Mistress of Wine

This story was first published in Capital magazine, Wellington, March 2017.

If you had 15 minutes to talk with the most famous person in your profession, what would you ask them?

It was the question I kept asking myself in the lead up to 15 minutes with Jancis Robinson – author of the world’s biggest wine website, editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine (latest edition published 2015) and Wine Grapes, which weighs in at over 3 kgs and was first published in 2012.

This year she visited New Zealand to speak at the country’s biggest ever wine gig, Pinot Noir NZ 2017, held in Wellington on the first three days (and nights) of February.

Over 600 delegates attended, including a heavy metal rock star who makes wine (Maynard Keenan), a professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology (Dame Anne Salmond) and several Masters of Wine, including Jancis Robinson. A handful of journalists each had 15 precious minutes to talk with her. So, what did we ask?

I can only speak for myself as other stories have yet to emerge but talk about a tricky task. What could I cover in such a brief timeframe?

What does she think of New Zealand Pinot Noir? We eventually came to that, but to begin with, I wanted to know what makes this famous hard working writer tick?

She had her first story published when she was 15 years old and while a passion for wine was sparked later on, she knew she wanted to write from that tender age.

And so she has written and continues to do so more prolifically than any other wine writer in the world. At least in terms of regularly of reporting and the length of her indepth analysis on wine. The front page of her subscription based website has 263,000 followers, so it’s little wonder that she updates it several times a week and now has a team of 12 writers, including three other Masters of Wine and a roll call of highly respected wine writers from around the world.

She does not rely on the others for the global perspective on wine, however, because she seems to be constantly on the road, so to speak. So, the first thing I ask her is not about wine, but about travel.

It’s this: Do you take a sleeping pill to get through long plane journeys?

“I don’t, actually,” she says, in the same characteristic matter of fact manner that she writes with.
“I have found that the older I get, the less sleep I need and I get used to it. I think the most important thing is to set your watch to where you’re going and ignore the crew’s attempts to make you go to sleep immediately. I try to sync myself into where I’m going as soon as I get on the plane.”

This works well for her, given that she is constantly going somewhere. She came to New Zealand for the first week of February this year and then hot footed it to South America in the second week of the month, where she found Chile so hot and dry in comparison that she and her food writing husband, Nick Lander, were shocked by the brown and burnt countryside.
In between the two countries, she posted at least eight new stories on her website and wrote her weekly newsletter to subscribers.

So, while combatting torrential rain and gail force winds one week, jetlag and heat waves the next, she writes. That’s how she spends her time on planes.

“I’m a workaholic. It’s great to take masses of work on the plane and it feels like a release to watch a movie, if I finish writing. I take books and get very neurotic if I don’t have anything to read but I tend to read only on the descent when you’re not allowed to use your laptop,” she says.

The last book she read was “His Bloody Project”. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize. She loved it but she never would have chosen it.
”I needed it to be recommended by a friend because a book with that title wouldn’t  immediately make me think ‘that sounds like a great book to me’, but it was a good read.”

The success of her own writing online is fuelled, in part, by her profile as the long-standing wine columnist for the Financial Times (FT) and her most influential mentor was her predecessor there – Edmund Penning-Rowsell (1913–2002). He was a left leaning British journalist who collected wine, wrote about it and was considered by many to be the doyen of English wine writers.

“What I most admired about him – apart from being very proper – was that he was utterly unashamed about professing ignorance and he would always ask questions and I think that’s a very good lesson. Don’t cover up ignorance; ask people if you don’t know.”

She is not only naturally curious herself, but an addict when it comes to writing the findings of her own curiosity, describing her online wine posts as being updated “immodestly” (her own words). Anyone who reads JancisRobinson.com can testify to that. It is not only writing, travelling and editing massive wine tomes that makes her highly sought after as a wine conference speaker, however, as she also consults on wine to Queen Elizabeth II, but our brief time doesn’t touch on that. I still want to know what makes Jancis Robinson tick. How does she relax? When does she relax and what does she drink when she relaxes?
“Eat, drink wine and read.”

These are the answers to all three questions, but sipping and swallowing a glass of the stuff only happens after she has tasted her way through dozens of bottles – and written the notes to prove it.

And so to the question that Kiwi wine lovers really want the answer to: What does she think of New Zealand Pinot Noir?

Jancis Robinson MW… on New Zealand Pinot Noir 
“It all hangs out,” she says with a smile, adding that, “If you love Burgundy, there are only a handful of New Zealand Pinot Noir styles that you would go for.”
The description of Kiwi Pinot Noir as a wine where it all hangs out is shorthand for saying that it lacks the subtlety that red Burgundy is held in such high regard for. Savoury flavours tend to be the focus of traditional European winemakers – rather than the juicy, fruity taste that drives most New Zealand Pinot Noir. But she also suggests that it’s time to ditch the comparisons between New Zealand and Burgundy (the holy grail, for many Pinot Noir drinkers).


“I think we’re past the old world versus new world wine comparisons these days. New Zealand Pinot Noir producers are moving towards being more confident in making their own styles of wines, which is important.

“Even if those of us who adore Burgundy would like to find a New Zealand wine that is stylistically close, I think New Zealand Pinot Noir makers should establish their own styles.”

And so they are doing, she reports on her website in one of her many, immodestly regular updates. Some are free to read while the majority are accessed these days only by subscribers and therein lies the reason for her workaholicism.

“The last thing I want is for someone who reads my site to say ‘you’re gouging me’,” she tells me during our 15 precious minutes.

“I write every day because, yes, I do feel compelled to get the information out and it comes naturally to me, it always has. Most importantly, I want to deliver value to those who subscribe to the site.”
And then we’re done. We touch on who she would invite to a dinner party and most are deceased wine people and relatives.

The dinner party question…

The dinner party question is especially relevant to Jancis because food is held in high esteem in her household where both her husband and her son are chefs. Her husband is Nick Lander, a well known British author, food critic and former restaurateur, who travels with her, writing food reviews on her website.
The couple have three children; two girls and a boy, who has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a London restaurateur. The oldest girl is now a primary school teacher and the youngest one is in the fashion industry.
So, who would she have to a dream dinner party?
“I’m never very good at these questions, although I know I’d love to have met (the late) Andre Simon (a French born wine merchant and writer) and Jean-Pierre Mouiex (of Chateau Petrus) and I’d like to have met my maternal grandfather. I absolutely love the music of Handel but I’m not sure I would have wanted to meet him. Sometimes the people you most admire are best admired from afar so that your dreams of what they are like are not shattered.”

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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