It’s a very special episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast today as we are joined by the influential wine critic, Jancis Robinson.
In 1984, Jancis became the first person outside the wine trade to qualify as a Master of Wine. She was awarded an OBE in 2003 by Her Majesty the Queen, on whose cellar she now advises.
But Jancis may be best known for her hugely admired reference books. She is co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine and co-author of Wine Grapes.
Jancis was in Australia recently to launch the eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine, recognised as the essential and most authoritative wine reference book available.
It was a privilege to sit down with Jancis for this extended interview.
Help us fund Season Four of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.
Jancis Robinson on the changing world of wine: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Jancis Robinson, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.
JANCIS ROBINSON: It’s a great pleasure.
JAMES ATKINSON: This is the eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine. Now, what is involved in creating a new edition of this book?
JANCIS ROBINSON: You have to go through every sentence, every paragraph, every map, and update it, and the world of wine has been changing so much and so rapidly, that that has been a major job that has kept me really busy for two years. In fact, for two years rather ironically, I haven’t been able to travel nearly as much as I’d like to, because I’ve been too busy assembling all the information on this, the world of wine.
JANCIS ROBINSON: We do have consultants around the world, 68 of them, who feed in their thoughts about how things have changed, but as a measure of how much it’s changed, some poor person in the Foreign Rights Department, because this is a book that’s sold millions of copies and it’s gone into 14 different languages so far, but for foreign rights purposes, she had to count up how many new words there were, and she calculated that 45 per cent of the words in the eighth edition are brand new. So it’s more than a cosmetic revision.
JAMES ATKINSON: And you’re ably supported in Australia by Huon Hooke, I believe?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes. Although Huon, funnily enough, made the smallest proportion of changes. Perhaps we got it so right in the seventh edition, I don’t know.
JAMES ATKINSON: The first edition was released in 1971, so there’s been a new edition roughly every six years, and exactly six years ago was the last one. Do you think there’s been a window of time in which the wine landscape has changed as much as it has between the last iterations?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I don’t. In fact, I devoted one of my Financial Times articles. The thesis of it was I have never known the world of wine so much in flux as it is at the moment, and part of that is the changing shape of the world of wine, how climate change has extended the map of vineyards towards the poles, and the mountains, and so forth. But perhaps even more interesting philosophically, is that whereas in the 90s everyone around the world was trying to make the same sort of wines, which were basically copies of France’s most famous ones, and they were all growing Cabernet, and Chardonnay, and things like that and they were chasing points, so they were making deep-coloured, alcoholic, often rather oaky wines.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Nowadays, there is no one idea of what good quality wine is, and you’ve got the whole new natural wines is at one end of the spectrum. People are making in general, much fresher wines, and more geographically expressive wines, which is great from the point of view of an author of an atlas. But there is as many different notions of great wine almost as there are of consumers now, which is much more exciting, but it makes it quite challenging to get it all into a book.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now, you’ve touched on one of the trends that’s covered in the new edition, being natural wine, and also orange wine, I believe you’ve explored. They’ve really swept the globe incredibly quickly, haven’t they?
JANCIS ROBINSON: They have, and in a way that’s very healthy, because I think what it shows is that wine is of interest to a younger generation, but who want to have their own wine, put their own stamp on wine. So the natural wine movement is very different from what you might call conventional wine, and I think if the natural wine movement hadn’t come along, it might’ve been the case that a whole generation of potential wine drinkers would’ve been rather turned off by wine. It was just something they associated with their parents, and it didn’t really move on at all. But it’s movement that is substantially owned by younger wine drinkers, which is not a bad thing.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about you? When you see a natural wine on a wine list, does that entice you to order it, or is that possibly a deterrent?
JANCIS ROBINSON: It’s neither, and I would look first and foremost at the name of the producer, and try and get a handle on whether I think it’s going to have been well-made or not. Sadly, I have come across a lot of badly made natural wines, and for instance, my colleague, Julia Harding, a fellow master of wine, went and spent a day with Bordeaux’s Centre of wine academe the other day, and the people she met there said virtually, “We have no truck with natural wines. We’re very worried about natural wines. We think a whole new generation of wine drinkers is being educated on the basis of faulty wine, and then they’re not getting a decent education. They’re getting a misconception about how wine should taste.” But of course, I got the impression that a few of them had actually tasted natural wines, and they’d just automatically assumed that the one or two poor quality ones that they’d tasted were like all of them.
JANCIS ROBINSON: I’m much more open-minded, and I do like well-made natural wines. I don’t like wines whose only selling point is that they’re natural, and they aren’t actually good. I think the proportion of well-made natural wines is going up all the time, but there is this particular compound which is associated with low sulphur, which is one of the attributes of natural wine, which to me, smells like kind of a hamster cage or mice, or something like that. And apparently, it’s a compound that a third of the population can’t sense at all. So my theory is that a lot of the natural winemakers are in that third of the population, and aren’t being put off the wines by this smell, because they just physically can’t smell it.
JANCIS ROBINSON: For me, the sad thing about the natural wine movement, is the polarisation, that you’ve got these conventional winemakers who just condemn all natural wine as faulty, without perhaps investigating very hard, and then you’ve got the naturalistas who think all conventional wine is evil, and never the twain shall meet. But what I hope, because I know that conventional wine producers are using fewer and fewer additives in the winery, fewer and fewer nasty chemicals in the vineyard, so that the conventionalistas are going in the right direction. And I hope that the standard of wine making among the natural wine producers will continue to go up, so that eventually, they will meet in the middle, and we may actually eventually dispense of the term natural wine, and all wine will be more quote unquote, natural than it is today, because that will be the healthy development.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think there still is an overuse of additives and intervention in traditional wine making?
JANCIS ROBINSON: The sort of wines that I come across, no. I’m writing, especially on jancisrobinson.com, I’m writing for people who are seriously interested in wine, and that’s pretty much all made by people who desperately care about quality, who in the 40 years I’ve been looking at the wine scene, have dramatically decreased additions, and as I said, both in winery and cellar.
JANCIS ROBINSON: I don’t know. I haven’t sat in a winery producing millions of bottles of mass market stuff. I don’t know what they’re using, and they probably are using still some additives I wouldn’t like, and particularly in America, that kind of adding colouring and that kind of thing. But that’s at the very bottom end, and I do think everything is going in the right direction, and that even the most mass market orientated grape grower is using much cleaner methods than used to be the case.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are some of the other changes in the new addition of The Atlas?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Certainly shape of the wine world, and the sort of… Germany now, which when I first encountered it, struggled to ripen their grapes, and used to have acid levels that were so high, they had to chuck in grape juice to sort of sweeten the thing and compensate. Last time, it was so warm that they actually had sunburnt grapes, which would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. We now have decent wine being made in England. We can be proud of our sparkling wine. High acid is an attribute in sparkling wine. Canada has now got a thriving wine industry, even in Eastern Canada, as well as in British Columbia.
JANCIS ROBINSON: So the whole style of wines has been changing, and I’ve completely rewritten the introductory sections, because weather has been changing. Weather is such an important influence, that I think the whole subject of weather needed to be sort of re-sliced and represented, and we’ve got, for instance, a couple of pages on climate change specifically, for instance.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you think has been the impact of climate change on Australian wine so far?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Not always beneficial, the way that it has been in cooler parts, and it’s been very interesting to see this reassessment of grape varieties, because I think this love affair with… You call them alternative varieties, don’t you?
JAMES ATKINSON: Alternative varieties.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yeah. Widening the scope of different flavours you get is very healthy, but of course, some of that is being driven by the need to plant grapes, vines, that can tackle higher temperatures. So it’s interesting, like McLaren Vale planting all these Portuguese and Spanish varieties. So, people sometimes say to me, people who have had a life in wine, but like me, “Oh, I got into wine by tasting Mouton ’45,” one of the classic great wines of Bordeaux, “And I feel so sad that the prices are now so high that young people coming to wine will never, ever taste those great trophy wines or whatever.” And I say, I don’t think that matters, because nowadays, there is such a wide variety of different wines, that I think any newcomer to wine is bound to find something that they will like, and it’s not the case that everyone has got to like this rather narrow choice we used to have, of the French classics.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about those who want to become scholars of wine as you have, though? You became an MW in 1984. Do you think that that challenge has become much more difficult though, given the lack of accessibility to some of those wines?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I think nowadays, the Masters of Wine examiners fully realize the breadth of wine available, and it would be very mean of them. I mean, you’re never going to get a Mouton ’45 given to you blind in a Masters of Wine exam. You might well be given an affordable red Bordeaux. I remember just after I passed the Masters of Wine exam, I think they usually pick out someone who did well in the tasting to lecture the next year’s students about tasting, and I had to do that. And in fact, it was when Michael Hill-Smith, who became the first non-British Master of Wine very soon afterwards, was studying for his MW.
JANCIS ROBINSON: And I said, “The one thing that you can be sure of, is that you’ll never get a Bordeaux first-growth in your exams,” because they couldn’t afford it. And as if to prove that there was this great gulf, to preserve anonymity between educators and examiners, that following year, they gave them three vintages of Lafite. But I don’t think they would now, and I know Lafite wouldn’t give them the samples either. So that was a sort of rather historic… That was when you could actually afford a Bordeaux first-growth, almost.
JANCIS ROBINSON: No. So I think that’s okay. I do think though that the exam is more difficult to pass nowadays. It’s not the case that the Institute of Masters of Wine want to make it more difficult. They want as many people as possible to pass, and they could pass 50 people in one year, if they met the standards. It’s not the case there is a certain number of NW’s to give out, but the world of wine is so complex now, and what they’re trying to do, I think, is keep up the standard relatively. I was really lucky to take it in 84′, because then Australian wines tasted Australian, Californian wines tasted definitely Californian, whereas now, take a barrel of fermented Chardonnay made anywhere in the world. There are very small differences between some of them, aren’t there?
JAMES ATKINSON: But isn’t the role of terroir and winemakers looking to express the local terroir, hasn’t that been more of a recent trend?
JANCIS ROBINSON: It has, and I think it’s a very healthy trend and I’m delighted by it. But I think in the panic of an exam room, because the Masters of Wine exam is, I think it’s five written papers, three practical papers, as they call them, and in each of them you get 12 glasses and you don’t know what’s in them. I think it would be a very tough examiner who said, “Tell us the vineyards these wines were made in,” and they might say which region, and that would probably be fair enough, but my point is, the regional differences are less pronounced today than they were in 84′. Everyone travels, and everyone sort of knows which techniques are being used around the world or in the classic regions, and are trying them on at home.
JAMES ATKINSON: I read a quote from your publisher in your column that, “Very few book publishing projects on the scale of The Atlas are still alive.” Do you think that books still have the same importance today in the world of wine as they once did?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I think some books do. I’m thrilled when I travel around the world, I meet people who really think they know me and have a relationship with me, because they’ve studied the Oxford Companion to Wine and/or The World Atlas of Wine. And wine is a fascinating subject, which seems to attract more and more students. The WSET, The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a dinner in London just before I left. So the WSET educated a hundred thousand wine students last year around the world, so that’s pretty impressive.
JANCIS ROBINSON: And yes, for wine students, I think books have a great resonance. I love it when someone brings me a battered old book with kind of lots of post-its in it, to sign, that they’ve obviously found really, really useful. We actually have got digital versions of both. The Oxford Companion is on my website in a digital form, as the are the maps from The World Atlas of Wine. And The World Atlas of Wine, whenever it’s published in print, nowadays has an iPad version as well. But there is something about paper and a book that looks good. I mean, nowadays, I think to make books compelling to buy, they have to look and feel really nice, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that our new jacket is very tactile. You can run your fingers over it, and get some pleasure.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you make of the current media environment surrounding wine generally? I mean, I don’t know what it’s like in the UK or in other markets, but certainly, the amount of space that newspapers are devoting to wine in Australia has absolutely plummeted, and I’m not seeing that really being replaced by new media. Do you think that’s a concern for the industry?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I think it is a concern, and it’s happened in the UK too. I feel very, very fortunate to have a full page in The Financial Times magazine, and in foreign editions. It’s kind of half a page of the newspaper version, every Saturday. Maybe it’s because there isn’t the advertising to support it. I actually get quite a bit of fine wine advertising around my column. Because it’s not that people are drinking less wine, or maybe we haven’t made the subject interesting enough to earn our space? I don’t know. You say that it hasn’t been compensated for in other media, but isn’t there really a plethora of blogs and online?
JAMES ATKINSON: Well there was, but I can only think of a handful that have really survived, because there wasn’t a business model behind most of the blogs, and people eventually tire of sort of spending-
JANCIS ROBINSON: Charity.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, spending that much time devoting their lives to something that doesn’t have a financial return.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well I started jancisrobinson.com sort of by accident in 2000, and I found it such fun, but I was devoting so much time to it that I thought, “I think we’re going to have to have a subscription section, a members section of it.” Not all of it, still about a third of the articles are free. And so, I launched the subscription bit of it in 2001, and by mistake, it got launched, put online sort of for half an hour before we meant it to go there. And in that half hour, we got three memberships, one of which was in Brazil, and so we thought, “We’re onto something.”
JANCIS ROBINSON: And actually, to my amazement, it has been, touch wood, a great success. No ads, no sponsorship, which perhaps helps, and we do work at it very hard. I mean, we publish two new articles every day. We’re probably completely mad, and now we have a team of about over a dozen people all around the world. So that has worked, but maybe one help is that it started so long ago, so it’s had a long time to build up a head of steam. I’m sorry to hear that a lot of the blogs have stopped, because that was quite healthy really, to have as many voices as possible.
JAMES ATKINSON: You said some time ago that as a lifelong wine enthusiast, that you were feeling increasingly under threat because the wine space was being encroached upon by craft beer, craft spirits and cocktails, and that was three years ago, I think. Has wine held its own in that time?
JANCIS ROBINSON: In the UK, for the first time in my life, wine sales are slightly shrinking, in terms of volume. People are drinking better, so average prices per bottle are going up, nudging up, although they’re still incredibly low compared to most of the wine that maybe we would be interested in. The no and low alcohol drinks of course, a huge growth area, for obvious sort of health reasons.
JANCIS ROBINSON: So I think we’re having to work harder and harder to keep the wine flame really interesting, but once wine bites at somebody, then they do tend to get fairly interested and compulsive about it. It’s fashion, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve been around so long, I’ve seen fashions come and go like sort of pendulums, but the threat, if you like, from other drinks, is really keeping us on our toes, that’s for sure.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve heard you say that you’re always looking for value for your readers-
JANCIS ROBINSON: Absolutely.
JAMES ATKINSON: -With the wines that you choose. And I’m sure you get asked this question all the time, what do you think are some of the most underrated wine regions globally at the moment?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, let’s say underpriced, say, which is usually about the same thing as underrated. If you’re looking for genuine value, I would say the Loire is still, with a few exceptions, is sort of like cult wines, Clos Rougeard and stuff like that, is underpriced. Beaujolais is a great place for Burgundy lovers to look who can’t afford Burgundy anymore. Prices are slowly nudging up there, but you can still get great value, and including wines that are being made like Burgundy, and will eventually turn into something remarkably like Burgundy, if you hang onto them. Although personally, I’m a great fan of pure early drinking, gorgeous, refined Beaujolais.
JANCIS ROBINSON: I think Greece is a great place for really interesting styles and flavours, and not particularly high prices. We, every few months, hold a kind of a tasting night for visitors to jancisrobinson.com, and we had a Greek wine night just before I left for London. It was the most popular so far, and there were some really fabulous wines there. We’re going to have a Portuguese one, because Portugal is rather similar to Greece, in that it’s almost turned its back on international grape varieties, and has this huge array of its own with strong characters, and with a few exceptions, Portuguese table wine, I think, is underpriced for what it is.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Chile, Chile has been underpriced, although I’ve just come from New York where there are signs that at long last, faddy New Yorkers are noticing that there are some interesting wines coming out of Chile, so I expect prices will rise. But at the moment, I say Chile’s a pretty good place to buy, certainly, red wine. And South Africa is fantastic. The quality of wine being made by some of the new wave South Africans is absolutely first rate, and not silly prices.
JAMES ATKINSON: I noticed you haven’t mentioned Australia in that list.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, I assume you know so much more about Australia than I do.
JAMES ATKINSON: I don’t know about that, not necessarily. You’re attending the Chardonnay Symposium this week.
JANCIS ROBINSON: In the Yarra, yup.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yep. And based on your recent columns, would it be fair to say that Chardonnay is the variety you’re currently most excited about in Australia?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yeah, I think so. Especially when compared with the European archetype, White Burgundy, which is now zooming out of affordability, and the Australian Chardonnay is so much more consistent and accessible than a White Burgundy, and it’s so well-made nowadays. So I’m really looking forward to the Chardonnay Symposium.
JAMES ATKINSON: And I saw you spoke particularly highly of Margaret River Chardonnay recently as well.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, that was probably a bit tactless, considering I’m on my way to the Yarra, but I’m sure I will come away from the Yarra feeling fully enthused by Yarra Chardonnay.
JAMES ATKINSON: Speaking again about jancisrobinson.com, I heard you say a few years ago that 85% of subscribers were men. Is that still the case?
JANCIS ROBINSON: It’s slightly smaller proportion nowadays, but only slightly. It’s very disappointing to me. But it does seem that it’s a kind of male preoccupation, and if you look at the people who post on our forum, they’ll almost all male.
JAMES ATKINSON: Why is that, do you think?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I don’t know, because women seem to drink just as much wine as men.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are men just fundamentally more-
JANCIS ROBINSON: Men, well-
JAMES ATKINSON: -geeky and obsessive about things?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I think there’s that. I think there’s a male gene that’s fairly geeky and obsessive, and perhaps a little bit more concerned with what they ought to like rather than what they actually like, and what their wine choices say about them, whereas I will say, I think women have an easier time with wine to a certain extent, because in my experience, they just drink what they like and aren’t worried about whether it’s the right bottle, sort of thing. And also, there is the unavoidable fact that men have more money than women. A wine obsession costs money.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now, as well as promoting The Atlas while you’re in Australia, you’re also doing some events relating to the new glassware. Maybe you could tell me about how the glassware project came about?
JANCIS ROBINSON: With pleasure. It’s something that I find myself involved with, rather surprised, because I never, ever, had this in mind. My currency is words, and advice and opinion, but a very talented young British designer called Richard Brendon came to see me a couple of years ago and said, he’d had great success with bone china, and whiskey glasses, and cocktail glasses, and he now wanted to design wine glasses, but he realised he needed expert help for that, and everybody he spoke to said he had to come and see me, and someone introduced us.
JANCIS ROBINSON: And it was so outside my thoughts that I’d sort of basically sent him away and said, “Go and look at what’s on the market now.” But then he was very persistent, and I thought to myself, “Well, I have actually got more than 40 years experience of tasting wine, and I’ve got some very strong opinions on the ideal wine glass.” My overriding opinion is that there is absolutely no need for a whole load of different glasses, and I’ve never understood why people pour white wine into a smaller glass than red wine, because white wine is just as subtle and nuanced, and benefits at least as much from air and space, and all the rest.
JANCIS ROBINSON: I was also encouraged to just come up with one glass, by the fact that the champagne producers that I most respect, people like Jean Baptiste Lecaillon at Roederer, and the people at Krug, and so forth, all want their champagnes to be tasted in wine glasses. They’re fed up with these narrow, little flutes that don’t allow you to get much aroma and stuff. Also, top Sherry producers like Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos and things like that, they want their fine Sherries to be tasted in wine glasses.
JANCIS ROBINSON: And as for the Port producers, it could be a kind of 50-year-old vintage Port that’s got so much nuance in it, and yet, it’s rammed into one of these tiny little thimbles, which is crazy. Alongside that, there’s the fact that you’ve got to own a Chateau before you’ve got infinite shelf space. Most of us are counting the square inches. And then you’ve got the sort of Marie Kondo decluttering ethos.
JANCIS ROBINSON: So everything was pointing towards just one wine glass. Not least, because if you break one, it’s not a disaster. It’s not a sort of set. And Richard took that on the chin, didn’t try and fight it, even though potentially, it was narrowing the number of glasses that he would sell. And so together, I sort of drew the perfect glass and came up with measurements and things, but having encountered the gorgeous thinness of a Zalto glass, at the rim, very, very thin, I couldn’t go back. It had to be that thin, which meant that it had to be mouth-blown. So it had to be an artisan product.
JANCIS ROBINSON: But because I really, really don’t enjoy washing and polishing glasses, it also had to be dishwasher approved. So we set about designing something that’s a little bit less tall than a Zalto Universal, so it fits into all dishwashers we’ve come across, and the stem is a little bit wider, so it’s less fragile there, which tends to be the sort of breaking point. And I was the sort of major designer of the bowl. It’s a more classical shape than the sort of angular Zalto, which I think looks fine in very sort of Scandinavian or very modern settings, but not in all settings, but there’s something about my shape which seems to encourage the aroma. And Richard has sort of refined the look of it. I think it looks gorgeous. It’s very stable.
JANCIS ROBINSON: He found us a Slovenian place, where one team of four glassblowers could get it to the fineness that we was seeking. But it’s been such a success that they’ve had to train another three teams now, and it’s great. I love drinking out of it. And I go to all these tastings, and sometimes that the glasses are so sort of clunky, and I think once you’ve experienced that communing with the wine, you almost feel there’s nothing between you and the wine. It’s very difficult to go back to a machine-made glass that is inevitably, much thicker.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about this argument that different varieties need different shapes to deliver the wine onto a different place in the mouth?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, that theory of physiology has been completely debunked now. In theory, we had different bits of the tongue that were sensitive to different things.
JAMES ATKINSON: That old diagram with the grid on the tongue.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yeah, yes.
JAMES ATKINSON: -sort of the grid on the tongue? Yeah.
JANCIS ROBINSON: No, that’s gone, so I didn’t think you can accept that. And the trouble with all those glasses that very, very slightly, according to whether they’re a Central Otago Pinot Noir, or a Mornington one or whatever, there’s nothing on them that tells you which is which. And I, for one, have in my time, been sent a whole load of different glasses, but I can never tell which one’s meant for what.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Then Richard Brendon said, “But I think I’d like to design a decanter as well,” and then I said, “Ah, but I don’t believe there should be one decanter, I think there should be two decanters, because there are two very different jobs you use a decanter for.” One, the more common one is for a young wine, where you want to aerate it as much as possible, and he’s come up with a really lovely one with a very wide open neck that you can grasp and swoosh really easily. That’s the young wine decanter that you could get a magnum in. And I often put young whites in that actually, especially sort of young Chardonnays, though it can be quite tight. And I think white wine in a decanter looks even more beautiful than red wine in a decanter actually, because it’s golden and catches the light, and all that. And then the old wine decanter is much, much narrower and has a stopper on the top, and that’s old wines that have a bit of a sediment, and you just want to pour them off the sediment, and then keep them protected from air.
JAMES ATKINSON: Am I allowed to ask you about your role in advising Queen Elizabeth-
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes.
JAMES ATKINSON: On her cellar?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes, but-
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me what’s involved in that.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Okay, I will. But a lot of people say, “Oh, what sort of wines does the queen like?” She’s not the greatest wine enthusiast, and so, that’s not a profitable question. It involves, in fact, as soon as I get back home, we’ve got a meeting of the Royal Household Wine Committee, and they put out a tender for various wines, for various functions. And there’s me, Michel Roux Jr. from Le Gavroche, and then three wine merchants who have a Royal warrant, and then I think there are six of us on the committee. And we go in, not always all six of us there, and taste blind all the wines that have been submitted and then pool our thoughts and marks, and basically just choose wine for the queen to serve, either at great big receptions where the budget isn’t enormous, or at sort of fancier dinners. And it’s fun. The most fun bit really, is fighting your way through the crowds outside the railings at Buckingham Palace presenting your pass, and crunching across the yard. And then the building itself is fun.
JAMES ATKINSON: You must know you’ve made it when you get that job.
JANCIS ROBINSON: It’s a sort of childish pleasure. But yes, I went to the state banquet at Windsor when Sarkozy and Carla Bruni were the guests of honor. That was quite fun. One long table, with I think, 300 people at it or something, and lovely wines. That was fun.
JAMES ATKINSON: Robert Parker retired recently, and he’s an industry figure that came in for a bit of criticism in the latter years of his career. What do you think will be his legacy?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, he certainly, with the possible exception of brett, was intolerant of poorly made wine. And so, I think overall, he increased the overall quality of wine, even if he had the effect of narrowing the range of styles of it, because he was a bit intolerant of, well, alternative varieties, for a start. I think he used to call them godforsaken grapes, and I mean, he was criticised because he was so powerful, and he only became powerful because he was good at his job.
JANCIS ROBINSON: He was incorruptible, he worked very hard, and the wine trade used his scores mercilessly, and far too many of them gave up on their job, which was selecting wine and educating their customers about the wines, and just doled out his scores, which was pathetic, really. So I think some of the criticism was unjustified, but there was a Parkerisation of wine and it wasn’t very healthy, and I’m very glad it’s over.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think the days are over when one person could have that much influence on the wine world?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I’m sure, and I’m sure that’s the case, and in fact, Parker came in at a time, at a perfect time when one person could have a lot of influence, before Vivino came up or before there was a lot of user feedback. Now that the media landscape is completely different, I know that in my space I have to be as accurate and as fair, and as good as I possibly can be, but that I’m open to being criticised, and people can write a comment and say, “What rubbish,” and all in all, wine has been democratised and the consumer has far, far more voices, which is healthy.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about yourself? What does the future hold for you? How many more additions of The Atlas do you think you’ve got in you?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, these books, both the Oxford Companion and The Atlas, have such massive undertakings. The eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine took me two solid years, which nowadays, given I spend so much time also doing jancisrobinson.com and The Financial Times, I have no idea how I managed to find the time to do it. But I really don’t feel at this moment like sitting down to do another big book, and I have already said to Julia Harding that I would like her to take over the prime responsibility of assembling the next fifth Oxford Companion to Wine. I’ll certainly have an input, but I don’t want that major prime responsibility. And as for the ninth World Atlas of Wine, well, rather worryingly, I’ve already started assembling a little list of new elements I think it should have in it, but I’m far too tired for the eighth to think about starting it now.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are you someone that is always going to have to keep working in wine?
JANCIS ROBINSON: I love it. I mean, I don’t have to do it. All the children have grown up long ago, no school bills. So I must like it. I do it because I love it and yes, I think I would be sad. I can’t imagine retirement. There’s nothing I would rather do than write about wine and do a bit of travel.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you drink when you’re not drinking wine?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Water, tea. I’m not very good at spirits. The occasional cocktail, a margarita I can handle.
JAMES ATKINSON: You have spent some time in Japan this year though, I believe?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes, Sake is fun. Sake is a little overwhelming for me, because I do know quite a lot about wine and I can see that there is as much to learn about Sake as about wine, but I haven’t got another 40 years to do it. And so, I’m a bit scared of Sake, but I love it. And beer, on a hot day, I sort of have two gulps and I think that’s wonderful, and then it sort of gets a bit much. I sort of very rarely finish a glass of beer I’m afraid, which must seem very foreign to any Australian man.
JAMES ATKINSON: Or probably English too, I always thought.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes. No, it’s tea, water, and wine, in the reverse order, probably.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well Jancis, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast, and a real honour. So thanks so much for joining me, and I hope you have a wonderful time in Australia.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Thanks very much. Thank you.