Stories / Awards

2020 Cookbook Hall of Fame: Jancis Robinson

Scott Alves Barton

September 24, 2020


2020 Cookbook Hall of Fame recipient Jancis Robinson photo by Elizabeth Clancy
Photo: Elizabeth Clancy

Is there anyone out there still making wines for drinking? And I do mean drinking, as in taking a good old mouthful and swallowing it—not sipping, nor tasting, which is a different thing altogether.

Jancis Robinson always cuts to what matters. She drinks in knowledge with curiosity and the willingness to receive before she broadcasts her point of view. Her experience spans more than four decades of wine writing in numerous publications, her weekly Financial Times column, her website and, of course, her twenty-plus books.

Notably, Robinson has edited, with Julia Harding, four editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine, and co-authored with Hugh Johnson the latter editions of The World Atlas of Wine. Both The Oxford Companion to Wine and Wine Grapes earned James Beard Awards. And lest we think she caters only to the most erudite wine aficionados, Robinson’s The 24-Hour Wine Expert delivers just enough expertise for people who enjoy wines but who don’t want to parse an encyclopedia.

Robinson was the first person outside of the wine trade to be awarded the Master of Wine. In 2003, she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and was appointed to the Royal Household Wine Committee as an advisor of the royal wine cellar. Robinson is widely considered to be an expert on ampelography, the botanical science focused on the identification and classification of grape vines. She developed a wine rating scale that delineates how a wine shows at tasting as well as its potential to improve with age. She’s extended her reach through online courses, television shows and radio programs.

Her journey to all of these achievements and accolades was not without challenges. Robinson negotiated her place at the table:

I found myself insisting to a driver at Turin airport carrying a sign saying ‘Barbera Meeting’ that yes, it was me he was meant to be speeding to Asti in his Mercedes…I was the first woman he had ever seen participate in this annual week of Barbera tastings…[later,] an old hand (Italian, male) insisted I move to another place at the table since I was in a seat he had occupied for seven previous years.

To say Robinson—who estimates she tastes more than 10,000 wines each year—is the most influential wine authority would not be an overstatement. But she’s a self-described pragmatist when it comes to wine appreciation and would be the first to tell you not to be intimidated by how much someone else knows or how little you think you know. She often cites the advice from her Financial Times predecessor, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, who told her: “Never be ashamed of ignorance.”

“People make too much fuss about food and wine pairings,” she once said in an interview. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

It’s this sensibility that also guided Robinson’s foray into glassware design. When designer Richard Brendon approached her about a collaboration, her key stipulations were that it had to be a single glass that would be suitable for all types of wine and that the glass should be dishwasher safe. The result was a stunning handblown crystal glass that, indeed, is dishwasher safe, fits in the cupboard, and showcases whites and reds to bubblies and ports. “Of course, these very luxurious, handmade, mouth-blown items are not cheap—but they are very competitively priced compared with some other wine glasses,” Robinson wrote in a blog post.

Robinson’s holistic approach to wine appreciation has provided all of us with a necessary voice that serves a range of audiences. Her clear and concise writing has broadened our understanding of a complex industry and delighted us with stories of the characters behind grapes and wines. Most of all, she reminds us that it’s just wine and it’s meant to be enjoyed.


Scott Barton is the member of the James Beard Foundation Book Awards Committee.