Devil's Advocate - When Jancis Robinson was a Wine Influencer

Instagrammers and influencers are supplanting traditional wine critics. Robert Joseph suggests that this is less of a novelty than some might suppose.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

The multi-award-winning Hollywood star, Rod Steiger once, in an interview, described his and every other successful actor’s career as an arc. “Who’s Rod Steiger. Get Rod Steiger. Get a young Rod Steiger, Who was Rod Steiger?” At the time he had recently won an Oscar for In The Heat of the Night and just played the French emperor in the 1970 epic, Napoleon, but he knew that it doesn’t take long for the spotlight of fame to swing away.

The world of wine communication is no different. Writers of my generation – I was born in 1955 - remember and may have tasted with the ‘old guard’ of Edmund Penning-Rowsell, wine critic of the Financial Times, David Peppercorn MW, and Harry Waugh, but these names will ring fewer bells with anyone born 25 years after me. And, sooner rather than later, the same will be true of Robert Parker, Hugh Johnson, Steven Spurrier and Jancis Robinson MW.

Which, of course, raises the question of whose names will be on the lips of wine drinkers in a decade or two, or three?

And the much more immediate question of whose names are on their lips today.

I was thinking about this when I read the online complaint by a middle-aged male wine commentator about having been ‘uninvited’ from a generic press trip. The organisers, it seems, had decided to focus their attention – and budget – on female influencers and told him that he wasn’t going to visit their vineyards after all. While totally empathising with his annoyance at having an invitation rescinded – there’s no excuse for bad manners – I also understand why anyone who has taken the time and trouble to learn their craft would resent having their place being taken by younger, less qualified competitors.

However, that unnamed region, like any wine company with hospitality to offer, has to decide how best to spend its budget. And if its marketing team decided that influencers are more likely to help boost sales (the reason – to be blunt - behind issuing these kinds of invitation), they shouldn’t be blamed for targeting them.

It’s also worth saying that this is not the first time that young women have supplanted older males as wine communicators. In 1977, at the age of 27, Jancis Robinson launched a monthly publication called Drinker’s Digest, initially building up subscriptions by delivering sample copies by hand to her neighbours in London. Forty-five years ago, a self-published wine newsletter was as novel a concept as Instagram tasting recommendations are today.

Like Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson was a pioneering wine influencer

A few years later, Robinson took over from Penning-Rowsell as wine critic at the Financial Times and Jane Macquitty and Joanna Simon were respectively given the same roles at the Times and Sunday Times. This, it should be remembered, was at a time when only a tiny minority of attendees of tastings in London and Bordeaux lacked testicles.

By the time she began writing for the FT, Robinson had passed her WSET Diploma, but given their youth at the time, neither she, Macquitty nor Simon had the historic tasting experience of the older male critics. But nor did I, when I landed the job of wine critic of the Sunday Telegraph in 1984, one year short of my 30th birthday.

What the three women had, and I aspired to, was curiosity, eagerness to learn and, crucially, the ability to communicate with our audiences – just like modern influencers.

Having spent time talking to and tasted with these influencers, I believe that some (and I'm only talking about ones who behave ethically) will be just as respected for their knowledge as their forebears, while others will not. Just like some of the male and female critics who’ve come and gone over the last few decades. 

As Steiger said about talent, in a different interview, “If you got something, it'll come out, and if you don't, that'll come out, too.” I’ve no idea how helpful he was to young would-be actors – beyond asking them whether they needed to join the profession or simply wanted to and focusing his attention on the former, but I do know the time and trouble Jancis Robinson has privately taken to assist a number of ambitious young communicators at the beginning of their careers.

And that kind of effort can, in its way, be as valuable a way of being remembered as anything that has appeared in public.

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