Jancis Robinson Talks About Her Career in Wine at IPNC

As part of this weekend’s International Pinot Noir Celebration, Jancis Robinson, Master of Ceremonies for the weekend, sat down in a (blessedly air conditioned) auditorium on the campus of Linfield College and spoke about her life and career in the world of wine to a group of interested (sweaty) attendees. Here’s what she had to say, to the best of my transcription ability.

“I’m so old and I have so much to say about my life in wine, there’s a lot to talk about. I’ll start with how I got into wine. I was raised in a village of 45 people in the far north of England. At that point wine had a very different place in British society. My father was a very keen gin drinker, as was my grandmother. Until Grandma heard that gin was bad for you and then she switched to whisky. She died at the ripe old age of 98 — I hope I’ve got some of those genes.

Occasionally we’d go out for a meal as a family. This was farming country, of course, so we’re not talking about anything fancy. People would order steak, and then they’d order what they would call Sauternes in those days, which was actually from Spain. Sweet, and rather horrible.

As I got into my teens, I remember a lunch with my grandmother where she ordered wine. The most popular wine at the time was something called Lutomer Riesling, which everyone pronounced “ryes-ling” and it was disgusting — imported in bulk, I later discovered, from Slovenia. Oversulfered, stuffed full of chemicals, bottled right on the London docks and then sold everywhere.

If people talked about wine in those days, which was rare, there would be implied quotations around it. Like one would say ‘polo.’

One of Jancis’ first memorable wine experiences came while she was studying at Oxford, courtesy of her boyfriend at the time. Here she recounts that incident:

“I was first exposed to good wine at Oxford. At that time they had some pretty good wine in the cellars at the colleges. I was already very interested in food, so it was a small leap to wine. When I graduated with a degree in maths and philosophy, though, I had no notion of getting a job in wine or food. They had such low status in society at the time, it never even occurred to me to seek work there.

I spent three years in Britain’s largest holiday company. It was rather boring. There were too many meetings.

It was the Seventies, however, and everyone was dropping out. It was the thing to do at the time. So I did it, too. I dropped out for a year to Provence, and ended up in this tiny little village, and a cottage with no electricity and a well. I later found out I was about 3 miles from where Peter Mayle would end up a year later and make an absolute fortune writing about it.

It only took about a minute for me to realize that Provence was a completely different universe than Britain, and I was instantly cured of the thinking that I should avoid working in the food and wine industry. Here was a place where wine and food were part of life in the way I thought they should be.

When I got back to Britain and looked for a job that would allow me to write, I got a job in the press office of the British Waterways Board. Exciting, no? I got to see some trade journals of many different kinds, and one happened to be about wine, and at the moment it was carrying a notice to fill the job of assistant editor. I polished up my CV and to my surprise I got an interview. The publisher told me: ‘we’ve had a lot of difficulty with this job. We tried hiring journalists, and then we had to teach them about wine. And then we we tried hiring wine people, but we had to each them to write. And you’re neither.’

But I was their favorite, and I got the job. Once I did, I realized I was taking over from Terry Lord, who had just left to become the first full time employee of what would eventually become Decanter magazine. I was thrown in at very much the deep end, and was taught on the job by the secretary.

Luckily during the interview they didn’t ask me if I could type, because I couldn’t at the time. It was only a good while after I started that the editor saw me trying to peck out my work on the typewriter and by then it was too late. The good thing was — the good thing about all trade journals — was that it had a small circulation and no one would notice all the mistakes I made.

What I did rather immediately after starting was to sign up for the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust. It has a very structured set of courses that eventually lead to the Master of Wine. I started with the certificate and I worked my way up through those courses. I did it quite quickly.

Those days there was a wonderful, elderly wine writer, John Arlott, he was a cricket writer as well, and he found out about me, and was tickled by the idea of me — though I was not the first woman wine writer in England — but here I was this sort of hippie girl writing about wine, and he took a liking to the idea. So he had someone write about me, and that was when I first really began to be noticed as a writer.

In 1979 I wrote an introductory book called The Wine Book. That was the first and last time in my life I thought I knew everything there was to know about wine.

I had a great mentor — Edmund Penning-Rowsell. He was a member of communist party, but he was also a major wine collector. He wrote a column for Wine & Spirit magazine, and was a huge inspiration to me. He knew so much about wine but he never pretended to know it all. He was quite open about something he didn’t know — if there was something that he had never heard of or didn’t know the answer to, he would turn and ask me. That’s such an important aspect of winemanship, or wine-womanship or whatever you want to call it. Being open.

So I wrote that book, and it was nicely reviewed. Hugh Johnson noticed it, and suggested to the London Sunday Times that they take me on as a journalist. in 1980 they did, as a freelancer, and I’ve been self employed ever since.”

In response to the question from someone in the audience of whether she has actually ever made wine:

“I’m deeply deeply ashamed at not ever having got my hands dirty. My excuse is that I was brought up with parents who were mad keen gardeners. They spent nearly every spare moment in the garden messing about with green things. As a result I always saw plants as the enemy.

To that I will add that I’m immensely impractical, and I don’t think I would be very good at making wine at all.”

To my question about whether there was a point at which she felt like she transitioned from being a wine writer to being a wine critic:

“I actually think of myself as a wine writer and not a critic. I don’t think I would ever think about myself as a wine critic. Of course, I do review wines, but I really hate the idea that a wine can be summed up in a score. I see scores as a necessary evil. I put scores in because I know people need to make buying decisions in a hurry. ”

To the question about what’s happening with the future of wine writing (or something like that)

“The Internet has made it hugely much easier for people to set themselves up as writers about wine. The internet is absolutely changing things.

My favorite medium now is my web site. I really enjoy it. In fact I’m sitting here realizing that I haven’t fed it for nearly 24 hours and I’m getting… I gotta put some stuff there.

I love my web site and the Internet because it’s so immediate. There’s a community there, and I get feedback. We have to be much more accountable than we ever were before. As traditional journalists, we used to be able to hide behind our perches of our bylines, etc.

I get very little feedback via the Financial Times. I also have a syndicated column that goes out to various papers around the world, and I get very little feedback from those. The one exception is the San Francisco Chronicle. Whenever a column runs there, I get a lot of mail, I guess that’s because it’s San Francisco, and everyone is so Internet savvy, or their site is set up for it.

Those of us having long careers in wine are being challenged by bloggers and I think that’s a good thing.”

To the question of which wine region is off the radar, but up and coming:

“Funny enough, in May Nick and I went to Turkey. There was this strange aspect to the tasting there because I had to taste the wines in front of the producers and talk about them, which was a little uncomfortable. But the wines are really interesting. The exciting thing about them is that they have a bunch of indigenous grape varieties like “emir” that are making very interesting wines. Especially the aromatic white wines from regions like Anatolia. And Istanbul is so cosmopolitan. I felt under-dressed in Istanbul. The people are very hip”

And to the final question “who are three people, living or dead, that she would invite to a wine dinner party — she doesn’t answer the question but shares:

“Oh god! you have to think about who would get on with whom! I like people who make me laugh, really….. The worst sort of person would be the person who tells me what they’ve got in their cellar.”