I once watched Jancis and a group of wine-media notables on a bus in Argentina. I was on my first ever wine judging trip, sitting next to David Smith, the former ITN White House correspondent turned winemaker, a man who toured the world on Air Force One with the cream of political hacks. He had a journalist’s eye for detail: ‘You know, in all my time in the White House press corps, I’ve never seen such an obvious hierarchy among journalists. Or someone so clearly at the top of it.’
He’d noticed that as the rest of the group jostled for position, Jancis was ne plus ultra. At dinner that night, David tested his theory. ‘So what do you think of this wine, Jancis?’ he asked. Later he revealed how much he enjoyed the Bateman-cartoon faces of everyone around the table: ‘The Man Who Asked Jancis if the Wine Was Any Good’.
Note: not ‘Jancis Robinson’; just ‘Jancis’, like Madonna, Sting, Bono. The Oprah of wine. To be mononymous, it helps if your name is unusual – and Jancis as a name is vanishingly rare. But you also have to back it up with some serious talent. We never hear about the off-key Madonnas or apathetic Oprahs.
Jancis is a taster and critic of extraordinary consistency, a writer for whom the word ‘prolific’ might have been invented, and an online pioneer. Her fearsome work ethic has made her website one of the most profitable businesses in the wine trade. Her magisterial Oxford Companion to Wine confirmed her as the most authoritative voice on wine of any generation. It’s hard to think of anyone who’s had so much success from people’s passion for the grape.
If you haven’t met Jancis, your first encounter may be the self-confessed workaholic who sits to one side at tastings, deeply focused, shunning the gossip of those who dream of succeeding her. But ask anyone who has spent a bit of time with Jancis, and you’ll hear how funny she is. Her humour peeks out of her writing, too.
I’m reliably informed that this trait is inherited from her father. It’s also true to her roots – not the slick, knowing humour of a metropolitan background, but the understated raised eyebrow of an upbringing in northern Penrith. When Jancis turns on her Cumbrian accent, it’s the real thing. I once asked one of her family what they serve if Jancis comes for dinner. First-growth claret and tournedos Rossini? ‘No, a well-made spaghetti bolognese and Chianti Classico.’
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Jancis. Filming The Wine Show, she was funny and warm. An in-joke with a cameraman made it to the final cut. She was generous and professional and never complained about long hours in the sun. At the end of the day, Matthew Goode, James Purefoy and the various brawny members of the crew were playing volleyball in the pool. Jancis didn’t join in. She sat in a sun lounger in an Issey Miyake beach gown, reading the Financial Times. As I glanced over, the pink pages dropped an inch, and the formidable, austere figure of authority peered at the dozen glistening men leaping about the pool. And she smiled.