The story of JancisRobinson.com
The background to this particular corner of cyberspace
Like everything else I have ever embarked upon, this site owes its existence to a random mix of unrelated external factors. Throughout the first half of 2000, towards the end of dot.com mania, a succession of would-be online suitors beat a path to my door, usually literally, to explain to me how they, and they alone, were going to make me rich beyond the dreams of avarice via their particular online scheme. I'm sure this sort of thing was happening to thousands of other people at the time.
Most of it was complete nonsense, of course, as I realised too late to excise a mention of the supposed forthcoming www.jancisrobinson.com on the jacket of my next book, Jancis Robinson's Wine-tasting Workbook (sold as How to Taste in the US). This was a bit awkward. I felt that if I were advertising something, it really ought to exist, and discussed my dilemma with Bob Brooks of Brooks Associates, who was our techno guru at the time. He let slip that he designed websites, which seemed awfully convenient. But I felt very strongly that I didn't want my website to look like everyone else's so I asked a book designer, Lisa Sheard, who hardly used the web herself, to come up with some suggested aesthetics. Bob accordingly set to work most efficiently on the technical side of the site, based on the bright oranges and greens and unusual typefaces suggested by Lisa (he probably thought we were mad).
We launched on 1 Nov 2000 and over the next 12 months slowly built up the content with a weekly wine of interest and wine news stories with increasing frequency. The site began to take up more and more of my time. I enjoyed its immediacy compared with the print deadlines of newspapers and book publishers, and it gave me somewhere to share all the extraordinary things I learn and amazing experiences I'm lucky enough to have – much more satisfying than watching a stack of paper tasting notes mount up in a corner of the office. But it had started to take up a frightening amount of time.
The genesis of Purple Pages
I realised that if I was to continue – and I was keen to start a proper forum for direct communication with visitors to the site – I clearly couldn't go on providing a better and better site as a completely charitable exercise. ('Why not?' would be regarded as a facetious comment at this point.) I was absolutely determined not to accept advertising or sponsorship as I really didn't want, after more than 30 years of independent commentating, to place myself in any commercial relationship with those that I write about. So Bob and I decided we would try launching a subscription bit of the site for my tasting notes, the juiciest gossip, forum, the only online version of my Oxford Companion to Wine, etc, etc. We launched this on 1 December 2001, offering early visitors a complimentary month, December 2001, as well as the entire postings for 2002. (Bob's system was not the standard 12-month sub affair but revolved around actual calendar years.)
Perhaps the most exciting period of the site's entire life was the hour during which Bob posted the Purple Pages (called after another of Lisa's colour schemes) by mistake for an hour before their official launch and we managed to garner three subscriptions from three different countries during that time. This idea clearly had legs – despite various other wine writers' dire warnings that we would be lucky to get 100 subscribers in total, or that the scheme was doomed. Malcolm Gluck, aka Superplonk and at that time wine writer of The Guardian, even bet me lunch with a good burgundy at The Fat Duck if I could prove to him that Purple Pages paid their way but, disappointingly, when he found out he'd lost the bet, substituted supper chez lui. (I declined.)
Amazingly, the site has gone from strength to strength. Purple Pagers seem to me to be an unusually delightful and intelligent bunch – soon from more than 60 different countries around the globe (80 a few years later, about 100 now) even though we had yet to do any serious selling of the product. This in some ways deplorable state of affairs has continued for years as I'm still too busy on the production line to find the time for selling and marketing.
Bob ran the entire show at first, apart from the actual writing, with great aplomb – processing subscriptions and battling with banks while his wife Muriel injected a copy-editor's rigour. We were all thrilled to be nominated for a Glenfiddich Award in 2003, the only time these now defunct but once important awards had a multimedia category, if less thrilled to see the award go the BBC. Huh!
The control freak takes control
From the beginning of 2004, however, I decided to try to speed things up by moving the base of operations from the Brooks' rural idyll in the depths of Gloucestershire to London. At least that was the original plan, except that the clean, new website design ended up being achieved largely by Marie Louka of Tuscon, Arizona, ably assisted by her sisters Nancy and Victoria Preston in Paris and Boston respectively. (Too long a story to relate here, but Christmas 2003 was not my most tranquil.)
Sandy Ingram valiantly battled with the manual subscription process we inherited while Kwok Wai Tang built me a delightfully simple content management system and Georges Sokol held my hand when technology threatened to submerge me. It was a huge step forward for me to be able to input my words directly from the beginning of 2004.
On New Year's Day 2005 we took another giant leap with yet another new site design – much more ambitious than its predecessor and the product of SubHub, who host many more sites of a similar nature. This was much more flexible than before so that I could update the site with delightful ease wherever I was – too often some might say.
The really significant bonus was the new system's automated membership and password system meaning that subscriptions could start at any time of year rather than only on 1 January, as per the original Bob Brooks system. (And you could change your own password and email address by clicking on Preferences at the bottom of any Purple Page, for example.) Of course this system was sold to me on the basis that hardly any human intervention would ever be needed. Huh! again... The redoubtable Rachel Shaughnessy, who has been with us since September 2004 and is the longest-serving member of the team, is our membership supremo and is kept very busy indeed answering your queries and helping those who forget their details or find Purple Pages otherwise impenetrable.
New features, new people
We subsequently, not without an extraordinary amount of effort and complication, added a database of my thousands of tasting notes with its own special tasting notes search facility. One Rocky Burt of Newfoundland was supposed to be responsible for this but fled in horror quite early on at the size of the task. We were helped enormously by a team of hardworking transcribers led by Master of Wine student, the late Mel Jones.
At the end of 2005 I was able to announce a dramatic doubling of the site's editorial team to the grand total of two thanks to the arrival of Julia Harding MW, who, as a recent top Master of Wine, fluent French and German speaker, and previously the most superlative freelance editor, could hardly be more perfect.
By September 2006 the forum had become so popular that editing and publishing its increasingly frequent posts was threatening to eat up my time to such an extent that I would be unable to add enough material to other areas of the site, so we took the plunge into an unmediated forum – less pretty but much more immediate. This coincided with the first of several leaps on to an even bigger, if invisible, better platform. I had been worried that without my omnipresence and mediating hand (not that I had used it much), our forum might degenerate, but I am delighted to say that it still qualifies for the compliment from France's only wine magazine, that it is 'the most courteous wine forum on the planet'. Purple Pagers really are a very civilised, curious and well-informed bunch.
Seven years later and the team by then comprised not just Julia and Rachel but also Tamlyn Currin, who does an extraordinary amount of high-quality work masterminding our massive tasting notes database as well as writing beautifully, 2015 Master of Wine Richard Hemming; regional specialists Walter Speller on Italy, Michael Schmidt on Germany, Ferran Centelles on Spain and Elaine Chukan Brown on the USA; and regular columnists Alder Yarrow on California and Max Allen on Australia. Tim Jackson, who qualified as an MW in 2017, joined us in 2019, not least so that he can fill the massive hole left by Richard’s departure for Singapore in July 2019. (His wife is starting up a school for North London Collegiate there; he will continue to be part of the team but will not be able to attend the hundreds of interesting tastings available every year in London – see London – capital for wine.) Our tally of Masters of Wine had grown to seven by late summer 2019 when Alistair Cooper MW and Tom Parker MW joined the team. Andy Howard MW was already well established as our retail specialist commenting mainly on what Britain's supermarkets, who after all sell the great majority of wine sold in the UK by volume, get up to. Or not.
It is more than a full-time job to keep uploading all the tasting notes that we generate all over the world. Fortunately, we have several highly skilled, knowledgeable, wine-versed uploaders, including ex medical journal editor Andrew Morris and ex wine trade Francesca Bellometti, both of them high achievers in the WSET exams. They have more recently been joined by refugees from the wine trade Susannah Knight and Lilla O'Connor, both WSET graduates. Read more about our expanding team here.
Finding out what you want
In 2007 we added audio podcasts and in early January 2008 video clips, the latter in response to the many suggestions we received when we undertook the most ambitious survey of visitors to and members of this site to date. Very gratifyingly, amazingly really, almost one in every four members, who now come from about 100 different countries, took the trouble to respond and taught us a great deal.
As a result of this survey, we were able to make many improvements to what we offer. For example, it came as a surprise to us that so many members wanted more emails from us. Then in September 2013, because so many of you still said you would like to hear from us more often in another survey so popular we had to close it after only a few days, we introduced weekly emails so that every Friday we send out an email with news of and links to the most important articles published during the previous week. Our thanks to Gavin Quinney of Ch Bauduc for introducing us to who administer this and more.
Brand new JancisRobinson.com
As a result of the survey, we undertook a complete redesign of the site which, after an amazing amount of work and investment, finally saw the light of day on 5 September 2008. This dramatically improved search and navigation in particular. We also added far more to the Learn section, in effect more than a book's worth of free information about wine. And we added the wonderfully detailed, fully searchable maps of the world-famous World Atlas of Wine to the site, the only place you can find them online, to complement our exclusive online presentation of the entire Oxford Companion to Wine. We added a new forum which was infinitely more sophisticated than the old.
A giant leap – tasting notes integration
In early December 2009, soon after our ninth anniversary, we announced integration of our tasting notes database with those of the two leading cellar-management systems, CellarTracker and VinCellar, so that Purple Pagers with accounts with either or both of these can access our wine reviews directly from those accounts. We were the first non-Americans to undertake this complex process. Since then we have also integrated our tasting notes for members of WineOwners.com and wine-lister.com.
Wine Website of the Year
In September 2010 we were voted Wine Website of the Year in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards – the first time such an award had been made – and very thrilled we were too. Read more here. Over the years many of our contributors have been honoured in these awards. In July 2020 no fewer than five of us were shortlisted for the last-ever LRIWWA in a field that apparently included no fewer than 700 entries.
Celebrating the first decade
On 2 Dec 2010, in the middle of some of the worst weather and snow-disrupted travel, about 250 Purple Pagers gathered at the German Gymnasim in what was then one of London's dodgier areas King's Cross to meet for the first time and celebrate the 10th anniversary of JancisRobinson.com with a tasting of 23 fine champagnes. See more here.
A mobile-friendly version is developed
In early September 2012 we were able to launch a version of JancisRobinson.com designed specifically for mobile, hand-held devices such as iPhones, acknowledging the dramatic increase in the proportion of visits on such devices.
Our literate visitors
Since 2012 we have held a number of writing competitions for visitors to and members of JancisRobinson.com. Our first, a search for good restaurant reviewers, was held in early 2012 and won by Henry Jeffreys, who has since gone on to be a professional writer. Since then we have held writing competitions which have become increasingly popular. Our 2014 competition identified Chambers Street Wine in New York as the most favoured independent wine merchant in the world – see the results here. Our 2018 competition asked people to describe how they fell in love with wine and we had so many beautiful entries that we assembled all of those we published into an eBook called My First Crush.
Tasting events launched
In December 2013 we held our first tasting event, a Barolo Night, a mega tasting of Barolo 2009s hand picked by our Italian specialist Walter Speller. These have since become much more frequent. Our policy is to focus on wines we think deserve more attention. Since our first tasting event, Barolo has, at long last, been fully embraced by the UK wine establishments but we have held London events devoted to Brunello, Chianti Classico, sherry, Riesling Grosse Gewächs, Languedoc wines, Riesling Kabinett, Cru Bourgeois Greek wines and Valtellina. All these events have been at Caravan King’s Cross, in an area that has now been dramatically refurbished and re-energised. We have also held tastings of fine Italian wines with Chambers Street Wines in New York, and a wine faults workshop at the Institute of Masters of Wine in London.
Our motivation is to bring wines which we believe deserve greater attention to an audience of wine enthusiasts who might not otherwise have the opportunity to taste them. Any surplus generated by ticket sales is donated to a charity chosen by the relevant wine producers.
After well over a year of development, JancisRobinson.com changed once again in 2014, with a completely new look and a new back end. The aim was to provide a much more robust framework using the latest technologies to ensure a faster and more intelligent site, however it is viewed. At the time of launch, we wrote, ‘it should also be somewhat more future-proof – though there may be no such thing in the fast-moving world of online media'. How true. By 2019 the software used for the 2014 upgrade was no longer supported so we had to rebuild the back end yet again, with a brand new, much faster and more responsive back end, together with a much-improved forum and search, launched in early July 2019.
As those with any experience of this sort of thing know only too well, website development always takes many times longer and costs many times more than you ever imagined. And you never reach perfection. We now have a permanent and ongoing programme of updates to this site, fixing bugs as we find them and introducing new features to ensure that we continue to offer the very best combination of wine expertise and cutting-edge internet technology.
What I can tell you is that of the many things I do, writing my FT and syndicated columns, keeping my books up to date, tasting and travelling, this website is by far my favourite outlet and the one I spend by far the most time on. The site is of course far from perfect but we are aiming for the highest standards in every aspect, which is of course the least that you, gentle wine-loving reader, deserve. Thank you very much indeed for getting this far and do, please, keep sending feedback.