Icons with feet on the ground

Jancis Robinson MW OBE has sold her website to Recurrent Media, a venture capital business. Robert Joseph looks back at the many years of work that led up to this sale – and sees surprising parallels between the British wine critic and a global rock icon.

Robert Joseph reflects about Jancis Robinson’s remarkable career
Robert Joseph reflects about Jancis Robinson’s remarkable career

Most people would know Jancis Robinson as a top flight critic, the author of a long list of authoritative books, a reliable keynote presenter, and an activist for inclusiveness and other charities. Of course Jancis Robinson is all of these, but she is also, and has always been, a consummate entrepreneur.

I met her in 1977. At the time, she was the recently-appointed editor of a trade magazine called Wine & Spirit, and she commissioned and published my first ever piece of wine writing. She had already co-founded a newsletter called the Drinker’s Digest, a year before a lawyer on the other side of the Atlantic published the first issue of The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate. Drinker’s Digest morphed into an annual buyer’s guide called the Which? Wine Guide, the first of its kind in the UK.

Another first came in the form of The Wine Programme TV series which led to several subsequent television efforts, such as 1995’s Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course (BBC) that saw Robinson and/or her husband, Nick Lander, being involved as producers.

Fashion

Looking at her career over the last 40 or so years, I’m reminded of a story told about David Bowie after Live Aid, the simultaneous 1985 rock concerts put together in London, Philadelphia and elsewhere by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for the famine-stricken inhabitants of Ethiopia. The coordination of performances by the long list of world-famous musicians and bands was run like a military operation. As each carefully-timed performance ended, the stage revolved to allow the next act to begin with the briefest of delays. When the performers walked off in London, they were directed to a marquee where top fashion photographer David Bailey briefly captured the moment on film. 

Of all the illustrious acts in the UK capital, David Bowie was one of only two (the other was Brian Ferry) who asked to approve the images before they were released. Bowie gave a superlative performance that day, but he never lost sight of the importance of controlling his image. Jancis Robinson has never worn outfits and makeup as outrageous as Bowie’s stage-wear, of course, but she’s always had a look. When I first knew her in the 1980s, it was a cape and beret; later, it was the Japanese designer Issey Miyake.

I Can't Give Everything Away

There are other parallels. The singer launched the BowieNet online platform for his fans in September 1998, at a time when the wine critic was still turning down proposals from would-be dot.com investors. 

When she went online with jancisrobinson.com in 2000, she was not the first wine writer to do so, but the following year, she was the first to start a successful subscription service and, like Bowie, she did it under her own steam, contracting designers to produce the website she wanted. 

Over the last 20 years, that site has become an impressive media platform. She, and a growing number of contributors, have created and are constantly building a publication which, if it were available in print form, would arguably outclass everything else on the market in its combination of breadth and depth. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the value Jancis Robinson herself has brought to the enterprise. She has always had a pair of binoculars to hand with which to judge which way the wind is blowing. In this respect, the Financial Times, one of the world’s most international publications, has been the perfect place for her to have a column. Far better than her previous home at the UK Sunday Times, whose readers tend to have UK passports.

Win

Just as important as her ability to plot a course, remarkably, given her volume of output over several decades, Robinson has not put a foot wrong in navigating it. No one has ever seriously impugned Robert Parker’s own integrity, but people who have worked for him have certainly caused the Emperor of Wine moments of embarrassment. When the two critics had their famous public spat over the quality of 2003 Château Pavie, it was the Briton who emerged with the greater dignity – and quite possibly an increased global audience.

When Parker dropped a bombshell by selling his majority stake in the Wine Advocate to Singapore investors in 2012, eyebrows were raised over whether he had succumbed to opportunism. The newsletter’s subsequent acquisition by Michelin seven years later seemed to make more sense.

More consideration seems to have gone into Robinson’s sale of her website. While she was early to realise and exploit the growing Asian, and especially Chinese interest in wine (there is a section of the website in Mandarin, and she has been a frequent visitor to the region), Robinson has also always been aware of the need to build a following in the US. Recurrent already boasts an existing online audience of 45m for its range of media, and would seem to have the skills and funding to turn their new acquisition into a very strong platform.  

Young (and Not So Young) Americans

I love the frankness with which she has admitted actively taking a year to seek out precisely the right kind of US buyer. Most Britons would have preferred to say something along the lines of “Well, an offer came out of the blue, and I really couldn’t refuse it!” 

This open acknowledgement of the financial value of what she has created and is likely to go on creating reminds me again of David Bowie and the $55m he raised in 1997 with his $1,000 Bowie Bonds.

The wine world often seems to have an ambivalent attitude to money, marketing and branding, all of which are seen as somehow sullying the purity and integrity of the liquid in the bottle. Robinson and Bowie have a simple and literally valuable response to that way of thinking. Being uncompromisingly good at what you do and actively and innovatively monetising it are not incompatible. And that’s as true of wine producers and distributors as of wine critics. 

Jancis Robinson will never be even fractionally as famous as the creator of Ziggy Stardust, and she’s done a lot less shape-shifting, but in the small world of wine, she’s filled and is continuing to fill a very similar space.

Robert Joseph

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