When I first fell in love with wine, Hugh Johnson’s Vintage series ran on PBS stations here in the United States. I was enthralled by his presentation of wine’s history, its place in Western civilization and culture, and its romanticism. I was hooked and have been learning about wine ever since. Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Johnson while he was in New York City for the U.S. launch of the 7th edition of his World Atlas of Wine, co-authored with Jancis Robinson. See my review of the book here.
This is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion, which lasted just over an hour in the posh setting of a private club near Central Park where Johnson was staying. We discussed the Atlas, his predictions for the 8th edition, changing wine styles and the return of elegance in wine, and why he doesn’t like rosé or Robert Parker. And ironically, this very English gentleman was unable to find a proper cup of tea in Manhattan.
On changes in wine since the 6th edition was published in 2007:
It’s all changed. But it’s not just in the field of wine. Motor cars have changed and all that. But especially in communications. Communications speeds up the change, and the only thing that’s the same is the classic regions that set the standards. Our readers complain to us every now and then, why aren’t there more pages about New Zealand or some place. We are geographers, we’re making maps … A map is about where wines come from, in as much detail as the labels need, really. If a label says Chilean Cabernet, a map showing where Chile is on the globe will do. If it’s this vineyard in this county and so on, then it may be worth giving it a map, if it’s got a track record.
A good clue is where the new maps are, or maps with expanded information. We’ve piled in a lot of new information in this edition, China, Croatia, Greece, Swartland in South Africa.
When the last edition came out, how many people were getting excited about Italian white wines? Today they’re crawling all over the Falanghinas, the Grechettos and all that stuff. It didn’t take a huge amount of technology and savvy to raise those wines up to a new level.
Greece was in the 6th edition but now nobody’s surprised to find very fine wines in Greece. It’s partly the benign influence of the European Union; we distributed so much money to the Club Meds, as we call them.
To me the iPad version is the big development. I think it’s going to be a revelation to most people. It certainly is having that effect in Britain. The maps are searchable in a way you could not do except with a magnifying glass and a bright light. To me that’s a huge difference: being able to zoom and swipe and make the maps your own. And it’s more welcoming. For some people turning the pages in a reference book is a cold experience. I think the iPad warms it up enormously. I don’t think somehow that possibility for books has hit home in the US as it has in Britain. And there aren’t many books that take advantage of the technology.
On geography’s importance for wine:
Wine is the only thing you ever buy whose value depends on where it comes from.
It’s also marketing, because once you’ve established yourself as a good maker of Cabernet in the Napa Valley, for example, you realize that this part of your vineyard ripens earlier. Take [Joseph Heitz] – it was Heitz Cabernet, but the grapes from Martha’s Vineyard made a better wine and he could get more for it. Why wouldn’t he? At some point in the evolution of a vineyard, X’s Chardonnay doesn’t cut it anymore. Why are we paying more for X’s Chardonnay? Well, you say it’s not just X’s Chardonnay, it comes from Gravelly Meadow, and there’s only a limited amount of it. So there’s marketing as well as the winemaker’s taste and the customer’s taste, but the customers won’t pick it out on their own without the decisions of the winemaker.
Which is what happened over a much, much longer time in – well the classic case is Burgundy. Burgundy’s whole system is based on climat. What is climat? It’s a piece of land that produces consistently better, different or worse wine over a really long time. Somebody must have noticed that and started to talk about it at some point in history. And then the market takes over and determines that it’s worth more money. That’s not a very different process than what’s happening in the New World, but perhaps we need a different word for it in the New World. Terroir’s a difficult one to describe or define. Climat won’t do. I’ve never really thought that one through. Single vineyard is what people say, but there could be a more evocative and special name.
What changes in the world of wine do you expect to record in the 8th edition?
One of the biggest changes in this edition over the sixth and fifth is the emphasis on grape varieties, the reintroduction of old varieties, introduction of new blends. And that is both recording and influencing a trend. And that’s very much Jancis’s work … It’s a main subplot of the Atlas. I imagine edition 8 will develop that as well as deepen our understanding of climate and soils in developing areas.
“Great wine doesn’t make statements, it poses questions. And I don’t mean the question of why is this so expensive? Not that kind of a question.”
What is it about wine that captures your imagination?
Everything. There’s nothing that doesn’t in a way. I’ve a very curious mind. … Wine makes you happy, it is infinitely various, you don’t have to have the same thing twice, every vintage brings a new aspect of it, every bottle is quietly maturing so that the next time you see it, it hopefully will be more interesting. I think it is a sort of absolutely ready made hobby for someone who admittedly has a certain amount of discretionary money and a curious mind, and who enjoys life and likes entertaining friends – a whole list of positives. There aren’t any negatives, really. It’s no more necessary that there are all these thousands of varieties of wines than there are people who cultivate thousands of varieties of tulips or roses, but they do, because it gives pleasure.
Do you ever tire of exploring new wines or do you feel like, okay I found what I like?
No, my curiosity has not dimmed. My energy may be a little bit dim from time to time but not my curiosity. I do still want to know what is under every cork and behind every label. But obviously I prioritize because life isn’t long enough. Nor is it long enough to drink bad wine. That is a tee shirt that not nearly enough people wear.
On choosing wine:
Some of the richest people I know are some of the meanest. I always know when somebody has mega-bucks because he starts telling me how little he pays for his wine. How vulgar!
When you go shopping for the weekend, do you buy the cheapest chicken you can find, or do you ask for a free-range one that comes from a good farm and so on? The same people will buy the cheapest wine. I can’t understand it. It’s because they haven’t had any nudging into actually tasting. They swirl without sniffing, I suppose.
“Everyone would admit that the idea that there’s such a thing as a 100 point wine or a 99 point wine is complete bollix … The idea that there’s a gold standard that’s objective is quite patently rubbish.”
[Wine] should ideally match other aspects of the food, too, like Italian food with Italian wine, or regional or personal interest. I think if one puts in order the motivations for choosing one wine rather than another on a wine list, let’s say in a restaurant or you have some friends over, the first thing I would look for is a personal connection, before grape variety or anything else. I’d say you know this person, you know this place, we’ve been there, talked about it, let’s recall it in wine form. People love that – they love anything personal. People who are not specialists in wine find it hard to get into the subject, to have anything to say about it. So you make it a talking point in whatever way you can. That’s how I see it.
Would you like some tea? I’ll try to get us some. [He leaves the room for a moment, then returns.] The porter said he’d bring us some tea.
On changing wine styles:
Well, we have this whole business about lightening up a bit, which has been my hobby horse for ages. Every year in my Pocket Wine Book I write this first chapter called the agenda, and that’s where I trot out my hobby horses. And for years I’ve been saying for God’s sake I don’t want oak, I want to taste the wine, not the barrel. And I want wine which doesn’t clobber me on the first glass – I hate over-strong wine. High alcohol yeah, or over-extracted, wines that are too emphatic. Balance is everything. Nor do I see why a winemaker who decides these things would want to make a wine of which you only want one or two glasses. If I were in that business, my first goal would be to make a wine where people would automatically order a second bottle – I’d get two sales instead of one! You should make it irresistibly drinkable, and then think about the rest.
And you see that changing now?
Yes, it’s very much a topic in the wine business, isn’t it? Why did the alcohol levels drift up? That’s not much of a mystery, people have been looking for riper grapes, but it is mysterious how back in the Napa Valley complete Cabs that used to be 12 percent alcohol now have to be 14-and-a-half to impress anybody. I think it’s partly the haste of the whole thing – it’s good to look good straight away. And I’m sure those old BV’s [Beaulieu Vineyard] didn’t look good right away. They needed bottle age, and bottle age is a luxury people either can’t afford or they’re simply not interested, or they don’t understand.
The classic Napa Cabs of olden days didn’t have to be made to taste delicious to the first taster, because there weren’t all these competitive tastings. There wasn’t a Robert Parker sniffing and writing down his scores in a big hurry. Nobody was in a big hurry. As the price went up they were borrowing the money from the bank, and the interest had to be paid, there was a price on everything, including time. Now nobody’s prepared to pay that price, that time premium. So wines are made to be flattering soon, and one of the ways you do that is to increase the alcohol.
There is a trend towards rosé, now how did that happen? Who gave people permission suddenly to like something that had been considered rather sort of … [he waves his hand dismissively.] Writers, of course, but why now? Why at the juncture they did? They could have done that anytime in the last 20 years.
I think it’s more sort of easing up of attitudes rather than specific recommendations. And it’s got a lot to do with more women being the buyers, I think, probably, because they’re not so fussed about attitudes as men. They don’t think, Oh, it had better be red because that’s more important, they just think, What would I like?
It is a funny thing about rosé wine. I’ve never understood why, it is all a bit middling. It’s very rare to find a rosé that really makes a statement, isn’t it? A varietal statement or anything else, really. I can have a marvelous Pinot Noir rosé, and a lot of people would say it isn’t what it could be if it was red. But the scent of a fresh Pinot Noir in a rosé can be divine. Most rosé – let’s face it is just middling, neither here nor there. Why does it entertain people more than white wine? It doesn’t taste better than white wine, they just like the color. It’s terribly simple, I think.
On his personal wine preferences:
Bordeaux yes, and more and more Burgundy. One of the developments that’s been quietly going on almost unremarked is the improvement in the quality of Burgundy in general, and red Burgundy in particular. And we now realize how poor it was for decades. We accepted the Burgundies that were being made in the 60s, 70s and 80s and did not realize that they could up their game – and have done.
What are your favorite wine regions?
The south of France holds a great deal of interest for me. The wines are good value. They don’t have exaggerated views of their own importance, they pump up the quality without pumping up the price. Characters are emerging, grape varieties are emerging.
You’ve got some very ambitious people taking a look at grenache, and carignan, grapes that were just considered to be bulk material and saying, Wait a minute, we’ve got these old vines. Take the wines seriously and you’ve got some marvelous character here.
A lot of them are incomers, really. One person I know is Justin Howard-Sneyd, who is making a wine called Domaine of the Bee. Bee as in buzz. He is down near the Spanish border in Maury, and he’s pouring his heart and soul into making a dry red of grapes that would have been made into a vin naturel, I think. He’s an example of many who have started to take the land seriously there. They have self-confidence, and contacts to make a market which the peasants could never do.
The peasants were encouraged to take their grapes to the co-op. But a very interesting part of this development that harks back in time is the flying winemakers. The actual vintage was in the 1980s, I think, when my friend Tony Laithwaite first hired a young Australian winemaker to come over for the vintage. The managers of one of the cooperative cellars thought this young Australian was mad and didn’t know what he was doing. The first thing he did was scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. They thought he was mad. And then they tasted the wine, and I’ll remember this to my dying day, the wine from their grapes – they’d got used to the way it used to taste – it tastes of fruit! Good Lord, this is extraordinary! That was the effect of the hose! Hygiene is important. And then of course the flying winemaker concept was good for everybody because the guy had twice as many vintages in his life and therefore twice as much experience.
[At this point white-jacketed waiter walks into the room and talks to two elderly ladies who arrived after us.]
That’s the waiter who said I’ll get you some tea. They must be laying it down to mature, don’t you think?
On modern wine culture:
Well there’s the sort of geeky aspect of it, which is a subculture, [but] our culture at large wouldn’t be the same without wine. It’s a very interesting question – how would you define the way it is now. It’s subconscious really, isn’t it? It has iconic and symbolic values, no question about it. A range of personal values. But that’s one of the things I love about the subject – you can take it from so many directions. I’ve done the geography and the history to a degree, even the science, rather superficially, and could still go on finding different ways of approaching the subject.
What advice would you give the modern consumer, who maybe enjoys wine but doesn’t know much about it, is maybe a little intimidated by the prices?
The same advice as I would always give, which is to taste around. Don’t make up your mind straight away what you like best, but give yourself a field of comparison, and share it with your friends. It sounds so absolutely fundamental, but a bunch of people together buying a bunch of bottles and sharing them leads to a conversation as well as a lot of fun, from which everybody will emerge with a little bit of knowledge, even if it’s what they don’t like. I mean, in some way they will be the wiser. And I would say don’t spend more than you can comfortably afford as well. People get uneasy when they say, Oh this is supposed to be wonderful and it’s a hundred bucks, and frankly I think I was conned. It puts a damper on the whole thing.
What do you think of wine writing today with the proliferation of blogs?
I can’t even keep up with it. I have my little corner, people I know, people I follow, magazines I read. I’m hugely impressed with how much some people know about their own patch, my dear colleague being the most impressive of the lot, quite frankly. The smartest thing I ever did was tempt her to come and help. Where would my Atlas be 40 years later if it were not for Jancis? It would look pretty old fashioned, frankly.
I’m fascinated by modern wine writing. I am the editorial advisor of The World of Fine Wine. Guys like David Schildnecht [of The Wine Advocate] blow me away with the intensity of their knowledge and passion. I’ve never been of that school. I’ve always wanted to carry the reader with me. I would rather say less to more people than more to less people.
Are there any writers you feel are doing that today?
We’ve got a bunch in Britain. And of course personality comes into it. You get a guy like Matt Kramer [of Wine Spectator] for example, who puts a very distinct stamp on it. He’s opinionated, accurate and fun to read, so it creates a new little niche.
You get a great bull dozer like Robert Parker, who I think doesn’t add anything. I’m not trying to be provocative, I just think he has muddied the waters for a lot of people by setting up a system which is fundamentally misleading. Everyone would admit that the idea that there’s such a thing as a 100 point wine or a 99 point wine is complete bollix. Therefore it’s misleading, and it gives people an expectation of an absolute standard which simply doesn’t exist. Everything is subjective. The idea that there’s a gold standard that’s objective is quite patently rubbish. And when it’s done with a lot of personality behind it, a lot of effort behind it, a lot of publicity behind it, it has helped wine sales in America, no question about it. It’s helped wine merchants sell stuff – not necessarily the right stuff.
And what has it done for wine culture? It doesn’t promote understanding. We all know America’s famous for wanting the best and wanting it now, but if that’s your attitude you’re never really going to get the point of wine. It’s a screen between you and reality. The things that make wine charming, seductive, enjoyable and so on do not reside in concentration. It’s a misunderstanding of the whole thing. It’s certainly true that over time the reason you buy a First Growth is because it’s a First Growth, but also because the wines over time have more intensity and are more consistent. But that doesn’t mean that because a wine is intense that it’s a better wine. Absolutely not.
What should we look for instead of concentration?
Harmony, something unmeasurable – harmony. The whole thing coming together in a convincing way with a personality that’s attractive, that doesn’t overstate, which reminds you of something, in which the elements of alcohol, acidity, extract and so on are not fighting. They are balanced, they complement each other, and in many cases and historically, it has taken time for this harmonious state to come about. Of course, as we touched on before, the modern winemaker doesn’t have time, his customer doesn’t have time, so he builds up something which, on first glance, is terrific, and thus, to my mind, actually puts people off the scent of what is really good. And the really good wine as I said before, is one of which you immediately want another glass. Partly because it’s satisfying but partly because it’s asking questions. My favorite quote from myself, is that great wine doesn’t make statements, it poses questions. And I don’t mean the question of why is this so expensive? Not that kind of a question.
It engages your interest, It makes you want to pursue it. There’s a little flavor here which I love, where does it come from, what does it remind me of? Those kinds of questions.
[At this point the waiter returns with tea for the ladies on the other side of the room.]
Well, the ladies were more convincing in their order for tea than I was. I don’t know what happened. The porter said I’ll get it for you and then just went away. So as a tea party this has been a complete failure, I’m so sorry. That could be your headline: “A failed tea party.”
In Washington that has a different meaning these days.
Maybe he was making a point.
[The waiter then approaches and asks if we would like something to drink, but Johnson needs to leave soon, so we decline.]
What advice would you give wine writers, whether they’re just starting out or whether they’ve been doing it for 15 or 20 years?
Think about your readers. Entertain your readers. This is not just for wine writers but writers of all kinds. Your readers come first – it’s not just my mind, and I’ve got to put across what I’m thinking. … if you’re actually trying to impart information, you want to attract people in, you don’t want to exclude people. You want them to become interested in what you’re writing about. So that is the only thing I think I could positively contribute.
Humor is never out of place. It shouldn’t be in regards to wine. If you can’t laugh about it, do something else.