Last year I was briefly a wine merchant. I imported a few cases of Hungarian wine to sell to friends. One of my worries about this business venture was how it would look for a wine writer to be involved with selling wine. Obviously I wasn’t going to review my own wine, oh hang, actually I did review my own wine but I promise that was before I’d decided to import it though perhaps it was at the back of my mind to import it when I wrote the review so at a subconscious level my words could not be trusted. You see the problem? Once you become involved in other aspects of the business, you have to be very careful. One not only has to do the right thing but be seen to do it.
I was reminded of my own brush with disgrace whilst rereading Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked recently. This is a memoir of Johnson’s life in the wine business. Memoir isn’t quite the right word as we learn very little about Johnson’s personal life, sadly there’s nothing about his Studio 54 days with Bianca Jagger*, but we do learn a lot about wine and about Johnson’s take on it. It works in a way that some other attempts to weave wine and biography don’t as Johnson’s life has been so inextricably linked with his subject. Not only is he a writer and editor but he’s also involved with the Sunday Times Wine Club, helped draw up the British Airways first class wine list, owned a shop specialising in wine accessories, been a director at Chateau Latour and started the Royal Tokaji Company as well as owning his own vineyard in the Loire. In short, we should trust him about as far as we can throw him.
Johnson is just the kind of clubbable British writer that Robert Parker warned us about. Parker explicitly set himself up in opposition to the Johnsons of the world. Parker is the Eliot Ness of wine writing. His newsletter the Wine Advocate does not accept advertising. He has never worked in the wine trade, he does not accept trips at other people’s expense, his reviews are entirely disinterested. To quote Parker: ‘It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way.”
I should add that I trust Johnson implicitly. He has his reputation to consider and any hint of impropriety would be the end of him. But you do have to make that leap of trust, with Parker his scrupulousness is his calling card. Comparing Johnson, and Parker, however, is to miss the point because they are doing very different things. Ironically for someone who only makes a small part of his livelihood from writing, Johnson is the writer whereas Parker provides consumer advice. Parker’s rise coincided with the arrival in Bordeaux of new money from America and elsewhere. These people needed advice and it had to be utterly impartial and easy to understand. It was a the case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.
In contrast, you read Johnson for the language, the stories and because he makes you think. For someone who seems such a natural establishment figure, Johnson can be quietly subversive. He doesn’t layout a manifesto, instead he questions the importance of certain aspects of the wine world such as the wines of Etienne Guigal, the importance of Riedel glasses and giving wine a score out of 100. He has little time for fashion and received opinions. Whereas most writers chase novelty, Johnson sees things sub specie aeternitatis (with eternity’s gaze – a little Latin doesn’t seem too pretentious when writing about Johnson.) Johnson has managed the difficult job of keeping his various wine ventures separate from his job as a critic. I doubt I could.
Overt corruption in the sense of money changing hands for a good review is unusual but the issue of soft corruption in the wine world is a perennial one. Writers worry about whether they should accept flights from marketing bodies, attend often very lavish dinners and some even think that samples might be a step too far, forgetting or perhaps not realising that this is how literary pages function and nobody thinks that book reviewers are corrupt (though in Britain they’re rarely disinterested.) Coming from bloggers and journalists with columns in low-circulation magazines this probity is rather touching but it makes the mistake of assuming that people are reading for impartial consumer advice rather than for amusement. In fact all this worrying assumes that people are reading full stop. Luckily you can normally tell when a writer has become a little too cosy with his subject as the resulting article will be boring. Johnson is never boring.
* This is a joke, as far as I am aware Hugh Johnson never went to Studio 54 with or without Bianca Jagger.