Here’s to You, Ms Robinson
JANCIS ROBINSON is one of the world’s most influential wine critics.
caught up with her at the recent Winefuture conference in Hong Kong to discuss China’s taste for red Bordeaux, her many awards and the wine that “lit the flame”
HER NAME, JANCIS, is derived from English romanticism, a character in the relatively obscure 1924 novel Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Yet no obscurity is she, not after she made the top 10 in Decanter’s 2011 Power List, the wine magazine’s pantheon of “the 50 most important movers and shakers.” And, most certainly, not after being an official consultant to the wine cellar of Queen Elizabeth II for the past seven years.
Indeed, Jancis Robinson OBE, MW, shows no signs of slowing down at age 61 (she was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2003, and has been a Master of Wine since 1984). She has written a slew of books – some 20 and counting, including The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine, How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine, and Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, the latter written to accompany the BBC television series. She also writes her weekend Financial Times wine column, while her website (jancisrobinson.com) was voted Wine Website of the Year at the 2010 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards and boasts members from 80 countries. She has more than 125,000 followers on Twitter.
“Even the sturdiest mantelpiece would collapse under the weight of her awards and honorary degrees,” The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov observed. “She speaks in terribly thoughtful sentences, delivered in a commandingly lyrical accent.” How true that was, at the recent Winefuture conference in Hong Kong, on the day she hosted Beyond Bordeaux, a tasting event of her personal choices. Offering answers in disarmingly crisp and succinct fashion, she proved an intriguing interviewee and left a lasting impression, like a fine wine with a lingering finish.
What’s it like being a consultant to the Queen’s wine cellar? How did you get that gig?
Well, it mainly goes to sort of old-fashioned wine merchants who have a Royal Warrant – people like Berry Bros & Rudd and Corney & Barrow – but there’s always room on the committee for at least one person who is not a wine merchant, and they just came to me and invited me.
Just like that?
Yep. And, in theory, you’re supposed to do a maximum of two three-year stints, and I came to the end of my second three-year stint at the end of last year, and they made an exception and asked me to stay on. So I’m still doing that.
Can I assume it’s fun?
It’s very fun. What’s fun is just walking around in Buckingham Palace, really, going in and wandering around the corridors. And the best perk was when my husband [food critic Nicholas Lander] and I were invited to the state banquet for [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, when the Queen entertained them at Windsor Castle. Just after the fire, and they’d just restored it. That was wonderful. One long table for 120 people, with the most wonderful pomp and ceremony, the sort of thing the British do so well, you know. There are no delays and everything’s smooth.
You like that, don’t you? I sense you like precision.
Yes, I suppose I do. I like efficiency. And I’m too conscientious. That’s my problem. For instance, I’m mad. We publish at least two or sometimes three new articles every day on jancisrobinson.com. Talk about over-delivery.
You started writing about wine in 1975. Do you identify yourself as a writer, teacher or educator?
The thing that I enjoy most is writing, although I write too much to be able to feel proud of every word that I write. I wouldn’t say that I’m a great stylist. But I love it. Occasionally I feel that I have written something well. But I think inevitably the effect of my work is to educate. Or to share knowledge, which is perhaps a nicer way of putting it – I certainly think “teaching” is too strong. I don’t see myself as that, as someone on a different level. I am always learning myself. Always. The world of wine is changing all the time, and you’ve got to keep your ears open and your mouth shut.
Well, maybe I should keep my mouth shut, but here’s an indiscreet question: I saw you on the Decanter Power List and noticed that they revealed your age. Did that upset you?
No, I’ve never kept that a secret. In fact, I think it would’ve been so inconvenient and even impossible to keep it a secret, really. I’m not too worried. And to be on a “power list,” that’s good, isn’t it? I probably haven’t made enough of it. I don’t think I even mentioned it on my website. I’ve got a great big list of awards on my website but I should have made more of it, so thank you for reminding me.
How do you feel now about getting all those awards?
I think a lot of awards are looking for recipients, and awards are sometimes given for the promotion of the giver as much as for the promotion of the recipient. And because I’m so old and I’ve been around so long, I’m a natural recipient.
You wrote in your Financial Times column about meeting a young banker in China who asked you about “another very small region in France, not Bordeaux, that also made wine, some of it pretty good,” which he thought “might be called Burgundy.”
Yes. It’s absolutely true. As you can imagine.
Do you think too much has been made of the Chinese love of Bordeaux, and do you feel a bit guilty for perhaps contributing to it?
Well, everything I write about China is encouraging the Chinese to drink wines other than Bordeaux, or other than red Bordeaux. Because I just don’t think that’s a style of wine that goes particularly well with Chinese food.
What’s your opinion on some Bordeaux estates starting joint ventures in China, actually planting grapes from France?
I suppose it’s all about following the steps of Château Lafite and their joint venture in Shandong. I’ve been to China several times and it’s too big a thing to say, but I think at last they are making some decent wines – which they weren’t during my first three visits. There is an interesting wine that is being made jointly by Grace Vineyard [in Shanxi] and Torres [Bodegas Torres from Spain], which is called Symphony. It’s actually based on Muscat grapes but the finish is dry – a very fruity but dry finish. It’s made in China and I think that’s promising.
My favourite Financial Times piece of yours is about how you came home from a trip and discovered you had lost your sense of smell. Then you had acupuncture and were cured.
Yes, that was interesting. You can imagine how terrifying that was – I mean, to go five weeks not being able to smell. I think I said in the article that I was about to announce to the world that my career was over, and my doctor said, “I wouldn’t, if I were you. It will almost certainly come back.” And I couldn’t believe that it would come back, but I suppose he was just much more experienced than me. I think he just thought the nerve ends would heal. It was a virus that caused it, and he often sees it coming back. It was a very good piece of advice.
I want to hear from you about your wine epiphany, that very first wine that sent you. I recall it was a Chambolle-Musigny when you were, as you wrote, “an impoverished student at Oxford.”
Yes, outside Oxford in 1970, in a restaurant called The Rose Revived – such a nice name, and I think it’s still going, actually. It was Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses 1959. And it was just so much better than student plonk. I could tell there was history and geography and a lot of both sensual pleasure and intellectual stimulation.
Did you stop and stare at the bottle, or something of the sort?
No, at that stage I didn’t know that what you’re meant to do with Burgundy was look and see who produced it. I certainly didn’t get up from the table and say, “OK, I’m going to be a wine writer.” But it definitely lit the flame.
+ The Ranks of Tuscany
+ Paula Papini Cook of Le Miccine
+ Australian Wine
+ Sacha Lichine
+ Dom & Moet
+ Mounir Saouma
+ Adventures in the Chalk
+ Chene Bleu
+ View 62
+ Anatoly Komm
+ Doppio Zero
+ Mario Batali
+ Man O' War
+ North Island Vineyards
+ Private Kitchens
+ Food Buddha
+ Burge Family
+ InterCon Cooking Lessons
+ Amo Eno
+ The Principal
+ The Macallan
+ Man Wah
+ Women in Wine
+ Howard’s Folly
+ Wagyu Kaiseki Den
+ Heston Blumenthal
+ Clos to Perfection
+ MANIC GERMANIC
+ Central Wine Club
+ 50 BEST RESTAURANTS
+ Gray Kunz
+ Tin Lung Heen
+ PIERRE GAGNAIRE
+ Viva Vino Italia
+ Nahm Bangkok
+ SING FOR YOUR SUPPER
+ FOOD FOR THOUGHT
+ Plan au Chocolate
+ HAPPILY EVER AFTER
+ An Emotional Vintage
+ GOOD AS GOLD
+ TOUT SWEET
+ KU DÉ TA
+ Chef – Thomas Keller
+ Beijing Dining
+ Champagne Krug
+ HOLIDAY FEASTS
+ MICHEL GALOPIN
+ QUEST FOR PRODUCE
+ The Odd Couple
+ EMPIRE OF THE SONS
+ REALITY BITES
+ REIGN OF TERROIR
+ A CELLAR’S MARKET
+ DRESSSED TO IMPRESS