Jancis Robinson photo courtesy of jancisrobinson.com
P I A
How does one get an interview with the pre-eminent woman wine writer in the world today?
Jancis Robinson is educated and accomplished, with an extra- ordinary list of credits, from the Master of Wine to her own television series for the BBC to the Oxford Companion to Wine.
Despite her imposing credentials and notoriety, she manages not to take herself too seriously, and once I was able to get in touch with her it was surprisingly easy to arrange a meeting. She was kind enough to share some of her time over breakfast at her hotel during a recent visit to San Francisco.
c – "I read in Tasting Pleasure that there was a single bottle that was simple and exciting that spurred your interest in wine…"
JR – "Not so simple. It was Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959. It’s all in there. (Gesturing towards the book.) That was in college days, and it was so much better than the student plonk that I was used to – it really made an impression.
And you can tell. I think for a lot of people the seminal wine is a Burgundy - a red Burgundy. I think it just reaches those parts that Cabernets can’t – and that’s why."
c – "Would you consider Burgundy to be a more visceral wine, and Bordeaux more intellectual?"
JR – "Hmm – very much so. Yes, yes. Bordeaux is fun, and it was great to spend a weekend considering the relative merits of different vintages. It was an extraordinary tasting in Los Angeles organized by Bipin Desai to compare 1982 with other great vintages – you can read about it on my site. But with Burgundy, it’s either a ‘Mmm’ – you know, it’s a ‘hit’, or it’s a huge disappointment."
c – "I’m afraid my tasting experiences (with Burgundy) have been more disappointments than hits."
JR – "Yes. It’s easy to find disappointments. But it’s getting more difficult, which is what’s nice. You’re in the hands of your local importer, aren’t you, and how hard he or she works.
There is this great new generation - as there is in practically every wine region of the world, but very obviously in Burgundy - who really have upgraded, particularly, winemaking. I think they were always pretty good at growing vines, but they are now much, much better at making wine."
JR – "Oh no, it wasn’t a wine
writer. No, no, no. I wouldn’t dream of…Oh! Oh no, sorry – you’re
quite right – I’ve thrown two glasses of wine in my life.
c – "And the ‘on camera’ incident?"
JR – "The ‘on camera’ was a … again, it was pomposity, actually, but it was a real throw, and it was in exasperation.
We made a series called Vintner’s Tales, little ten minute television portraits of interesting people in wine, which did very well and won several awards. In this one, a particular wine merchant named Roy Richards – he’s a very talented wine merchant – but he was being very, very pompous, and had been rather sexist towards his female staff. I think we were all tasting together on camera, and I knocked a bottle so it was about to fall over. He said something like, oh, I can’t remember now – but it was implying: ‘Gosh, she’s finally made a mistake’ or ‘she’s finally done something wrong’ – and I just lost it.
It’s very, very uncharacteristic of me, because I don’t have a temper, actually, and I tend not to do these sort of impulsive things, but I was reaching the end of my tether there."
c – "Is there something about pomposity that…"
JR – "I suppose so, yes. I suppose that wine can attract a certain amount of pomposity, can’t it? It’s certainly not my style, and most of the time I can live with watching people, listening to people being pompous, feeling mostly that it is sad – because it’s putting other people off wine. I think I have a philosophy of inclusiveness, rather than exclusiveness – I want to turn the world on to the pleasures of wine. Particularly, for me, wine is not just that top layer. What I love about wine is all its forms, and I can really enjoy quite a simple wine, as long as it is made honestly and expresses where it comes from and who made it.
I know you don’t need a lot of money to enjoy wine, and I suppose I would like – I wish more effort was given in the California wine industry to the less expensive wines. I feel that so much effort goes to the top end, and then everyone says: ‘Why aren’t more people drinking wine?’ – ‘Why are the numbers of wine drinkers declining?’ People need something good, and honest, at the bottom end to start them off. I think that if ten percent of the effort that went into producing California’s top ten percent of wine went into the bottom ten percent, then maybe wine drinking would be a little bit more popular."
c – "I happen to agree with you."
JR – "I mean, I just feel there is a certain…umm…carelessness – the bottom end of the market is viewed as really not of any interest. But people have got to start somewhere. And I would hate to think that wine was just a millionaire’s caviar. It’s too interesting for that, really."
c – "You mentioned sexism earlier…"
JR – "It’s not a sort of ‘leitmotif’ of mine. It was just that particular guy. It’s not something I personally have felt the brunt of - I have hardly ever experienced it, I have to say."
c – "Even when you were starting out?"
JR – "It might have been that I was delightfully insensitive and didn’t notice. Honestly – I just went ahead and did what I wanted to do. I didn’t do it as a woman - I didn’t feel as though I was fighting barriers. If I had a fight, perhaps in Britain at that stage the wine business was dominated by pinstripe suits and 'old school tie' types. I hope I was a bit more open-minded than that, and was looking at people for what they actually brought to it and their own interests, rather than who they were."
c – "So sexism has not really been an issue for you at all?"
JR – "The only incident I can ever remember was just after the Sunday Times of London had appointed me their Wine Correspondent in 1980. I started writing about wine in 1975. I was at a tasting in the financial district of London run by one of these pinstriped wine merchants. I wasn’t taking notes, but most of the other people there weren’t, and they were more treating it like a social gathering, you know, and one of them peeled off from his group and came over to me and said: ‘I say, do you come to these things to taste for your boss?’ (laughter)
So, for once I did think of a suitable riposte, and I said: ‘Not unless you count Rupert Murdoch.’ - who had just taken over as owner of Times Newspapers, so was effectively my boss."
c – " It was not an issue when you tasted in France?"
JR – "No. In fact, several times I think it’s been an advantage to me. You know, in the courteous French way - they are very courteous – if there was reception or a meal, I would be seated on the right hand of the visiting winemaker or whomever."
c – "That surprises me, but perhaps that’s because the American society is so blatantly sexist…"
JR – "I am surprised - I love Andrea Immer – and I am surprised by how few high profile female wine writers there are here."
c – "Oh yes, there’s a burning issue. We are curious as to when your line of magnetic wine enhancers will become available on the market."
JR – (giggles) "This is so, so badly reported. What happened was…"
c – "It’s a good lesson in the dynamics of the Internet."
JR – "It is. It certainly is. It’s very worrying.
What happened is she sent me one to try (a magnetic coaster), and I tried it out on a horrible Burgundy – a very tough 88 – and in a double blind taste test, it worked! You know, it was much softer – and I wrote her an email back immediately saying: "Looks as though you could be on to something here." And that was that.
And then an associate of hers – she obviously passed this on to an associate – started emailing everybody this email saying: ‘Jancis Robinson is about to…’"
c – "It’s an endorsement."
JR – "Yes. Then suddenly I hear the wine Bulletin boards everywhere... Dear, oh dear – It’s worrying, actually. I don’t know what – I suppose the best thing is ‘don’t say a word’.
But I’m naturally polite, that’s my problem – I reply to people."
c – "I was kind of surprised that I didn’t have to go through three or four ‘gatekeepers’ before I finally reached you."
JR – "Wouldn’t it be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a team of minders and helpers - I don’t…I’m me."
c – "You don’t have ‘handlers’?"
JR – "No. I don’t have ‘my people’. No, no. Sometimes they will say: ‘Shall I talk to your publicity agent?’ – no publicist. No. I suppose when there is a publisher involved, when there is a new book, then the publisher obviously has publicists. I’m very old-fashioned.
I work too hard. Most people have found a sort of easy seam, I think, but I was born on a Saturday - which means I work hard for my living. I write all my own work."
Page 2: Re: Jancis' website, etc.
Page 3: Re: Robert Parker, etc.
© Allan Bree July 2002