Sour grapes? People are (anonymously) saying mean things about Jancis Robinson in China

By Jim Boyce

Imagine that not one of Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina or Portugal goes on to the second round of the upcoming World Cup. That’s kind of how some trade people felt when bigwigs Helan Qing Xue, Silver HeightsGreat Wall and Changyu, among others, did not make the final cut at the recent Chinese Wine Summit contest judged by Jancis Robinson, Bertrand Boutschy and Ian D’Agata. (See the results here.)

The trio’s seven recommendations out of 53 wines ran afoul of some in the China wine industry. Robinson took the brunt of the criticism, which — according to anonymous sources cited in this Shanghai Daily story — amounted to her no longer having what it takes to be an elite taster:

In her latest tasting of Chinese wines, Robinson’s judgement was questioned by some Chinese wine experts and writers, since many acclaimed labels didn’t make it through to the finals.

“Her tasting judgment is contrary to our general expectation. Many wineries are unconvinced but dare not say so because she is Jancis Robinson,” says one wine insider, asking that his name not be published.

Her tasting, actually, has been questioned in the past.

According to another insider, Robinson and leading Chinese wine experts visited Ningxia not long ago and were served a bottle that everyone else thought was corked except for Robinson, who insisted that it was a very good wine.

“I believe she is a great taster, but she’s not that young. Her nose and palate may have begun to degenerate,” says the insider, asking not to be identified.

Wine tasting is a lifelong pursuit for critics, so doubts can be devastating.

Asked about skeptics, Robinson says with a laugh, “I definitely haven’t got older (as a taster).

“But I find that as I get older, my ability to concentrate becomes much better,” she adds.

To return to the World Cup example, it sounds like a case of blaming the referee.

To be fair, the writer does a good job of explaining Robinson’s background in wine, of citing her books and of presenting her views on China: there isn’t enough diversity (too much Cabernet and Chardonnay), some wines are good but far from great, guaranteeing authenticity is an issue. The article also gives Robinson the last word in terms of the anonymous accusations.

But it’s unfortunate none of the accusers went on the record. And it’s odd that Robinson is singled out despite being but one of three judges. Would not the result implicate all of them? And aren’t there alternative explanations for an outcome that, I admit, also surprised me? Such as the top picks showing well on that particular day. Or having a style that appealed to these particular judges whereas another trio might reach a different conclusion.

As for criticism Robinson missed a corked wine during her visit to Ningxia: I asked several people who spent quite a bit of time with her there, as did I, and none of us recall such an incident. That’s not to say it didn’t happen but only that I haven’t found anyone yet who can confirm such a thing.

Finally, I wonder if some of the reaction is due in part to the hefty entry fee of rmb15000 per wine (details here). That’s a lot of money. Enough, in fact, for a winery rep to fly to England, France and Spain and respectively serve his / her wine to Robinson, Boutschy or D’Agata or, if the person traveled wisely, perhaps visit all three.

Anyway, as the stakes get higher for the wine trade in China, things are getting more competitive and cutthroat — one anonymous source (I might as well play along) describes the wine writing scene as “a hornet’s nest” — and we are likely to see more stories like this.

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People are (anonymously) saying mean things about Jancis Robinson in China

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