Jancis Robinson is one of the most globally renowned British wine writers. She has written multiple important encyclopedic wine books, including The Oxford Companion Guide to Wine, Wine Grapes (with Julia Harding), The World Atlas of Wine (with Hugh Johnson), and The 24-Hour Wine Expert. Besides her own authoritative website, JancisRobinson.com, Jancis also writes a weekly column for the Financial Times. In 1984 she became the first person outside of the trade to pass the Master of Wine exam. Jancis advises Her Majesty the Queen on her wine cellar.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Jancis Robinson for WineSpeed in November 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What is it about wine that moves you?
Jancis Robinson: The combination of sensual pleasure with intellectual stimulation. And really nice people and places in general.
KM: Was there an inspirational “first wine” that caused you to want to begin writing about wine?
JR: Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959 which I enjoyed while at Oxford University.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
JR: Edmund Penning-Rowsell, my predecessor as the Financial Times wine correspondent. He was never afraid to admit ignorance and ask questions. He was also scrupulously independent. And had a great cellar whose contents he shared generously. And Hugh Johnson of course who writes like a dream.
KM: JancisRobinson.com is considered a (if not the) leading source of wine information and wine reviews in the world. Why and how did you begin it?
JR: Most kind. In 2000 multiple people beat a path to my door wanting to co-operate on a website. I eventually decided to team up with a Canadian businessman and arranged for the website to be mentioned on the jacket of my forthcoming book. But he turned out to be a bit dodgy so I didn’t co-operate with him, but the website was already mentioned so it had to exist. I started EXTREMELY modestly with help from the man who helped us with computer problems and found I liked it so much I was spending hours on it each day (as I do now). I was adamant about not wanting ads or sponsorship, so subscriptions were the only way to subsidise this. In 2001 we added Purple Pages, the bit behind the paywall with all the tasting notes (now 180,000), Oxford Companion, Atlas maps, forum etc etc, and it has been a huge success with members in 100 countries, much to my delight and surprise.
“You have to concentrate on personalities and stories to stand a chance of entertaining people, and really that is true of so many subjects other than wine.”
KM: You are a writer, speaker, and educator and appear to have a fairly grueling schedule. How many people do you have on your team helping you keep up with everything you do?
JR: About 15 now although only four of us are effectively full-time.
KM: You passed the Master of Wine (MW) Exam in 1984, the first person outside the trade to do so. Some professionals assert that passing that exam is harder today than it was in the past. Do you feel that’s the case?
JR: It’s harder in that the world of wine is bigger and more complex—and much more science is understood. It’s easier for anglophones in that there is less of a shortage of references on enology and viticulture in English than there was in 1984. The Institute of Masters of Wine definitely want as many people as possible to pass the exams, but they don’t want any lowering of standards.
I’m amazed by how many people want to study for the MW exams, far more than the 380 actual MWs.
KM: You’ve just come out with the 8th edition of The Wine Atlas, co-authored with Hugh Johnson. Which wine regions were especially exciting to write about?
JR: All of them really as they have all evolved so much, and uniformly for the better. But I am a big fan of the potential of Greece and Portugal and their dazzling array of indigenous grape varieties. And Chile and South Africa also deserve more attention in the U.S. market.
But it’s all good – except for the prices at the top end.
KM: What is the last wine book you read (not your own) and was it good?
JR: I’m afraid I can’t remember! Reading wine textbooks feels like work to me and I prefer to relax with fiction or memoir. But when I get home I’m looking forward to reading Janes Lopes’ new book, Vignette: Stories of Life and Wine in 100 Bottles, which looks like the sort of wine book I appreciate (part memoir).
KM: You began writing about wine in the 1970s when, it’s probably safe to say, much of the writing on wine was done by men. Did you ever feel as though you had to work twice as hard as the men around you to get assignments and recognition?
JR: I’ve been incredibly luck and have pretty much always had a job or regular column. I dare say at the beginning some men in the wine trade were a bit sceptical of me but I just got on with it. Coming top in the WSET Diploma exams in 1978 and writing my first book, The Wine Book, in 1979 probably helped to show I was serious.
KM: You’ve done a considerable amount of television and have hosted television series on wine, notably for the BBC. And you and your husband had a television production company for quite some time. Are you surprised that there aren’t more educational series on wine on TV? And why aren’t there?
JR: With wine, nothing moves or changes (compared to food and cooking). Hence camera people’s fascination with bottling lines. You have to concentrate on personalities and stories to stand a chance of entertaining people, and really that is true of so many subjects other than wine. Tasting is not a spectator sport (the tasting bit of food programmes is always the weakest).
KM: We won’t ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But is there a type of wine (other than bad wine) you like the least?
JR: I’m no great fan of the sort of Prosecco that dominates the UK market.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
JR: Water, tea, the occasional cocktail with lots of acidity.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
JR: Three wonderful children and four grandchildren of course! Though the children grew up calling The Oxford Companion to Wine my fourth child….
KM: Jancis is an unusual name. Where does it come from?
JR: See the last section of https://www.jancisrobinson.com/jancis-robinson-the-long-version