The Story of Wine according to Hugh Johnson
Hugh Johnson is an inspirational writer whose personal and deeply philosophical approach to wine I utterly admire. Recently, Johnson’s seminal book The Story of Wine: From Noah to Now was republished in a slightly revised version by the Académie du Vin Library and the 2021 edition of his Pocket Wine Book was released shortly after. I thought this was the ideal opportunity to catch up with him: we talked wine “stories”, the importance of time, and the challenges of wine on television.
Hugh, how did the first edition of your Story of Wine came about?
The book was first published 30 years ago and it was deliberately called “story” of wine [rather than “history”] because I wanted to turn the evolution of wine, and civilisation, and culture, into readable stories. That’s why there’s a great deal of anecdotes in the book and rather relatively little technical material.
Rather than talking about grape varieties and anything technical I wanted to place wine as part of civilisation - and tell its story. To me, the development of wine in parallel with Greek religion or Christian religion... or the reasons why Islam rejected it and these sorts of things were all fascinating aspects of civilisation and of the development of humanity.
That idea originally came when I made a television series in 1989 [for Channel 4 and WGBH, the Boston Public Broadcasting Station]. I rounded off that story with a beginning, a middle, and an end and my publisher agreed, and this is now a classic text.
Then they asked me: “Do you want to update it?”, so in my new introduction, I've tried very rapidly to cover the main points of what happened since then.
Changing climate wasn’t perhaps a big talking point in the ‘80s, but it’s now become a very serious matter and you touch on it in both your new Story of Wine edition and in your latest Pocket Wine Book. One of the consequences of climate change is that certain premium vineyard sites are becoming too warm; are some premium vineyard going to lose their renown and new ones come to the fore?
I do think that that's possible, in fact, it's probable. Turn for a moment to an area where the precise location of vineyards has been fixed for a very long time for very obvious reasons, the Mosel Valley in Germany. There are certain south-facing slopes which were basically the only places where you could get the grapes to ripen fully. Now they're not the only places anymore, they may still produce the best wine - after all, they’ve been lovingly tended for so much time - but a lot more places are becoming prominent, some are becoming extremely good.
But I still think that some vineyards are more fixed than others. If you take the Côte d'Or, what they call the “kidney” of the slope - the middle of the slope - I can't see that growing or moving...
How do you taste wine, and how do you enjoy it?
The modern way of judging wine is a quick "sip, sniff, and spit". You know, people who judge wine very competently in an instant, very quickly. They may be able to say that this bottle is worth more than that bottle, but for a full appreciation of wine - what makes it worth spending maybe ten times more than another bottle - for all those extra pleasures you need to take time to increase your knowledge and study the wine.
I'm not the person who will ever judge a wine in one tasting. I’m sometimes pretty much forced to do it, but I want to drink a bottle of wine with food, and perhaps taste it again the next day. It all takes time. And that’s reflected in my Story, I’m sure.
What influenced this approach?
I’ve had the luxury of having been interested in wine for over 50 years now, so my ideas have had time to mature (to say the least) with input from all sort of sources.
I think that there is another aspect - of not being a wine specialist 100%. There is certainly an element of the “amateur”, which I treasure. I don’t depend on [wine]; I do depend on my writing, yes, but I write about other things as well. I write about nature, gardening... To me, it sounds like I can take a more rounded and leisurely view compared to people who face it every day and who have it as their one and only concern.
At the time you were writing your Story, you managed to bring wine on television. 30 years on, and not many wine-focused TV shows have followed. Why?
Well it’s not a graphic subject, is it? I remember when Jancis [Robinson] and Nick [Lander] were working on a TV programme and the BBC said: “We can't see a way of filming a glass of wine that is different from another glass of wine”. And that was a problem I came right up against, which is why I came up with the idea of a “story” of wine. I would have [actual] stories to tell and it would involve travelling to a lot of different places and asking questions that went beyond “what's this glass of red wine?”.
And we thought that the idea of telling a wine’s story was a recent concept...
Precisely. [The "story"] is a central point. The liquid in the glass is the product of that time and that place, made by that person, and this in itself is a story. It might not be a very interesting story, but it is a “story”, and wine gets its personality from those factors: time, place, maker. Say that you're buying a bottle of wine in a restaurant or in a bar, then you don’t go saying how much alcohol was in it, you say “I found it in this nice restaurant in northern Italy, etc etc” and that becomes a story.
Will we be seeing a “revised” TV series, too, anytime soon?
Not at all. To be honest, making those 13 hours of television took me two years! And at the end of it I thought: “that’s not the most efficient way of spending time”. You can write two books in the same time and get much deeper into the subject. I mean, it was fun, I've enjoyed it, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life waiting around for the cameraman and the soundman and all that.