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? Read the rest of this entry »