As easy as BBC

BBC Maestro filming in London

A new wine course is now available. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

There was only one period in my life when I thought I knew everything there was to know about wine. In 1978, having been writing about wine for three years, I was awarded the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Diploma, the pinnacle of achievement for any student of the world’s leading provider of wine education. ‘Right, that’s it’, I thought.

When a publisher who had read a little article about me, then considered to be a strange beast as a young, female wine writer, asked me to write a book, I was cocky enough to accept the challenge. The result was a paperback in 1979, imaginatively entitled The Wine Book, published by Fontana with accompanying hardback by A & C Black. The subtitle was ‘A Straightforward Guide to Better Buying and Drinking for Less Money, which I think would still appeal to many wine drinkers, and the book, long ago out of print, was very favourably reviewed.

Back then, the only way to I could communicate was in print. I’d started a monthly newsletter, daringly called Drinker’s Digest, in 1977. The Consumers Association bought it in 1980 and turned it into The Which? Wine Guide, published annually. In the same year I was appointed wine correspondent of The Sunday Times.

But very soon another medium was to become interested in wine education: television. It would take some time for wine to find its way regularly on to screens in America, and in much of Europe a programme about wine would have been as unlikely as a series about potatoes. Yet the British had a thirst for wine and a thirst for learning about it.

On 6 July 1982 the first episode of Food and Drink aired on BBC2, based on a pilot that featured restaurant writer Fay Maschler and me. But I was lured away by a more ambitious wine-inspired TV project called The Wine Programme. It was an early Channel 4 offering hosted by me and filmed all over the world, with a crew of a size unimaginable today (two sound recordists, a hair and make-up artist, a production assistant etc). The beauty of putting wine on the small screen was just that: we could show the beauty of wine country. The disadvantage of wine as a subject for TV became swiftly apparent: not much actually moves. Cameramen would pounce on bottling lines or barrel-makers with relief.

Unlike cookery programmes, little transformation takes place in wine programmes. To see real change, a crew would have to film over several months as opposed to minutes. All that really happens with wine is talking and tasting – and wine tasting is definitely not a spectator sport, unless the audience can somehow taste the same wines that appear on screen. No wonder then that subsequent TV programmes about wine have tended to introduce some element of competition and/or celebrity, such as the SOMM series in the US, which majored on blind tasting, and The Wine Show produced in the UK, themed around a pair of well-known actors jockeying for supremacy as connoisseurs.

In the age of the internet, wine education has blossomed – and it thrived during lockdowns. Tutored online tastings, from little sample bottles, became quite a thing in 2020, a way for people sequestered in their homes to interact with others while honing their palates and learning a bit along the way. The wine-themed private members club 67 Pall Mall was one of the earliest and most active organisers of such events. When it could no longer welcome members physically to its London premises, it did its best to serve their needs, deplete its cellar and provide employment for the sommeliers charged with filling and despatching these little bottles.

Most recently I’ve been involved with a new form of education, the complete online course. The BBC has launched a series of them, on subjects as diverse as dog training (hosted by Steve Mann), songwriting (Gary Barlow), business success (Peter Jones), writing children’s books (David Walliams) and no fewer than five cookery courses – so far.

I was first approached by the managing director of BBC Maestro, Michael Levine, in June 2020, and we decided to film that year’s northern-hemisphere grape harvest, in September. (One of the great limitations on filming anything to do with wine production is that it happens only once a year.) The pandemic put paid to that.

But we did manage to catch the 2021 harvest in Burgundy, anxiously watching a weather forecast that suggested the only days the crew (much reduced from the 1982 model) could manage would coincide with dreary clouds and rain. In the end, we were blessed by a rare period of bright sunshine and I, for one, felt thoroughly infected by the euphoria of the grape harvest. There were picnic lunches, songs, rippling muscles, the pleasing rhythm of secateurs/bucket/picking-bin/truck, and the scent of fermenting grape juice in the cellars. Filming in the vineyards of Morey-St-Denis, I bumped into two vignerons of my acquaintance, giving me the entirely false impression that I am well embedded in Burgundian society.

I should also point out that the stars of the course are not me, but Jeremy Seysses and Diana Snowden Seysses, who so kindly allowed us to film them in the cellars of Domaine Dujac just before their harvest. They provided great insights, not least on vintage variation, the practicalities of biodynamics and the effect of climate change. And Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme was even more of a trooper, allowing me to ambush him in La Riotte surrounded by his pickers – all in special 2021 harvest T-shirts.

But the bulk of the course was filmed at a rented house in north-west London. The walls were mainly glass, which had to be blacked out to maintain constant lighting. We had to ensure we had all the props in situ – though I seem to remember someone dashing off to the nearest John Lewis department store to get the white tablecloth one should ideally check a wine’s colour against. This meant not only sufficient glasses and wine paraphernalia but a bevy of bottles stacked up on the sideboard, some from my cellar, some bought in.

The scope of the wines themselves was so much wider than when I first attempted to teach people about wine in 1979. As with The Wine Book, my course begins with the wine in your glass and how to taste it. But when I look at the Wine Directory section of The Wine Book, I see that I allotted 47 pages to ‘The still, light wines of France’ and only 39 to ‘The still, light wines of the rest of the world’. Shocking! New Zealand was given just five lines in which hybrid vines were mentioned but not Sauvignon Blanc.

Prosecco doesn’t even feature in the index, although I did write, ‘Prosecco is a fruity sparkling wine that can be a bit stale on the nose’. Interestingly, a little further down the same page I noted, ‘English winemakers at Pilton Manor in Somerset and Felstar in Essex are experimenting with the méthode champenoise’. This was almost 10 years before vines went into the ground at Nyetimber, the first successful producer of an English copy of champagne.

The topics featured in my new course include natural and orange wines (of course), pet-nats (slightly sparkling wines stoppered with a crown cap), one of the new Corpinnat Spanish fizzes, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (the world’s most successful wine export), Ridge’s Sonoma field blend labelled Geyserville, wines in a can and bottles made of paper and recycled plastic. One of my most pleasing finds, in my eco-inspired attempt to convince wine drinkers that top wines don’t necessarily come in heavy bottles, was an empty bottle of Ch Latour 1982 on our sideboard that weighs only 565 g (as opposed to the bottle of Provence rosé Les Clans 2020 that weighs almost a kilo – though the producer Sacha Lichine swears he will be mending his ways).

The course comprises five hours of screen time split into 25 lessons, as well as more than 40,000 words of course notes put together with the help of my fellow Master of Wine Jane Skilton. That’s almost as long as The Wine Book.

Jancis Robinson – An Understanding of Wine (£80 for lifetime access, including course notes) was launched on 10 February by BBC Maestro.

Other wine courses

Hundreds of outfits around the world offer wine courses. We list scores of international options in our free Learn section. Also check out the Association of Wine Educators in the UK and the Society of Wine Educators in the US.

In-person courses

Some of these educators provide online courses too.

Wine & Spirit Education Trust runs courses at various levels and in varied formats all over the world. In the last academic year 108,000 students in 70 countries took one of the WSET’s nine qualifications.

Local Wine School – an international franchise operation

Académie du Vin at 67 Pall Mall, London

Berry Bros & Rudd Wine School 3 St James's Street, London

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone St Helena, California

Grape Experience Bay Area and Boston

International Wine Center New York

Napa Valley Wine Academy Napa, California

San Francisco Wine School San Francisco

Online courses

Wine Scholar Guild runs advanced courses that specialise in France, Italy and Spain, with certification, as well as wine tours.

James Suckling Teaches Wine Appreciation, an online course, from MasterClass at £14 a month, billed annually: 11 lessons, 2 hours 22 minutes.

The Everyday Guide to Wine by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, from The Great Courses at £39.99: 24 lectures, 12 hours; digital transcript £9.