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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
4 Mar 2002

Britain's longest-serving wine journalist.

Born 16 March 1913

Son of Edmund Penning-Rowsell and Marguerite Marie-Louise Egan

Parents divorced, educated Marlborough (joined Officers' Cadet Corps, involved in protest using red blankets)

1930-35 journalist, Morning Post

1935-50 book publisher, Frederick Muller Ltd

c 1936 met Meg in Hyde Park when they both laughed at someone particularly pompous who fell from his mount in Rotten Row

1937 married Meg Wintringham (honeymoon in Siena, EP-R with mumps)

Interest in wine kindled when Meg had to leave the BBC on her marriage. She spent her leaving collection at John Lewis on Bristol blue wine glasses which her boss was sarcastic about. She burst into tears and he, mortified, bought her 'proper' clear wine glasses at Berry Bros & Rudd together with a dozen bottles of NV Moulin Vent, the start of Edmund's extraordinary cellar

1938 love affair with wine ignited by a friend of Meg's family in Lincolnshire, William France, pupil of Boulestin who introduced him to Averys (his first wine order arrived in his Bloomsbury flat during the first week of WW2). Started lenghty correspondence and subsequent friendship with Ronald Avery

1940 proposed as member of the Wine Society, no. 17444, by Francis Watson, later director of the Wallace Collection. This gave him minimum supplies throughout the war of about six bottles twice a year inc excellent whisky which he didn't drink but others did

Dined in London regularly with a burgundy-loving friend

1939-1945 worked in an aircraft factory in Swindon where he recruited fellow workers, working in conditions so muddy they had to work in wellington boots, to the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union. Sacked peremptorily one Friday afternoon in February 1942 just after his first child Cressida was born. Lived first in lodgings in Highworth, Wilts, where wine was kept under the bed. Then they bought a cottage in Hinton Parva where the builder was encouraged to dig just a little bit deeper to make a cellar, into which water regularly seeped. John Betjeman was a neighbour (JB not really interested in wine, but delighted to be served Yquem throughout one meal on the strength of his acquaintance with EP-R)

Worked for Plessey, Swindon

Served in the Signals

Late 1940s Began keeping his famous cellarbooks, inspired by one given by Charles Walter Berry

1952-57 sales manager of Batsford

Meg briefed to find a house with a cellar and within easy reach of Oxford schools

1954 wrote first article for Country Life whose editor was a fellow member of the Wine Society Dining Club. EP-R said he should have articles about wine because they carried ads for it

1954 founder member of the William Morris Society of which he was committee member and vice president (much of the Wootton house is furnished with original Morris wallpaper bought via Maples from a shop that went bankrupt)

1957-63 director of Edward Hulton/Studio Vista

1959-87 member of Committee of Management, Wine Society (second attempt) for this cooperative buying society.

1962 made redundant by Studio Vista (by his lady employer who used to use his travel allowance)

1963 asked Cyril Ray how he managed to sit and work all day without the routine of being in an office: 'Oh, after 250 words, I'm absolutely exhausted'

1964-87 chairman of the Wine Society. Proposed and spearheaded move out to modern, purpose-built headquarters in Stevenage, helped by new-town incentives and designed by architects of Harveys new premises outside Bristol. Stevenage council built it for £180,000 and charged a rent of about £23,000 a year until the Society bought it in 1986

Worked indefatigably to energize and modernize the Committee of Management, improve quality of senior management, restore balance between management and Committee of Management, transform design and informativeness of lists, and to 'encourage' management to buy from a wider range of suppliers (French, of course - he was a particularly vocal supporter of the 1959 bordeaux vintage)

Proposed members should make the Society interest-free loans to fund overseas debts during Wilson's austerity measures. The treasurer thought it a most unprofessional thing to do but it brought in about £70,000 - possibly partly as an expression of distaste for the Wilson government. Opposed credit card sales

1964 manager of World Book Fair, Earls Court, and 'shook her Majesty's gloved hand'

1964 after a trip to Hennessy cognac where he met someone from the FT, EP-R wrote to the Financial Times. The man he met left but his letter was answered by John Higgins who became his first editor, then J D F Jones. His first article was an account of the 1964 Hospices de Beaune burgundy auction (prided himself on never mentioning the Wine Society)

1967 wrote Red, White and Rosé, a wine primer

1969 first edition of The Wines of Bordeaux appeared. 60,000 words were specified, 120,000 delivered. George Rainbird warned he would not receive a penny more than the £500 agreed. First printing 10,000 copies. Went to its sixth edition (Penguin) in 1989

1971 Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole

c 1973 taken on as consultant to Wine & Spirit trade magazine

1980 first and only trip to Australia (subsequent visits to California)

1981 Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite National

1987 retired as Chairman of the Wine Society at 70, as the rules dictate, with membership nearing 190,000. Seventieth birthday celebrations included dinners at Vintners' Hall and at his club, the Travellers, at both of which Palmer 1961 were served

1993 edited, translated and updated Ch Latour: the history of a great vineyard 1331-1992

1996/7 the late Peter Sichel did much to prolong EP-R's ability to travel around Bordeaux despite failing sight

Club: the Travellers which played a large part in his life; always entertained there as opposed to in wickedly overpriced restaurants, bringing up bottles from his cellar. When in London stayed not there but at his small flat in Russell Court, WC1

Interests: large Cotswold garden, eating outside, Italy, opera particularly Wagner (Glyndebourne and Bayreuth regular), William Morris

Family: survived by his wife, Meg, daughters Cressida, teacher, and Virginia, anaesthetist, and son Edmund, a professor of geography and international expert on flooding

Personal: used to take the whole family on holiday to Bordeaux, including camping in Ronald Barton's garden at Langoa. Described by Cyril Ray as 'a conservative in everything but his politics'

Meg's brother went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Edmund still took Marxism Today until very recently. Careful to match bottles to people and occasions (eg, Max W story). No strong food; just hard English cheese

Compulsive archivist until sight problems. Kept old bottles annotated and also kept daily diary as well as cellarbooks and wine diaries. Also visitors' books, and kept critical notes on every hearing of each opera recording

Some favourite wines and wine people:

  • Claret - Peter Sichel, Bill Bolter
  • Champagne - Alain Seydoux (Alfred Gratien)
  • Burgundy - Roland Remoissenet
  • Italy - Lungarotti