Life Lessons with Hugh Johnson OBE

He wishes he were taller, and he'd invite Bertie Wooster and Winston Churchill to dinner... Hugh Johnson OBE is the next big name to share his Life Lessons

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

Hugh Johnson

As one of the world’s most eminent wine writers, Hugh Johnson OBE needs little introduction. His many publications include the multi-million-selling Pocket Wine Book and, since 1971, The World Atlas of Wine, which he co-authors with Jancis Robinson MW OBE.

He is not only a celebrated wine expert, however, but a horticulturalist, with a particular interest in trees. He has published several books on gardening and arboriculture – notably the International Book of Trees, The Gardener’s Companion, and the Principles and Practice of the Gardener’s Art. When he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2007 he said he was “quietly pleased to be honoured for the two things I love best – wine and gardening”.

Johnson was made an Officer in the French Order Nationale du Mérite in 2004, and was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 2000.

His latest publication is a revised edition of his 1989 work The Story of Wine – From Noah to Now, reissued by The Academie du Vin Library and released today.

What was your childhood ambition?

To be like my father. He was a barrister who became chairman of various insurance industry bodies, including the Air Registration Board. A good chairman needs patience, understanding of different points of view, and fairness in assessing and summarising them. I like summarising – and I enjoy history, his lifetime hobby.

What exercise do you do?

I walk.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?


What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

An oil painting or two. I love mainly 20th century British artists: John Piper, Paul Nash, William Roberts, Eric Ravilious, John Aldridge, Edward Bawden…(not that I’ve bought all these).  I have a little oil landscape painted by my father beside my bed.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

London, for Samuel Johnson’s reason [Dr Johnson famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”]

If you could do any other job what would it be?

A forester.

Johnson's dream dinner guests include Sir Peter Ustinov and Sir Winston Churchill

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?

A radio, and my photos: of family (old and new); travel; and gardens (I have thousands, many of which have been published in books and magazine articles).

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

Play the piano.

If you were king of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I would ban intolerance.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Winston Churchill, Celia Fiennes, Peter Ustinov, Catherine the Great, Bertie Wooster, and a charming gossip.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Only chocolate, I’m afraid.

What’s your secret talent?

My gardening isn’t a secret.

Whom do you most admire?

Judy, my wife.

Hugh Johnson The Story of Wine book cover
Hugh Johnson has revised his "The Story of Wine" for a new edition

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“So” and “now”.


What’s your greatest regret?

Not being a couple of inches taller.

What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?

I rarely watch TV. Beside my bed I have history books, magazines (far too many), PG Wodehouse and poetry – currently Browning, Milton and Shakespeare.

What’s your most treasured possession?

See “Whom do you most admire?”

What time do you go to bed?

Before midnight.

The Story of Wine – From Noah to Now is published by The Academie du Vin Library. To buy this book at a special discount price of £25, enter the code CLUB2020 on the checkout page.


Read an excerpt from The Story of Wine on the Moorish origins of Spanish wine.