I love Hugh Johnson. I really do. If I could be anyone in history I think it would be him. Save the world? Sod that. I’ll drink what Hugh has and be far happier than most.
He is by far my favourite wine writer. His pure enjoyment of wine seeps through the pages effortlessly. He treats his subject gently and with respect so there is nothing of the cutting, analyzing, scoring, and memorizing that characterizes so many of the modern American critics. Wines to be collected, fetishized, ticked off, owned. It is of no surprise to me that one of America’s most popular modern wine-critics/salesmen is Gary Vaynerchuk, whose obsession when he was growing up was collecting baseball cards.
For Johnson, it never feels like he is collecting wines, rather that he is meeting them. Each wine a new friend picked up along the way, they may stay for some time, or simply be in and out of his life. Fleeting, satisfying, remembered.
He is the complete antithesis to James Suckling’s ridiculous antics; prancing around in front of wine makers, ipad in hand, shouting out scores like some mad numerologist. “That’s an 89!” “I’m on 93 on that!” “This is a 99 point wine!” Ugh. Gross.
But reading Hugh Johnson comes with its own pitfalls. I read easily taken from Pouilly-Fumé to Graves and with a flick of the page I am in The Rheingau, another flick and I am in the mists of Piedmont. The problem is his writing inspires a thirst in me that is hard to quench. Simply because I can’t afford the bottles he writes of. It is a hard world to learn about sometimes.
The reason for this little tribute – apart from obviously suggesting that you read Mr. Johnson if you have not heard of him – is I came across a sentence or two of his that I had to share, it is a sentence that I wish I had written. It describes the challenge of writing about wine, about taste, which he calls later an anarchy.
“. . . the difficulty of finding words for tastes; every expression you use has to be borrowed from some other sense, except the four words sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Words follow lumberingly after the clear, precise yet indefinable impressions of the tongue.”
Whether we are writing 140 character reviews, tasting notes for Platter, long rambling narratives; some personify, some give scores, others tell stories of where the wine is from, others simply list: animal, vegetable, mineral; whatever we do, we fail. The lumbering words never catch up. For me, though, some simply fail better than others.