Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine – interview

Jancis Robinson is instantly recognisable as the wine expert with the soft voice….and glasses. She became popular when presenting The Wine Programme and later Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course. She is also the voice for several documentaries.

But where did “Jancis” come from?
“I was given the unusual name Jancis because my mother and her sister had read the novel Precious Bane by Mary Webb in their teens, and liked the name of the heroine Jancis Beguildy so much (despite the fact that she drowned herself and her illegitimate son) that they decided the first one to have a daughter would call her Jancis. Mary Webb was very popular in the 20s and 30s and wrote rural melodramas of the sort that Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm parodies. (Our prime minister of the time, Stanley Baldwin, even wrote a preface to Precious Bane, a book in which the male characters tend to be called Seth and Gideon.)”

“Mr. Robinson” is in fact Nick Lander, who writes about food and restaurants for the Financial Times and is a consultant for the Royal Opera House, the South Bank Centre (Festival Hall etc) and several other arts organisations. He once had a restaurant called L’Escargot in Soho and knows a bit about food! Jancis describes Nick as a “Saintly Mancunian”. (For my readers who hail from outside the UK, I should explain that Nick is a native of Manchester and not Manchuria.)

Jancis Robinson interview I asked Jancis who does the cooking when they are home… “Nick is most definitely the cook, and has been since he took over from me in 1984.” Lucky woman!

I know that Jancis enjoys eating, drinking, talking and occasionally listening and it’s amazing that she finds time for any of that. She is the wine consultant for British Airways and, since early 2005, has been a member of the Royal Household Wine Committee, choosing wines for the Queen. Every few weeks she heads to a spot near Heathrow airport (those sunny vineyards of Hounslow) and tastes up to 100 wines blind for the airline.

Jancis says, “We have three exceptional children, (of course) vintage-dated 1982, 1984 and 1991,” so I asked if any of the children, now adults, feel drawn to either the food or wine industry? “Our son Will Lander, 23, has worked at Vinoteca in London and was treasurer of the Oxford Wine Circle when at university, but he also has many other irons in the fire as far as work goes.”

Jancis Robinson’s career began on 1 Dec 1975, when she started as assistant editor of the British wine trade magazine Wine & Spirit. Jancis said that she couldn’t type but managed to wangle the job anyway. As soon as she started work she took all of the wine trade exams organised by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Based in London they are now the world’s most prominent wine educator. In 1984 Jancis passed the Master of Wine exams, becoming the first non-wine-trade person to earn the letters MW after their name.

In 1997 Jancis was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of The Open University. “A great British institution founded by the Labour government in 1971 whereby people of all ages and conditions can study for a university degree.” Jancis is now Dr. Robinson. Ok, she might not be much help at sorting your varicose veins but the title (which, like the MW, she does not in practice use very often) recognises the regard in which she is held.

Surprisingly, some of the work that Jancis has enjoyed the most has been the voice-overs. “Unlike filming, you don’t need any make-up. You don’t have to be careful what you wear (except for manmade fabrics that can make terribly distracting crackling noises into the hypersensitive mikes used by sound engineers). All you need is to be able to read. In fact it seems a miracle to me that people are prepared to pay me to go and sit in a little dark room, watch an interesting programme and do a relatively undemanding performance while playing with words.” A very modest lady, I’d say.

Her  major outlet is www.JancisRobinson.com into which she pours thousands and thousands of words of wine recommendations and advice every week, updating it several times a day. Her current major project is a redesign of this very complex site which incorporates the world’s only online version of her magnum opus The Oxford Companion to Wine. She’s also co-author with Hugh Johnson of The World Atlas of Wine – two major wine reference books which can’t leave her much free time.

Jancis admits that she does have “a groaning mantelpiece” of awards. It’s not only a groaning mantelpiece but a very long one. 2008 is already looking good:
Shortlisted for Lifetime Achievement Award in the first International Restaurant and Hotel Awards 2008.
Inducted into Wine Media Guild Hall of Fame, US.
“World Atlas of Wine” given Special Hall of Fame Award for being the Best Book on Wine at Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2008.

I’d buy another tin of Brasso if I were you, Jancis!


Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018


Read reviews of more books about wine here