Hugh Johnson: Wine wisdom of, and for, the ages

Highlights from a Wine Writers Symposium keynote talk by the prolific and fantabulous writer Hugh Johnson:

Hugh Johnson• His career started earning “12 pounds sterling a week working for Vogue” a half-century or so ago and quickly embraced wine writing. “I was very happy in that trade because some of the people gave away their supplies for free.”

• Then he fell in love with the work. “You find wonderful wines, a cultured atmosphere, beautiful scenery, so why not?”

• Accurate wine labeling in the 1950s “was a pliable, flexible concept. It was really when the U.S. came into it that that changed.” That started when “the 1959 Bordeaux vintage made it onto the front page of the NYTimes. That’s when people started thinking we need authentication on the import label.

• Serious wine writing “started with a chap named Cyrus Redding. ‘Modern Wines’ was a forward-looking book.” He loves Redding’s description of wines from Margaux: “great fineness, a rich colour, and a soft bouquet, balmy to the palate.”

Mich2• Johnson quoted some non-wine figures, like Michelangelo (left) on vernaccia di San Gimignano: ““A wine that kisses, licks, bites, thrusts and stings.” And Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly on Canary wine in “Henry IV, Part Two”: “a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood ere one can say: What’s this?” Johnson added that he loved the concept of searching: “Madeira searches, good German riesling searches, Tokaji searches.”

• He discussed the influence of French writer extraordinaire Andre Simon on a group of London wine merchants: “A lot of them took to the pen when they should have stayed with the corkscrew.”

Parker• He allowed that “I must mention the tension between Robert Parker [left] and myself.” The first time Johnson saw Parker wine reviews with descriptions and a number, “I thought ‘You must be joking. What else does he score? His friends, his family?’ ”

• On how to assess/review wines: “How people rate a wine on the basis of one sip is beyond me. I need to drink a glass, preferably with food.” And he delineated a different way to “rate” wines: “The bottom score is one sniff, because you can’t do more, then two sniffs, the second because you can’t believe how bad it is. Then you move on up to one sip, two sips. Then a glass, two glasses. The wine has triumphed when you order a second bottle, and it really peaks when you say ‘give me the name of the chateau. I want to buy it.’ ”

• In today’s wine world, especially at the spender end, Johnson said, “There’s an awful lot of gouging going on, sort of a ‘more is more’ mentality. You see the same thing in restaurants. You ask for scrambled eggs, and they add scallions and all this other stuff to it.”

• Finally he passed along an excellent zinger for those who find themselves with a drab soul who eschews wine: Tell them “you don’t have enough personality to not drink.”

4 Responses

  1. Philip Bradley

    Thanks so much for your piece on Hugh Johnson! I remember buying his first edition of the “World Atlas if Wine” in the early 70s, and being blown away by its scope and comprehensiveness; and today I buy his pocket wine directory at least every couple of years–another indispensable possession for the wine enthusiast! Even better, I really like his tone–generally even-handed–and when he does make his particular likes known, he does not do so in an obnoxious way.

  2. Great stuff, “You must be joking. What else does he score? His friends, his family?” … I’m still smiling about this. Of course I rate my kids one through three with extra points for coffee-making and ice-cream-serving!

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