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A true sage of wine gets personal

Hugh Johnson's new book is intimate — and frankly political.  Jon Bonné sits down for dinner with perhaps the world's foremost wine writer

Hugh Johnson sits solo at a table in the bar, nursing a flute of Champagne. “I was thirsty from the walk up,” he begins.

His jacket and tie are perhaps a touch fusty for New York’s Eleven Madison Park, its earth-toned Art Deco room defined more by open space and open collars than Old World formalism. Johnson’s face is seemingly unrecognized by the chattering crowd.

His name is another matter. Arguably the world’s most formidable wine writer, Johnson is on a short list of those who have most educated the modern world about wine in the past 50 years. His “World Atlas of Wine” was the first effort to lay out with cartographic distinction the most lauded winegrowing regions around the globe, selling over 4 million copies. His annually updated “Pocket Wine Book,” first published in 1977, has sold upward of 8 million copies.

His latest effort, “A Life Uncorked” (Univ. of California Press, $34.95), is arguably his most political – and most personal. The first flurry of controversy came last summer, when previews revealed that Johnson had assailed influential wine critic Robert Parker as “the dictator of taste.”

Parker may have been a focal point, but Johnson in fact takes broader issue with America’s influence on wine. “Taste in the past was largely a matter of harmless fashion,” he wrote. “In American hands it feels more like a moral crusade. Robert Parker deals in absolutes, and castigates those he sees as backsliders.”

And so to dinner at Eleven Madison Park, which newly arrived chef Daniel Humm is trying to revitalize for owner Danny Meyer of Union Square Café fame. It is striking just how much Johnson views food and wine as inseparable. After being tempted in the bar by the scent of freshly grilled fish, he immediately targets the menu’s seafood options, choosing an appetizer of shrimp and sweetbreads, followed by Columbia River sturgeon punctuated with smoked sturgeon, peas and mint.

‘The most daring thing’The restaurant’s wine director, John Ragan, like Humm a recent transplant from San Francisco’s four-star Campton Place, appears tableside. Johnson outlines our fish-focused selections (shrimp and sturgeon for him, slow-poached lobster for me) and the melee is on. Given his audience, Ragan’s opening gambit is anything but obvious: A 2004 Albert Boxler chasselas from Alsace.

“Now there’s an original thought,” Johnson responds. “Chasselas?”

“We could certainly talk about riesling,” Ragan counters.

Riesling it is, a Bürklin-Wolf 2004 Wachenheimer Rechbächel from Germany’s Pfalz region. But Ragan tempts us into a bit of chasselas too, an unheralded variety if ever there was one. “This is the most daring thing I’ll do in New York,” Johnson says, contemplating his glass.

The Parker fracas has overshadowed the more intimate details of “A Life Uncorked.” (“I don’t particularly like the title,” he offers. “I wanted to call it ‘A Lot to Swallow.’”) A radical departure from his reference efforts, it summarizes, often lyrically, a life spent in all corners of the wine trade. Johnson’s approach to wine is as broad-minded and holistic as Parker’s has been focused on sorting out good from bad.

His tale launches in the late 1950s at Cambridge, with Johnson getting a “gentleman’s degree” and raiding the cellar for bottles of 1953 Lynch-Bages and 1949 Chateau Lafite. It sails through his early career: writing for British Vogue, then an editorship of Wine & Food magazine and a post, at the nearly outrageous age of 24, as general secretary of Britain’s Wine & Food Society. This charmed career rolls forward (travel editor of London’s Sunday Times, wine correspondent for Gourmet) as does his personal life (marriage in 1965, three kids, the purchase of an Essex manor house, Saling Hall, in 1970), each event marked by highlights of the vintage. In 1967, it's the birth of daughter Lucy and Château d'Yquem; in 1971, it's German riesling and the release of the “Atlas.”

Yet the moments of glory — Johnson's 1986 appointment as a director of Chateau Latour, for one — pale in comparison to more modest recollections: winemaking attempts in France’s Bourbonnais region, or his ill-fated 1975 effort to sail the historic wine route from Bordeaux to England, as his tiny ship headed straight into a gale. (“We nearly drowned, and our wine was given a shaking.”)

It’s all punctuated by a seemingly pitch-perfect recall of sumptuous meals through the decades: sushi and sake in Kyoto, a tuxedoed feast in Burgundy, riesling and cricket shirts in Australia’s Hunter Valley. Few details escape his gaze. When Humm emerges from the kitchen to chat, Johnson queries him about an all-tomato tasting menu Humm had prepared years earlier.

Still, Johnson's bombthrowing will draw the most attention. Parker is a convenient target, but Johnson draws a direct comparison between America’s influence on the wine market and its dominant geopolitical clout. (“Imperial hegemony lives in Washington,” he put in the book.)

It isn't so much about wine, he explains as he works through his fish (“sturgeon at its best, I must say”), as what he considers “an American weakness” for dictating cultural taste in absolute terms. “It goes with the territory, really: ‘We want a firm decision now.’ And I simply don’t believe in that. … Firm decisions are not always available.”

Johnson is equally dismissive of the 100-point rating system, arguably inaugurated by Parker but now in wide use. “I simply don’t know what he means. I know what the results are, but I don’t know what it means. I simply can’t get my head around the notion that one wine is a 98 and one’s a 95. Can you?”

Worse, he argues, the scores — and an American bias toward bolder flavors — have driven winemakers to make overly dense wines with high alcohol levels. (That view is shared among many of Johnson's colleagues. When I later mention these comments, an American writer replies, “God, anyone but the British!”)

We arrive at another of Johnson’s sore spots: modern drinkers’ refusal to age their wines. He deems our riesling too young, but admires the wine I toted along: a 1990 Mountain Dome brut from Washington. Johnson doesn't hide his fondness for bubbles, and this is an unabashed play to his palate.

“Oh, I really have to add this to the collection,” he says, checking the label.

The 16-year-old bottle serves to further emphasize his points. “There are several reasons why you really love it now. It’s a memory, it’s an experience. It proves something about ageability, and it offers elements that are not ... available if you’ve got the latest in your glass, that is. It’s very much the point of wine to me.”

What next?Now 67, Johnson has a new “Atlas” edition due next year, and with a memoir added to his bibliography, there’s not much terrain left to cover. His magazine and newspaper duties have largely been passed on. Despite his role as host of a 1991 13-part series, he sees little appeal in wine on TV. There will be no blog.

“To a certain extent I drop out,” he says. “At my age I don’t have the same sort of industry.”

Or perhaps his other pursuits will take greater focus. An avid horticulturist, Johnson penned an authoritative 1979 book and dozens of articles on gardening; his Saling Hall garden is a local tourist destination. As the server moves us to dessert, Johnson spies an ailing hydrangea nearby and asks for a glass of water. The request is repeated, again and again, until a pitcher arrives.

“If you’re not going to water it, then I’ll water it,” Johnson tells the incredulous waiter. “I’m a gardener. I’m not letting it die!”

The hydrangea is revived; dessert is served. The complex array of sweets — Napoleon and millefeuille pastries and sorbets in various configurations — would dictate sweet wine, but Johnson beelines for glasses of red: a 1997 Barolo and a 1998 Côte-Rotie. He parses the restaurant’s hefty wine list, eyeing favorites, contemplating multiple vintages of Cheval Blanc, pooh-poohing the notion of trophy wines: “I can never imagine shelling out $1,200 on a restaurant bottle.”

There is much more: praise for Napa for focusing on its strengths; high hopes for vineyard development in Eastern Europe (notably Romania), China and India; and finally, one last insistence that wine belongs in its place, not viewed through the prism of its score but enjoyed as part of a larger whole.

“I think you cannot be too openminded about wine,” he says as we near our last sips, “and I think one of the problems, if I can be critical of my contemporaries and colleagues, is that they get too close in and too exclusive and they tend to forget what everything is about.”