A Conversation with Jancis Robinson

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 10-31-2013

From JancisRobinson.com.

Courtesy of JancisRobinson.com.

In late October, Jancis Robinson stopped in Washington, DC while promoting the seventh edition of The World Atlas of Wine, the indispensable and essential reference book co-authored with Hugh Johnson.

While in town, she was kind enough to carve some time out of her schedule to chat about all things wine. Check out our conversation below!

David White: You spent time in New York City and Washington, D.C. on this trip, and you’ve obviously spent lots of time in the United States over your career. How have you seen the wine scene change here, especially over the past few years?

Jancis Robinson: Oh, it’s changed enormously. I remember, well, the first time I got to California. It was 1976 and it was people like Robert Mondavi, the Bernsteins, and Bernard Portet at Clos Du Val, all feeling like real pioneers, starting in something clearly exciting — something that was going to go places — but having to fight for it.

But then, I remember that in the 1990s, it felt as though wine drinking was really under threat from the health lobby; people had turned neo-prohibitionist. The warning labels were coming in and there was a general mood of gloom and slight paranoia in the industry.

Now, of course, it’s just such a popular interest for everybody, and particularly young people. And it’s coupled with a growing interest in actually producing wine — it’s exciting to see every state actually having a winery or two.

You’ve noted that wine is increasingly popular with young people. Do you see a similar trend internationally?

That’s a good question.

What I think is the distinguishing mark here in the United States is how popular wine courses and wine tastings have become. Improving your wine knowledge and traveling in wine country is extremely valued and seen as an interesting leisure activity.

The same is not the case, by any means, on mainland Europe. In wine-producing countries, wine is something that people tend to associate with their grandfathers, you know? Some exciting, imported tequila or something would be more exotic. Although, there are signs that young people in Italy and Spain — or at least more of them — are taking a serious interest in wine and the odd one in France.

In Britain, I would say we have the same explosion of interest in wine courses — and it’s similar to the famous millenials in the U.S. getting into wine, but it’s not quite as marked a difference. I think maybe because many more Brits, who are now maybe in there 40s, 50s, or 60s, would have grown up being reasonably interested in wine, whereas today, here in the U.S., there’s just this big contrast that’s suddenly it’s the young ones who are interested in wine.

Speaking of wine classes, you’re an MW…

And I’m the honorary president of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which has, of course tens of thousands of pupils all around the world.

Of course! My question, though, is what’s the continuing relevance of an organization like WSET — or having an MW — when anyone can work hard and reach the heights of the industry without a particular credential? I would argue that, today, you don’t need an MW after your name to be taken seriously as a wine scholar.

First, I would say that the two things are very different, WSET and MW, so let’s look at them separately.

I went through the WSET courses and I can tell you that there’s only been one day in my life when I thought I knew everything about wine, and that was the day that I got the prize of the top diploma from the WSET. I said “All right, that’s it, I don’t need to learn any more at all!”

Of course, I just continue to learn so much now. But I very much valued doing the WSET courses when I was just starting out for two reasons:

One, it made me learn about every little corner of wines and spirits. I’m not naturally thrilled by the gin-making process, but it actually forced me to understand it.

Also, at that stage, I was pretty new on the block. And that’s, of course, the case for a lot of people in wine. So with the WSET, I had the qualification to wave at a prospective employer or the outside world and say “Look, I did it, I know wine.”

As for Master of Wine, of course I would be the last person to say that the MWs are a race apart and naturally superior to non-MWs. And yes, of course, there are many, many ways of learning about wine.

But the fact that there are so many people studying to be Masters of Wine – that this qualification seems to hold some attraction for so many — is sufficient, to me, to say that it must have some relevance. They wouldn’t be doing it if they thought it was worthless.

If someone wants to learn completely on their own — which they more or less have to do when they’re doing a Master of Wine course, actually, as the courses are pretty unstructured – that’s great. But I would say that one very nice thing about the Master of Wine is that once you are one, it is like a very nice club and there’s a lot of camaraderie. When you’ve been through that hell of doing the Master of Wine exams together, you form bonds. It’s like being in prison together, I suppose!

Let’s talk about the continued relevance of wine critics and, more specifically, wine scores. On your own site, for example, consumers can skip the formal reviews from you and your team and get great recommendations from peers on the Members’ Forum. Are wine critics becoming less important?

Oh yes, and I think that’s very healthy. And I hated it when it was the tyranny of the points. I think it affected American retailers particularly badly, who for a long time gave up their own selection process and palates and just rolled over and repeated what Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator said. What’s the fun of that?  They were abdicating responsibility, really, for wine selection.

I don’t think outside this country scores have ever been as important as they were here for quite awhile.

So it’s very, very healthy. You now have lots more movement and lots more mouthpieces. I’ve been spending my wine writing life, I hope, trying to educate people sufficiently so they can make up their own minds. And that is happening more and more, so that’s great. I’ve always said for me personally, scores are a necessary evil.

They have been necessary at times when, for instance, there’s a premier offer and people need to scramble to make their buying decisions quickly because the wine is going to sell out. In that case, having a number to quickly see rather than read through every single tasting note can be helpful.

But it’s a silly idea, assigning a number to wines. I try and do it to the best of my ability, but it’s not something I enjoy.

I also think this democratization of wine is great. No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments. Nowadays, our readers can answer back, they can throw stones at us, they can make up their own minds. That’s altogether a lot healthier.

Let’s talk about tasting notes. One of my recent columns argued that tasting notes – and the baffling rhetoric some critics use, fetishizing precise descriptors like braised figs versus sautéed figs versus stewed figs — intimidate aspiring wine consumers.

I agree!

So aspiring consumers show up to restaurants, afraid to talk about wine,

Because if they don’t get the braised fig, yeah.

They must not know what they’re doing!

I am afraid I go too far in the other direction — I think I’m a bit too brief, honestly. If I get really taken by a wine, then I’ll go off a bit. But often, if a wine just strikes me as serviceable – that’s a word I quite often find myself using, rather than inspiring — I don’t write a long tasting note.

And generally, I try to concentrate on the structure of a wine more than lots of flavors. You know, is it dry, is it very rich and potent, has it got a little bit of a spritz, is it tannic? Because I think those are the incontrovertible things that are useful for guiding people toward the style of wine that they like. But our tasting mechanisms are all so different. We are all sensitive to different compounds. We have our different preferences. I can’t possibly see that a long string of flavors that are supposedly in this wine are going to be picked up by any other person.

I find these long tasting notes particularly common in California, in those great big folders that wine writers get given for every single wine. Page after page after page. Californians seem particularly keen on assigning long, long lists of descriptors to wines and I don’t think it’s helpful for the public at all. It’s very awkward.

Do you see any positive signs? There’s obviously been a democratization of wine criticism, because now consumers can go to CellarTracker, the Purple Pages members’ forum, etc. But do you think we’re moving away from these hyper-focused, baffling notes? One friend told me he’s always enjoyed your notes — as have I — because they’re conversational and unpretentious. They’re written in the same way a friend might describe a wine over text message. The structure, first, and beyond that, anything that makes the wine different.

That’s good. I do feel slightly ashamed of how brief some of my notes are!

Do you think we’re moving away from long-winded notes?

Yes, maybe, and maybe we’re also moving toward recommending producers a little bit more rather than individual wines.

After all, there are more and more people chasing good wine and the interesting wines aren’t being made in any bigger quantity, so it’s going to get more and more difficult to get your hands on an individual bottling from a good producer. So maybe it’s going to be more useful highlighting the good guys in terms of producers.

When I ran into you and Dave McIntyre [the Washington Post’s wine critic] at Vin de Chez on Sunday, I know you were excited to start with some wine from Domaine Huet. When you’re out at dinner and you’re ordering wine, what do you typically order?

I’m always looking for the bargains and definitely look at prices. What’s the point of going to the most expensive wine in a restaurant when you’ve got a couple of cellars full of wine at home?

Most of the people who read your blog know this, but another interesting thing is that while ordinary wine drinkers look at a wine list and seize on the familiar, wine professionals look at a wine list and are most intrigued by anything that they’ve never come across before.

So, at a good restaurant, I’m always looking at a list for education. I want to find something and say “Hey, I’ve never even heard of that producer.” Or if ever I come across a new region or something like that, that would be a trigger for me to order it. If it’s more familiar, then if I think if it’s particularly well priced, then I’ll go for that. Or if I’m writing an article about “X” and there’s an example of “X” on the list that I haven’t had, then I might order that.

Very often, I suppose, I order wine before food.

You’ve said that “Napa Valley is clearly one of the world’s relatively few magic places for Cabernet.” So I’m interested in your take on whether the proper varieties are being grown in the United States. It presumably took centuries of trial and error for the French to discover that Pinot and Chardonnay are the right grapes for Burgundy, Syrah for the Northern Rhone, etcetera.

Is it wishful thinking — or perhaps arrogance — for us to believe that we Americans have gotten it right in just a few decades, and that Napa is meant for Cabernet, Oregon is meant for Pinot Noir, etc.?

I suppose the popularity of a handful of international grape varieties has encouraged American growers for some time to concentrate on them rather than try out anything more exotic. It’s only been relatively recently that people have been brave enough to try out varieties outside the “big seven.”

For instance, Abacela in southern Oregon is doing really well with Tempranillo. Maybe that is a magic place for Tempranillo. Maybe there are all sorts of more exotic varieties that might thrive in particular places here. I’m sure no one has come to the end of the road.

You’ve been high on the potential of Virginia wine. I know you visited Rutger de Vink a few years ago.

Yes. That was quite interesting.

Do you believe that long-aging Bordeaux blends are possible in Virginia? Any other American wine regions you’re excited about?

Oh yes. It’s not that Virginia is the be all and end all in my view by any means, but I think Rutger is showing that yes, certainly, if you’ve got the right spot and you’re taking as much trouble as he is, then you should – as he’s showing – be able to make Bordeaux blends for long aging.

Whether that’s right for much of Virginia, I don’t know. I’ve liked some Petit Manseng from Virginia — I think it’s great that they’re doing their own thing with that. Some Viognier and one or two nice Pinot Noirs, even, on high enough land. There are enough different terroirs in Virginia for them to be still very much in an experimental stage so I certainly couldn’t contemplate about what’s right.

As for the rest of the United States, well Finger Lakes Rieslings have long been impressive to me. Washington has its own shiny, glossy fruits and clearly does very well with Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, and I’m sure it’s going to do more than that.

I don’t taste enough Texas wine to be able to contemplate about that. I always mention good old Gruet, the New Mexico fizz, which must be one of the American wines bargains. It’s beautifully made, it’s got freshness, and it’s not very much money.

Globally, any new trends or winemakers that aren’t getting the attention they deserve?

Well, we’ve added 25 new maps to the World Atlas of Wine, some of them of regions that I’m sure a lot of people don’t know about. Virginia would be one. Baja California in Mexico is another — in the Guadalupe Valley, they’re starting to make some really interesting wine and probably a lot of southern Californians don’t even know about its existence.

Turkey is another. I don’t think much Turkish wine reaches the United States, does it?  They’ve got fabulous indigenous grape varieties. And a great variety of terrains, so lots of interesting flavors.

Georgia, perhaps, as we’re seeing a bit more Georgian wine. Georgia and Croatia are both making really interesting, very distinctive wine.

I think it’s a bit of a shame that America’s relationship to Australian wine has been so sort of love, then hate, whereas both those extremes were probably unwarranted.

What do you blame for that?

I think one reason was the success of Yellow Tail, which tarred the whole of Australian wine with the idea that it was just cheap, cheerful, and sweet.

Another reason, I think, is that the first few wines that Robert Parker went mad about from Australia were sort of cult things that were almost like a pastiche of what is assumed to be Parker-style reds, most of them unknown in Australia. They were sort of cooked-up for the American market. And they didn’t last very well, so people bought them and were disappointed, thereby thinking that the whole of Australia was like that, which was a very unfair perception because Australia actually has a lot of people who have been making wine for generations with a much steadier track record than that.

Currency didn’t help. With the Chinese demand for Australia’s minerals, the Australian dollar firmed up immensely.

Now, as I understand it, Wine Australia rather cleverly invited a group of trendy American sommeliers to meet the new, young generation of Australian winemakers who are making wine completely unlike the old blockbusters. So I hope that there’ll be a re-evaluation of Australian wine because it certainly is not all bad, but I think it kind of smart in American wine circles at the moment to say that it is.

What are your thoughts on British sparkling wine and the argument by some that the industry should create a new term for their wine to help market it, to distinguish it from Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, etc.?

One very pedantic point. There is a difference between British wine and English wine. British wine is horrible stuff, made from imported cheap grape concentrate that is then reconstituted and fermented and it’s not from fresh grapes and just not very nice at all. It’s the Brits fault for calling it wine at all, actually. That’s what British wine is.

So our nice fizz, made from freshly grown grapes, mustn’t be called British wine. It’s called English wine, or Welsh wine if it’s made in Wales. That’s very pedantic, but I have to say it, especially to British journalists who always get it wrong.

So English sparkling, what do you think?

It’s gotten so much better. And actually, the pioneers of top-quality English fizz were Americans, an American couple who took over an estate in Sussex and did a complete copy of Champagne, the grape varieties, the techniques, and showed that it could be done. So we owe a lot to the Americans, just as the Champenois owe a lot to the English and Mr. Merret for showing how to make the bubbles.

Whether it’s important that they have their own name, well, I think that English sparkling wine doesn’t exactly off the tongue, but at least it’s very precise and descriptive and I think they could argue for many decades about which name to choose, so I don’t think it’s necessary to have a particular name.

Of course, you mentioned Cava, well, now there’s a breakaway group from Cava who don’t want to be known as Cava, so is it always such a great idea to have one generic name? I don’t know.

So you think that with English sparkling wine and American sparkling wine, it’s okay not to have a name?

I think so. No neophyte has to learn that Britagne is fizzy, for instance, you know? With “sparking,” it does what it says on the label.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

They’d be surprised by how often I’m teased and criticized by my children!

What are your children up to? 

Number one is a teacher who has just had a baby — our second, gorgeous little grandson.

Number two, Will, opened a really great restaurant in London called the Quality Chop House about a year ago, which has just done very well in the ratings of the top 100 restaurants in the U.K. And it has a particular bent — it produces British produce-driven food, changing daily, in historic surroundings, and it also has a fantastic wine list that’s predicated on giving people really good wine at much lower markups than most restaurants, so – guess what, it does well. And has quite a lot of American wine, actually. Old California wine. He gets collections from people who brought them over and no longer want them

Is Will’s wine list pricing part of a larger a trend?  In the United States, I think we’re starting to see a kind of rethinking wine list pricing. Is that something you’re seeing in England?

Yes. . I mean still the old posh places cling onto their 300 and 400 percent margins, but I hope more and more places will change.

And back to your children?

Number three, Rose, has always been a fashionista – at least since she was around 13. She once said, “I’m sorry, but I’m shallow and what I’m really interested in is fashion.” Well of course, she’s not shallow because if you’re shallow, you don’t know you’re shallow. She’s got a job at Vogue and she’s on the British Vogue masthead. She’s only 22. So I’m very proud. 

If you weren’t writing about wine, what would you be doing?

Writing about food, probably!

How do you personally define success?

Feeling comfortable with yourself; comfortable in your own skin.

Comments (9)

  1. This is really fantastic interview! You did a great job with interesting, probing questions, and Jancis of course answered with completely frank, thoughtful answers. Every wine lover should read this!

  2. great interview!

  3. Awesome interview, David! Congrats!

  4. Excellent interview! And interesting responses from Jancis. I, for one, always appreciated the brevity of her tasting notes.

  5. Quite interesting interview, and very complete, thank you!

  6. Fascinating interview, great questions, and such an interesting person, with an amazing vantage point.

  7. [...] I’ll have more to say about this subject in my next post. This is a column I did for The Washington Post Food section, published October 23, in a week when the paper’s Lifestyle reporting focused on ways millennials are changing Washington D.C. After I submitted it but before it was published, I ate at Vin de Chez with Jancis Robinson, who was in town for the launch of the World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition. There were no millennials at our table, though Uber-Millennial wine blogger David White happened by. He later published an interview with Jancis. [...]

  8. Brilliant interview. Loved what she said about the diminishing role of wine critics, how knowledgeable wine consumers buy from a wine list and her thoughts on how Australian wine is perceived in the US (I’m Aussie, so it rang true). Many thanks.

  9. [...] thoughts reiterate some of what Jancis Robinson said in her interview with David. Australia needs to focus on regionality and subregionality; Australia needs to think [...]