Tag Archives: Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine

Photo by Financial Times. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The world of wine has a long history of influential women.

It’s quite possible that the first “accidental winemakers” were women who were often responsible for gathering fruit and storing them in jars that would later start fermenting. Ancient cultures are awashed with stories of wine goddesses like Paget, Siduri and Renen-utet.

In more recent history, we have the notable widows of Champagne and the trailblazing women winemakers of California as well as numerous other women figures from across the globe.

But for me, no woman in wine has been more influential than British Master of Wine and writer Jancis Robinson.

Independent Woman

My very well loved and well used 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Robinson studied mathematics and philosophy at St. Anne’s College of Oxford University, graduating with a Masters degree in 1971. Her original goal was to write about fashion but tasting a 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses at Oxford enraptured her with the world of wine. In 1975, she accepted a position as an assistant editor for Wine & Spirit trade publication where she worked till 1980. During this time she began her studies for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust–earning the Rouyer-Guillet cup as the top Diploma student in 1978.

In 1983, she helped launched the The Wine Programme on British television which was the world’s first television series dedicated to the topic of wine.

Initially, the diploma level was the highest level that a person outside the wine trade could achieve. But, in 1984, the Institute of Masters of Wine finally opened up the MW exams to non-trade personnel. Jancis Robinson was one of the first to take the exam. She passed on her first try–becoming the first non-trade professional, male or female, to earn the title. She was the 11th female Master of Wine, following in the footsteps of Sarah Morphew Stephen who was the first in 1970.

In 1990, Robinson became the wine correspondent for the Financial Times. By 1994, she was editing the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine. While managing a team of contributors that ballooned up to 167 by the time the 3rd edition came out in 2006, Robinson personally wrote more than a third of the almost 4000 entries. It has been described by The Washington Post as “the greatest wine book ever published.” In 2015, a 4th edition was released.

Irreplaceable

2006 was also the year that I discovered my own passion for wine–at Disney World’s Epcot Center of all places. Touring around the different food pavilions, my 24 year old palate fell in love with the Valcklenberg Madonna Riesling. It wasn’t 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses but that was enough to get me hooked and wanting to learn more.

I’ve had my geeky proclivities since I was child, reading for fun things like the Encyclopedia Britannica in my free time. I loved getting lost in what I called “red text journeys” where I started reading an entry, following one of the capitalized red text words to a subsequent entry and so forth till I hit a dead-end. Then I would pick another entry and start again.

It was at Barnes and Noble when I first laid eyes on the beauty that was the Oxford Companion to Wine. The new pages smelled divine and my eyes lit up as I saw all the different entries (and RED TEXT WORDS!) Here was my new Brittanica! Of course, I flipped straight to the Riesling entry which covered 3 pages.

Another well loved and well marked up tome.

Bringing it home, I starting following the red text words from Riesling to German History to Wild Vine to Phylloxera to Bordeaux and on along an endless ride that touched nearly every corner of the world of wine. The history entries and wine regions particularly enticed me as I saw a web connecting my fascination with history and geography to this continuing story about wine. It was a story that I wanted to put more in context which led me to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course.

Crazy In Love

It was about 2007 when I purchased the DVD series and companion book. I watched the 10 episodes with my wife but the book was all mine to mark up and annotate to my heart’s desire. Here I learned some of the nitty gritty details about tasting wine, deciphering wine labels as well as learning how grape varieties and place intertwined. From interviews Robinson had with people like Dominique Lafon, Lalou Bize Leroy, Didier Dagueneau and Randall Grahm, I learned more about the stories of the people behind the wine which made the time and effort they put into the bottle come to life for me.

It was also at this time that I slowly started moving away from the comfort of my sweet Rieslings to drier whites and then finally reds. How could I not? Watching Jancis enjoy and describe these wines made them too irresistible to not want to at least try!

My “crush on wine” was becoming full blown love at this point and I started entertaining ideas of pursuing a career in wine.

In 2008, I left working retail management and dived head first into achieving my first certification with a Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators. That opened the door to working as a wine steward for a major grocery chain. Unfortunately that chain didn’t have much commitment to training and furthering the wine knowledge of its stewards but I didn’t despair. I had Jancis Robinson.

By this point my collection of her books had expanded to include Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties and the 5th Edition of the World Atlas of Wine which caused me to audibly squeal with joy when I discovered the used copy I bought on Amazon came signed by both Robinson and co-author Hugh Johnson.

All the Single Grapes

I startled my wife when I opened the cover of the World Atlas of Wine and saw this.
She thought there might have been a spider!

I became an active contributor to Wikipedia’s Wine Project as User:Agne27 where I set about to substantially rewrite and expand many of Wikipedia’s wine articles–with my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine at my side. When Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz released their magnum opus of ampelography and geekdom, Wine Grapes, that became another immensely valuable tool. Until the sexism and politics of Wikipedia drove me away, I was pretty darn committed to creating a Wikipedia entry for all 1,368 grapes that Robinson and Co. enlivened my world with.

In 1200+ articles I worked on for Wikipedia, I don’t think there was a single one that didn’t reference one of Robinson’s works. In my opinion, she was the benchmark standard for reliability when it came to wine. While I found other wine authors and references, if there was ever a conflict of sources, I always went back to Robinson as the most authoritative word on the matter.

For the most part, I toiled away in the obscurity of crowd-sourcing–not really expecting any kind of recognition. But I have to admit that my heart did flutter a bit when I read a 2015 post by Jancis Robinson on her Purple Pages about What future for expertise? where she noted that she often finds the Oxford Companion cited at the bottom of Wikipedia articles.

I know that reference wasn’t exactly meant to be a compliment.

But she noticed!

Though I always tried my best to rewrite and regurgitate into my own words what I learned, I do feel that my frequent citations of her work is a testament to the unpayable debt I have to her. I wanted people who visited Wikipedia to see the Oxford Companion to Wine, Wine Grapes and her other works cited.  I learned so much during those years and it all comes back to Jancis Robinson.

And I’m still learning from her.

All you have to do is look at the word cloud at the bottom of this blog’s front page to see how large the font is for the Jancis Robinson tag. She is still my benchmark standard and, frankly, my hero. To me, she’s bigger than Beyoncé.

A growing collection. Each one as marked up, highlighted and wine stained as the next.

The 1500+ words in this post can never do justice in encapsulating all the many ways she has inspired and encouraged me in this journey. I can only dream of ever accomplishing a fraction of what she has done. But everything that I will end up accomplishing, anyone that I will ever inspire to fall in love with wine and thirst to learn more will be because of Jancis Robinson.

I’m working on the WSET diploma level and, someday, I hope to join Jancis in the ranks of 125+ female Masters of Wine. If I ever do get to that point and go to London to get my MW, you better believe that I will be packing my trusty 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion of Wine.

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Product Review — Thermo Pro TP60 Temperature & Humidity Monitor

Like most wine lovers, I keep a fair amount of wine at home. While I rent space at an offsite wine storage facility (if you’re interested, Eastside Wine Storage which is excellent) for my high-end wines, I still want to make sure that the wines I keep at home are stored reasonably well.

I noticed that the temperature in my garage here in the Seattle area stayed reasonably consistent even in summer and I began using that. But with the heat wave of this past summer, I wanted to track the conditions in my little “home cellar” more closely, so I purchased from Amazon a Thermo Pro TP60 Digital Thermometer/Humidity Monitor for $18.

Background On Wine Storage

Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion To Wine notes that the four most important considerations for wine storage are temperature, humidity, light (avoiding both halogen and UV) and security. I will also add that you generally want to prevent vibrations as well which is why storing wine above the refrigerator and in many poorly made wine fridges is not ideal.

While for short-term storage, temperatures that don’t stray too much towards 77°F (25°C) are acceptable with long-term storage (and high-quality wine) you want temperatures ideally in the 50-59°F (10-15°C) range.

With humidity, you don’t want a storage area too damp where mold could develop, but you also don’t want it too dry where the corks dry out and promote oxidation. The ideal relative humidity for wine storage is between 55-75% with Robinson encouraging folks to aim closer to the 75% range. A best practice, especially if you don’t have ideal humidity is to store your wines on their side where the wine is in contact with the cork to keep it moist.

The tiny blue screwdriver is adorable.

Product Specs 

The Thermo Pro TP60 came with the outdoor transmitter and indoor receiver and 4 AAA batteries. It also came with a little screwdriver to access the battery slot on the transmitter. Both devices took 2 AAA a piece.

The outdoor transmitter in the garage

The outdoor transmitter is waterproof and can withstand temperatures ranging from -58°F to 158°F and humidity between 10% to 99%. These figures are all well within the scope of my garage/wine cellar. It has a built-in wall mount, but I found it sits perfectly fine on one of my wine racks.

The indoor receiver has similar specs as the outdoor transmitter. On the back, you can toggle between Celsius and Fahrenheit. The unit will record the maximum and minimum temperature and humidity readings which you can access by pressing the max/min button on the back. You can also clear these readings by pressing and holding that button.

The system can accommodate up to 3 different transmitters. The receiver will toggle between the three up to a range of 200 feet. I’m keeping the receiver on my dining room wine bar which is less than 20 feet from the transmitter in the garage.

Set Up

The back of the indoor receiver.

After putting the batteries in, you need to keep the two units close together so they can sync up. This can take at least 3 minutes. We initially had issues getting the units to sync. I had to repeatedly hold the Channel/Sync button on the back of the indoor receiver before it finally worked.

After it is synchronized, you can move the outdoor transmitter to its desired location. Here it will send data to the indoor receiver. On the indoor receiver, you can also get readings of the current indoor temperature and humidity as well.

Even after we got the device synchronized, it acted a little wonky. We frequently got bizarre readings like the “outdoor” temp being 73°F. This being winter in Seattle, I knew that wasn’t right and suspected that it was giving us the indoor temp. After about 10 minutes or so it seemed to have self-corrected. It’s been working perfectly fine now for the last several weeks.

Verdict

My favorite feature is the recording of max & min readings as well as the little arrows that appear to the side of the temperature and humidity that shows how those measurements are trending. If I’m away on business, I can clear the history before my trip. Then when I get back, I can review to see if any heat spikes occurred while I was gone.


I always knew that Seattle was fairly humid. However, I was surprised at how relatively low the humidity in my garage was. Most of the readings were regularly 60-65%. Still within the “acceptable” range for wine storage but could be a problem in drier summers. While I regularly keep my good bottles on their side, these readings are incentive to stay on top of that.

So far I feel like the $18 for the Thermo Pro TP60 has been money well spent for the peace of mind of knowing what kind of conditions my wines were kept in–especially when I’m storing bottles here that are regularly more than $18 each. Few things are more frustrating in life than opening up a faulted bottle. But having that bottle be faulted because of something you did (or didn’t do) certainly tops that.

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In a rut? Try these new grapes!

CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

We all get into ruts sometimes, especially during the heart of the January-February “Winter Blues” season. But ruts can be the perfect time to shake things up!

So how about trading out and swapping some of your same ole, same ole for something new? Here are 5 recommendations of geeky new grape varieties that are worth trying.

Do you like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay?

Try Pecorino!

According to Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Pecorino likely originated in the Marche region of eastern Italy where it is the dominant white grape of the Offida DOCG. The name comes from the Italian pecora for ‘sheep’ and is derived from anecdotal stories of sheepherders snacking on the grapes as they tended to their flocks. Other stores involve the sheep, themselves, breaking into vineyards to snack on the ripe grapes near harvest time.

Pecorino produces fragrant wines with citrus, apple and mineral notes that go fantastic with seafood (much like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay!). The wines are often light to medium body and can sometimes have delicate herbal notes (like the grassiness in a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc). Usually produced in stainless steel, some examples can see brief time in neutral oak that will add a little weight to the wine (like many Sauvignon blanc-based white Bordeauxs).

Do you like Pinot gris and dry Gewürztraminers?

Try Grüner Veltliner!

Photo taken by self as Agne27, on Wikimedia Commons

An Oregon Gruner Veltliner from the Willamette Valley.


We can also add fans of aged white Burgundies to the list too.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, representing more than a third of all vineyard plantings. Here is used to produce everything from light cafe wine, to weighty ageworthy whites to sparkling Sekt.

Grüner Veltliner produces wines that have a mix of citrus and tree fruit notes (like Pinot gris) with a characteristic spicy note of white pepper (like Gewurz but a different spice). With age these wines take on a remarkable transformation with more weight and texture that is not that dissimilar to great white Burgundies.

Outside of it Austrian homeland, American wine lovers can find domestic examples being produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Virginia and Maryland.

Do you like Merlot and Grenache?

Try Mencía!

Actually, you can also tally this one down if you are a fan of Pinot noir and Cabernet Franc or even Gamay because Mencía is a very versatile grape that produces different styles based how it is grown and winemaking choices.

By SanchoPanzaXXI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Mencía grapes growing in the Ribeira Sacra DO of Spain

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, this very aromatic and fruit forward grape was once thought to be related to Grenache, Graciano and Cabernet Franc though DNA analysis has shown that there isn’t any relation.

But the similarities can been seen in Mencía wines that are fresh with ripe tannins and juicy fruit that can carry a tinge of herbal notes (a la Cabernet Franc). Like Gamay, some of these fruity wines are produced via carbonic maceration. However, when yields are kept low and Mencía sees some time in oak it can produce more dense, concentrated examples with ripe dark fruit and chocolate notes like Merlot.

Admittedly it is hard to know what style of Mencía you are getting with a particular bottle but the immense potential of deliciousness makes it worth exploring the whole spectrum!

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and spicy Zinfandels?

Try Touriga Nacional!

According to Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, while Touriga Nacional is most known for being the backbone of Portugal’s famous fortified Port wines, it also produces some of its best table wines that demonstrate great balance and aging ability.

As a dry red varietal Touriga Nacional crafts big full bodied tannic reds with intense color and mouth-filling juicy dark fruits (very much like Cabernet Sauvignon!). Its high aromatics can also bring a variety of spice notes that carry through to the palate, lingering towards a long finish (like your spicy Zins!).

Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Bauer Karl under CC-BY-3.0

Touriga Nacional from Wines of Portugal, i. V. Marie-Luise Bächle


Outside of Portugal, you can find domestic examples of Touriga Nacional from the Zinfandel hot beds of Lodi, Amador County and the Sierra Foothills as well as in Napa Valley, Georgia and Virginia.

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah?

Try Aglianico!

In their book Vino Italiano, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe young Aglianico wines as “… dark and feral, like the wolves that still roam the hills [in Basilicata].”

By Alexis Kreyder - L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in

Aglianico from L’Ampélographie Viali i Vermorela


This grape produces big tannic wines with savory meatiness that can remind you of aged Cabernets and Rhone-style Syrahs. While it can develop even more layers of complexity with age, in its youth it still has charm and is worth seeking out by any big red wine fan.

Outside of Italy, there are domestic examples of Aglianco being produced in Paso Robles, Napa Valley, the Sierra Foothills and Amador County as well as in Texas and Virginia.

So seek out some of these obscure varieties and try something new! Life is too short to be in a rut of drinking just the same ole, same ole.

Cheers!

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