On Friday we published the first part of Liv-ex’s interview with the UK’s leading wine critic, Jancis Robinson OBE MW. In the second part, shown below, Jancis discusses her career as a critic and journalist, her website and her MW.
As a journalist and critic, what’s your philosophy on wine writing – why do you do it?
I suppose I have always been greedy! I was very interested in food, so it was a natural progression to get into wine. I was first exposed to fine wine at university. It was a Burgundy that lit the flame: a Chambolle Musigny Amoureuses 1959, which I drank in 1970. (At that stage I didn’t realise you were supposed to remember the producer, but I think it must have been a de Vogue.) I have always loved writing: it comes naturally to me. My first published piece of work was a fashion column on the latest trends for Cumberland News, which I illustrated myself. Then I was restaurant critic for Isis.
I like the personal satisfaction of feeling that I’ve written something well. I like passing on knowledge, and also amusing people; hearing someone laugh if they’re reading my work is a great pleasure. And I don’t positively enjoy giving scores to wine but I suppose they’re a necessary evil.
You score out of 20, and there aren’t many critics who still do. Have you ever considered switching over to the 100 point scale?
The 20 point scoring system is how I started, and while I’m sure it’s not commercially sensible when everyone else is scoring out of 100, I’m horribly stubborn. The exactness of the 100 point scale puts me off a bit. Most wines that I score fall between 15 and 18, so it’s almost like a star system. I’d find it difficult to get my head round the difference between scoring 91 or 92. If suddenly JancisRobinson.com started to shrivel on the vine and I felt forced to change to the 100 point scale then maybe that would kick me into doing so. There’s no impetus at the moment.
One of the most notable things about your website is that you re-rate wines regularly and that there’s variance in your score.
Different bottles are different, we all know that. I’m sure that it’s frustrating for people to see eight different scores for the same wine but I believe that reflects reality. Wines go through phases. You can tell I never go back to check and wonder whether I ought to be giving a wine a higher score. The downside of my system is that it allows any merchant to pick the top score and only use that in their promotions. But my site is for me and the readers, and certainly not for the merchants.
The fine wine trade tend to use your scores when selling wines more often than your notes. Sometimes your scores are positive but your notes appear less so – what are your thoughts on that?
I don’t try to achieve that, it just comes out. I never go back and amplify them, I write them as I taste. I suppose that sometimes the greatness of wine is not apparent as you start to taste and then you realise it towards the end, which is why mine sometimes end ‘bravo!’ as the full impact hits. I’m not very gushing, but when any wine does get an enthusiastic note from me it’s genuine. I also tend to concentrate more on structure than flavours, especially in young wines.
Could you talk us through how the website was first set up. What was the impetus?
I have never had a real work plan. Everything that has happened on that front has been in response to an external stimulus. In December 2000 the whole online thing was going mad and I had a succession of people knocking on my door telling me I had to have a website. I eventually decided to go into partnership with one of them and was planning to set up JancisRobinson.com with him. I had a book coming out that autumn so I wanted to plug the website on the jacket. Come August I realised that he wasn’t being straight with me so I couldn’t do business with him. The problem was that all these books had been printed touting www.jancisrobinson.com, so it had to exist. In the end I went to our techie advisor and he built a very primitive site. After a while I realised how much I liked it, but I was spending so much time on it that I knew I couldn’t afford to do it for nothing. At the end of 2001 we launched a subscription part, Purple Pages. We weren’t sure if it would be a success, but it was up for half an hour when it shouldn’t have been, and to our amazement we got three subscriptions, one from Brazil. The website’s been a huge hit. I’m particularly grateful to the people who stuck with it from the beginning, when it was a pale shadow of its current self. Searching the site used to be a nightmare, for example. But I’m very proud of it now.
Why do you think you were you able to make a pay-for website a success when so many other failed?
I just don’t know. I suppose it couldn’t be faulted for its independence and its occasional scurrilous aspect, as well as the huge amount of work we all put into it. My publishers probably think it is a distraction, but I love the community element and being close to the readers. The forum keeps me well-informed too. And a good third of the articles are free.
A big motivation for starting it was that I was tasting so much great wine and making stacks of notes that couldn’t be used in a restricted space like a newspaper column. It’s given me something useful to do with them and a reason to taste.
What are you most proud of – your MW (Master of Wine) or your OBE?
The MW took a lot more effort! The OBE was a complete surprise: I haven’t a clue who proposed me for it. I suppose I’m prouder of the MW because it is much, much harder work, and somewhat rarer. I was the first non-trade person to get an MW and the first wine writer. At that stage I thought it was normal that any wine writer attempting the MW would be able to pass, and it was only after I saw a few attempting and failing that I re-evaluated it and realised what an achievement it had been.
About 40% of MWs are female, and in the commercial wine sector the gender split is relatively equal. Fine Wine seems much more male dominated, however. Why do you think this is?
The fine wine sector is very bloke-ish, with much of the discourse driven by numbers, competition and testosterone. It’s an adjunct in many ways to the financial world, I suppose.
You’d think that if any website was going to have a higher than average proportion of women readers it would be mine, but it was 80% male last time I looked. I hope that will change. I’m rather heartened by developments in the US where there seems to be more energy and enthusiasm about wine among young people. There seems to be a higher proportion of women ‘making it’ in wine: there are a lot of female sommeliers and sales reps.
And what’s your next project?
My next big book, Wine Grapes, is out this autumn. It’s with Julia Harding MW and José Vouillamoz. José is a Swiss botanist who did a lot of work with Carol Meredith on DNA identification of grape vines in California, and has made quite a lot of discoveries himself.
The book is essentially a survey of all the vine varieties we could find that are making wine commercially, which is just under 1400, and how they’re related. There’s a lot of original information in it that has come directly from the DNA studies.
All over the world there is a great trend towards discovering and preserving local varieties, and arguably there are more interesting white wine grapes than red. Hopefully this will help to inject more dynamism and interest into the white wine scene. Not all of them will last for the decades, but I do believe that wine is for drinking.