The Wine Writer Speaks : My Interview with Jancis Robinson

by Aeyal Gross

 

This is the "rough cut", i.e. the unedited Q&A that served as the basis for my interview with Jancis Robinson which was published as the cover story in the September 2009 issue (No. 136) of Wine, Gourmet & Alcohol magazine.

The magazine is published in Israel in Hebrew and you can find the full article which includes the interview online on this website and in the magazine's website. The full article included the story of Jancis's own discovery of wine (the famous Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses, 1959 she drank as a student in Oxford) and the development of her career about which I did not have to ask her as it is a story that has been told more than once (you can read about it here and in more detail in her autobiographical memoir known as Tasting Pleasure in the US and Confessions of a Wine Lover everywhere else), including the stories of how she obtained the desired MW and OBE titles. It of course also includes adoring commentary from myself on her work. I discussed Jancis's ability to be present in all forms of media (newspapers, magazines, books which are all classics, including ones of enyclopedic dimensions, TV, DVD, website and twitter), while always writing so eloquently, intelligently, and with the ability to delve into issues such as the DNA of grape varieties or climate change, and to write about them in a very engaging way. While Jancis is of course a great wine taster, her writing is always more than just descriptions of wine, and Jancis has said more than once that she sees herself more as a wine writer than as a wine critic. I also admitted that part of the reason I adore Jancis, is her wonderful taste in wine, which she described as "generally favouring balance and subtlety over sheer mass". As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, I never write about wine without having her two magnum opus books, the Oxford Companion to Wine and the World Atlas of Wine (the latter co-authored with Hugh Johnson) on my desk. At Jancis Robinson's requests (well, she often describes herself as a control freak…) the Q&A for the interview was conducted in writing.

Most of my wine, food and tea writing are in Hebrew. However you can follow my food, wine and tea tweets in English:

http://twitter.com/Aeyalgross

Also please follow my series on The Best Teas in London which is published on Cha Dao blog:

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More posts in this series will follow on Cha Dao soon

 

What are you working on/doing these days?

Mostly www.JancisRobinson.com which seems to consume many hours of each day but is great fun.

You have taken huge projects upon yourself, Oxford Companion to Wine, Wine Atlas, and then updating them. Much more than just writing a weekly column which many wine writers would do. Are you a workaholic?

Definitely. I was born on a Saturday. According to the rhyme, ‘Saturday’s child works hard for their living.’ And having a website that’s updated daily is not a recipe for relaxation.

To which extent does academic background (your Oxford education in philosophy and math) play a role in your choice to work on encyclopedic, almost academic projects, like the Oxford Companion to Wine (OCW) and in the way you approach such projects? How is work on that different than other work you do?

I think that getting an MA in Math & Philosophy (the first year this course existed, a response to a need to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences – but it meant that there were no standard reference works nor old exam papers we could go and consult – and we had to commute between arts and science libraries – AND it was the only faculty at Oxford with twice as many female undergraduates as male i.e. one man and two women!) meant that I have a relatively logical brain, good for working out how to plan the OCW, and a deep respect for science, which not all arts graduates have. This helped me put together the oenology and viticulture sections of OCW.

Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, UK

How do you see the effect of the economic crisis on the wine world?


A lamentable concentration by big retailers on price, though compensated for by a softening of prices of the trophy wines at the other end of the price spectrum.

Wine and politics? Shall the twain ever meet? You seem to avoid the subject, but what are the ethical issues involved in writing about wines from areas of conflict, controversy etc?

Ooo. That’s a very tough question. I do my best in all my writing, especially as I am keenly aware that wine can be viewed as a very frivolous subject, to help the underprivileged in general (I conduct quite a few campaigns for pet charities) – and I tend to lean over in favour of underdogs. That said, I am not aware of favouring any particular political entity. We have regularly published coverage of the Israeli wine scene and taken things as Israeli wine producers have presented them to us, even if we have occasionally been taken to task over, for example, wine produced on the Golan Heights. But if wine of interest were produced in, say, Jerusalem, we would not hesitate to write about it too.

For me, ethical issues concern my own standards of conduct as a wine writer (not taking freebies etc).

 

Yes, but my question is whether as someone interested in where wine come from, who produces it etc, you are not at all also interested in the ethics of production. This includes but is no limited to conditions of working. How much exploitation and domination may have been involved, economic, ethnic etc? If a wine is produced thanks to unacceptable conditions (e.g. work exploitation, land dispossession etc) – and you review it fairly, is that an issue for you? Would you not want to know more about it?

 

Of course this is an extremely important question.  (The word politics conjured up international rather than social problems when I read it first time.)  I am keenly aware that agricultural and viticultural workers around the world are often exploited and I agree with you that this is one of the more unappetizing aspects of wine production.  I have just spent a few days in the Napa Valley where one cannot help but be struck by the vast gulf in living standards between those whose names are on the labels of the wines and those who physically make it possible to grow grapes there.  Similar story in much of South America.  Even in Australia where supposedly everyone is equal, the vineyards are full of what look like extremely intelligent Cambodians, Vietnamese etc.  As for South Africa, social divisions are narrowing but are still harrowing

 

 

Still if I were allowed to push I would ask whether you'd write about wines from say apartheid South Africa? Or, would you be concerned if the wines are from Israel or from occupied areas where it involved dispossession of Palestinians? I know you can say you don't read Hebrew etc but it's not so hard nowadays to learn about these issues? So my questions are about both social and "international" politics.

 

Apartheid is easy.  Easy to refuse to write about South African wines under that regime.  Working out exactly which Israeli wines involved repression of Palestinians is more difficult and I’m afraid I am probably too ignorant to discriminate.  
 

What do you think is the fastest improving region/country in the wine world?

To find fastest improving nowadays you probably have to identify somewhere that was only recently producing pretty poor wine (because virtually all producers are improving all the time). Looking at improvement curve, I would probably say Brazil, Mexico and Turkey are improving particularly steeply – from a relatively low base.

What are the major trends you now identify?

Tall order! Towards lower chemical inputs in the vineyard, less new oak, lower alcohol, more emphasis on terroir effects, more blending of different grape varieties, more awareness of carbon footprint in production and transport and packaging, more alternatives to natural cork especially but not exclusively screwcaps, more reliance on the internet, more power to consumers and bloggers rather than lofty wine authorities

How is climate change (global warming) changing the world of wine?

Canada and Germany can now make very decent red wine. Germany also makes lovely dry wine from fully ripe grapes nowadays. English wine producers now rely much less on chaptalisation than they once did – indeed chaptalisation as a whole is declining everywhere. Icewine volumes are shriveling. Some wine regions in Spain and especially Australia are struggling to find enough water and this is likely to become a problem in California and elsewhere too – although with the Pacific incursion effect being so important along the Pacific coastline of the Americas, it could be that places like Napa Valley and Casablanca will actually become cooler because the interiors behind them that suck in cold air get hotter.

Cepage or Climat? You were to some extend identified with “cepage” thanks to your book Vines Grapes and Wines, but then you “shifted” to “climat” emphasis with the World Atlas of Wine? Which is more important you think to the character of the wine?

My assistant Julia Harding MW, grape/DNA expert Dr Jose Vouillamoz and I are working on an entirely new big grape book which will explain all the relationships between different grape varieties as well as giving profiles of thousands of different varieties – how they grow, taste etc

I don’t see that you have to choose between cepage or climat. Both are important! Though I’d say that anyone who is beginning to learn about wine will probably find it easier to learn about grapes to begin with.

You are known for your love of Riesling (which I share!). Where do you see the trends in this variety nowadays? Are the Germans wines better off to go to the dry direction, or is their value in the distinct low-alcohol ones with residual sugar that will distinguish them from Alsace and other areas?


I don’t see why the Germans need to pursue only one direction. What is great nowadays is that they can make good dry wines. What’s not so good is that the German market is so besotted by dry wines that too many German producers tend to devote their best fruit to dry wines (which are admittedly less forgiving) so that I believe the overall quality of sweeter German wines has been compromised over the last decade. It's very schizophrenic with the wines seen most outside Germany’s being very different from those celebrated within Germany (as in Liebfraumilch days)

You have recently called Sherry the world most neglected wine treasure. What needs to happen for this to change on one hand, without us sherry lovers having to pay the price on the other hand…?

I hope you will just be made to cough up!

Bordeaux – Is the en primeur annual “show” the same or different? Are you going every year? What changes do you see and how are they indicative of changes in the world of wine?

I do go every year. I toyed with not going this year but am so glad I did go as the wines were much better than we all expected. Bordeaux is the single wine category in which my readers are most interested – some of them perhaps more interested in it as an investment (boo) than for drinking.

I think that at last the Bordelaise are losing a little bit of confidence and cockiness which is probable healthy.

South Africa 15 years after democracy – do the wines (and we’ll skip the question of the state…) standing up to expectations and potential?

They are hugely much better than they used to be, and they don’t seem to reflect the awful angst and tensions within the society, thank goodness. I have a huge amount of respect and affection for the new SA winemaking generation and am glad that they are benefiting from friendly exchange rates. But they still have progress to make in red winemaking and, especially, in coping with vine viruses.

English wines – I had a only few, mostly sparkling, they were OK but always felt I could get better Champagne for that value. Do you agree, is there a future for English wines, what is it, and should we care?

No English wine is cheap. Land and labour prices are high. It’s unlikely that English wine will become a major UK export but, especially the fizz, looks likely to become something we can become increasingly proud of.

I know you take recently took interest in the wines of Turkey. What shall we expect to see from there? Another area you took some interest in a few years ago is China. What do you expect from there?

Chinese wine seemed, exceptionally, at a virtual standstill in terms of quality between my visits of 2002 (to Urumqi!) and 2008 – presumably because the market is still so embryonic. But the Chinese are so hardworking and so efficient that I’m sure quality could rise very quickly once they decide there is a need to produce better quality wine. Even though no-one has quite identified an ideal environment yet – too wet in the east and too cold in winter in the west.

Turkey is now making some good to very good wine from some fascinating and very individual grape varieties but the prices are too high for export markets. Domestic taxes are high and there needs to be a will to sell wine outside Turkey for their wines to make any impact.

Will Brunello survive the current crisis? And how do you see the current status and future for Italian wines (I know the second part is a huge question, but it seems like we take Italy almost for granted nowadays so..).

Brunello will certainly survive and I think the whole Italian wine scene lurches from one melodrama to another (see my site!).

I’m sure Italian wine exports are suffering terribly with the problems in their two major export markets, Germany and the US. I’m also sure there are lots of deals being done behind the scenes even if producers don’t want to reduce prices in public.

Sicily has to be one of the world’s more exciting wine sources and has wines at all prices, without the baggage of longstanding reputations. Personally I find Sicilian wine much more interesting and varied than Puglian wine which in general can be a bit heavy.

Recently a catalogue from Waitrose featured Mediterranean wine, this included Southern Italy, Greece, Spain, Lebanon even Montenegro, Kosovo… etc but no Israeli wines. Now that Israeli wines got good reviews from critics like Robert Parker and yourself, what do you think the industry has to do to brand itself beyond wines of interest to people wanting kosher wines, maybe within the Mediterranean, or other branding? (especially as many of the interesting – boutique wineries – are not kosher as it is).

Reviews are not the deciding factor for UK retailers; value is! The prices are too high for Israeli wines to sit easily in export markets, I’m afraid.

I suspect the kosher aspect isn’t massively relevant. People who insist on a kosher wine outside Israel are probably prepared to put up with a sip of Palwin of Manischewitz [kosher sweet wines – A.G.]. I can’t comment on how Israeli wine drinkers feel as I have yet to visit Israel, though my Jewish husband did spend some time on a kibbutz as a student.

As for ‘Mediterranean wines’, I suspect Greek, Lebanese, Turkish and even the (improving at long last) Cypriot wines stand a better chance because there are restaurants with these imprints.

You were I think the first major wine writer to have a significant presence on the web with your own website, starting in 2000. How did you decide to do that. How did it change your writing, and more generally your life? You write that “this website is by far my favourite outlet and the one I spend by far the most time on”. Why?

To see how it came about, kindly visit Team Jancis/History of JancisRobinson.com on the site.

I love the immediacy and the feedback and the feeling of community. I learn a lot from members (including you!) as well, I hope, as vice versa. With most outlets the writer feels pretty distanced from the reader, although of course it is lovely when people express affection for my books. I feel very privileged in that respect and I know that wine students are often very grateful for all the work we put in to the OCW and Atlas.

More generally how did the internet and especially web 2.0, new media (and you use podcasts, videocasts etc.,) change or is changing the world of wine writing? Is it more democratic? Is the access to tasting notes databases, blogs etc changing the role of the wine writer and wine critic? Does it make it necessary for him or her to stand to new challenges?

See above! It is definitely more democratic and I think we all need to move with the times and recognize that we are being kept on our toes by our readers. Which is healthy. I feel very lucky that I am (just) young enough to understand most of these new exciting media and to decide how to react to them. Take Facebook. Some people say I should be on Facebook but my children (27 down to 18) are violently opposed to it. Mostly perhaps because they see it as their territory. But I’m currently working on an Iphone application and something with a major supplier of online games, as well of course as constantly feeding my website and Twitter. It’s all fun, so long as you don’t take it too seriously and don’t let it rule your life. For example, I wouldn’t dream of tweeting about personal details – or about what I had for breakfast.

Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition,US

Why did you start having a full time assistant, Julia Harding, and how did this change your work?

The wonderfully talented Julia came to see me about eight years ago telling me she wanted to be my assistant. I laughed, saying I was such a control freak I couldn’t imagine ever having an assistant. But gradually she wore me down, mainly by being so brilliant at everything, including the MW exams. She has revolutionized how the OCW and Atlas are updated as she has such a great eye for detail and consistency. She was a linguist and freelance book editor before she got the wine bug and speaks flawless French and German.

I could think of no two extremes of writing as the Oxford Companion to Wine (how many words altogether?) on one hand and writing for twitter (up to 140 characters) on the other hand. How is it to do both?

OCW nearly 100,000 words. Just very different and stimulating disciplines. But I have always enjoyed writing to length – an important skill in writing commentaries for the many TV programmes with which I have been involved.

Any wine (or other?!) pet peeves?

Polystyrene packaging – non biodegradable and there are so many effective cardboard alternatives. And silly heavy bottles for marketing reasons.

What wine do you like to drink at home with dinner (I know there is probably no singular answer to this but…).

No single favourite region, style or colour.

What do you like to drink other than wine?

Water and green tea are pretty good! But I am writing this en route to California so I know I will be soon using coffee for its wake-up properties.

For our wine and food loving readers that come to London, your city of residence, the one (ok or two to three) place (restaurant or wine bar) you think they would have the best time in?

Terroirs is the outstanding newcomer – funky ‘natural’ wines. St John is admirably British – restaurant and wine bar. Vinoteca is just opposite and a very friendly wine bar with good food though pretty crowded

I would ask what you think is your greatest achievement but I think I recall (correct me if I am wrong?) that you answered this question in an interview by saying “my children”, which is very endearing, so instead I’ll ask, what are the plans for the future and achievements you are yet to get to?

Has to be my children who really are quite exceptional in the important respects of integrity, interest, intelligence, curiosity and human interaction.

I never have any ambitions, My work life is a story of responding to external stimuli. I hope to achieve some integration with other important websites and look forward to seeing our great new grape book eventually (though there is a lot of work to be done). In the meantime there is the Concise, paperback version of the World Atlas of Wine out in September.

 

 

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  •   ביום ספטמבר 9, 2009 בשעה 4:27 pm

    Bravo, Aeyal. She's number one, and your interview certainly matched her intelligence (although there are no surprises, which is surprising!).

    T.

    Oh, and I'm very glad you took the trouble to do this in both English and Hebrew!

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