Dunne on Wine

UC Davis lands Jancis Robinson’s 40 years of wine documentation

A few of Jancis Robinson’s wine-writing notebooks as they are prepared for cataloging at UC Davis
A few of Jancis Robinson’s wine-writing notebooks as they are prepared for cataloging at UC Davis

London long has been the commercial and cultural center of the European wine trade. As a consequence, it has spawned the world’s most erudite, effective and enduring school of wine commentators. Even people only casually interested in wine are apt to remember a spirited and poetic insight provided by such British wine writers as Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and Gerald Asher.

Today, the most widely read and influential member of that community is Jancis Robinson. Two weeks ago, in taking stock of her 40 years of wine writing, she announced that she was donating her papers – notebooks, clippings, scripts, videos, photos and the like – to the Peter J. Shields Library at UC Davis.

For university officials, this bulky trove enhances the library’s rising reputation as the calm and quiet warehouse where academics, researchers, writers and students can explore the pivotal personalities and critical issues shaping the food and wine scene of the 20th and 21st centuries. (Maybe one of them will pin down just how many wine books Robinson has published. She says she has lost count, but is sure it is more than 20.)

A year ago, Hugh Johnson donated his papers to Shields, which he called “the greatest wine library in the world.” Shelves in Fort Knox-like vaults already are stacked with boxes containing the papers of such culinary luminaries and institutions as Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi, UC Davis grape breeder Dr. Harold Olmo and the Sacramento grocery store Corti Brothers.

“I feel extremely honored that all my papers, notebooks, tasting notes and professional photographs have found a home in a part of the world that has been so important to me and my life’s work in wine,” Robinson said in a prepared statement.

The dozen or so boxes she shipped to Davis included 275 notebooks, copies of her published work, and correspondence with the likes of American wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., British food writer Elizabeth David and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others. Library officials expect to have the material catalogued and available to the public in April.

Robinson didn’t set out to be a wine journalist. After earning a master’s degree in mathematics and philosophy at St. Anne’s College of Oxford University in 1971, she began to write about fashion.

At Oxford, however, she’d tasted a 1959 red Burgundy, a wine of such revelation that the memory of it persuaded her to shift her attention from runway to vineyard. “It made me realize that great wine was not only sensually satisfying, but intellectually stimulating,” said Robinson in a recent exchange of emails.

She began to write about wine on Dec. 1, 1975, when she joined the British trade magazine Wine & Spirit as assistant editor. Wine pretty much has constituted her professional life since then. In 1984 she became the first person outside the wine trade to pass the stiff Master of Wine exams, one year after she became writer and presenter of “The Wine Programme,” believed to be the first televised series on wine.

Today, she posts daily on her subscription website, JancisRobinson.com, which she established in 2000. She also contributes a weekly wine column for The Financial Times, which she has been doing since 1990, writes a bimonthly syndicated column, travels often to lecture, judge and report, and steadily updates her books for new editions.

Her books range from the slim and practical “How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine” to the thick and cerebral “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” the fourth edition of which resulted in her fourth James Beard Award last year.

She doesn’t do it all on her own. Her website, for one, has 13 other contributing writers, editors and columnists, including her husband, Nick Lander, who also writes of food and restaurants for The Financial Times.

Regardless of format, her voice is smart and brisk even when providing deep background, and assured without being preachy. She tends to favor wines of refinement and subtlety more than mass and power. Nowadays, wines aren’t flawed technically nearly as often as when she started to write about them, but she rues that so many are downright dull.

Philosophically, she prefers to taste wines blind, doesn’t believe in an “an absolute correlation between price and quality” and abides by a “stream of consciousness” approach to writing tasting notes, meaning she doesn’t revisit and amplify her initial impressions of a wine.

In our emailing, Robinson addressed a few other topics. She’ll speak at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Peter J. Shields Library of UC Davis.

Q: Why did you select UC Davis for your archives?

A: Because they asked. … (Their timing was prescient, she also noted.) A month ago we moved from a four-floor Victorian family house in Hampstead to a brand new 14th-floor apartment – the smallest of lofts!

Q: What will researchers learn of you by going through the papers you have donated to UC Davis?

A: I’m not sure, as I certainly didn’t have time to read through everything I sent. I dread to think.

Q: What will most surprise them about you and about your approach to writing of wine?

A: I’m not sure. Perhaps that I have quite a journalistic approach, always looking for something new and entertaining. I think wine can easily be boring for most people.

Q: What’s been the key to remaining so highly motivated in writing of wine?

A: The fact that the world of wine keeps changing and there is always something new to write about. Plus my daily website deadline, my weekly Financial Times (deadline) and my bimonthly (deadline) for a column I syndicate around the world.

Q: What sets apart your wine writing, your style, from other wine writers?

A: I really think you have to answer that rather than me! The only thing I would say is that I am determined to write for my readers rather than to be quoted by producers in their sales pitches. So when describing wines I tend to focus on the structure and value rather than on long lists of flavors. I don’t think people get up in the morning and say, “I have to get a wine that tastes of fennel, blackberry jam, hickory smoke and grilled watermelon.”

Q: Since 2004 you have been a member of the Royal Household Wine Committee, advising the queen on what wines to stock at Buckingham Palace. With what wine do you find yourself continually restocking the queen’s cellar?

A: Inexpensive reds and whites for big receptions, such as New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Q: What’s your desert-island wine?

A: Top quality Madeira, because you never know whether your desert island is going to be hot or cold. Madeira has the acidity to refresh but the alcohol to warm – and an open bottle will last forever. It’s also oceanic – made on an island in the middle of the Atlantic.

Q: What region or regions are providing the most interesting high-value wines these days?

A: Chile for reds, South Africa for whites.

Q: When you think of California, what do you see as its untapped potential?

A: Wine that ordinary people can afford, and that have some local rather than industrial character.

Q: What is a great wine?

A: A wine that refreshes, is perfectly balanced, improves over time and expresses where it comes from.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’ll start on the eighth edition of “The World Atlas of Wine” in the next year or two. My “24-Hour Wine Expert” marked a bit of a departure for me, but it’s really JancisRobinson.com that I spend most time on, many hours every day. It’s that rare beast, a commercially successful subscription website with no ads and no sponsorship, though about a third of the articles are free.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

Jancis Robinson at UC Davis

Jancis Robinson is to speak on her four decades of wine writing starting at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Peter J. Shields Library of UC Davis. The event is free, but reservations are required: https://library.ucdavis.edu/joinjancis. The venue already has been booked to capacity, but sponsors have created a waitlist should space become available. Alder Yarrow of the San Francisco wine blog Vinography, a columnist on Robinson’s website, is to moderate the session.