grapes: pruning, flowering, crop-thinning, ripening.
JR: And I should say, at this point, I’m very ashamed of the fact that I have never personally produced a drop of wine—
JR: —and it would be very fake of me to pretend that I had.
SB: But, from 1974 to ’75, you did spend a whole year in Provence.
JR: Watching vines grow. I didn’t actually do any of the hard work, I’m afraid.
SB: Well, the witnessing is something.
JR: It’s magical. It’s magical what happens in a vineyard. And I think it’s more dramatic, actually, than even a garden, perhaps partly because it’s all exposed. In winter, you just see this mosaic of just little blackened vines stumps sticking out of the soil. And often only six inches out of the soil, really. Then comes the spring and they start [sprouting] shoots, and then the shoots get a bit of green on them. And then, by midsummer, it’s like a forest. Then you start to see the grapes hanging down from the leaves. Then in autumn, it all turns these glorious colors. I suppose it’s in whole, great fields, rather than in a mixed garden, or something like that. I think vines are a more visual crop than most, don’t you? They change color more. They change shape more.
Last September, I did some filming in Morey-Saint-Denis, in Burgundy, in the middle of harvest. I was just reminded about that very, very special atmosphere in a vineyard, in the sunshine—sunshine’s important—when people are picking. There’s something very, very elemental about it. You know people have been doing this for centuries. It’s a really euphoric time of year. It’s very special. A lot more special than running a machine harvester through a field.
SB: You recently wrote about old vines in the FT. Could you talk about their potency, their power, why they are so effectively essential to a lot of wine-making?
JR: Old vines produce much fewer grapes, therefore, a more concentrated wine. On jancisrobinson.com, we have a unique register of all the old vineyards that we know of. We’re actually developing it into an open-source, separate, standalone website that people can visit, download, add to, whatever. It’s amazing, the number of vines and vineyards there that are more than a hundred years old.
To think that you’ve got these vines that have been in the ground from Victorian times is incredible, really, and they’ve seen such a lot of history. California, unexpectedly, has a very significant proportion of those old vines. The weird reason is because of Prohibition. During Prohibition, in the twenties and early thirties, there was no market for wine, and it actually didn’t make commercial sense to spend the money to pull them out. So they just stayed in the ground. And were there, as testament to a previous life, when America actually drank wine. Of course, some of them look wonderful. They’re old, very gnarled, look as though a puff of wind would almost blow them over. But they do deserve to stay in the soil, because they give us something unique.
All wine producers say that the produce of old vines is something really special. It’s much more nuanced, much more complex, and it’s exciting. But there was something formed in California, which I played a very small part in, called the Historic Vineyard Society. And I think perhaps in the late nineties it was formed. No, it must have been the early years of this century, because the great threat was the movie Sideways. [Editor’s note: The organization was founded in 2011.] And Pinot Noir, because of Sideways, became so fashionable.
SB: Poor Merlot.
JR: Yeah, poor Merlot. But everybody wanted to plant Pinot Noir. So there was a great movement to rip these lovely old vines out of California vineyards, and put in spindly little Pinot Noir vines, probably in sites that were far too hot for them, and they’d never make decent wine, anyway. But the grapes could be sold as fashionable Pinot Noir. So that’s why the Historic Vineyard Society was formed: to preserve the old vines.
There’s a similar initiative in South Africa, where the Old Vine Project actually certifies exactly how old every vineyard is. Oddly enough, it’s because of the KWV. There was a very bureaucratic government outfit that formalized everything, and it had total record of exactly when vines went into every single vineyard. So there is a record in South Africa—an indisputable record—of how old every vineyard is. And you’ll see on some South African wines, a little seal around the neck, which says either “historic vineyard” or “Old Vine Project” or something. And you get that if the wine is from a genuine old vineyard. And Barossa Valley in Australia has another high proportion of very old vines, and they, again, have a certification program.
SB: Is there an ideal age for a vine? I know you’ve written, around thirty-five years old, they produce the most flavor, but—
JR: Yes, thirty-five years old, they’re really coming into their own. But they’re also starting to reduce the amount of wine they produce, and therefore, they become vulnerable to being pulled out. Significantly, France has relatively few old vines, because it’s had a thriving wine-producing culture for centuries. They’re very commercially astute, and not likely to…. They’re very businesslike, and they’d want to keep the production levels up. So vines more than thirty, thirty-five years old tend to have been replaced fairly systematically.
SB: What about bottle aging and storage? In the third edition to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, from 2003, you write, “One of my most treasured bees concerns wine and time, and the way that so many wine producers and retailers leave their customers completely in the dark about how long to keep individual bottles, especially that minority of bottles that actually needs keeping” You write that, “The myth that all wine improves with age lingers on and the reality is that far more wine is drunk too late than too early.”
JR: That’s true. My post bag—well, in the old days, it was a post bag, nowadays it’s an inbox—would regularly have communications from people who say things like, “I’ve got this bottle of Blue Nun that my father’s kept since he was married, in the 1930s.” The subtext is, what’s it worth? Of course, “nothing” is the answer. A commercial wine is made to be drunk pretty much as soon as it comes off the bottling line. It’s really only the most famous wines that are made to be kept, and aged. Perhaps the wine that really, really does need keeping for a very long time is vintage port. That really only comes into its own after thirty years, maybe forty years. Ideal vintage to drink now would probably be ’63. So you need a long life and a lot of optimism to be a vintage port lover.
SB: Let’s go back to your early years in Carlisle, Cumbria, in Northern England, and your later time at St. Anne’s College, at Oxford, where you majored in math and philosophy. When did you turn to books and to literature, and also to writing, and then, at last, to wine?
JR: I always enjoyed writing. I went to one of those very inflexible high schools that were unable to produce a timetable that satisfied people who wanted to do art subjects, and science subjects, towards the end of their school life. I had to choose between maths, basically, and English. I remember my English teacher saying, “You’ll regret giving up English for the rest of your life.” Actually, I think she was wrong, because if I’d done English literature scholastically, I think I would have been taught to analyze, and perhaps not enjoy reading and writing as much as I do. I chose maths because if you can do maths, you don’t have to work very hard. [Laughs] I knew I could get really good marks without doing much effort, and so I went that way. I’m “economical of effort,” as the maths teacher used to say.
But my first article was published when I was 15, in the local paper, and it was about fashion. I illustrated it myself, and I’ve got it somewhere in my archives. We moved house about six years ago, and I had an attic full of scrapbooks, and old tasting notes, and old photographs. Obviously, we were going to a smaller place. And fortunately, the University of California at Davis came along, and they’d already taken on the archive of my friend and co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson, and they wanted mine. The timing was absolutely brilliant. So they’ve got the contents of the attic, including my first article about fashion.
SB: What about fashion? What was it—
JR: I think I said something like—you wouldn’t even know what I was talking about—I think I said, you had to choose between Dolly Rocker and mod, or something. It was two fashions of teenagers that were going on at the time.
JR: I have always been interested in fashion. My grandmother was a very fashionable dresser.
SB: And wine happened, if I understand it correctly, when you were working as a chambermaid at Il Pellicano.
JR: Not really, no. I grew up in this little village of forty people, where wine was utterly exotic, as it was for most Brits at that stage. Then, between school and university, I went and worked as a chambermaid in Il Pellicano, which is very famous now, and was even then, I think, Italy’s most expensive hotel. I did things like walk in on Charlie Chaplin, because I didn’t understand the Italian for “Don’t come in,” and things like that. There, at staff meals, you could drink as much of the local plonk as you liked. But if you wanted water that was guaranteed safe to drink—i.e., from a bottle—you had to pay for it. That showed me that wine was not necessarily this incredibly expensive, elitist thing. So that was one lesson.
Then when I got to Oxford, I had a boyfriend whose father gave him a little bit too much money, some of which was spent on taking me out for nice meals. I actually was the restaurant correspondent for the Oxford University magazine. There was one particular red Burgundy, a Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959. Ordered a bottle of that at a rather charmingly named restaurant called the Rose Revived, just outside Oxford. And it was so good, so much better than student plonk, that I said to myself, There’s something in wine, and something that really, really appeals to me—that delivers a huge amount of sensual pleasure. But clearly, there’s a lot of intellectual stimulation as well. A lot of history, geography, all that kind of thing.
So I would like to say I got up from the table and said, “Right. I’m going to be a wine writer.” But I wouldn’t have dreamt of it because, and you won’t believe this, but in the seventies, in the U.K., the subjects of wine and food had no social status whatsoever. Rather the reverse. They were associated with indulgence at a time when worldwide famine was even worse than it is now. If someone, say, in the Times newspaper devoted a column to a great meal they’d had, the letters page would have been full of criticism of, “How dare you waste space on something as frivolous as this?” My friends at Oxford would have said, “What a waste of an education to go into something like wine, or food.”
But, of course, I had three years working in travel, and then dropped out to Provence, to the Luberon, where I was surrounded, not just by these vineyards, but by people for whom eating and drinking was what life was all about. That made me abandon this idea that food and drink were not important. And I came back to London determined to find a job in either food or wine. I got this job, assistant editor of a wine trade magazine, and took it from there.
SB: During your youth and these studies, I understand you made your first trip to America, in 1969.
JR: Great, yeah.
SB: This was fascinating to me. You came to America to work for the computer department of a carpet mill in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. So from one Carlisle to another.
JR: Well, that was not a coincidence, because the man who was Carlisle, Cumbria, had made it his business to meet the man who was Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who owned the local carpet mill. I stayed with the owner and his wife, who were then well into their 80s. Watched the moon landing with them, watched Teddy Kennedy apologizing for Chappaquiddick with them. Didn’t have a drop of alcohol because they were completely teetotal, had homemade lemonade on the porch, lived in a house then older than any house I’ve ever lived in—which was not unexpected, in a way. They were charming. They were really lovely hosts, and very kind to have this student staying with them really for, I think it was about four weeks, I was with them. Then I set off on a Greyhound bus, as British students did then, oblivious to any danger that might lurk there. I did a round down in Williamsburg, and had an aunt in Florida. I went there, and then across the South, and went to the Grand Canyon, and up the California coast, and back through Chicago. It was fascinating.
SB: What were your impressions, to land in this Central Pennsylvania town, and then, find your way winding around the country?
JR: Well, it was quite a contrast, because—the Maslands is their name, the carpet mill owners—they were teetotal, very strict Republicans. Then I went to stay with some other friends of friends, in the awful way that the British have of leaching off the hospitality of Americans. They lived in Georgetown, with a direct line to Johnson in the White House for some reason, and were very hard drinkers of the cocktails-at-4 p.m. variety.
I remember they gave a dinner party out in their yard with various luminaries, and said, “So, what do Oxford students think about such and such and such and such?” I was soaking up a lot of rich experiences. But I remember going up the West Coast, and I think I visited a lot of the missions up the West Coast, and I was very struck by the influence of the missions in California, and they, of course, were bringing wine, or bringing the vines, because they needed wine for the sacrament.
SB: I actually loved learning this Carlisle, Pennsylvania, thing, because I spent four years in my life there, at Dickinson College.
JR: Oh, right. Yes, I was aware of Dickinson, but I don’t think my life overlapped it, really.
SB: From here, you graduate from Oxford, you, as you said, worked in the travel industry. In 1984, you passed the master of wine exams. I was curious to hear about this process, what it took, the test itself, and also, what it meant to you to be called a master of wine.
JR: I think it meant less to me than most people who qualify nowadays, because I’d already published quite a few books. This first TV series about wine was really very successful, to the extent that I would be recognized in the street. It’s certainly not the case now, but it was the case then. I was the wine correspondent of The Sunday TImes, which was the biggest selling broadsheet in the U.K. And, oddly enough, the main reason I had a go at these very, nowadays, very difficult exams, master of wine, which involve both theory—you know, lots of written papers—but practically three different papers, where you’re given twelve wines. You don’t know anything about them; you’ve got to identify and assess them, blind, as much as you can.
Because someone had written an article likening a few of us British wine writers to different grape varieties. And my mentor and predecessor at the Financial Times, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, who was a very famous, slightly crusty Bordeaux expert. And he was Cabernet Sauvignon. My friend and fellow wine writer, a great popularizer of wine, Oz Clarke, he was Chardonnay. And this guy obviously thought that, because I’d popularized wine on the television, I was a kind of fly-by-night, here today, gone tomorrow. So I was Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, without much staying power and whatever. I thought, Huh! Hmmm. That was genuinely quite a trigger for me, to say, “I’m going to prove that I’m not just a popularizer of wine—that I actually know something.”
But, to answer your question, I was absolutely thrilled that I passed the first time. Which, I’m sure I had a very fair wind behind me. But, because I had already established a reputation, I probably wasn’t as amazed. Because I was the first wine writer to take the exams—I was the first person outside the trade to take the exams—I thought, Oh, well, I’m just proving that any wine writer will pass. But actually, then a few wine writers did take it, and failed. Then I was proud. Then I thought, Oh, maybe that was an achievement after all. But I don’t actually use the letters M.W. after my name, mainly because I had established a bit of reputation already.
SB: It’s also kind of pretentious.
JR: I don’t know. I have got some other initials after my name, and I don’t use them, either.
JR: O.B.E. I don’t think we’re as proud of the “B.E.” nowadays as we used to be.
SB: You’ve written books from The Wine Book in 1979 to, more recently, the eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine. Perhaps most notably, you got connected with Oxford University Press in the late 1980s, and were asked to edit the first, second, third, and now fourth editions of the Oxford Companion to Wine. So tell me about this journey, especially the Oxford part. Because I think wine, prior to that book, probably didn’t have this—
JR: This gravitas. Yeah. When OUP, Oxford University Press, asked me to do this book, I saw it as a big compliment to wine. Because Oxford Companions are a series that started in the thirties, with the Oxford Companion to English Literature. And there are Companions to art, music, whatever. So I felt, here’s a signal that wine has arrived. And, of course, I was flattered to be asked and I had a little tendresse for the Oxford connection.
It was terrifying, the most terrifying thing, I think, I’ve ever done. Because I had to cover, in the first edition—eight hundred pages with two columns of small print each—with everything you need to know about wine. I had to look at the very complex subject of wine and divide it up into various topics. Then within a topic, divide it up into different head words, because each entry is alphabetically listed under a head word. And then, find someone to write each—I mean, write as many of them as possible myself—but, say, find academic historians, the expert on Greek vases that have wine connections sort of thing. All this was before digital. Everything was coming in on paper, either as a fax or in a dirty envelope, or something like that. It was pretty terrifying.
On the other hand, I did feel that I was—and it sounds awfully big-headed, this, and I don’t mean it to—but I think my brain was quite well suited to the project. Because of maths and philosophy, I had great respect for science, but was vaguely literary. And the big link between maths and philosophy is logic. And so I have, probably, quite a logical brain. So dividing up the topics wasn’t as difficult for me as it possibly might have been for a less logical brain.
I was very proud, eventually. The proudest moment, in a way, was when the first edition became OUP’s biggest seller, apart from their dictionary, in the first year, which was amazing. So I was presented with a beautifully bound gold special edition of it. And they were very pleased, as well they might be. So I was responsible for the first four editions. But I am so thrilled that a colleague of mine, Julia Harding, and a fellow master of wine—also a major team member on jancisrobinson.com, which is what I spent most of my time on nowadays—she is lead editor of the fifth edition, which will come out next year, 2023. I’m responsible for updating ten percent of the entries, which is a much lighter load.
SB: So much about wine is about slowness. I was curious to see that you had done this book The 24-Hour Wine Expert, and I was wondering if this was an effort to appeal to the culture—
JR: The bite-sized.
SB: The Timothy Ferriss four-hour work week.
JR: It evolved when a 24-year-old younger daughter was between jobs, and decided she wanted to write a slim guide—the essentials of wine—that would appeal to her contemporaries. And [she] went about it in a much more systematic way than I ever have done with any of my books. She did focus groups with her friends, and asked them what they wanted to know. But then she’s a bit of a fashionista, and she got offered a job on Vogue, so she didn’t bring the project to its fruition. But I hate waste, and here was this research.
JR: So I thought, Oh, okay. I’ll do it then. I ran it past her. It’s a very slim volume. I mean, it sells for less than five pounds in the U.K. She would occasionally say, “Oh mum, you can’t use that word. Ugh.” So I had to jazz it up slightly. But no, I’m proud of it. It’s the essentials of wine, it’s for people—even I, who earn my living selling words, either in print or online, I acknowledge that there are people who certainly are never going to buy the Oxford Companion to Wine, with its now thousand pages, or The World Atlas of Wine, even. But there are an awful lot of people who love drinking wine and always say, “But I want to know more about it.” So this is the cheat sheet, to a certain extent.
SB: How do you think about your writing time? Where does your head space go when you’re sitting down to write a piece? And in the particular case of writing about wine, it’s effectively translating smell and taste sensations—
JR: Very difficult.
SB: Into touch.
JR: Into print, into words, which is very, very difficult. I often say I used up all my vocabulary decades ago. So I love listening to the descriptors of people who aren’t professional wine tasters, because they often come up with much better descriptions than those of us who are tired old lags, really.
I suppose I’m often driven by deadlines. Simply the need to feed jancisrobinson.com, the need to file my weekly column for the Financial Times, and what’s interesting, what issues [are of] the moment. Funny enough, I never run out of topics for my FT column. And I suppose for the website, it’s often a matter of record, of sharing tasting notes. People are very interested in the latest vintage. So I’ve just been to Bordeaux to taste the 2021. I have an obligation to my readers—a lot of whom are really interested in young Bordeaux, and want to put their money in it—to give them a report on how the vintage tastes, and how it’s likely to compare with other ones.
SB: I appreciate how you have this roving eye and mind, where you’ll write about Ethiopian wine one week and—
JR: I love the underdog. I’ve bent over backwards, really, to expose up-and-coming regions. I’m always interested in where good value is to be found. I’m certainly not in thrall to just the classics. I would find life very boring if I only drank Grand Cru Burgundy and first-growth Bordeaux. Honestly, I love the fact…. I hope you’re not going to ask me what’s your favorite wine, because I hate that question. Because it’s the extraordinary range and versatility of wine that I love. The fact that the fermented juice of a single fruit—the grape—can give us this massive range of colors, styles, flavors, tastes, textures. It’s pretty magical, really.
SB: Why is it, do you think, that so much wine writing, or wine-speak, generally, let’s call it, is still considered by the masses something bordering on the highfalutin, or the inaccesible? There are these deep wine appreciators who, like you, manage to make it entertaining, and maybe, to use a bad pun, palatable. I’m thinking here of Jay McInerney, or someone like Andre Hueston Mack. These are two people that we actually had on our other podcast, At a Distance, and it was so refreshing talking to them because they have this perspective that is like how you would talk about wine on the street, or at dinner with a friend.
JR: I’m not a fan of the current vogue for making tasting notes a long list of flavors. When I study physiology, people say you can’t actually taste more than four flavors at the same time. But you can see tasting notes that have got ten, sometimes fifteen, different flavors in them. I feel it’s very off-putting for most consumers who go, smell the wine, “Well, I don’t get burnt ash and melons in a wheelbarrow,” and you know, that sort of thing. I more favor the style of it. Is it really young? Is it really old? Is it sweet? Is it acid? Is it titillating? Does it communicate a place? Is there a story attached to it? Is there some way of remembering? Because I just don’t think the long list of flavors does it, really. And useful information. Whenever I write a tasting note, I try and suggest when to drink it, or rather, the bracket of drinking. Drink from 2023 to 2026, say, or drink up, drink now. Or wait until 2030 to 2050. I think that’s useful information.
SB: The context of time.
SB: As an addendum to this conversation, I wanted to bring up a few wine regions, grape types, and vintages just to get a rapid-fire review, or overview, or just to hear what comes to mind for you when I say them. So let’s start with Brunello di Montalcino.
JR: Freshening up. It used to be so ridiculous. It was a casualty of the late-twentieth-century rush to make Parkerized wines. They were blending in Cabernet Sauvignon when it should all have been Sangiovese, and all the rest. Some of them were just sweet, and alcoholic, and didn’t speak of Tuscany at all, which is what it should represent. But now the local grape, Sangiovese, dominates, and there are more and more wines that are interesting, and transparent, and express southern Tuscany.
SB: I found it interesting in learning about this region that, as you’ve noted [in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course], they don’t release a wine until it’s four years old, and it’s rarely drunk for pleasure in its first decade.
JR: Although, if you’re looking for value, you can go for the Rosso di Montalcino, which is released much earlier and is less concentrated. There’s no point in spending a fortune on a Brunello di Montalcino if you’re in a hurry, and you’re going to drink it before it reaches its best. You’re much better off buying the less expensive Rosso di Montalcino if you want to drink it early.
SB: Next one, Cannonau.
JR: Ahhh. Sardinia, you mean? Yes. Well, the red grape of Sardinia, and very varied. Some of it is a bit too hot and boiled out, but it can be lovely. Absolutely lovely.
SB: I think it’s a fascinating wine because of the political history—
JR: Well, it’s still in contention, whether the Grenache came from Spain to Sardinia and, of course, the Sardinians say it went in the other direction. So our Wine Grapes book has a lot about the history of grape movements around the world.
SB: “Grape movements.” [Laughs] Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
JR: Alcohol. Grenache is the main grape of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and there’s been this huge vogue around the world, especially in less well-known Spanish regions—now California, now Australia, now South Africa—for finding old plots of Grenache grapes and making light, fresh, transparent, pale red wines from it. But Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the kingdom of Grenache, seems to ignore that phenomenon—is still making very, very alcoholic, very concentrated [wines], with a few handful of exceptions, of which Chateau Rayas is the most obvious.
SB: You’ve noted the Rayas 1998. [Editor’s note: In a 2019 interview with Decanter, Robinson said, “Rayas 1998 is completely stunning, and I’ve been lucky enough to taste it twice recently. I think this is now tasting even better than the famous ’78 and ’89. This is just magical.”]
JR: Yeah. I feel sorry for them, because Grenache needs to get reasonably ripe, and their summers are just getting hotter and hotter. So the wines are getting more and more alcoholic.
SB: Silver Oak.
JR: Nice, but we don’t see it that often in the U.K., a bit like so many top Napa Cabernets. They’re too expensive for the Brits to afford. You need a tech billionaire’s fortune to be able to buy Napa Cabernet. So it hasn’t got a great presence in the U.K., I’m afraid. Although the team did come and give me a nice little taste once.
SB: Last one: Dom Pérignon 2002.
JR: Ooh, a pretty nice wine. I think that scored twenty points out of twenty on jancisrobinson.com, didn’t it, several times? No, that’s pretty nice. Yeah. [Laughs]
SB: To close, I was curious to hear your thoughts on two career experiences you’ve had outside of the wine realm. One was as the narrator of the 1987 series Design Classics on BBC Two, for which you voiced episodes about the Coca-Cola bottle, the Barcelona chair, Levi’s 501 jeans. What impact did that project have on you, and to get your head out of the wine bubble and into the design one?
JR: At one time, I was quite in-demand as a TV narrator. And I loved it, because you didn’t need to have any makeup on. You just went into this little box, and it was all about words, and about making sure the exact intonation of the words, and was it right for the picture. And maybe it’s at second four that you have to mention the name of the person who comes into shot—a nice little puzzle. I would happily be a script editor, actually. My most famous narration was actually a very critical documentary, several parts, about the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
SB: That was the other one I was going to mention. [Laughs]
JR: Which we had, I think it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of it or something the other day, and we all got together, the production team, and had a rerun of one of the episodes, which was great fun. I just thought, Wow, this is great, I’m getting paid to do something I absolutely love. And it wasn’t nearly as… Going on location and filming is very…. Especially when you’re producing it, which, [for] Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, this big round-the-world BBC Two series that came out in ’95, we were actually the producers, which was so wearing. You’re responsible for the budget, and people getting on.
I thought how lucky I was to be doing this thing that was nothing to do with wine. But then came a great vogue for regional accents. And mine is judged a bit too posh to be…. So that was the end of my narrating career, sadly. Although I do think, at least my voice is very clear, and the intonation is pretty easy. So I’d happily do more narration; I love it. But again, I think I have to pretend to go back to me Cumbrian roots [affects Northern English accent] and speak like this, like what I mean to sound like.
SB: What threads, if any, do you see between wine, design, and the opera?
But the design was interesting because that was TV, and there were design awards, and I got quite involved in…. I was particularly interested in the history of the London tube map, I think I narrated that one as well. And that was very logical. I enjoyed that.
SB: I guess what I see connecting all three is this notion of craft, that the craft of singing, the craft of making, the craft of wine. How do you think about this idea of craft in what you do, in crafting words about the craft of wine-making?
JR: I do write a heck of a lot. And I know that wonderful feeling when you feel you have crafted a really good article. I wish I could say that was true of every single thing that I write; it’s not. But it is very satisfying. I imagine it’s the same feeling as someone who makes a beautiful chair has, when they see it. They had it in their head and they finally see it in reality.
I suppose an opera singer—I think actually some opera singers probably take their gift for granted. I could be wrong. I went to the most wonderful recital on Sunday night of [Jakub Józef] Orlinski, who’s an amazing Polish countertenor. And he strode—or “loped,” as the Times reviewer said—loped onto the stage, so charming, opened his mouth, and it just seemed as though there was no craft involved in that at all. Just opened his mouth, sang faultlessly for a couple of hours. I don’t know, but maybe behind all that, there are hours and hours in the studio beforehand.
SB: Yeah, it disappears.
SB: Jancis, thank you so much for coming today. This was a pleasure.
JR: Great pleasure. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on May 5, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Mimi Hannon. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Tiffany Jow, and Johnny Simon.