Monday's book: Confessions of a wine lover

Perhaps the title of Jancis Robinson's book was chosen to chime with the post-Fever Pitch vogue of confessional literature, but it's a misleading one. There are no revelations of bibulous indiscretions here, and the nearest the author comes to De Quincey-like excess is a few mild hangovers and a hinted pre-marital dalliance with one of Pink Floyd. Instead, we get a sober and pleasantly digressive account of Robinson's quarter century spent writing about - and passionately enjoying - wine.

It's as much a love story as an autobiography. Grammar-school girl from quiet Cumbrian village feels first flickers of arousal while working in Tuscan hotel, then goes up to Oxford and falls hard for a revelatory bottle of 1959 burgundy. Embarrassed by her burgeoning passion at a time when it's considered frivolous to care about food and drink, she hides it, and takes a job in the travel business. But eventually she succumbs, and joins Wine and Spirit magazine, where a gifted palate and an appetite for hard work propel her to the top.

Robinson's career has coincided with an extraordinary period of change for the wine trade, as British consumers have become increasingly sophisticated, and the complacency of the great French producers has been challenged by the vigorous upstarts of the New World. She vividly evokes the gin- blossomed last gasp of the pinstriped ancien regime, still going strong in the mid-Seventies, when four-hour lunches were the norm, supermarket buyers were considered roughly on a par with bottle washers, and wine journalists were expected simply to turn up for tastings and recycle press releases.

Luckily Robinson's interest in wine extends beyond what's in the glass, so we're treated to portraits of some of the industry's vintage characters. There's a hedonistic press trip to France with John Arlott, "a man of gargantuan appetites". And a visit to the Napa Valley wine estate of Francis Ford Coppola, who is disgusted when Robinson chooses to spit out, rather than swallow, one of his proudly-offered vintages.

It would be easy to finish this book hating Jancis Robinson, with her TV series and books and happy family summers in the Languedoc, if she hadn't worked so hard to get there. Even after her TV success, she swatted for months to pass the fiendishly difficult Master of Wine examinations, and she's characteristically modest about her on-screen abilities - "I think I err on the side of being too normal, too adrenalin deficient." She was obviously mortified when her trademark big red specs became something of a national obsession, and reveals that she changed to a more discreet style after her optician told her he was being inundated first by secretaries, then their mothers, looking for wannabe Jancis frames.

Published by Viking, pounds 17.99

Tracey Macleod

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