Jancis Robinson, author of 'American Wine'

Author of ‘American Wine’ Doesn’t Seem to Know Much About American Wine

British writer Jancis Robinson dismissive, unenthusiastic at recent discussion

In the introduction to her chapter on California in her newest book, American Wine, the preeminent British wine journalist Jancis Robinson writes, “California is the most important winegrowing state in the U.S., the granddaddy of them all in both prestige and production.” And of that small region within California, she says: “The Napa Valley AVA is the king of the U.S. wine realm. No wine region in America has a finer reputation around the world for high-quality grapes and wines.”

Which is why we were a little surprised by a recent conversation we had with Ms. Robinson and co-author Linda Murphy. In response to a fairly straight-forward question about the evolving style of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley the two writers laughed. Neigh, their cackling actually interrupted me, the questioner. “That’s random,” mused Murphy. Not that random, I thought. “Napa Valley is in your book,” I pointed out.

“It is in our book, yes, but it’s not the way our brains have been working,” said Robinson by way of recovery. “I do feel slightly uncomfortable being set up as an expert on Napa Valley cabernet. I would never claim to be. I mean Linda, as co-author of American Wine, has been exposed to far more Napa cabernets than I have.”

Fair enough — that is what co-authors are for. But it made us start to wonder, if Robinson, whose name appears first on the book jacket, is no expert on what she crowned the “king of the U.S. wine realm,” just what is her expertise?

Robinson, who says she is in London “364 days a year,” admits “I’m not the closest observer of Napa.” In London, says Robinson, “We see so few good California wines. It’s really sad. … Our dear Geoffrey Roberts, who was our importer of top quality California wines died in, I think, ’94. Nobody really picked up where he left off.” Probably, she sees a lot of Virginia chardonnay or Michigan riesling or, perhaps, pinot noir from New Jersey?

After our interview, Robinson appeared on stage with Murphy for an hour-long televised interview hosted by a bodacious fake blonde who had just returned from teaching wine classes on a cruise ship and began the evening with this delightful joke: “People say that I must work my ass off and I say honey, I work my ass on!”

Robinson — wearing magenta tights, Joseph technicolor heeled booties and a garish grape cluster broach that hinted at a sense of humor in spite of her reputation — vacillated between leaning heavily on Murphy’s knowledge and undermining her enthusiasm with sidelong glances and smirks that suggested she thought the whole thing ridiculous.

Seated next to the blonde (“People ask me what my favorite wine is and I say ‘the wine that is in my glass, because I can drink it!’” was another gem) and Murphy, a former sports writer, it appeared that the tiny, prim Robinson had not only been swallowed by American Wine, but by America itself.

Robinson mentioned the same three wines that she had during her earlier NPR interview: Gruet, a sparkling wine producer from New Mexico (whose name she struggled to pronounce) “makes a very credible copy of Champagne,” said Robinson of a wine that — grown in the high desert in sandy soils at 4,300 feet — is nothing at all like Champagne but certainly distinct and incredibly affordable. She tells the Finger Lakes that “the time has come to be prouder of your local product,” (as if those growers who brave unfriendly conditions every year to make such tasty riesling weren’t proud already) and of Virginia — which Murphy holds up as one of the most promising regions — she says generously, “I was very impressed — they are making some serious wine.” But shoots down one of the area’s best producers who dares to sell his wine for fine-wine prices: “Does the world need another Bordeaux blend? The answer is probably no.”

Murphy at one point tried to make a case for New Jersey cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay by citing at a Judgement of Paris-inspired tasting held in Princeton where the local wines triumphed over First Growths. But when questioned by Robinson with a smarmy smirk, she admitted that the judges “weren’t necessarily wine people.” And then Murphy implicates her own palate: “I rated two New Jersey cabernets above Chateau Latour. Boy was I embarrassed. … We were all a lot off base,” she finally concluded, tail between legs.

Okay, so, no New Jersey wine.

But back to the most important region in America. What does California do well?

“You don’t have tradition, but a lot of leaders have a lot of money which helps. … You do have the advantage of great American determination along with money in many cases. A lot of wineries are vanity projects. They are people who made a lot of money already, and this is how they choose to spend it – they needed a hobby. It is a large hole in the ground into which money is thrown. I take my hat off to them.”

So California has determination and money. To quote one of our favorite Americans, “You’re not wrong, Jancis, you’re just an asshole.”