That Time Jancis Robinson Signed my Copy of the Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding sign copies of the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine at Hedonism wine shop in London.

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding sign copies of the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine at Hedonism wine shop in London.

Well, I tried to get Jancis Robinson to pay more attention to Long Island wine, but I think we’re still small potatoes to her.

I just attended the London launch of the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine a.k.a. a wine bible. Edited by Robinson, it’s widely considered the definitive authority on the subject; “the greatest book on wine ever published,” as the Washington Post says. It’s an essential reference for those in the wine biz. At 825 pages, and weighing in at 6 pounds, it’s not, however, a smart purchase when one has a stingy airline weight allowance and far too much duty-free liquor, smuggled wine and illegal cheeses hidden in boots. But Jancis was there, signing copies! So I bought three.

Hedonism is a large, newish wine shop in Mayfair, one of London’s most posh areas. The name is clearly meant to target a hip crowd, but it’s a little disconcerting when you Google it for directions and get hits for swinger’s clubs. My friend in London, Katie, says the racy name approach for luxury retail is typical. The décor definitely aims to please the well-heeled, with some fun touches, and it carries a fantastic selection of wines. Cheap-and-cheerful, critters and over-branded nonsense are nowhere to be seen. It’s quite something to just be in the company of all these top wines from around the world. “May I help you, Madam?” asks a be-suited young chap dusting the wines with a long feather duster and worrying that I might get some drool on a label. No thanks; I am perfectly happy tasting this £19,600 magnum of 1995 Sine Qua Non Tant Pis in my mind.

Hedonism wine shop in London.

Hedonism wine shop in London.

I would like to report that the shop was jammed with wine groupies, but there were only about 50 of us. I’m surprised because Robinson is a London resident, a celebrity and a great role model, as far as I am concerned. She is, of course, one of the most well-known wine critics in the world. At the age of 34, she became the first non-wine-trade person to become a Master of Wine, she co-wrote The World Atlas of Wine with Hugh Johnson, and famously disagreed with Robert Parker over the 2003 Chateau Pavie. That was a corker of a row, although they were apparently on speaking terms after that. It took five years for her to compile, largely by fax, the first Oxford Companion, which was released in 1994. She’s done all this while being practically the only woman in the old boy’s club of the late 20th century wine world, and produced three kids along the way, too! Her family refers to the Companion as her “fourth child.” She consults for the Queen’s cellar, was appointed to the Order of the British Empire, did the first television series on wine, wrote many more books including Wine Grapes in 2012 which contains information on well over 1000 varieties, and has quite a chatty website, the Purple Pages, too.

The number of guests seemed to delight Robinson’s public relations person, though, so it’s probably a good turnout for a specialty encyclopedia, and to be fair, it was invite by pre-purchase only. The people were mostly 30 to 50-something guys, which was totally predictable. Not surprisingly, a number of them were Chinese. Almost a decade ago, the new-to-wine-and-money Chinese became infamous for buying and immediately drinking a lot of top Bordeaux, as status symbols. This spree artificially inflated values, although prices have now come back down. My brother Jon, who collects wine, said that at the peak of the rush, he sold a case of something Margaux at about £15,000, but it’s now about £8,000 a case, where it should be. Maybe the Chinese guys at the book signing indicate that some real aficionados have emerged, and the great Bordeaux are in less danger of being mixed with Coca-Cola, which is apparently a thing.

Robinson’s marketing staff seems to prefer a low-key approach; she is sat at a desk at the back of the wine shop behind a huge pile of her books, and not in the large front window accompanied by a videographer and a life-size cutout of herself. She’s attractive, 60-something, with an Oxbridge accent that probably gets her taken pretty seriously. I said hello, nice to meet you, Gwen Groocock, New York; I write food and wine stuff for magazines, websites and such. “Oh, yes, the name is familiar,” she says with a pleasant smile. I am momentarily speechless, because that is patently absurd. I bet she says that to all media, and I can’t tell if she’s being kind or is on autopilot. So I proceed to make a fuss over her assistant editor, sitting next to her. Julia Harding is also a Master of Wine. We three talk editing. It’s a considerable accomplishment, this wine encyclopedia that the Oxford University Press limited to a million words. It contains, alphabetically, entries by nearly 100 experts, including many by Dr. Richard Smart as viticulture editor. It’s also pretty funny at times; there are little raisins of dry humor sprinkled about, which I imagine helped Robinson and Harding get through the two years working on this extensive rewrite. The entry on California reads in part: “California wine, like most things Californian, has arrived at its current position by a series of bold investments, natural disasters, scientific achievements, external pressures, and political calamities.” (P.S. note the Oxford comma in its native habitat! This is heady stuff.)

I then ask what I have really come here to ask. What do you think of Long Island wine? I tell her I live right in the middle of the LI wine region. She says that she understands that some of our wines are starting to show up in top restaurants in Manhattan. Yes, this has been true for some time. She tells me that she has a good friend with a beautiful house in East Hampton. Why do people always say that? I refrain from commenting that beautiful houses are East Hampton’s chief crop; it’s my turn to smile pleasantly. At that point, I pull out the big gun: I mention that Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate just gave a number of our wines really good ratings. Two wines got a 94 on their 100-point scale, and a total of 78 wines scored over 90. That definitely catches her attention, and she asks who at the Advocate did that? I wish I had brought along a copy – it was Mark Squires.

In the Companion, the entry on Long Island is brief but accurate. We have 2,400 acres with 66 producers; England has 4,655 acres and 131 wineries — and they got way more ink. Fair enough what with all that history, but “Modern English Wine” got a whole page even though our wines are much better than theirs. Our unique, bifurcated geography was obviously a challenge to describe in words. The entry ends with the wonderfully understated and mildly disturbing “Eastern Long Island, with its desirability as a vacation area, enjoys increasingly strong sales of wines to its summer visitors.”

It’s understandable that Robinson doesn’t intimately know every little upstart appellation. As the world’s preeminent scholar of wine, she has entire continents full of vast and varied wine regions to keep on top of, plus all of mankind’s wine-drinking history, and new developments in winegrowing and winemaking technology, practices and philosophies. She has to recall the aromas, flavors, mouth feel and finishes of who knows how many wines, and talk to hundreds of people like me. I hope that when it’s time for her to write the fifth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, Long Island rates at least a whole page. On a personal note, I would love to see us lose the historical “potato fields” reference, but what decent editor would leave that out? It’s just too delicious. Like our wines, Jancis Robinson.