Michael has a sip and a chat with the famous Journalist and Wine Writer Jancis Robinson, MW. One of the most recognized and respected voices in the world of wine.
I found myself in Napa once again. This time for a global conference on the wine industry at the CIA Copia, with topics including the state of the wine industry, California’s role and influence, trends, futurecasting, as well as changes in the climate and its effect on the wine industry globally.
One of the speakers and moderators was Jancis Robinson, one of the most recognized and respected voices in the world of wine. She has written a few of the most important books on wine including The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine, Wine Grapes, and The 24-Hour Wine Expert.
I was curious as to how someone would create such an amazing career, and generate such a volume of valuable content over the past 45+ years and still enjoy the ride. I was about to find out as I asked her what her first experience with wine was, and her thoughts on how it guided her future.
Our interview begins with her discovery of wine with a friend as a student in Oxford, when she first tasted the classic Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses, 1959. That was the beginning of a life long journey and there was no going back.
Jancis Robinson is a British wine critic, journalist and wine writer who rose to fame in the mid-1980s after becoming the first MW (Master of Wine) from outside the wine trade. Photography by Benjamin McMahon.
I’ll let Jancis take it from here. Here’s our chat…
JR: I fell in love with wine over one particular bottle which I think is very common, and it was Burgundy, which I think is also quite common. I was at Oxford, and I had a boyfriend whose father was very generous, and that translated into taking me out for meals a lot.
And, at a restaurant called the Rose Revived, we ordered a bottle of Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959, and it was so much better than student plonk... and I just kind of knew that it, as well as offering masses of sensual pleasure, it was obvious that there was a lot of history and geography and general intellectual stimulation there. And that's what's fascinated me for well, I’ve been writing about wine for 44 years now.
MW: That's amazing, what a great career. It's funny, some of my early wine experiences that flipped the switch so to speak were similar. It was a Petite Syrah in Santa Cruz, California that somebody's friend had made a barrel of, so multiple cases. And we had a case, and we sort of drank it as we sailed over the summer, and just was one of those magnificent memories. And since then, I’ve been on this journey to... not so much find it again, but just to realize that this is a fun journey that we're on as wine lovers because we get to chase wine all around the world.
JR: Well, wine is made in beautiful places. We're here looking at the sunshine over Napa Valley, what could be more beautiful than that?
MW: Absolutely. So a couple of the things that we were just talking about, or that you were talking about in meeting with Elaine is about consumers and, sort of, the state of the business as we have it right now. And a lot of talk goes into the Millennials. And I think as we closed, you said something, pretty much how I feel about it too. If you look at Millennials as a group right now, maybe they're not really ready to be in wine like say we were, or maybe a lot of people get into it younger.
But I think the average person, I was having this discussion the other day, their appreciation for wine and their interest in wine goes up as they get a little bit towards middle age, over 30 at least. Maybe they're more secure in their job, maybe they're in a secure relationship. They're socializing at a little bit different level than you would say in college. And it gives you more opportunities to commiserate with other, really like-minded people that are enjoying wine. Would you agree with that?
According to Business insider, Millennials drank 42% of all wine consumed in the US in 2015, and winemakers are meeting the generation's demands. Also, 75% of millennials surveyed said that if they had more money to spend on wine, they would. Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash
JR: To a certain extent. But I think we'd be kidding ourselves, not to take notice of the fact that younger people are switching far more to craft, what they call craft beer and craft spirits. And unlike when I was starting to drink wine, those categories of beer and spirits have been “invested” for the first time with the idea that they're not just simple drinks, high-volume commercial brands. But, there's a lot more interest in those categories. So it's not surprising that people are responding to that.
So I think you know, as someone whose life depends on the world drinking wine, I’m more worried than I’ve ever been. It's the first time in my life in Britain that the total sales of wine have actually gone down.
And there's another factor of course, and this is perhaps true of all of sales of all alcoholic drink, is that nowadays, to socialize you don't have to go out, or go to a bar. You just pick up your phone.
MW: Right. And also, there's the whole awareness of health issues and “Sober October” and things like that, that have somewhat of a ripple effect. And people wanting lighter alcohols. I noticed when we were just talking about different recycling of glass and things like that, that the can issue came up.
And something that I’ve been made aware of recently, and maybe I’d like to get your insights on this is serving sizes. So when that guy was talking about a 350, you're thinking oh my god, that's two full glasses of wine.
JR: More actually!
MW: Yeah! How about sort of, maybe more on whatever ounces that would equate to, something like one serving, a six-ounce glass.
JR: The sensible thing is to put singles out again.
MW: Right, yes.
JR: It's not the nice thing to share, but.
MW: Right. Well, I think I was watching a video with your glass designer and you.
JR: My beautiful glass, yes.
A collaboration between the designer Richard Brendon and Jancis Robinson. The collection includes wine glasses, flat bottom water glasses, decanters, and carafes. Check out their collection at jancisrobinson.com. Photo source: Jancis Robinson
MW: Beautiful glasses, by the way, I want to talk to you offline about that as well. But I think it was you that was mentioning that most people don't drink the wine out of the can, they open the can and they pour it in a nice wine glass. So it really doesn't make a difference what container it arrived in.
JR: That's true. I am, … cans are in their infancy in the UK. So I’m not an expert on can etiquette yet.
MW: Nor am I. I know I have never drank wine that came from, originated from a can. I have had some by the glass and certain restaurants that are specializing, in by the glass and they'll have it in a small stainless steel keg.
JR: I think that's a great thing.
MW: I do too.
JR: Our son has four restaurants, and he's a big proponent of kegs, and the quality is fantastic . It’s just as fresh.
MW: Yes. It's like having a giant Coravin®, or… have you seen the new device called the Plum®? So you'll see it soon, but it's basically a countertop device that holds two bottles. And it's all high-tech, it interfaces when you touch the screen. But it's basically like a Coravin® on steroids, that you just put the bottle in there, close the lid. And you go and you push the button and you want a two and a half ounce or a four-ounce pour, and it pours it for you and the air never touches the wine.
JR: Well, I suppose that's like what we've seen, we've had for some time the Enomatic®, where usually, you have far more than two bottles.
Accordning to Forbes, fine wine has been the top-performing asset for the past five years, performing well even during times of economic uncertainty. While annual returns of 10-15% are typical, some bottles enjoy remarkable rates of return. For example, wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, regularly show growth of 150-200% over a five-year period.
MW: You mean in a restaurant? Yes, it's along that line, but it's for a consumer to put on their countertop. It's like the size of a toaster or something. At any rate, I wanted to move on to another area.
By the way, it's just so fascinating that you've been doing this for so long, and you have such a fresh look on everything. I was watching a video that you did in the 90’s in France, where you're speaking really good French by the way. How many languages do you speak?
JR: Only French.
JR: And “menu” Italian, and “menu” Spanish “menu” German.
MW: OK, but you were talking to this burgundy, this famous Burgundy winemaker. And you whipped out a bottle of Oregon Willamette valley Pinot and asked him while you were trying his amazing stuff.
JR: No, it was actually Lalou.
MW: Oh, that's right, it was Lalou.
JR: It was her, from Domaine Leroy. The most famous female winemaker in history,in the world.
MW: Her response kind of surprised me. And then I thought no, that's probably the way it is in France. But she was saying something like “well, it tastes like a Pinot, but it doesn't have a sort of a place or a sense of place like this does. They need to find their own grape”, or something like that. Do you think that attitude still remains in France or is it just the old guard?
JR: I don't think the French are nearly as complacent as they were, in terms of wine production. And of course, nowadays, the young generation of French vineyards all travel, they all work somewhere else on the other side of the world.
MW: And they've been to Davis.
JR: Yes. And they have their mates, and it's no longer nearly as insular, it's all very healthy I think. And if someone in Burgundy has a problem, brought on by a heatwave, they've probably got a friend in Australia that they can contact and ask, what should I do about this you know?
MW: That is what's really terrific about the winegrowers, and the winemakers, is that there's this collaborative element to it that makes it really fascinating and really helpful for everyone.
Well, I know you don't have a lot of time, but I wanted to sort of depart onto a little journey about collecting. I know that it started for me accidentally. I would go to the store, get some wine, I would consume that wine, then I’d go back to the store and get some wine.
Then I started going to wineries, then I started supporting wineries by buying half cases or cases. And then all of a sudden, I wasn't able to keep up with the volume of incoming, right? So I had to invest in a wine refrigerator or a cellar of some sort, or some way to store it properly.
As people begin to collect, I was hearing you on the financial times interview where they were talking about investing in wine. What are your thoughts on collectors or investors or people that say well, if I’m going to have this kind of wine collection, I’ve got a place to put it? Maybe I should start being more discerning on what I’m buying because maybe it'll go up in value or at least maintain its value. Any thoughts on collecting?
Photo by Elizabeth Clancy.
JR: Well, though I’m the wine correspondent at the Financial Times, I am woefully idealistic about wine. And I prefer, I really don't approve of these wine funds. Where sometimes investors go in who may be complete teetotalers, and are only buying wine for financial gain. And they'll never open a case. I think wine is for drinking.
MW: I agree.
JR: But I do sympathize with private collectors who think, I’ll pay for my next, well, my purchase in six years’ time by buying two cases now and selling off one. And that will yield enough money for me to buy more, so that's okay.
I mean nowadays, I mean it used to be a surefire thing that if you bought young Bordeaux, it would go up in price, it's just not having any more, you have to be very very careful on what you invest in.
MW: Right. I like what you said earlier too about Bordeaux, don't be shy from trying other Bordeauxs, because I’ve had a lot of really nice 15 to 25 dollar Bordeauxs that I’ve seen.
JR: The source of some of the best wine in the world, but it gets tarred with the brush of having all these very expensive wines at the top end.
MW: Well, not only that but working with the front line consumer over the years. What I’ve noticed is that people always have opinions and perceptions. So they'll come into let's say a wine shop or a supermarket that has a wine section, and we'll be talking about wine. What do you like? Oh, I like Cabs and I like Merlot Blends.
Well, have you tried a Bordeaux? Oh yes, but those French guys. If they're going to send it away from France, they water it all down. And I’m looking like where do people come up with these bizarre rumors? Have you heard of this?
JR: Yes, I suppose the average Bordeaux is slightly less alcoholic than the California wines. That's where that came from.
MW: Right. Are there any odd rumors that you've heard from being in Europe or France that are about California wines? And as a visitor here, and knowing these people here, you'd say oh, you just made that up?
JR: I can't think of anything. Well, no there's the watering down. I mean, I think a lot of people in the era when California vintners wanted to get their grapes as ripe as possible, then it was inevitable that the only way they'd get them to a drinkable alcohol level would be, add some water to bring the alcohol level down. But that doesn't seem right to me. I think you need to get everything in balance you know?
MW: No, I think they just turned the irrigation on to get the water into it that way maybe. Well listen, I know you've got to run, I appreciate you taking the time today, really nice to finally meet you. And hopefully will run into each other somewhere around the world on another venture. All right, well thanks very much, I appreciate your time, Cheers.
JR: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Listen to the audio version here.