Sunday, October 19, 2008

Uncorking Hugh Johnson, up-close and personal

This blog post originally appeared in the 29th & 30th of April, 2006, Weekend Edition issue (page 24) of The Washington Examiner. It is a very brief (it was the only space my then editor would spare for that issue) review of Hugh Johnson's memoir, A Life Uncorked.

Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with world-renowned wine writer Hugh Johnson as he breezed through town promoting his new memoir on the inner workings of the wine world, A Life Uncorked (University of California Press; March 2006;384 pages; $34.95). This is a deeply personal book. Yet, as Johnson admits, it is not an autobiography. Rather, this memoir is a personal journey, as much about wine as it is about his life.

For Johnson, wine is essentially "a social game" not merely an interest or a hobby. Wine is "about human relations, hospitality, bonding-all the maneuvers of social life-and all under the influence, however benign, of alcohol." Who can argue with that?

This social experience is richly transformative: "However good a wine may be, sentiment can make it better" and "with the right companion, a single wine can be a continuing conversation." In person, as in his writings, Johnson comes off as witty, personable, and charming, and his approach to wine is wonderfully infectious.

Never one to shy from a fight, Johnson (a Brit) takes issue with Robert Parker, the preeminent American wine critic. Johnson criticizes Parker's wine scoring system, which treats wines "like American high school students"-50 points just for showing up, 60 = dreadful, 70 = pretty poor, 80 = not bad, etc. Johnson decries the effect this approach has had on the wine industry, where wines are Parkerized to get higher scores.

Ultimately, Johnson's unpretentious and highly enjoyable attitude towards wine appreciation is compelling. As he plainly explains, "It depends on whether you see wine primarily as a drink or as a recreational substance. In a drink you look for something refreshing and satisfying without too loud a voice, not too intrusive on your food or your thoughts each time you take a sip." So take a page from Hugh's book, and enjoy a jolly good read with glass in hand.


My formal review ended there -- I told you it was brief! When I posted a link to it (the Examiner no longer has it online) on one of the wine forums I used to frequent, I got a few emails from folks asking for more details on Johnson himself. This is what I posted to the forum:

Hugh Johnson was perfectly charming, very British in a moderately old-school way, relatively self-effacing (all things considered), and a little shorter than I imagined from having seen him on television. He was amiable in a grandfatherly sort of way. Also, his manner of expression was really very similar to his writing, which adds an enjoyable, perhaps infectious, sense of pleasure and calm to the conversation. Although his career establishes his erudition in wine, he does not come off as a bore or a snob or a geek (either in "wine" terms or in general). He seemed, instead, to be very relaxed and in very good form. Speaking with him was like dipping into one of his early volumes on wine, except that I could ask questions.

leaving him to be thronged by the crowd for book signings, I thought of something he wrote in his very first book, Wine, where he says: "Wine is the pleasantest subject in the world to discuss. All its associations are with occasions when people are at their best; with relaxation, contentments, leisurely meals and the free flow of ideas." One gets the impression that Hugh Johnson is often "at his best."

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