July 16: India might not become a significant wine exporting nation for years, but is making reasonably good wines and has a huge potential in the domestic market but the government policies are terrible and the import taxes must come down for wine culture to be popular, said Jancis Robinson, MW in a rare one-hour chat on Instagram Live yesterday with Sonal Holland MW, despite her heavy schedule because she wants wine culture in India to flourish, writes Subhash Arora who attended the webinar as he had been charmed by her down-to-earth attitude when he met her at Taj Falaknuma in April 2017
‘Not a climate naturally attuned to wine growing, some producers in India have done a good job. But wine is still a novelty in India unlike China. I cannot see India being a wine exporter though I would never tell the producers not to bother about export, but there is a huge market with a big middle class in India’ said Jancis Robinson when Sonal asked her opinion about the Indian market which Jancis said she had visited very shortly in 2017. ‘But people in India drink wine and then eat, eat, eat in a hurry. There is no rhythm while eating like in Europe,’ she said in a slightly critical way.
In a lighter vein she said that with English being the mass language, there was a good market for her writings, especially her books and website in India. She told Sonal ‘if you could get the government to reduce duties, you would be doing the wine world a great favour.’ For a recent related Article, visit delWine
She was talking to Sonal on Instagram Live for an hour (5-6 pm) yesterday as her husband was getting Lunch ready to be laid in the background. She was candid enough to admit that there were so many requests for such virtual meetings during the Covid Lockdown that she regretted most of them as she won’t be left with any time to work but she is keen to see wine culture flourish in India and so agreed to Sonal’s request for the Indian audience.
Rise and Rise as influencer
Jancis had been an established wine journalist before she appeared for the MW exam and cleared it in her first attempt in 1984. She was the first non- trade (wine merchant) person to have cleared the exam. After passing her Diploma, she felt she knew all there was to know about wine. Every day, she learns something new. She had been a writer in school and the university where she wrote restaurant Reviews. Her first love had been Travel and so for the first 3 years she travelled a lot during which time she visited Luberon and Provence and realised her love for wine and decided to study wine on her return to London. If it had not been wine, she would have liked to write about the food industry.
Her first wine tasting was in Ontario in 1976 where she was surprised to find people in the panel contradicting each other. She then realised that there were so many right possibilities in wine and that she should follow her own instincts and be objective and honest to herself.
She was advised to do her MW when only wine merchants were permitted to do so. The first Master of Wine had died and the Institute realised they had to get more people as MW members and they changed the rules to include wine professionals with wine writing as the main source of earning. ‘I thought it should be a piece of cake since as a wine journalist I knew all there was to know about wine and did not value it much till many of my colleagues failed the exam.’ Of course, the wine world has become a lot more complicated since’, she added.
She was lucky enough to find a job with a trade magazine that did not have much readership so she could write and not worry about possible mistakes. She was busy for 4-5 years with rare public appearances when she first compiled Oxford Companion of Wines (first edition- 1994) with no time as she had to fill 800 blank pages of the book that was very well accepted by the readers. In fact, apart from Oxford dictionary, it was their biggest seller for many years.
Over the years she has established herself as an honest and objective writer. If something is going on in the background, the producers know they cannot pull wool over my eyes. ‘Of course, one cannot catch everything that goes on behind the scene,’ she says.
Getting the OBE
Jancis received her OBE in 2003 and she is quite pleased about it, especially because the Queen was there herself to give away the honour; it could have been any of her, Prince Charles or Prince Williams. She is always quite happy being appointed to look after the Queen's cellar and could not hide the excitement of visiting Buckingham Palace the first time she had to visit the cellar. She also clarified that when Heads of State visit, the Foreign Office organises wines for the event.
When Sonal asked her to give tips on how to start a novice dinking about wines, she said, ‘I don’t tell them to read my books but to go to the local merchant and talk to him like you would at a bookstore-about the kind of wines you have been drinking and for his recommendations. She rued the fact though only 15% of subscribers to her website are women; one would think they would be more comfortable with a woman expert guiding them).
When people visit her, they of course try to get the best possible wine for ‘Jancis Robinson MW’ but if they expect top quality wines from her they might be disappointed. ‘I might open a different wine-like an English wine for a French visitor but as a rule I take out any bottle’, she said.
What does she like to drink herself daily? Riesling is her favourite white wine but red is more difficult to keep to just one type. ‘I love a Pinot if it is good quality because then it is very good. I am not a fan of Cabernet. But I hate to drink only First Growths of Bordeaux. I prefer the excitement of different grape varieties from different regions. I love the excitement of a new grape or a new region. For instance, Greece and Portugal are my favourites though they are not classic wines,’ adding ‘since South Africa banned sale of domestic wines yesterday, we ought to drink more South African wines and help the industry a bit. For my everyday drinking, I just pick up a bottle that I had tasted earlier in the day.’ She says when people brag about storing away a good bottle for years, she considers it as a black spot.
She has been drinking wines for 45 years but has not kept a track of the quantity she tasted though she always made tasting notes on her laptop. Tasting with a straight, poker face, she tasted 10,000 wines one year when her staff was smaller but now with 7 MWs working with her and about 15 spread across the world she does not taste as many. Her website lists over 200,000 tasting notes, but for paid subscribers.
There is hardly any part of the wine world she has not been to-barring Bolivia and Peru and the Balkan States like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. She has been all over Europe but she feels there are many regions in Italy she has still not visited.
The first bottle of wine one drinks is very important for anyone to fall in love or hate wine. The first wine she tasted was a white wine called Reis-ling from Slovenia-Italy, shipped in bulk with too much sulphur and bottled in the UK- not something that would make you fall in love with wine. But she does prefer white wine. In fact, when she started drinking wine, 2/3rd of the UK drank white wine; that number is perhaps 50:50 now, says Jancis who takes a glass of water with every glass of wine with her meal-presumably to avoid dehydration- a commendable habit indeed.
How much does she believe in wine being good for health? ‘While I am more positive towards studies that are partial towards the health benefits and sceptical towards the negative studies, wine does have alcohol and I always keep that in mind’. In my book she is a Vinotaler-a teetotaler who drinks only wine though she does take one or two Margaritas in a year. She is wise enough to love tea and water a lot.
Wine and glasses
The maturity and independence in her thinking is clear when she talks about one glass for all wines. ‘Why do we need more than one glass? It only increases sales for the glass producers. In fact, she has had one glass designed for both red and white wines. It brings to mind the strange case of Riedel which after decades of promoting stemware and different glasses for different wines, introduced ‘O’ series stemless glasses about 15 years ago, negating the concept of a stem. Ostensibly, to be used in restaurants and by younger people, it was able to create a new market for its wares. It ought to be heartening for the Indian wine lovers.
Learn through her website
Her website jancisrobinson.com is a treasure trove for wines. Although two-thirds is paid subscription site, free of any Ads and Sponsors, but balance is free and has loads of information for wine lovers, she says. Especially the ‘Learn’ section that talks about Wine Regions, Grapes, Vocabulary, Drinking wines etc. But be forewarned that the page on India is quite ancient with Indage Vintners (defunct a decade ago) merrily exporting wines and a passing mention of Sula and Grover and India described as an ‘ancient country but an emergent wine industry’.
It is interesting that today her website www.jancisrobinson.com is split almost equally between desktop and phone users with a negligible number using tablets.
Jancis Robinson MW is today the most celebrated woman wine writer globally and an excellent taster, if not the most important journalist overall. The interaction was a rare occasion. It is a pity people in bigger numbers did not watch it as should have been. For those who were not present, it was their loss but the recording is on Sonal’s Instagram page and one must watch it to gain better insights.
For a couple of earlier related Articles, visit:
Blog: So you think you are Wine Expert from India
IVFE 2017: Ethereal Vine and Food Experience at Taj Falaknuma