In 1965, Hugh Johnson wrote a book. Simply titled Wine, it was the beginning of a career that saw him established as the world’s leading wine writer – subsequent works, including his famous pocket book and the iconic world atlas of wine, have all been best-sellers that have spawned a host of imitators.
Now, 40 years later, comes his autobiographical A life uncorked, and for me, it’s his best book yet. But don’t expect to learn too much about Hugh himself – a modest, private man, there’s actually very little about him in the book at all. While others might have filled the pages with stories about themselves – and juicy gossip about their colleagues, of course – wine takes the centre stage here. Indeed, rather than being arranged chronologically, each chapter covers a different wine type, beginning with Champagne and ending with Madeira. Those familiar with Hugh’s previous books will immediately recognize the trademark elegant writing style that is so easy to read.
Hugh is posh, but he’s certainly not elitist. Perhaps the reason for his broad appeal as a wine writer is that he gets alongside the reader. You feel he’s by your shoulder, like a benevolent schoolmaster, gently guiding, rather than speaking down to you in lecture mode. And while in four decades he must have amassed a huge amount of knowledge about wine, he wears it lightly.
‘Wine is first and foremost a social game; only secondarily and interest like music or collecting,’ he writes in the preface. ‘It is about human relations – hospitality, bonding, ritual…all the manoeuvres of social life, and all under the influence, however mild and benign, of alcohol.’ All the way through the text the theme of wine as a social drug that finds its highest place at the table is a recurrent one. Hugh is quite scathing of the collecting mentality that sees wine as an object in itself, and lays in to influential American critic Robert Parker for the way his 100-point scoring system is changing the way wines are made, with an emphasis on big, heavy, obvious wines at the expense of lighter, more elegant ones that often have more to say.
A nice feature of the book is that it is illustrated in large part by Hugh’s old snaps, although he can’t have taken the majority of them because he features heavily. It’s hard not to feel just a trifle envious of the charmed life he must have led as one of the premier wine communicators travelling the globe at other people’s expense (aside: I have to be careful here because increasingly I’m in the privileged position of doing as he has done. It’s called research.) And because Hugh is not given to writing proper tasting notes, concentrating instead on just the odd evocative sentence (perhaps there’s something to be said for this approach), it’s not like he’s had to scribble hard at all those dinners and lunches.
Above all, though, this book’s value is that it is a brilliant introduction to the world of wine. If you are interested in wine and want to learn more about it, forget the myriad ‘introduction to wine’ titles that publishers have flooded the market with – they are usually patronising, inaccurate and just plain boring to read. Instead, you could do a lot worse than placing yourself in the trusty hands of one of the world’s great experts, still at the top of his game after some 40 years.