Andrew Jefford, Wine Critic, Polymath, Gentleman

Ξ September 1st, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine News |

Andrew Jefford is a man of many talents. His extraordinary curriculum vitae (CV) includes dozens of awards for his many books, journal contributions and radio reports. He has written extensively, not only about wine, but as well on tea, scotch, perfume, port, beer, cigars, global warming, wild boar, Omar Khayyám, and travel. The list is by no means complete. I have not mentioned his poetry or his literary production. Indeed, whatever subject he touches upon literature is sure to be a compelling quality of the blend.

My favorite wine writer, Andrew’s abilities are profound, in my view. He seems constitutionally incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. Read his delightful piece on Absinthe and Champagne. Of course, he would likely find all of this talk, this praise, quite beside the point: for Mr. Jefford it is all about the work, as you will read below.

Admin You’ve been more than a tea drinker for many years. I certainly agree loose leaf is far better. Would you say a bit about your interest in this beverage?
Andrew Jefford Sure. First of all: you can’t drink wine all the time without your liver exploding. Tea is the perfect antidote (it soothes, whereas wine excites; it quenches, whereas wine paradoxically dehydrates). It’s also the perfect complement, in that it has all of wine’s intricacy and complexity … minus the alcohol. Once you begin to swim into the deep waters of China tea, it has all of wine’s intellectual rigour, too. Terroir is unquestionably important in the production of the world’s great teas. At the macro level, this is obvious to anyone who has ever compared Darjeeling first flush with, say, a good standard Keemun. They’re both black teas from the same plant — but taste hugely different. But it can also be observed at a micro (quasi-Burgundian) level — by comparing different versions of Dragon Well green tea from near Hangzhou, for example, or raw Pu-Erhs of different grades and different vintages from different factories in Yunnan. I recently tasted some very fine, very expensive Japanese green tea which had an extraordinary umami note which I’ve never come across in any other tea. Why? It’s all Camellia sinensis, and I don’t think they mixed dried tuna flakes with it. The answer has to be terroir.
I have recently begun collecting Pu-Erh vintages, many of which my children will inherit! (Sadly, the price for quality Pu-Erh has gone through the roof as of late.) Extraordinary stuff. Do you collect?
AJ No, I don’t collect, but I try as much as I can and I have a little wooden chest at home full of breakings and remnants in bags which I’m slowly brewing my way through. Pu-Erh is the Final Frontier of tea appreciation. Once you’re there, no tea will ever seem strange or difficult again. I hope you’re training your children for their glorious patrimony …
I find tea tasting to be excellent training for the wine enthusiast’s palate. What is your opinion? And among your wine drinking colleagues has this connection been made?
AJ I agree with your first point — because it’s useful to hone your palate on nuanced aromas and flavours, and because in a way tea is even more challenging than wine to describe because it is leaf and not fruit, therefore one doesn’t have the same large repertoire of fruit analogies to fall back on. I find describing the aromas and flavours of tea a huge challenge.
In the UK, wine writers are increasingly taking an interest in tea. Earlier this year I helped organise a tea event for the Circle of Wine Writers and Guild of Food Writers in London with Ed Eisler of Jing Tea which was very well attended. Tim Atkin and Oz Clarke have both recently been out with Ed to China to meet some of his farmers as I did last year, and Ed and I are planning another trip to Taiwan to study oolong this October.
You’ve made ‘thinking green’ a central feature of your reflections on wine. You have written persuasively on the environmental downside of the traditional glass bottle, for example. Do you think the world is ready for alternative packaging? How is public resistance to change to be approached?
AJ The world is not yet ready for recyclable plastic bottles, and I don’t know quite how public resistance will be overcome. But it will. As with screwcap, what initially looks horrible to people will slowly improve and begin to look more attractive. The technical problems with plastic will be overcome. And as its ethical appeal begins to be more widely understood, plastic will seem friendlier. But let me make it clear that I am not advocating a universal switch away from glass yet. Certainly for any wine which requires ageing, that would be premature. But wherever the glass bottle is simply a temporary home between vat and drinking utensil to be occupied for as short a period as possible, then plastic already is or will soon be preferable for environmental reasons.
Amorim, the cork producer, makes a good argument that should the screwcap closure finally eclipse that of the cork many oak-forested lands will be put in peril to development. Further, they argue these forests are important microclimates for a host of commensal flora and fauna. What is your take on this matter?
AJ Amorim is right to defend the cork forests of Southern Portugal and Southern Spain, which are some of the most beautiful and biodiverse environments I have ever visited. I would hate to see them become yet more cereal or sunflower fields. Cork is a wonderful product: renewable, recyclable, biodegradable. I don’t hate corks viscerally like some wine folks do. Indeed I hope that cork can justify its continued use by wine producers around the world. But we have to face the fact that cork is on the ropes, due principally to unacceptable TCA spoilage. I have recently bought a few £100 bottles with my eldest son’s birth date (which, luckily enough for him, is 2005). They may be corked. I (and he) may not be happy about that … even though I love Portugal’s dappled cork forests, and he probably will too.
We’ve heard a lot from cork producers about them overcoming the problems of TCA-affected corks, but whenever I wade through a big tasting, those problems are still there. Until they are overcome (indeed even if they are overcome), screwcap technology will continue to develop and screwcaps will become a more and more compelling alternative for qualitative reasons. I regret it, but it’s a fact of life.
You recently posted on your blog Wiston Ho (one of a number of brilliant pieces there). As a stylist you remind me of James Hamilton-Patterson, especially his book ‘The Great Deep’, with a hint of W.G. Sebald’s sublime melancholy. I’m thinking of ‘The Rings of Saturn’. Could you say a bit about how you understand your writing? Elsewhere you mention Roland Barthes’ ‘Pleasure of the Text’. Do you have a writing ethic?
AJ I spent six years at university reading many great writers and many critics of varying degrees of impenetrability (Barthes was more fun and less impenetrable than most, though I’m selling my old copies on Amazon now), but such technical skill as I have as a writer was the consequence of working for four years for a mass-market publisher of illustrated books. This publisher (Octopus Books) would commission titles from minor celebrities in a wide assortment of fields (golf, cookery, cars, dreams, military aviation &c.). The minor celebrity in question would either produce no text at all, or a wholly unpublishable series of chaotic fragments. My job was to turn their dictated notes, or their car-wreck sentences, into something readable. Creating sentences under these circumstances which were technically sound and efficient and which ideally had a little lift, too, was very hard work but wonderfully educational. All writers should do some subbing.
If you’re asking who I would most like to write like, then the two names I’d come up with would be Robert Louis Stevenson (the subject of my uncompleted PhD) or the Herman Melville of Moby Dick, my favourite novel. Stevenson for elegance, and Melville for sheer grandeur. The sad truth is, though, that wine writing in the style of Moby Dick would be pretentious and otiose; the subject would be overburdened by the style. The challenge really is to be interesting and accurate but to let the subject shine through without putting too much of yourself in there. We aren’t writing novels but non-fiction. The subject is king, not the writer.
More practically, with respect to ‘Wiston Ho’, how are sparkling wine’s fortunes looking in England?
AJ As of today, patchy. The English summer of 2008 has been spectacularly wet and grey, which explains why our newspapers are so dyspeptic, our teenagers are stabbing each other and our middle-aged population is either grumpy, depressed or comatose with stoicism. 2007 wasn’t much better. Yet the long-term pattern is, as we all know, a warming one, which will mean (along with drought, famine and storm elsewhere around the world) that sparkling wine production in the UK becomes increasingly viable. I was at the Decanter tasting recently where English sparkling wines acquitted themselves well despite the presence of three Champagne ringers among the blind bottles. If I was investing, though, I think I’d wait another decade or two.
You’ve written “most French wine laws just codify the successful outcome of centuries of experiment”. Here in California anything goes. To be sure, we have an impressive, though brief, wine history, and we have AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) predicated loosely on experiment. But at the end of the day our success has much to do with a native insolence. Is there a way to square these two great narratives?
AJ Time. Every vineyard is an experiment; every vintage is an experiment. By the end of 2008, the sum of knowledge about California’s vineyards will be greater than it was in 2007. If something doesn’t work, it comes to an end. If it works well, it stays (and others jump on board to have a go, too). This kind of sorting and sifting has been going on for 2,000 years in Europe. Reading a landscape takes time, especially since you only get one result a year and the equation which delivers aroma and flavour to a bottle is a very complicated one. A bit of insolence and audacity helps the whole process on its way. There will be surprises ahead. Hype alone, though, is a sandcastle. Sooner or later the tide of winegrowing evolution will wash it away. The only vineyards which last are those which belong.
Do you enjoy California wines? Are there US AVAs that interest you? Would you comment a bit about American terroir?
AJ Yes, I enjoy fine California wines enormously. But I’m going to sidestep or rather defer the answer to this question since I am about to post a blog entry on my website (called ‘Walkabout in Sonoma’) which should provide a few answers.
Very soon your latest effort, Andrew Jefford’s Wine Course, will be published. Could you tell us about it? How is it organized?
AJ The first thing to say to the august readership of Reign of Terroir is that this is a book aimed at absolute beginners. I would imagine that most of those who pass this way would already know pretty much everything you will find in the book — though it might come in handy for a partner or a child who wanted to learn a bit but stop well short of MW level. It’s divided up into twenty projects, taking the reader successively through the basics (’How to Taste’, ‘How to Drink’, ‘How to Learn’), then through grape varieties and winemaking, and finally on a journey around the wine world. It’s actually very hard to write a really simple book on wine without getting bogged down in too much detail, and without writing something boring. I don’t know if I have succeeded, but that was the aim: a simple, friendly text, to get readers started on their own journeys of discovery, and to engage their imaginations in doing so.
When will it be available in the States? And will allowances be made for our more ‘general’ palate?
AJ It should be published in the States by the same publisher, Ryland Peters & Small, this coming month [Sept. 30, Admin]. No allowances required, since we all begin pretty much from the same place.
I recently participated in a meeting at the San Jose BioCenter. The subject was ‘The Art and Science of Winemaking’. Implicit in the presentation was that the virtual transparency and eventual exhaustive replication of the molecular components of wine itself was only a matter of time. ‘Art’ was understood as that which science has not yet resolved. Same old story. But the project of creating an ‘artificial’ wine is a real one. The ambition is there. Do you perceive such a research program as a threat or empty hubris?
AJ Not a threat; I welcome all scientific scrutiny in this area. Indeed personally I am inspired by science, and find that advances in certain scientific fields now fire my imagination more effectively than fiction. (Geology and evolutionary science in particular.) There is still a huge amount we don’t know about the creation of flavour in wine. If I am sceptical or scent hubris, it is because I suspect that a lot of the research is in the easy, high-profit seams (such as winemaking chemistry) rather than the difficult and obscure areas of pure research. What do we really know, for example, about the fine root systems of different rootstocks and their interactions with the many thousands of winemaking soil types and the hugely varying microbial and bacteriological populations of those soil types? What then happens as the mineral and liquid nourishment is metabolised by different varieties of scion? It might be easier and would certainly be more profitable to come up with a new yeast which might produce a little less alcohol per gram of sugar than existing strains. So we end up with lots of techical fixes but little deep understanding.
Great wine, though, has nothing to fear from great research; there’s no single secret which can be stolen by mad scientists; and synthetic wine will, I suspect, be just as inadequate as synthetic cream, synthetic butter or synthetic meat. But if we come to understand more along the way, that is a real gain.
And of technology, manipulation of juice within the winery is very common. We have color additives, one named with an aging yuppie’s enthusiasm, Mega Purple. Liquid oak extract of various toasting levels (pioneered by a French winemaker, I believe) is popular. As is de-alcoholizing. Must pH is a minor inconvenience easily overcome…. The list of interventions is long. Of course, some techniques are arguably modern equivalents of traditional. practices; micro-ox comes to mind. What do you think of what goes on in today’s winery? And should the consumer be made aware of such things through stronger labeling laws?
AJ I certainly believe we need better labeling regulations. In fact I have written a Decanter column about this which I have now posted and which you can find [here]. Consumers are not well served by existing wine labelling legislation. Food labelling legislation is generally much better.
But at the same time I don’t want to be dogmatic or fundamentalist about additives. As I write in the article, ‘naturalness’ in wine is a qualified but not an absolute ideal for me. In practice, the greatest wines I have tasted tend to be those where nature has delivered perfectly balanced raw materials which have needed no further chemical adjustment. Anyone seeking to plant a vineyard should be looking for those conditions. But I’m equally sure that there are great wines in the pantheon which have had subtle acid adjustment or chaptalisation. The final test, always, is the wine itself as gauged by human sensory apparatus.
It’s useful to distinguish between chemical additions (like acidity or sugar for chaptalisation) and physical interventions (like using micro-oxygenation in place of racking) in discussions of this sort. I can see no particular obligation to cite physical interventions on labelling in the same way as one should perhaps cite additives (or subtractions). Though, as ‘winemaking information’, it’s always useful and interesting.
Your World View blog page celebrates the role of ‘chance’. You write, “In all human lives, chance is the main force creating outcomes”. And “Our essence or self is in fact a void which is filled by a corpus of circumstances (the world without) and givens (our gene pool, and its physical and mental consequences), lent shape by our moral being”. Yet you also support “[s]elf-definition for tribes, peoples and cultures based on democratic principles, historical and cultural precedents [...]“. Isn’t much of the world’s misery driven by self-definition? Is ‘chance’ valorized only in the West?
AJ Interesting question, Ken. The first point to make is that everything is in a state of flux, and that change is the only constant. This applies as much to notions of nationhood and national borders as it does to vineyard plantings in Sonoma, the weather in Louisiana or celebrity hairstyles. Self-definition for tribes, peoples and cultures is a process with certain outcomes, but those outcomes are always temporary. Scotland, for example, was once an independent nation. At present, it forms part of something called the United Kingdom. I expect it to become a notionally independent nation once again, probably in my lifetime or shortly afterwards. But it will be an independent nation within something called the European Union, which gives it a qualified or supported independence rather different to the radical and vulnerable independence it enjoyed in the past. Those states and entities will also be temporary, though it is hard to see far into the distant future.
Whether or not such self-definition entails misery, though, depends above all on geographical chance. In Scotland’s case, the misery is likely to be minimal. For Tibetans or Kurds, or the Christian Africans of Southern Sudan, a great deal of misery and suffering is involved. The Kurds are obviously no less deserving than the Scots, but geography, history and powerful neighbours have conspired against them (just as geography, history and powerful neighbours conspired against the Poles in the C19, when the country was partitioned). For the individual Kurd or Scot, this is a matter of chance. But no case is hopeless.
I also write in ‘Worldview’ that
Acknowledging the primordial role of chance in life is not to encourage fatalism: there is nearly always some small margin of manoeuvre open to us and successful efforts within that margin can improve the quality of life (though by how much is a matter of chance).
The search for self-definition is, if you like, the pursuit by a group of that margin of manoeuvre. It is desirable that this pursuit should be non-violent, despite often extreme provocation and incitement to violence from within and without.
In the superb magazine The World of Fine Wine, for which you are the Contributing Editor, you list among other enthusiasms ‘lonely places’. Care to mention any (he foolishly asks)? Or are they found par hasard?
AJ The ones I know best are found on the Hebridean island of Islay, about which I have written in Peat Smoke and Spirit. (Only half the book is about whisky; the rest is about the place.) Scotland in general is full of resonantly lonely places. So much for my doorstep, but they can be found everywhere, even in apparently crowded places like Belgium or California or Britain’s ‘home counties’. And then there’s Canada …
Do you plan to publish a collection of your poetry one day?
AJ Only if my allocation of free time changes dramatically, and I have a chance to return to that form of writing and put a lot more work into it than I have been able to do in the last decade.

Ken, thanks very much for asking such interesting questions.

Anyone is welcome to get in touch with me via this [link]

Thank you, Andrew. What a pleasure its been!
Please visit his website for an education quite unlike any other. Further, a good interview about one of his finest books, The New France, may be found here.


2 Responses to ' Andrew Jefford, Wine Critic, Polymath, Gentleman '

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  1. on September 2nd, 2008 at 5:05 am

    “Cork is a wonderful product: renewable, recyclable, biodegradable.” Yes, Andrew, it is. Which is why cork oak is also used for flooring and other products for home and businesses. It’s properties help people live better, as cork is naturally anti-microbial, anti-static, anti-bacterial, and anti-allergenic. If your readers are interested, they can learn more about the wondrous cork oak tree and its bark at
    Team Wicanders

  2. on September 2nd, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Interesting & informative blog! I am in the wine industry, reside in Napa Valley. My husband, formerly in the wine industry, now owns an on-line tea company- We encourage our wine friends to have a tea night at least once a week! Wife of a Tea Drinker

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