Jancis Robinson on the Lure of Online Wine Classes and TV

There was only one period in my life when I thought I knew everything there was to know about wine. In 1978, after writing about wine for three years, I graduated from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the pinnacle of achievement for a wine student like me. “Well, that’s it,” I thought.

A publisher who had read a small article about me, then considered a weird beast as a young wine writer, asked me to write a book. I was arrogant enough to accept the challenge. The result was a paperback in 1979, imaginatively titled The wine book, published by Fontana with an accompanying hardback book by A&C Black. The subtitle was “A simple guide to better buying and drinking for less money”, which I think would still appeal to many wine drinkers. The book, long out of print, has been well reviewed.

At the time, the only way I could communicate was through print media. In 1977 I launched a monthly newsletter, audaciously called Drinker’s Digest. The Consumers’ Association bought it in 1980 and turned it into an annual newsletter. The “Which?” Wine guide. That year I became wine correspondent for the Sunday Times.

But very quickly another media will be interested in the teaching of wine: television. It would take longer for wine to find its way onto American screens, and in much of Europe a series about wine would have been as unlikely as a series about potatoes. Yet the British were thirsty for wine and also to get to know it.

On July 6, 1982, the first episode of Food and drink broadcast on BBC2, based on a pilot which featured me with restaurant writer Fay Maschler. At that time, I had been lured away from the project by a more ambitious wine-inspired show, The wine program.

It was one of the first Channel 4 shows hosted by me and shot around the world, with a team of unimaginable size today (two sound engineers, a hair and make-up artist, a production assistant, etc.) . The beauty of putting wine on the small screen was just that: we could show the beauty of wine country. The downside of wine as a television subject soon became apparent: few things really move. Cameramen leaped over traffic jam lines or coopers with relief.

Unlike cooking programs, few transformations take place in wine programs. To see real change, a team would need to film for months instead of minutes. All that really happens with wine is talking and tasting – and wine tasting is certainly not a spectator sport unless the public can somehow taste the same wines that appear on the screen. ‘screen. It’s no wonder, then, that later television programs tended to introduce an element of competition and/or stardom, such as the som series in the United States, which specializes in blind tasting, and The Wine Fair produced in the UK, themed around a pair of well-known actors vying for supremacy as connoisseurs.

In the age of the internet, wine education has flourished – and thrived during shutdowns. Tutored online tastings, from small sample bottles, have become a big thing in 2020, a way for people sequestered at home to interact with others while sharpening their palates and learning a bit on the go. road. Private wine-themed club 67 Pall Mall was one of the earliest and most active organizers of such events. When it can no longer physically accommodate its members in its London premises, it strives to provide for them, depletes its cellar and employs the sommeliers responsible for filling and shipping these small bottles.

More recently, I have been involved in a new form of education, the Complete Online Course. The BBC has launched a series, on topics as diverse as dog training (hosted by Steve Mann), songwriting (Gary Barlow), business success (Peter Jones), writing children’s books (David Walliams) and no less than five cooking classes. .

I was first approached by BBC Maestro Managing Director Michael Levine in June 2020, and we decided to film that year’s Northern Hemisphere harvest in September. (One of the big limitations of filming anything related to wine production is that it only happens once a year.) The pandemic put that idea to rest.

But we managed to catch the 2021 harvest in Burgundy, anxiously gazing at a weather forecast that suggested the only days the crew (much reduced compared to the 1982 model) could manage would coincide with clouds and rain. . In the end, we were blessed with a rare spell of glorious sunshine and, for my part, I felt deeply infected with the euphoria of the harvest. There were picnics, songs, rippling muscles, the pleasant rhythm of secateurs/bucket/trash/truck and the smell of grape juice and carbon dioxide in the cellars. Turning in the vineyards of Morey-St-Denis, I came across two winegrowers of my acquaintance, giving the totally false impression that I am well anchored in Burgundian society.

But most of the course was filmed in a rented house in North West London. The walls were mostly glass, which had to be blackened. We had to make sure we had all the props on hand – although I remember someone rushing to the nearest John Lewis to get the right white tablecloth to check the color of a wine. This meant not only enough wine glasses and accessories, but a multitude of bottles stacked on the sideboard, some from my cellar, some purchased.

The scope of the wines themselves was so much wider than when I first attempted to teach people about wine in 1979. As for The wine book, my course starts with the wine in your glass and how to taste it. But when I look at the “Wine Directory” section of The wine book, I see that I have allocated 47 pages to “The light still wines of France” and only 39 to “The light still wines of the rest of the world”. Shocking! New Zealand received only five lines in which hybrids were mentioned, but not Sauvignon Blanc.

Prosecco isn’t even listed in the index, although I wrote, “Prosecco is a fruity sparkling wine that can be a little bland on the nose.” Interestingly, a little further down the same page, I noted: “English winemakers at Pilton Manor in Somerset and Felstar in Essex are experimenting with Champagne method.” It was almost 10 years before the vines went into the ground at Nyetimber, the first successful producer of an English copy of champagne.

Wines featured in my course include natural and orange wines (of course), pet-nats (slightly sparkling wines corked with a crown cap), one of Spain’s new sparkling Corpinnat, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (the most successful export wine in the world), Ridge’s Sonoma field blend labeled Geyserville, wines in cans and bottles made of recycled paper and plastic. One of my most enjoyable finds, in my eco-inspired attempt to convince wine drinkers that the best wines don’t necessarily come in heavy bottles, was an empty bottle of Ch Latour 1982 on our sideboard that weighs only 565g (as opposed to the Les Clans 2020 Provençal rosé bottle which weighs almost a kilo – even if the producer Sacha Lichine swears that he will mend his ways).

The course includes almost six hours of screen time divided into 25 lessons, along with 40,000 words of lecture notes put together with the help of my fellow Master of Wine Jane Skilton. It’s almost as long as The wine book.

Oenology lessons

Hundreds of outfits around the world offer wine tasting classes. Check out the dozens of international options listed at jancisrobinson.com/learn/wine-courses and check out the Association of Wine Educators in the UK and the Society of Wine Educators in the US.

In-person lessons

Some of them also offer online courses

  • Wine & Spirit Education Trust organizes courses at different levels and in different formats. In the last academic year, 108,000 students from 70 countries graduated with one of nine WSET degrees

  • Local Wine School, an international franchise operation

  • Berry Bros & Rudd Wine School, London

  • Wine Academy, 67 Pall Mall

  • 67 Pall Mall, London

  • International Wine Center, New York

  • The CIA at Greystone, St Helena, California

  • Napa Valley Wine Academy, Napa, California

  • San Francisco Wine School, San Francisco

  • Grape, Bay Area, and Boston Experience

Online course

  • Wine Scholar Guild: organizes specialized advanced courses in France, Italy and Spain, with certification, as well as wine tours

  • James Suckling teaches Wine Appreciation: Masterclass at £14 per month, billed annually. 11 lessons, 2 hours 22 minutes

  • The Daily Guide to Wine by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan: From The Great Courses at £39.99. 24 lectures, 12 hours. Digital transcription, £9

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