As one of the most influential and prolific wine writers of the 21st century, it’s impossible to truly quantify Jancis Robinson’s impact on the industry. From editing “The Oxford Companion to Wine” to co-authoring “The World Atlas of Wine,” Robinson’s name is on the cover of some of the most widely used wine resources around the world, Nearly 40 years into a rich career of educating drinkers, serving on the Royal Household Wine Committee by advising the Queen’s cellar, and hosting several BBC programs, Robinson shows no signs of slowing down.
We spoke with the United Kingdom-based Master of Wine and four-time James Beard Award winner about her passion for sustainability, a topic that’s top of mind for producers, importers, and industry professionals alike; her favorite canned wines; and where she thinks the industry is heading.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity
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OBW: First things first, I’m curious to hear how you define sustainability as it relates to wine right now.
JR: Sustainability itself is such a wooly term, really, isn’t it? It’s open to a certain amount of greenwashing and all the rest. I was recently involved with the launch of a nonprofit called The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation. It made me realize that we actually need to do more than sustain the current status quo; we need to make things better. So in that sense, sustainability is a slightly misleading term because we actually should want to do more than sustain. Ultimately, to me, sustainability touches on many aspects of viticulture and involves looking at every little detail of wine production in the cellar, as well as what happens to all the waste products and the rest. Water use, of course, is just massively important. And then whenever anyone does a really comprehensive and carbon-emissions analysis of wine, packaging comes up, as you know.
OBW: Which American AVAs and producers do you feel are doing a particularly nice job when it comes to sustainability?
JR: Well, I think Napa has been pretty good and proactive. Same goes for Oregon. Charles Beeler, who’s trying to do returnable bottles, is moving things forward a bit. There are certainly the early adopters of organics, such as Frog’s Leap and Spottswoode in Napa Valley. And of course, Jason Haas at Tablas Creek was the first one to be certified regenerative viniculture. I recently gave Tablas Creek a shout-out because the Wines of California held this tasting that included bottle weights, and Tablas were the lightest of them all, while Daou was the heaviest of them all.
OBW: What can American producers stand to learn from their European counterparts on this front?
JR: Paying attention to bottle weight, for one. Recycling’s another. I think that there’s much less awareness and there’s much less infrastructure around recycling in the United States. There are also still a lot of marketing people who think the heavier the bottle, the better the wine.
When it comes to recycling, the wine industry is a small but important part of that picture. I think if you would say to most Brits, “Do you recycle?” then they’d respond, “Oh yes, I always, you know, put my wine bottles in the right bin.” But it’s worth noting that even though the U.K. has a national system of recycling, we’re not nearly as good at it as in many parts of Europe, particularly northern Europe. That said, the U.S. has a pretty shaky system, perhaps because of the sheer size of the country.
On the packaging side, a lot of consumers have recently become much more aware of the link between carbon emissions and heavy bottles. Whenever people have launched special recycled bottles or something like that, it’s sold out immediately. Continuing to raise that awareness is important.
OBW: On the topic of bottle weight, I think that including that information for consumers in reviews on JancisRobinson.com is a really interesting choice. What sort of feedback have you gotten about doing so?
JR: There’s much, much more consciousness about this. There’s a very lively young woman called Aleesha Hansel and she and I recently launched a campaign of sorts on Twitter to make people more aware about this, and I think that’s had an effect. And also, I mean, we are talking about bottles here, and I feel strongly that everyday wine does not need to come in a bottle. As you know, particularly on your side of the Atlantic, there’s a lot of discussion about how the heck young people are going to be encouraged to become wine drinkers, right? And it’s not surprising if wine is sold pretty much exclusively in a package which is 750 milliliters and needs a special instrument to get into it, it’s not surprising that it’s not very appealing to people. That’s why I’m pretty keen on cans because they’re a much more affordable serving size, and you don’t need a corkscrew. And, it’s not fragile and it’s not heavy.
OBW: Any favorite canned wines?
JR: I’ve had a lot of good canned wines! South Africans in particular are doing great things here, putting good quality wine into cans with clever names and labels. There’s a fellow Master of Wine called Richard Kelley and he’s been pretty active in this space. Chenin Blanc is the most important variety there, and he’s got a spoof of Chanel No. 5 called Chenin No. 5. You have got to look at the whole lifecycle. It’s really only fine wine that needs a bottle, and well over 90 to probably 95 percent by volume of all the wine sold is consumed within days or hours. For aging, yes, you need real glass — I’m certainly not anti-glass, but I think it’s too widely used.
OBW: Vines — planting them, ripping them out — is another hot topic for the industry. What’s your stance there?
JR: Leaving a vine in the ground is definitely sustainable and it’s got a quality implication, too, because the produce is so much better. I was quite involved initially with the Historic Vineyard Society in California. So I’ve been very aware of the need to keep old vines in the ground, because it was at a time when everyone was pulling up these lovely old Zins to plant Pinot Noir. And quite a long time ago, we published the first Old Vines Register, which listed every single old vineyard in the world. The cut-off point for that register nowadays is 35 years, but lots of them are over a hundred years old. We’ve recently published an update of that, but we’re working on a nonprofit stand-alone open source version of it which anyone can access and they can feed information into it for us to check and publish. The hope is that the wine world comes to value old vines more. I think when you name things and you locate them, their value naturally increases.
OBW: I feel like it’s easy to get pretty bogged down in how much progress needs to be made and how time is working against us in all of this. What about this direction in the industry gives you hope?
JR: I think the increase in its organic certification is a very healthy sign. The fact that Bordeaux, which for years kind of lagged behind Burgundy, citing a humid climate and fungal disease, they’re now busy planting trees in the vineyards for biodiversity and that’s moving, and it’s a massive wine region, so that’s quite encouraging.