Yesterday, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW launched the eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine. Listening to these two giants of wine communication, I realised that it is largely thanks to them that I am where I am today.
But before I explain their separate roles, I have to provide a little background.
Way back in 1971, when Dirty Harry was playing in my local cinema and Rod Stewart and James Taylor had respectively just released Maggie May and You’ve Got a Friend, I was struggling with French at school. Luckily, my parents found a solution. As the owners of a country hotel in the south of England, they knew a friendly wine merchant who offered to find me an unpaid job in France during the Easter holidays.
A few weeks later, I found myself riddling bottles in splendid isolation in the cellars of Charles Heidsieck in Reims. I also recall the tedium of putting bottles onto a conveyor belt, and spending what seemed to be a lifetime on the bottling line holding a stick with which I had to prod the hopper every time there was a stoppage in the flow of corks.
I don’t know how much French I learned – apart from some useful slang – and I certainly didn’t fully catch the wine bug. But I was interested enough to want to read a book on the subject.
That book was called WINE. I think it had a red cover and few if any illustrations; it had been written in 1966 by the wine correspondent of The Sunday Times, a young man called Hugh Johnson. What I recall most vividly was that it was full of personal anecdotes, one of which has always stuck in my mind. Johnson describes how he had been given a half-full bottle of Chateau Montrose after a tasting and had taken it with him to drink with his lunch at a cheap, roadside, Routier restaurant. The truck drivers at the next table who were washing their Poulet Frites – or whatever – down with a basic red in chipped tumblers, were evidently intrigued by the Englishman and his claret. He gave them some, and their faces were transformed by the experience of a beverage unlike any that had ever passed their lips.
The enthusiasm that flowed from every page of WINE caught my imagination much as the Montrose had caught the truckers’. Instead of focusing on working in the hotel kitchen and learning how to cook, I began to read as much as I could on wine and devoured the first Atlas which was published at around the time when I was serving my time in Champagne. Precociously, I took over the wine cellar at 18 – at the beginning of my pre-university gap year (which has extended until the present day). I imported some Fitou in the back of a Volkswagen van and, aged 20, after the sale of my parents’ hotel, ran away with the then love of my life to Burgundy.
Once there, and eager to learn about the region, I was told about a good article by an Englishman called Christopher Fielden that had been published in a magazine called Wine & Spirit. I called to ask if I could buy a copy and, to cut a long story short, found myself accepting a commission to write a piece about Burgundian labelling legislation.
The editor who asked me to write what I’m sure was a monumentally tedious slab of text was a young woman called Jancis Robinson, and she was the first person ever to pay for anything I had written. A few years later, thanks in part to my subsequent contributions to Wine & Spirit, her publisher gave me the opportunity to launch a consumer magazine that began life as the inelegantly named What? Wine and eventually became Wine International. That, in turn, led to a newspaper column in the Sunday Telegraph, a number of books and videos and, since 2006, my role at Meininger’s Wine Business International.
So, this is a brief and very personal thank you to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW and my congratulations to both of them on their publication of the latest and largest World Atlas of Wine.