November 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Wines & Vines Interview: JANCIS ROBINSON

The popular author addresses California sweetness, global values and the MW exam

by Larry Walker
Revised Edition of Oxford Companion Published

The third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson, contains more than 4,000 entries, including extensive updates on major trends in wine. There is a much stronger focus on New World wines, with writers such as James Halliday reporting from Australia, Patricio Tapio on Chile and Argentina and Michael Fridjhon and John Platter from South Africa.

Other expanded topics include yeast selection, alternatives to barrels and corks and the effects of climate change and globalization on wine production and sales. There are maps of every important wine region, plus appendices listing wine production and consumption by country and a list of controlled appellations and permitted grape varieties.

The book runs to 1,848 pages and sells for $65. It was first published by Oxford University Press in 1994. Robinson is the first British journalist to have passed the Master of Wine exams.

Jancis Robinson is one of the world's most influential wine writers. The wine trade follows her opinions closely. Beyond her day-to-day influence, her books, especially The Oxford Companion to Wine and (with Hugh Johnson) The World Atlas of Wine, are essential reference books to anyone in the wine industry. She began her wine writing career in 1975, as assistant editor of the British trade publication Wine & Spirit International. In 1984, she became the first person not directly involved in the wine trade to become a Master of Wine. She received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2003. She currently writes for the Financial Times of London and on her website, She is married to the food writer Nick Lander. The following interview took place in two sessions, a face-to-face meeting over dinner in Sonoma County in June of this year and via e-mail later in the summer.Jancis Robinson

W&V: You taste wines from all over the world and are known to have strong opinions. At this point, what is your perception of California wines?

Robinson: The interesting ones generally seem expensive relative to their counterparts from elsewhere. And the uninteresting, inexpensive ones seem to be available in vast quantities of each brand, such as Blossom Hill and Gallo, which are the second and third biggest brands in the UK after Hardys. And the typical California wine at whatever level tastes a bit sweeter than wines from most other places.

W&V: Has this perception changed over the last decade? If so, how?

Robinson: If I may widen the period of comparison: California wines seemed very exciting and good value in the early 1980s. They were the first New World wines we Europeans were seriously exposed to and, like many people, I was very excited by these new wine styles. I was secretary of the Zinfandel Club, a society formed by the likes of Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson to celebrate California wine. And my husband Nick's restaurant, L'Escargot, served nothing but American wine, all early 1980s. I suppose the fact that there are now so many New World wine producing countries means that California no longer seems so novel and thrilling.

W&V: Could you expand a bit on what you mean by "sweetness?"

Robinson: I honestly don't know whether the RS of better quality California wines is generally higher than, say, French, but they taste it to me--perhaps because of the extra alcohol. And I'm pretty certain that the cheaper California wines are definitely, analytically sweeter than their European counterparts.

W&V: Have you seen any trends in California wine that you find disturbing?

Robinson: You're just goading me here! I am personally worried about the trend to high alcohol wines, which seems more marked in California than anywhere else, although it's observable just about everywhere. I personally like drinking rather than sipping wine, and tend to measure my consumption by volume rather than alcohol--not least because I love wine and food as a combination. The problem is that, having been around for so long, that volume is based on wines of no more than 13% alcohol. This can be highly inconvenient, and if we have to drink smaller volumes of wine, we have fewer chances to enjoy those great combinations of wine and food and fewer mouthfuls overall of the most delicious drink in the world. There is also the problem that alcoholic wines tend to taste sweet, and California wines can taste to me a little sweet in the first place, so that the whole impression can too easily be overwhelming--an assault on the palate rather than delicate stimulation and refreshment and a happy match for a wide range of foods.

W&V: What do you consider California's best cards in terms of variety? Location? Price range?

Robinson: Napa Valley is clearly one of the world's relatively few magic places for Cabernet, although probably my favorite California Cab of all is (Ridge) Monte Bello, which truly expresses its location. On my recent visit, I was very taken by the structure of some Chardonnays from the coolest reaches of Russian River Valley. The old vine Zins are California's unique gift to the world, and I think Pinots are still an (exciting) work in progress. And the Central Coast wine regions are probably still a little too new to be broadcasting precisely what should be grown where.

W&V: I know that you have looked fairly closely at organic wines. In your experience, is the taste profile of organic wines different than conventional wines? Same question, biodynamic wines.

Robinson: I don't think I can tell an average organic wine on taste alone, but I do think BD wines tend to have a sort of "wildness" about them--a real density and energy, and sometimes a sort of green, vegetal streak that is not the smell of underripe grapes but a sort of sense of things that grow in the ground. I am aware that I sound like some sort of weird mystic here, but I have often sensed a BD wine before being told that was how it was grown.

W&V: It seems to me it is possible, if one is careful, to find real bargains in unclassified Bordeaux--and by that I don't mean just cheap wines, but wines that are real value for money. In your experience, is the same thing possible in California Bordeaux varietals?

Robinson: Seems to me there is almost exaggerated polarization in the California wine market, that most of the action is at the top and bottom of the price scale--but in California there seems a real dearth of interesting value in the middle. It's possible I'm just not aware of it, but I can count on one hand the examples I can think of: some of Navarro's delicate aromatic wines; we've seen some well priced, very toothsome Avila wines here; Fetzer sometimes delivers in the middle range. But it does seem to me as though most producers just hurtle up the price scale. Whereas all over Europe, there are really interesting wines selling for the equivalent of $20 and under a bottle in the UK, so much less in a market with lower duties and taxes. Again, I apologize in advance if these mid-market California values exist--but they certainly aren't exported much.
Jancis Robinson

W&V: In your opinion, where are the best value wines coming from now?

Robinson: There are some really characterful reds from old bush vines from some of Spain's less celebrated areas--though your savvy importers (generally much more energetic than their UK counterparts) are rapidly discovering them and prices are tending to rise as a result. A little higher up the scale, France, especially southern France, can offer a wealth of really characterful artisanal estate-grown wines (red and white), and all those good value red Bordeaux, too. Southern Italy can offer some value. South Africa and South America have some great buys, too.

W&V: What, in your opinion, are California's strengths as a winegrowing region? Weaknesses?

Robinson: Climate! You're so lucky! No autumn rains, dependably cool nights, lots of sunshine and no shortage of fog to extend the growing season in many parts. Weakness? Difficult to think of many natural weaknesses, though clearly there are still lots of viticultural refinements to play with.

W&V: I don't want to open up old wounds, but I think our readers would like to get your take on the "French palate vs. California palate" controversy. Are you willing to comment on that?

Robinson: Slightly revisiting this "sweet" issue, I do think French wines taste much drier than California wines, so the average French person would find California wines a bit sweet, the way I do. That said--and this is very important--I think the average Californian raised on California wines must find basic European wine extremely thin and probably rather tart. "Where's the beef?" I don't like to over-emphasize the transatlantic difference, however, as there are now lots of passionate devotees of so-called Parkerized wines in Europe, and many Americans who would claim to have a "European" palate for more subtle wines. It's not absolutely clear-cut.

W&V: Getting away from California a bit, what is your opinion of the wines of the Pacific Northwest?

Robinson: Of course, living in London, I have a much more tenuous grasp on American wine than Americans--not least because, sadly, we tend to see very few of America's better wines on this side of the Atlantic. But it seems to me on the basis of my last visits to Washington and Oregon that the range of styles available from both states has been widening considerably. Washington still displays that lovely bright fruit, and I know the locals are crazy about Syrah, but I have to say that it's still the Bordeaux red varieties that impress me most. That said, I made two Washington Chardonnays my "wines of the week" recently.

I admire Oregon's commitment to sustainable viticulture, and like the people culture there too. The Pinot Noirs are gradually acquiring more depth of flavor, and I tasted many good white wines, by no means all of them Chardonnays, on my last visit. British Columbia has elements of Washington in the purity of fruit, and I'm looking forward to getting to the Okanagan Valley one of these days.... My early tastings suggested yields were a bit high, but I'm sure they are addressing this.

W&V: How about other parts of the U.S.?

Robinson: I have long been impressed by the Rieslings of the Finger Lakes, by some Nortons and by the natural balance of Virginia's better wines.

W&V: For our techno-geek readers, what is your view on wild yeast vs. cultured yeast?

Robinson: I think the effect of some cultured yeasts is much greater than is often realized. I think I can sometimes, in fact, detect whether a certain yeast has been used--especially on whites. Ambient yeasts satisfy an intellectual need for "naturalness," although of course commercial yeasts started off life as ambient ones somewhere. I do think that most great wines are made using ambient yeasts, but winemakers really have to know what they're doing before taking this path.

W&V: Could you comment on rating wines by the number?

Robinson: I see scores as a necessary evil when presenting a lot of tasting notes on which people want to base buying decisions so, reluctantly, on I do give scores for tasting notes of primeur offerings, for example. I don't if I'm relating, say, a tasting of amazing old wines where the notes are there more for interest than as guidance for potential purchases. I'm afraid I don't have any reference for a 100-point scale (it's not part of European culture), so I score out of 20--and find it extremely difficult.

W&V: You have said that the Master of Wine test is more difficult now than in the past. Would you sit for it again? And how important is an MW to someone just coming into the trade?

Robinson: I know that the Institute of Masters of Wine is keener than ever to see as many people as possible all over the world qualify as MWs, but not at any expense of standards. And as the world of wine gets more complex, so inevitably do the exams. (One MW of my acquaintance, who passed in the 1960s, said they had one two-hour lecture on "rest of France" which included all of France except for Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, so you can imagine how many minutes were devoted to California.) Getting the MW is a bit like climbing Everest--a huge challenge but deeply satisfying on a personal level once you've done it.

I don't think you could be ignored in the wine trade if you had managed to qualify as an MW, but it's not something you could even think of tackling if you've "just come into the trade."They advise taking all the Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses as preparation, and having that diploma is generally regarded as a prerequisite. I am a masochist and a workaholic so, yes, it's likely that I'd have a go whatever the circumstances.

W&V: A desert island question: Over your years of tasting California wine, what three or four bottlings really stand out?

Robinson: An old Inglenook from the 1940s that André Tchelistcheff very kindly brought with him for dinner chez nous in London--amazing. I kick myself for not saving the bottle, though I still have the almost equally delicious Hillcrest Calwa bottle that doesn't seem to have a vintage on it. I have memories of some great Kistler single vineyard Chardonnays, notably 1992s, and I am a huge admirer of the consistency of Ridge wines. That 1971 Monte Bello, even if supposedly a "weaker" vintage, looked great at the Paris re-run. Also, for sentimental reasons, the Mondavi Fumé Blanc that was our regular drink when Nick and I toured California and the Pacific Northwest in January, 1981.

W&V: If you, personally, could make your own wine and make it anywhere in the world, where would that be and what wine would you make?

Robinson: I am Mrs. Klutz. I am absolutely not practical and am not a natural gardener. I'm also a control freak, so would not react well to being in thrall to Nature. All of which means that I don't long to make wine myself, and deeply admire anyone who does. You'll gather from this that I have not really considered the issue.

W&V: Last question, promise. What message would you send to American winemakers wanting to play in the global wine market?

Robinson: Go easy on the pricing, please.
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