Hugh Johnson – Good Bits From 55 Years of Scribbling
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams: Hugh Johnson on wine, I love it. Good Bits From 55 Years of Scribbling, how did you enjoy it?
Leon Coetzee: It’s an amazing stocking filler, if I had to get something for Christmas, I’d definitely want this. It’s a compendium of his life, 55 Years of Scribbling. Hugh, I think, takes it a little bit easy on himself and he says it’s scribbling because it’s some of the best wine writing I’ve read in a while.
It’s about passion in wine and it comes through on each page. It’s just the history, being involved in wine for 55 years, you see quite a lot. He goes through the decades, it’s quite nice, as he’s put it out in decade for decade as he’s been going along. You can’t not have ever read anything from Hugh Johnson if you have a slight inkling in wine. It’s almost the same as in South Africa with the Platters Guide.
Hugh has been a part of my life for the better part of ten years now because I did the Cape Wine Masters course, finished my diploma and you have to buy the Wine Atlas, you have to buy the Companion to Wine, it’s brilliant. It’s just how he weaves wine, not just with the place, as they do with the Atlas, but also the people and the history.
A rich history of wine wine over the last 55 years
There’s so many great characters from the book and what’s really nice, he puts all the introductions to the books that he’s published. So you get a brief overview of what the book is about and the very first Atlas to Wine and there’s little bits and pieces of what he’s said and put in.
For instance, Burgundy. I was very fortunate to go to Burgundy, but the first line of the first Wine Atlas for Burgundy, the very name of Burgundy has a ring of richness about it and it’s true. The wines are voluptuous, the places are oozing with beauty. He talks about vintage port, something close and dear to my heart. He wrote books about how to enjoy wine, not just about wine as an academic pursuit.
It’s about enjoyment and pleasure and for him seeking the pleasure in wine is one of the most important things. It’s just a really great read through the decades and he’s involved in some memorable moments like the first time the wine trade in the UK tasted New Zealand wine.
In the very first Atlas to Wine he picked New Zealand to be a sleeping giant and England and it’s coming to fruition now. 55 years they’re making sparkling wines that rival the French. It’s a bit of a bias opinion I’d say, but it’s really a must-have in any collection and it just reads quite easily, there’s no –
JCW: It’s not too academic.
LC: No, there are one or two things like when he had to write the introduction to the book about geology and wine. The great debate now, just recently in the media about minerality and how a geologist says there is no effect of the soil on the wine. It’s just one of those unexplained things I think, the whole thing about wine being a magic gift from the Gods, as he put it in here.
JCW: Let me just ask you something. The reason I asked you to do this, not only do you find wines and you and your partner make the most delicious wines –
LC: You’re too kind Jenny.
How Hugh Johnson’s writing is inspiring
JCW: You know, it is becoming quite like a cult, but also I know that you like writing and the bits and pieces of yours I’ve read. I thought you could be a fledgling writer of wine, have you ever considered doing that? If so, because of the care you take with whatever you write, is there something that makes you warm in particular to the way Hugh Johnson has done this writing?
LC: I’ve written my fair share of back labels! Unfortunately writing is one of those things, it’s like running or playing tennis or practicing golf. It’s something you have to do continually and once you’re out of it, it’s difficult to get back on the bicycle.
I think that’s why Hugh Johnson just kept on because it inspired him all the time. I’d love to write something, one day. I jokingly one morning at university said to a friend of mine, Theunis Strydom who at that time was one of the Haka of Dagbreek Hostel in Stellenbosch. He asked me: Mr Coetzee what are you going to do with your life and that was 8:30 in the morning on a Thursday. I said to him: Theunis, I don’t know mate, if all things go pear shaped, I’ll probably end up writing a book. The irony is that he released his first book about two years ago himself and now he’s a bit of a stand-up comedian.
The whole thing about writing, you have to describe wine and you have to get people excited. That’s what Hugh Johnson gets right in his way. The big thing about Hugh is that he’s not just a wine writer purely, his dad was a history teacher or a professor. He intertwines history/wine, the place, people, the maps. Then he’s also got a bit of a green thumb.
So he’s a multi-faceted individual and I think that’s one of the nice things about wine. Is that there are people in the world that love wine. Wine is their drink of choice, as he puts it in the book. It’s for them refreshment, nourishment and all things good for the soul, but it’s multi-faceted. You can’t just have one little outlook on life and outlook on wine, it’s ever changing as well.
I’d love to scribble something because I think the South African story of wine is as yet unwritten. There’s a lot of people doing amazing things out there and amazing things are yet to come, not just in this country, but other forgotten parts of the world, let’s put it this way.