Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover by Jancis Robinson

Of all the books on my TBR Pile Challenge, this is the one I was dreading most, because I've owned it for so long. It was published in 1999 and I think I've owned it since about that time, so, seriously, SIXTEEN YEARS. That means I've packed and unpacked this book at least six times as I've moved from house to house and state to state (I don't think this book made it overseas to Japan; I'm pretty sure I left it in storage). So I was kind of worried that this would be a complete dud and I'd been schlepping it around unnecessarily for the last 16 years or so. 

Years ago, when I was a professional restaurant cook (technically, I've never been a chef, just a cook, since I was never in charge) I also got really interested in wine, though I never had the time or resources to really pursue it. This was also around the time that The Food Network got started. At the beginning, some of the shows were extremely low-budget. One of my favorite shows was called Grape Expectations, starring wine experts Jancis Robinson and Frank Prial. They would sit around with a black backdrop discussing wines with a couple of guest reviewers. (There was also a young blonde woman who'd present the bottle of wine; she looked either terrified or absolutely stoned. I wish I could find a video of this on YouTube!)

However, a couple of years later I left the restaurant industry after my husband joined the military and we started a family; it's pretty hard to cook and appreciate a good meal and a nice bottle of wine with a small child, a tight budget, and a husband that has to be up every morning at 5 a.m. Anyway, I must have remembered Jancis Robinson's show when I bought the book, which I then put on the shelf and promptly ignored it for the next sixteen years.

Anyway, I finally got the nerve to take it off the TBR shelf, and I read it in bits and pieces over the last week. Basically, it's a memoir about how Robinson got started as a wine journalist, and some of her career highlights (well, up to the late 1990s, when it was published.) It's really not a book one can tear through, since it's chock-full of names of wines, famous wineries, and wine bigwigs. I find some non-fiction to be very slow reads, if they're packed full of facts and not much dialogue.

I did find this book to be mostly interesting, especially the parts about her breaking into journalism and how she just kind of fell into wine writing. However, there is so much information packed into this book, it's almost like she's name-dropping famous vintages, people and places into the narrative. There's a lot of stuff crammed into this book. I actually wish she had given more details about less events -- there's about thirty years of career packed into 330 pages of text. I really feel like some parts were just skimmed over. For example, Robinson is explaining how she and her husband bought a house in the south of France and they'd really needed a rest after making a film about the famous food writer Elizabeth David -- but that's basically it, not another word about the film, though David's name pops up here and there later in the book. What about the film? Why was it so stressful? Clearly, Robinson has a lot of great anecdotes, but it seems like she's rushing through everything. Also, I did find her writing a bit pretentious at times, and there are a lot of really long sentences.  

However, I was quite amazed that I remembered as much as I did about various wines and regions. I'm not a wine expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, and I recognized many of the names of the most famous wines and labels (though I will probably never taste most of them). I mostly read it over my lunch hours at work when I was eating some really pathetic Chinese food or leftovers, and it was rather sad, really, reading about fabulous wine tastings at which people are sipping incredibly rare and valuable vintages; meanwhile, I was probably drinking a Diet Coke and eating a tuna sandwich. Oh well -- one can hardly sip vintage wine while on one's lunch break at the library; the administration does tend to frown on intoxication at work. 

The best parts for me were when Robinson writes in detail about one particular event, like near the end of the book when she describes eating dinner at director Francis Ford Coppola's winery in Napa Valley. It's more anecdotal and less name-dropping of famous vintages. She also mentioned Grape Expectations, which I found terribly amusing -- she didn't like the TV hostess either! (It was a network decision). 

It was really quite interesting and kind of revived my interest in wines -- I've already placed an inter-library loan for a DVD of her most recent wine series, though I'm mostly interested it it as a travelogue.  If I ever have time, I would love to visit the wine regions in California and Europe that Robinson writes about.And I'm very pleased that I finally finished one of the books I've owned the longest. 

Bloggers, which books have been on your TBR shelves the longest? Do they mostly turn out to be duds, or hidden treasures? And how is everyone doing on the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge? I only have three books left to go!


  1. First off, I admit - I can't imagine keeping a book for so long like that! I'm sure I'd have given up on it years ago, haha. Having said that, though, this seems like an interesting little reference book, and I'm interested to hear about the DVD series!

    1. First of all, thanks for commenting -- I know this is going to be a post that gets hardly any comments. Kind of an obscure book. I can't believe I've kept it around this long either! I'm terrible about hanging on to stuff for far too long, books included. I had to actually TRY to read it before putting it in the donation bin. I'll keep you posted about the DVD series -- maybe we'll have to go on our own wine tasting now that you're back in town!

  2. Karen, I had to comment as I remember seeing Jancis Robinson do a programme on Elizabeth David on TV years ago. It was a brilliant programme, as Elizabeth David really changed British cooking, and it stuck in my mind. However, she must have had an awful job making it, as Elizabeth David was very difficult to interview, she hardly spoke, and answered all questions with a yes or no, if I remember correctly. No wonder Jancis needed a rest afterwards!
    It is a programme I have always hoped would be repeated, so if you ever get a chance to see it, do do so.

    1. That's so interesting! I love British cooking programs. I have An Omelette and a Glass of Wine which I hope to read soon. I can't imagine having to interview someone like that on TV! I'll have to look for it, maybe it's on YouTube.

  3. Not a comment on this book, since I know nothing about wine! But I organized my TBR list by year, when I first seriously started trying to reduce it. I've only just now managed to clear out the books I bought back in 2000 but never read - which I've moved at least twice. I'm making myself read some of those books between the newer, shinier ones. So I know how good it feels to finally cross this one off the list! Is this one to keep? I'm finding that a lot of the older ones are going to the library sale (not old books, just the longest on the TBR piles, I mean).

  4. It's amazing how we all have books like that--acquired for a specific interest that waned with time, but not enough to make you get rid of the book. For me, it's A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman--I love the idea of it, but can't seem to summon the energy to embark on it.

    I enjoy wine and the wine country, and loved the early days of the Food Network--I never did see Grape Expectations, but Taste was a favorite of mine. Did you ever read the book about the Food Network? It was okay--some interesting parts, some boring parts.