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Published:  23 July, 2008

Jancis Robinson MW OBE. Wine communicator. Interview: Josie Butchart

Jancis Robinson MW OBE has penned millions of words on wine, including The World Atlas of Wine (with Hugh Johnson), edited The Oxford Companion to Wine and presented the world's first TV series on wine, The Wine Programme. She is also the wine correspondent of the Financial Times and has been actively involved in raising money for the Comic Relief charity, with wine-related activities for Wine Relief, since 1999. The fourth Wine Relief kicks off at the beginning of February in the run-up to Red Nose Day on 11 March. I can genuinely say that we are thrilled to have had a better response than ever from the wine trade,' says Robinson. We have almost all the significant wine retail chains on board and the Champagne Shippers and some brand owners are formally involved for the first time. The most important thing is to involve as many people as possible and it doesn't matter if some are on a much smaller scale. It would be great if some of the smaller companies or restaurants did their own thing to raise money for Wine Relief.'

What do you think of the overall profile of women in the wine industry?

Well, I was looking for a particular article in Wine Spectator recently and I was completely distracted by another one, which was touted as women in wine' on the cover, although it was actually just about women working in the Californian wine industry. They did get their - I assume female - news editor (Dana Nigro) to write it, but it rather annoyed me because it seemed to suggest that Gosh! Women are doing really quite well in California. Gosh, really!' Which, when you think that all those really famous Californian Cabernets are made by women and the most sought-after oenologists for years have been female, seems a little bit patronising. That led me to look at the names of the people who work for Wine Spectator and I think that in this country we are really very lucky because we seem to have a higher proportion of women in the wine-writing field than anywhere else in the world.

Why do you think there are more female wine writers in the UK?

Well, there was a stage when it seemed that you had to be female and have a name beginning with J to get a newspaper wine column in the UK! Certainly, even when I started writing about wine, on 1 December 1975, I didn't feel in a ridiculous minority. Jane MacQuitty was already a wine writer and there was Pamela Vandyke Price, Penny Drinkwater, Katie Bourke and Joyce Rackham. That's not an explanation, but it shows that it's not a very recent phenomenon. I suppose we don't have the Lutheran or Calvinistic culture of being worried about the combination of women and alcohol that has slowed the progress of women communicators in America. Nor do we have the strong machismo culture of continental Europe, which perhaps has put the brakes on women doing all sorts of interesting things. It isn't so much what the UK has, but what it doesn't have, that has helped women wine communicators. I would say that the life of women wine communicators in the UK has been easier than that of women in the wine trade.

How do women fare in the trade?

Well, I have never worked in the wine trade so I can only report on what I have observed, but it certainly seemed to me that, until the supermarkets came to the fore with their extremely democratic world based on substantially female buyers and female consumers, the old traditional wine trade often depended on the hard work of women but wasn't very good at promoting them. That was the classic British business model until very recently, and possibly even to the present day. There are a lot of very hardworking secretaries, assistants, PAs, junior staff and, increasingly, managers. But getting them to director level is really quite a feat and men do tend to fall over congratulating themselves if they promote a woman. But obviously, within supermarket wine-buying departments, it doesn't seem that women are at any disadvantage at all and it's possibly even the other way around.

Has being a woman affected your career, either positively or negatively?

I'm not sure, because I've never been a man! But I do think in the early days, when I was at the wine trade magazine Wine & Spirit, it affected it positively. Typically, when people were organising a seating plan for a lunch or dinner, I would be the only woman in the group and so would be seated next to the main person, who was usually a man. So it would be much easier for me to get the story. I took over as wine columnist at The Sunday Times in 1980, and Jane [MacQuitty] took over at The Times in about '82 or '83. There was also Kathryn McWhirter, Joanna Simon and Jilly Goolden, so there seemed to be a lot of reasonably high-profile women in wine. I do remember Tony Lord, who was writing about wine at the same time, being rather disgruntled and saying: We blokes aren't getting a look-in.' Of course, my television break came precisely because I was female. We did three series for Channel Four called The Wine Programme and the producers were specifically looking for a woman to present it because they felt that men would object less to being taught, as it were, about wines by a woman than by a man.

Have you experienced any difficulties, as a woman, in doing your job?

I suppose there is a bit of a problem in terms of constitution. I will find en primeur tastings in Bordeaux more tiring than a very big man who weighs almost twice as much as I do. But the only time that I can remember any slight as a result of my sex was not even at a professional tasting but at a tasting that a wine merchant had laid on in the City. It was just after I'd joined The Sunday Times in 1980 and it was full of city slickers - young guys in pinstripes. I was there in a professional capacity, so I was taking notes on everything I tasted, and there was a group of guys looking at me and obviously thinking: She's taking this a bit seriously.' Eventually one of them peeled off, came over to me and said: I say, do you come to these things to taste for your boss?' So I replied: No, not unless you count Rupert Murdoch.' How does the restaurant industry compare to the rest of the wine trade? The number of really high-profile female sommeliers seems to be growing, not just in this country but all over the world. Even in America so many of the up-and-coming sommeliers are female now. Perhaps that's where the ambitious young women who want to get into wine are going. I do think women have a special sensitivity for wine. It's not that they are innately brilliant, it's more that society does not have a preconception of what to expect from them where wine is concerned. I think that society has decided that men of a certain social standing are supposed to know all about wine. So they are always given the wine list and then have this horrible thing of having to decide what to choose, knowing that it is going to say something about them in the same way as one's choice of car does. It's no wonder that men get a bit uptight about wine. I feel that wine and women is a much more relaxed mixture. In general, women just go for the wines they feel like drinking, not the socially right' wine to be ordering. Women don't tend to show off about wine.

What do you think about the research that suggests women are better tasters?

I'm delighted by it, and it does seem to be regularly confirmed. I wouldn't make any specific claims for myself, but if it gives women more confidence then it's good. If I had a penny for every wine producer who had said to me, in a slightly confiding way, If I really want to know how this wine tastes I ask my wife', then I'd be a rich person. I think there must be something to it.

Have you interviewed any women over the years who have been particularly inspiring?

The strongest woman in wine that I have ever interviewed was Madame des Gaves in Bordeaux for The Wine Course. She's dead now but she ran a wonderful ngociant business full of fantastic bottles of this, that and the other. I had known about her for years and years and I thought she'd make a fantastic interviewee, but she always rebuffed all attempts to see her. Then I rang up out of the blue when I was there with a film crew, on the penultimate day, to try and get her to see me, and she agreed. We got on terribly well. I'd had dinner the evening before with people who knew her and they said: You'll know whether she approves of you or not pretty quickly because you'll either be out of there in 10 minutes or she'll have opened a bottle of Champagne for you by half past 10.' (This was a 10am meeting). She did duly open a bottle of Champagne and brought out two terribly old-fashioned Champagne coupes.

Who are the most inspiring and influential women in the UK wine business?

It's a good illustration of how few women there are at the top that I am struggling to name any. In the British wine trade it's very difficult to think of any women who are running a business of any size. That's shocking because it's not as though there isn't huge talent out there. When people take the wine exams, whether at the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) or the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, it's my understanding that women shine.

What was it like becoming a Master of Wine when the IMW was so male-dominated?

Well, I was the 10th female Master of Wine. A lot of people think I was the first woman but actually I was the first person outside the trade, and in the year I passed several other women did, so, for example, Liz Robertson counted as the 9th because alphabetically she was before me. I think perhaps then [1984] there was still a feeling that you were exceptional and of how quaint it was.

How much has that changed?

A lot. I believe about 40% of MWs are now female and the pass rate for women is higher than for men. I am absolutely thrilled that this year's top student was Julia Harding MW, who is helping me two days a week to do the third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Were you encouraged by any female role models when you started out?

Certainly Elizabeth David in terms of writing, although I wouldn't put myself remotely in the same category. She was someone who held a torch for good writing on a subject that until recently had been seen as frivolous.

Have you got any advice for young women starting out in the wine trade?

I'd say be confident and realise that, by the law of averages, you are probably a better taster than the man at the next desk. But don't be bossy and don't, whatever you do, be strident. Just be quietly confident and shine naturally.

Why did you agree to be the Women of Wine patron?

For ages the British wine trade has been kept afloat by an army of women, and it's good to recognise that. I intend to urge the members of Women of Wine to set themselves some objectives that'll be good for everyone in the wine trade, not just women. I'm sure that the members will agree that it shouldn't become a men-bashing society.

What should be the main aims of the group?

Obviously networking is one of the chief advantages. It just makes such a difference when communicating with other people in the industry to have a forum where you meet that isn't just about business. I think that by forming Women of Wine it will add strength to women in the wine trade and perhaps remind male employers of the skills of female employees.

In Confessions of a Wine Lover you talked about the influence of Shirley Conran's book Superwoman, which made many women feel they had to do everything. What are your thoughts on that now?

I think it was leading us all up the garden path completely. I am delighted that our culture is now much more children-orientated, for the sake of men as well as women. In the '70s it was just not done for a man or a woman to ask for time off for their child's sports day. Now there are many workplaces where you almost get a pat on the back for doing that.

You also mention an experience in the Oporto Factory House, when you had to interview the Port Shippers chairman, Richard Delaforce, standing up because women weren't allowed to sit at the table.

Yes, that was when filming The Wine Programme for Channel Four, so we could actually show it. It was ludicrous, but then I have grown up with ludicrousness of that sort in gentlemen's clubs and that sort of thing. I don't feel offended. I just feel sorry for people who are still caught in that time warp. It was certainly not an isolated incident.

How involved were you in getting the wine trade to open up to women?

To be honest, you wouldn't have wanted to attend most of the dinners that women weren't allowed to attend. I was never one for campaigning to allow women in because, by and large, those events were not my idea of fun. In fact, I can't think of any example where I have actively campaigned for women to be allowed into an all-male preserve, but I would hope I might have achieved the odd thing tangentially by just going ahead and doing things, by example if you like. I do get e-mails and letters from women who say that I have been an inspiration and that's lovely. But all that said, I couldn't have done a quarter of what I have done without my husband Nick (Lander). I could have done it, I suppose, as what Bridget Jones calls a singleton', but I couldn't possibly have had children and had this wonderful career if Nick hadn't also been self-employed and based at home. When the children were little there was always one of us at home and it would be Nick much more often than me. What liberated a lot of time for me was that Nick caught the cooking bug when he opened L'Escargot and has been the family chef every since. I'm very, very lucky - my input to dinner is pulling the cork.