“The word ‘connoisseur’ is not an attractive one,” writes Jancis Robinson in her memoir Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover. “It smacks of exclusivity, preciousness and elitism.” Indeed, “connoisseurship is not a necessary state for wine appreciation. It is perfectly possible to enjoy wine enormously without really understanding it. But a connoisseur sees each individual wine in its historical, geographical and sociological context and is truly sensitive to its possibilities.” Those who drink wine too carelessly or too stringently, “those who will not meet a wine halfway, and who consistently ignore the story each wine has to tell, deprive themselves of a large part of the potential pleasure associated with each bottle.”
How best to experience that pleasure — or rather, how best to attain the state of connoisseurship that makes it accessible in the first place? One could do worse than starting with the works of Robinson herself, who’s not just one of the most respected wine writers alive today, but also onetime supervisor of the luxury wine selection on British Airways’ Concorde and advisor for the wine cellar of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Since she began covering wine professionally nearly half a century ago, she has produced a great deal of work in print as well as for the screen. Among the latter, perhaps the most ambitious is Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, whose ten episodes originally aired on BBC 2 in 1995 and are now available to watch on Robinson’s own Youtube channel.
With this $1.6 million production, Robinson was “set loose on the wine world, far too much of the time in full makeup, with freshly done hair and clothes subsidized by an official BBC budget.” Dedicating each episode to a different grape varietal “allowed us within a single program to visit more than one region — and therefore vary the scenery, architecture and climate. It also reflected my passionate interest in grape varieties and my conviction that coming to grips with the most important grapes provides the easiest route to learning about wine.” The yearlong shoot took her and her team around the globe, visiting winemakers wherever they could be found: France, Germany, Australia, Chile, and even northern California, where they managed an audience with auteur-vintner Francis Ford Coppola.
“The conflict between the New and Old Worlds of wine was coming nicely to a head at just the right time for our series, Robinson notes.” Those worlds have settled into a kind of relative peace in the decades since — as has the “Chardonnay boom” of the mid-nineteen-nineties, about which Robinson lets slip some frustration onscreen. Despite her vast knowledge and experience of wine, Robinson seldom shows any hesitancy to crack a joke, and surely her continued prominence as a wine educator owes something to that sense of humor, on display in the Talks at Google interview about her 2016 book The 24-Hour Wine Expert. More recently, she entered into another collaboration with the BBC, specifically the new BBC Maestro online education platform, to create the course “An Understanding of Wine.” In all pursuits, understanding is the basis of pleasure — but in wine, even more so.
Episodes of Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course:
A Vintage Wine Course (UC Davis, 1973)
High-Tech Japanese Camera Proves That the Shape of a Wine Glass Affects the Flavor of Wines
Salvador Dali’s 1978 Wine Guide, The Wines of Gala, Gets Reissued: Sensual Viticulture Meets Surreal Art
Storm: New Short Film Captures the Artistry of Winemaking
How to Open a Wine Bottle with Your Shoe
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.