For my current study, I’ve written a book review on a piece based around a prominent wine personality- here is my (edited) review on “A Life Uncorked” by Hugh Johnson, the done it all and know it all of the wine world- first and foremost a wine writer (The World of Wine Atlas, The Pocketbook of Wine, The Story of Wine, Vogue Contributor, Editor of Food and Wine) and even more so, a wine fanatic. He is the bomb diggity.
Hugh paints the picture of your stereotypical wine connoisseur from the start of his bountiful 40 years in wine. It began when a roommate returns home from a black-tie dinner in Cambridge presenting two glasses of burgundy- same vintage, adjacent vineyards, but tasting completely different. This was his first foray into a lifelong curiosity into wine, “A curiosity that still makes me impatient to see what lies under every cork”. The stereotype unashamedly remains- residing in Elizabethan ‘Sailing Hall’, his wine of choice is the Claret (British slang for Red Bordeaux), and more often than not the said clarets are drunk in his beloved garden, under the shade of an apple tree, his nose red, face in a smile- high class british wine lover 101. Throughout Uncorked we begin to understand his position in a breed of highly influential Englishmen, with a love for wine, and the aim of presenting the glories of it (mainly French) to the common wine lover, with a knowledge and talent of an elite few.
Though we see very much of the scholar within Johnson throughout Uncorked, it is the curiosity within him that I found most engaging, and presents an array of episodes far further than those of your standard Wine Commentator. We see him collecting and designing wine glasses, with a brief of being unfussy but made for enjoyment and affordability, resulting in ten different styles, made specifically for the absolute enjoyment of ten different varietals. Frustrated with descriptive terms of vogue, e.g. ‘fruit driven’ and ‘mineral’, he designed a ‘Taste Tunnel Experience’ for the Sunday Star Times Wine Club, where large glasses were filled with the physical items that would typically be smelt or tasted for various wine varietals- liquorice, pipe tobacco, stewed plums, raspberries and a small amount of leather to represent Syrah, for example. Johnson talks in length of when his curiosity “got the better of him” and forayed into the science of wine, planting a vineyard in Bourbonnais, albeit far from other vintner’s eyes, or his position as a member on the board of Chateau Latour- one of the great first growth chateau’s of the 1885 Bordeaux classification, that still holds its place as a great today- well worth the hefty price tag.
As Johnson takes us through his cellar, pulling out reds, whites and sparkling’s, each vintage inspires a moment of his life- career, family, travel and tragedy, his cellar is a living time machine, that takes an reader through prolific moments of his life. The alone vintages can tell stories of their own- of luxury, of war, of a culture, of a family. Johnson can pull a story from a wine, the same way a fragrance evokes a memory. Bubbly takes the reader on a trip through time, where we meet a Dom Perignon that waits for bubbles to steady themselves before bottling, harvest workers drinking on the job from half fermented barrels- one of the first discovery of the CO2 effect on the brain, we then visit the Pol Rogers Salon in Epernay, experience Johnsons showman ship of sabre-ing the foil and cork off a bottle of champagne (successfully, and not so successfully) and a formula one drivers love affair with Mercier.
As we divulge deeper into Johnsons cellar, we find all quantities and vintages of Chablis, bountiful stocks of Bordeaux, Prosecco for the more casual celebration, German Rieslings, the odd red burgundy and even a case of 1911 Perrier-Jouet, and with all these wines, come hand in hand with stories, intelligence and a great undying passion for each. Uncorked is so full of old world wine, that Johnson seems a little out of touch with the modern wine landscape- it reads almost as history book, and with almost 400 pages, can get a little tiresome. Johnson impresses on almost every page with wines rich with history that one could barely imagine, and his passion for it is infectious, but still it reads cheerfully and clichés are strewn through, but comfortably- it would be nice to read something in there a little more far flung or “off the map”.
What I found most interesting from Uncorked is the Johnson is all in all a wine lover. Wine, for him, is for drinking with food, not other wines; he calls himself not a wine critic when it comes to writing, but a commentator. Johnson scoffs on the idea that a wine can achieve ‘a perfect score’, and that the notion of points themselves is ridiculous- the fact that people have different palates for starters, or how generally Americans prefer their wines sweeter and simpler- a good sweet and simple wine won’t stand out in a scoring line up of 30 wines, bigger is always better in that case. The concept of the ‘100’, a percentage of perfection, will provide the wine consumer a ‘ready-to-wear’ critical opinion, not the chance to explore the wine themselves. Commenting on scores and ratings, Johnson believes that numbers only really produce wine snobs- and from that, the even wore- the wine bore. Instead tasting notes are stripped of numbers, ratings and terms of vogue- a love of language spills from the pages, with some of his best wine notes adopting metaphors, where wines take on human characteristics- a pretty young girl, in full bloom of womanhood, approaching maturity or frail in age- not completely pc, and ridicule is easy- but metaphors work, allowing the consumer to stay safe or branch out with the promise of a tasting ‘adventure’, and in a way that doesn’t look like it has had money come in and influence a review.
Though of the old boys club of wine, very British with a palate that appeals to the French, Hugh Johnson has experienced many an era of wine- of great vintages, of drastic industry and scientific change. The world of wine has given him a lot, and he has taken it with open arms- calling him just a wine writer would be an insult. Uncorked gives a great taste of Johnsons vast estate of experience and knowledge from gardening columns in glossies, to parties with a bounty of Magnums of Riesling and seafood by the bucketload, Johnson has done, and knows, it all.
‘A Life Uncorked’,
By Hugh Johnson,
Published by University of California Press, 2005