SPP: All right Jancis, so we’re interested on this podcast one of the primary things is people finding their passion and working in fields that they truly enjoy and can flourish in. I feel like for you…
Jancis: It could be anything not wine but painting or rock climbing, whatever.
Jancis: Great. Good. Oh that’s lovely. So it’s nice you’re not going to quiz me about peach levels and gammy grapes.
SPP: Oh boy no. No we’re going to be concerned most with how to actually look like we know what we’re talking about.
Jon: But one thing I was wondering it’s tough to find people who have truly followed their passion and gone out on a limb. And I was wondering could you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are and what it is that you do?
Jancis: Well I spend my life writing about tasting wine and the people who make it and the places that make it, which is the most lovely job. I somehow seemed to have managed to turn a subject which most people associate with pleasure and relaxation into sort of 24/7 workload. But I would say that’s because I was born on a Saturday and we have a rhyme in England about days of the week and it’s Friday’s child is loving and giving, Saturday’s child works hard for their living and I think I got lumbered with that.
Jon: I was very, very interested in food as a teenager and so it was a pretty smooth steps from there to becoming very, very interested in wine. I wasn’t brought up with wine but one of the sort of concentrations of good cellars in England was in the cellars of the Oxbridge Colleges. And I went from a little village of 45 people in the far north of England to Oxford where I studied math and philosophy, which I can’t believe nowadays. And there I was exposed to wine properly for the first time.
I was very lucky there was a girl at my college who’s father, a doctor, had the most unusually brought the family up to love wine in a rather academic way. She would go to the local store and buy two half bottles that were similar but different to sort of compare them. And she could see I was interested so sometimes she would give me a little taste and sort of very subtly tell me what the difference is.
So that stirred my interest in the kind of intellectual side of wine, if you like. And then I had a boyfriend whose father Dustin Luckton gave his son a little bit too much money. A lot of it was spent taking me out wining and dining me. And there was one particular red burgundy that sort of lit the flame really. It was a [Charbon 07:53] 1959. And obviously I didn’t get up from that table at the age of 20 or something saying “Okay that’s it I’m going to be a wine writer.”
And in fact you wouldn’t believe it but way back then, certainly in Britain and I suspect in a lot of places around the world, the subject of wine and food was seen as being irremediably frivolous really. I mean I wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying to my Oxford friends, “okay I’m now going to head for a job”, and the two things I’m most interested which were even then food and wine. They would see it as a waste of money not serious. World famine was even worst problem than it is today.
So I ended up for three years in the travel business but I was still really, really interested in food and wine. I dropped out for a year in the mid 70s to [08:48], dropping out was very fashionable then. But I was determined I knew it was just for a year and I was determined after spending five minutes in France, where of course I was surrounded by people who thought eating and drinking were what life was all about. I was then determined when I got back to London to find a job in either food or wine.
SPP: Did you ever worry along the way? I mean like you said you were kind of one of the first people in your region to do this. Where you worried hey what if I can’t find a job doing this?
Jancis: Well when I got my first job in wine I was only 25, which isn’t that old. If I hadn’t found something I would have supposed gone into something more logical for my degree, which perhaps would have been people kept telling me computers, but they used to call it computed in those days. I don’t think I ever thought that I was not going to find a job at all but certainly when I came back from France okay now is the moment when I’m going to find the job I want, as opposed to a job that society will approve.
SPP: All right. So I know you have a book “How to Taste: A Guide to Join Wine” and I’m interested in hearing a little bit about that. Primarily I’m hoping you can tell us and our listeners how to correctly taste wine and get the most out of it.
Jancis: Okay difficult thing to do on the regular, as you can imagine. So the most important thing to realize is that your nose is a very, very important part of your tasting equipment, and that’s why when you’ve got a horrible head cold the food seems to taste nothing because most of the flavor of things is sensed as the top of your nose. And there is a little passageway that goes from the back of your mouth up to those senses, so if you don’t consciously smell what you drink and eat you’ll still get a little bit of the smell. But to get to maximize the pleasure that all the effort that someone’s gone to, to give you, you need to consciously smell it. And that is why winos do the thing of swirling the wine around. Does that ring a bell? You see people holding a wine glass.
Jancis: Swirling the wine around because what they’re trying to do is maximize the surface area of the wine, so maximize a number of smelling molecules that the wine can give off. And obviously by agitating it a bit you’re also encouraging all that smell up your nose. So it’s a good idea to swirl the wine around just gently before sniffing it. And then just try to concentrate for just a moment as you sniff it.
Firstly, is this clean? Because very occasionally you come across something which had a fault where it’s not even clean and you don’t actually want to drink it. But when I started that was true of about 1 line in 3, nowadays it’s true of about at most 1 line and 100, so it’s not such a serious problem anymore.
Then as soon as you’ve gone subconsciously to get this clean you could say “What does it remind me of?” Because if you want to do anything other than just tip liquid down your throat it is quite a nice idea to register what things taste off so that you can start to put things into groups. I realize oh yeah I do like serving emblem because I like that smell of meadows or green grass or goose breeze, or something like that. So what does it remind you of and try and attach words to smells? They may not be hugely accurate but just a bit what it smells of is just a way of you remembering that smell. It’s easier to do if you attach words to it.
And then the third thing do I like it? And then you can start to build up this bank of what you like and what you don’t like. And the most important thing with wine is appreciation to realize that there are no rights and no wrongs. But what’s most important is that you happen to like and that we all have different sensitivities and sensibilities and preferences.
And another two in fact important things about taking the trouble to smell wine first is that a) it doesn’t cost anything, and b) of course smelling it isn’t intoxicating either so you can keep on smelling as long as you like. However one hopes that the smell is nice enough to make you actually want to drink it. Then when you’ve sort of registered what the smell is then you’re allowed to actually take a mouthful. And in a social setting you’ll swallow it but if you’re a professional taster like me who could be tasting up to 100 wines a day then you spit it. And I know other people looking at disgusting.
SPP: That is bizarre.
Jancis: But professionally we think nothing of it. In a professional wine tasting it’ll be a room full of people who will just spit, spit, spit, spit. They’re sort of spittings around and we kind of elevate each other and try to find where we can most conveniently spit out of our mouths.
Anyway, so much more important than the spitting is what we call the taste on how the wine strike your senses inside your mouth and what you’re looking for the most is less the flavor, because the nose is much better at getting at the flavor, more the dimensions. So you’re looking to see how sweet this is, how acid this is, how chewy it is because often young wines can be quite chewy, dry out the insides of your cheek. How alcoholic it is. If you’ve got a very alcoholic wine sometimes it leads to this kind of hot burn on the back of the mouth. And those are the sort of four dimensions.
And once you’ve swallowed it or spat it out then you’re looking for two aspects. Were all those dimensions nicely balanced? If it had quite a bit of sweetness in it did it have enough authenticity to counterbalance that sweetness or was it kind of yucky and sickly. And how long did the wine impact in my mouth lost? Generally speaking, the longer an impact of the wine in your mouth the better quality it is. So this is an argument for avoiding really cheap clunk which leaves no impression on your mouth whatsoever once you’ve swallowed it. In fact your tendency is to have another mouthful saying “Did it really taste of so little?” But a really good wine you can keep on enjoying sort of a minute or more after you’ve soared off message. So that’s my justification for spending too much on wine.
SPP: So this is all, this is really good advice for, especially me being out in the dating scene I often take my dates to dinner, and…
Jancis: Well buy her a Charbon [16:06] 1959 and she’ll never forget it.
SPP: See that’s what I was going to ask. But I’ve always seen people swirl their glass, sniff it, taste it, look at the cork, all that kind of stuff. And when I get a bottle brought to my table I pretend like I know what I’m doing or pretend like I know what I’m doing and do the same thing. Do you go into great detail in any of your books about pairing wines with foods?
Jancis: Oh no. Well I think far too much hot air and words are spent on exempt matchings of wine and food I’m afraid. This may be nuretical but who died from having the wrong wine or the wrong food? What’s the downside of not having the perfect pairing? My theory is that probably for every food there are a handful of absolutely perfect wine matches, but it’s so difficult to find them. And I would say the only circumstances in which you would be justified in expecting to be in a restaurant directed to the perfect pairing, would be one of these amazingly fancy French Three Star restaurants where the menu doesn’t change for years. And the Somalai should know exactly which wines in the cellar goes with each dish and should be able to recommend one of each of three price levels.
SPP: I actually real quick Jon mentioned it and I’m kind of interested in it. What is the correct way when you’re sitting there and they bring out a bottle to taste and check the wine?
Jancis: Yes. Okay. Well what you could do nowadays is just say just go ahead and pull it. Because it’s a ritual that started in the era when I started when that one bottle in three was faulty and there it saved a lot of [18:12] for the host to check that the wine was not faulty before and most of it was poor.
Nowadays it’s so rare to find a faulty wine. No wine waiter is going to object if they go ahead and pull it and then you taste it and decide it’s faulty and want to send it back. So you don’t absolutely have to do it, however, if you want to be conventional or want to impress the date that you know exactly what to do. What the wine waiter is really doing, she or he, should definitely show you the bottle first before pulling the cork so that you can see it was what you ordered and so just quickly try and check. Particularly, if you care about these things, the vintage, because very often on wine lists are a bit sloppy about the vintage.
And I also put my hand on the bottle just to feel the temperature because wine is amazingly sensitive to temperature. And if you serve a red wine too warm it’s kind of lost any refreshment [19:21]. It’s going to be kind of a way you sort of slightly borrow the flavor out. And so you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve actually asked in a restaurant for an ice bucket to put a red wine in to cool it down a bit because it’s just a waste of my money to pay for a red wine that’s too warm. Then they should pull the cork, unscrew the screw cap and pour the host, whoever that may be. And they should is to be a good enough way to work out who that is. A little taste.
And what you’re doing really is just sniffing it to make sure that it’s clean. You could taste it to make sure, I mean if you’re thirsty or curious or greedy you can certainly drink it, but basically you’re smelling it to make sure it doesn’t smell a sort of moldy cardboard, in which case it might could have had a moldy cork which would have infected the whole and contaminated the whole wine.
SPP: Oh okay.
Jancis: But I know some sort of fancy winemakers sniff the cork and some clients probably sniff the cork, but actually I have it on the authority of the best wine waiter in the world that this is no sure fact. In fact, you can find contaminate cork contaminated wine as a type of cork that smells perfectly healthy and vice versa, so not much point in smelling the cork.
SPP: You mentioned earlier that I should purchase a certain type of wine to make sure my date remembered our evening. And I think a lot of people have the notion that more expensive wines are your better wines. But have you found cheaper wines that you would highly recommend to people.
Jancis: Sure. No my next article in the Financial Times is about value and wine. And I believe that there are overpriced wines pretty much all price levels and certainly a lot of underpriced wines at fairly low price levels. I mean I mentioned Beaujolai before. Beaujolai ’09 is absolutely stunning. A great combination, doesn’t cost a lot of money, and it will age quite well as well. You don’t have to spend huge amounts, but it’s fun I think to go for something maybe a little bit unusual. I mean she’s not going to remember really if you choose – it’s going to be difficult say for a California Chardonnay to standout isn’t it because they’re just so many of them on your wine list.
Whereas, I don’t know if you chose something that really a bit odd like California is now planting much wider range of great varieties. You’re getting kind of [21:58] and [21:59] and [22:04] Reisling, and things like that. That would sort of standout from the crowd a lot more. But I would go for the oddballs. And the other thing which I would really recommend and I find that the less people know about wine the less willing they are to ask for guidance from the wine leader.
SPP: Now if I don’t know the international wine scene very well, but if I were to walk into the grocery store, or a wine store here, and say “I want to buy a couple of bottles that you recommend”, could you recommend some specific ones for us? I don’t know if you know if they’re international or not I don’t know how that works.
Jancis: I mean there are tens of thousands of wine producers around the world. It’s a tall order and I’m not sure that I would give you different advice walking into a wine store from ordering wine from a wine list really. I would first of all be saying “So what sort of wine do you like?” And as you I think should say to your date obviously. Would you prefer red or white? Do you like it quite full bubbly or do you like it crisp or soft, and try and follow their clues really? It’s a bit like saying to somebody who spends their entire life with music, okay what’s your favorite tune? Can you recommend a tune?
Jancis: No I mean asking me my favorite is that we could perhaps believe in that difficult, but often to recommend something for your taste is really difficult. But again in a good wine store, a good wine store should be like a good bookstore it’s worth developing a relationship with the people behind the counter telling them what you’d like so far and asking them to recommend something for you to move onto that’s perhaps a little bit more interesting or better value.
SPP: One thing I did want to ask you is I’ve seen these air raters these wine air raters out a lot lately and some people swear by them. Are the just a gimmick? Do you recommend them?
Jancis: A gimmick yeah. I mean what’s wrong with swirling the wine around or pouring from the bottle into a jar or a canter? I think they’re a great way to make money but…
SPP: I’ve always just wondered because…
Jancis: Spend the money on wine.
SPP: Yeah. Nice. And then I guess lastly since you mentioned it, what is or can you tell us your favorite couple bottles of wine? Jancis: I think it would be a waste of our time together honestly.
Jancis: I’d much rather talk about my Web site, which I spend hours each day on doing.
SPP: Yeah www.jancisrobinson.com.
Jancis: That’s it.
SPP: It is fantastic. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about it and what you can find there?
Jancis: Well since I do spend most of my life, and I’m crazy I’ve created the rod for my own back. I add two or three new articles to it every day which is madness. It’s got so far 55,000 wine reviews on it. It’s got all of my kind of much multi award winning and much used into its third edition giant wine reference books, lots of companions to wine on it in the online version of it. It’s got a forum which France’s only wine magazine called “The Most Courteous Wine Fall on the Planet”. It won its first Wine Web site of the Year from when Louie Vargera and that International Wine Writers Award decided to have a category for a wine Web site, so that’s very nice. And all the buffet and my kind of slightly cheeky thoughts about wine and stuff and the latest wine news.
SPP: And did you say that you had a new book coming out?
Jancis: I’ve got three in preparation at the moment, but the main ones that are around probably so far, they are the opposite companion to
wine. The World Atlas to Wine and How to Taste, which you started off talking about.
SPP: All right well we will provide a link to your Web site and for our listeners to purchase some of your books right on our Web site.
SPP: We really appreciate your time. Hopefully next time I’m out on a date or buying some wine I will seem a little more educated.
Jancis: I really hope so. But do ask the date what they want, what sort of things they like in the first place.
SPP: That’s actually very good advice because I’m sure Chris and I that would be the first thing that we would gloss over.