It was with some trepidation that I sat in the lobby of a New York hotel waiting to interview Jancis Robinson, one of the world's preeminent wine authorities. Her tome, THE OXFORD COMPANION TO WINE, is considered by many to be the most important wine book of recent history. Frank Prial, of The New York Times, has called it "easily the most complete compendium of wine knowledge assembled in modern times." I, the wine illiterate, was trying to memorize all of the telling tidbits about wine that I could pull from my addled brain that would guarantee Robinson's confidence and grant me a rewarding interview. The only bit of truth that I could honestly utter was that I had sat up most of the night, with enthusiasm, reading her just-released memoir, TASTING PLEASURE: CONFESSIONS OF A WINE LOVER.
Just as my nerves were fraying, in flew an absolutely stunning blonde with a stylish bob, dressed in a leather suit complete with miniskirt and chicly downtown eyeglasses, toting tons of shopping bags none from any of New York's wine or food emporiums. Though I had imagined my interviewee as a dour, middle-aged English woman, I somehow knew that this attractive woman was she. "Have you had lunch? I'm starving! Let's hustle to the dining room and chat," was my introduction to this international authority on wine.
"You must be wondering about all of the bags," said Jancis as we sat down in a comfortable banquette. In explanation, she immediately pulled three sheets of paper from her commodious purse, each containing a list written in what appeared to be a differentchild'shandwriting. "Although everyone thinks that I am in the States promoting my book, I am actually working as personal shopper for my three children." She giggled, clearly having a wonderful time playing the indulgent mom.
We quickly ordered a light vegetarian lunch. And, as though times had not changed one bit, one of the world's leading wine authorities, who just happened to be a woman, had to practically beg to see a wine list. The waiter was willing to pour us each a glass of wine but seemed to find it difficult to believe that we would actually know how to select from a list and then know what to do with an entire bottle. Jancis quietly but firmly insisted and promptly ordered a half bottle of a "jaunty" California red. We raised a toast to our children and began to chat as comfortably as if we were dear friends.
My intimidation melted away. Not only is Jancis Robinson an expert on the wines of the world, she is an expert at making you feel that your point of view is just as valid as those of the most skilled authorities. She inquired of my opinion as though it would merit consideration. I almost immediately felt as though I did have something to say about wine but I was smart enough to keep it to myself!
I did have the courage to ask if she could give her definition of the difference between Old World and New World wines. "This difference is less and less marked. But, stereotypically, the wines of France are reticent, last longer, are made for food, and aren't usually ready to drink when first bottled, while the wines of the New World are right up-front, often don't last terribly well, and in fact, are often best as they are bottled. They also tend to be technically perfect." Since I clearly remember the inexpensive California jug wines of my youth and have drunk more than my share of now-expensive American wines, I inquired with a bit of hesitation about the extremely high prices of many wines, both Old and New World. Jancis replied, "The international wine press presents a very accessible scoreboard to the consumer. Wine is a finite commodity, while the number of avid consumers increases almost daily. The demanded quantity just cannot keep pace with the interest. Therefore producers can charge almost whatever they like. With California wines, there is also the human factor of pride in product that can add to the price a bit of 'I can charge as much as I like for doing the best that I can.' And then there is the Asian influence. Asian consumers seem to be willing to spend whatever it takes to get the wines they want." She added, "If you really love wine and can't afford to spend a great deal of money, there are still many terrific wines for $10 to I think that the best-valued red wine in the world is from Chile, and Argentina is right behind." Her opinion was offered with a light hand and an easy grace, in a far more relaxed manner than I would have imagined from one whose opinion can send the price of a specific wine soaring.
Reading TASTING PLEASURE was almost as much fun as lunching with Jancis Robinson. Even in her writing, she does not seem to take herself or her expertise too seriously. She is comfortable with what she does, and it is very clear that she loves tasting, drinking, talking, and writing about wine. Yet, I never felt as though I was being lectured, nor never once did I feel that I did not measure up to her standards. As I read the book, I felt as though she had invited me along on a very amusing journey, sharing anecdotes about her experiences and poking fun at herself along the way. In the end, Jancis Robinson didn't make me feel stupid at all she simply made me want to learn more about wine.