British writer Hugh Johnson is the most readable and enjoyable wine writer I’ve ever read.
So I was over the moon when I received a review copy of his latest book, “Hugh Johnson on Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of scribbling” (Mitchell Beazley: 2017; 288 pages; $24.99). Organized by decades (the 1960s — the 2010s), this is a great book on wine, and a welcome journey through Johnson’s musings.
Johnson (born 1939) is the world’s best-selling wine writer; his first book, aptly titled “Wine,” was published in 1966 and remains in print. His monumental and authoritative “World Atlas of Wine” was published in 1971; its seventh edition was published in 2013 (since 2004 they’ve been co-authored with Jancis Robinson, another titan of wine writing). His annual “Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book” began in 1977 and is going strong .
Johnson’s 13-part PBS television series, “Vintage: A History of Wine,” appeared in 1989 and, together with its companion book, “The Story of Wine” (a revised edition appeared in 2004), helped launch my own journey down the looking glass of wine geekdom. Selectively edited by Johnson, bits of the show are available on YouTube.
Around a decade ago, he was in the Washington area promoting a wonderfully entertaining and learned memoir, “A Life Uncorked.” I had the good fortune to chat with him at a Smithsonian sponsored event. He was just as personable and agreeable as his books and TV series suggested.
In the introduction to this new little volume, Johnson writes: “All commentators agree (and rightly) that wine has developed more in the past fifty years than in the previous five hundred. Although ‘improved’ is probably a more relevant word than ‘developed’. Good wines have flooded into our lives from places, countries, even continents that were innocent of any wine before.”
Since most of the collected pieces here are articles written for the moment — though he thankfully includes a few choice book excerpts, especially from the annual Pocket Guides — much of it was wonderfully unfamiliar.
Johnson started writing about his “favorite four-letter word — wine” in a 1960 article for Vogue magazine on what wine to drink with Christmas turkey: “The right wine is always a matter of the mood and the moment. To know what you like and choose what you feel like is the secret of enjoying your wine” (pg. 12).
Ahead of his time as a promoter of California wines, he wrote in a 1976 forward to a book on the subject: “To any wine-lover with unatrophied taste buds and an open mind, California’s wine is the most important development, the best news, since the Roman’s planted vine on the slopes of Burgundy and the sand and gravel around Bordeaux” (pg. 36).
For a 1983 article on Rioja for Decanter, he avers: “I often think that in the essential qualities of table wine, in being appetizing and refreshing, in giving moments of interest and hours of satisfaction, good Rioja scores ten out of ten” (pg. 61).
Even the in-between bits are worthwhile, like this great circa 2015 tip on finding places to eat: “One rule works, in my experience, almost everywhere: go where a meal is a transaction, not a piece of theatre” (pg. 278).
I continue in my Hugh Johnson reverie with a delightful glass of Hagafen Lake County White Riesling 2016 (Napa Valley, CA; $24) which runs a tad sweet, but is light, full of tropical fruits, with soft balancing, refreshing acidity. L’chaim!
Send your wine and liquor questions and challenges to [email protected]