Julia Harding MW, book and website editor, writer and wine critic, writes for and edits JancisRobinson.com and is co-author, with José Vouillamoz and Jancis Robinson, of the multi award-winning Wine Grapes – a complete guide to 1,368 grape varieties including their origins and flavours. She recounts the beginnings of her beautiful friendship with Jancis, who she initially wrote to “more in hope than in expectation”. As an editor, Julia “has a thing about hyphens” and in her wine coverage considers herself a generalist who doesn’t want to “settle down” with any one particular region or wine. She provides valuable insight into the MW programme beyond her opening gambit of “I would say basically give up the rest of your life for a couple of years”.
How did you get the wine bug?
Probably by spending too much time hanging around in Oddbins on Saturdays, when I lived in Bristol. I’d always enjoyed wine but I knew very little about it. I loved the feeling of Oddbins, the people and the way they were so enthusiastic. I would pick their brains and taste anything that was open for tasting. Then, I started going to another wine shop in Bristol – Avery’s – and they had a tasting group which I joined. I found that the more I knew, then the more pleasure I got from the wine.
What led you start working with Jancis Robinson?
When I realised that I wanted to know more, I started the WSET courses. I got really hooked when I realised how amazing wine was and that the liquid in the bottle was the best thing on the planet, and that there was so much to learn and enjoy. I was still working as a freelance book editor, so I basically worked for just about all the main education publishers in the UK. I hoped that I’d be able to move sideways into editing wine books and Jancis had always been my ultimate heroine. I used to buy the FT and tear her articles out and throw the rest of the paper away. After I’d done my second WSET course, I wrote to Jancis, more in hope than in expectation, to say I’d really love to meet her. Much to my amazement, she agreed to meet me, so I went up to London to see her. She gave me some really good ideas about editing wine books. Unfortunately, publishers are a bit stuck in their ways and if they haven’t used you before, they’re probably not going to start using you from scratch. I told Jancis that Mitchell Beazley didn’t want to employ me to do any editing of wine books. Jancis suggested that I do a job for her on a freelance basis, which was reducing The Oxford Companion to the Concise Oxford Companion, which meant cutting it by two-thirds. So I did that and really enjoyed working with her.
When I went to see her, as I was leaving, on the front steps of her house, I plucked up all my courage and told her that what I’d really like to do is work for her. Jancis said she would never employ anybody and was too much of a control freak. I thought it had been worth a shot. I kept the little hope in the corner of my thoughts. I did the freelance job for her, did my Diploma, got a scholarship which included work experience at Waitrose, and started a job at Waitrose in the head office. It included doing a little bit of buying but was mainly communication, such as the mail order magazine and organising press tastings. I kept in touch with Jancis through the press tastings.
Waitrose paid for me to do my Master of Wine, which was fantastic and by the time I’d finished the exams – I hadn’t done the research paper by then – I knew that Jancis was doing a new edition of the Oxford Companion. I’m not normally a cheeky person but needs must, so I asked her if she needed some help. I’d just done my exams, so I was up to speed on the technical side of things. After some negotiation with Jancis and Waitrose, I went part-time, in 2004. We did that for two years while we did the third edition. There was a decision to be made at the end of the two years because Waitrose were not very keen on part-time. I maybe persuaded Jancis to employ me, seven years after I said I’d like to work for her. It was the end of 2005 when I started working full-time for Jancis and I’ve been very happy ever since.
As a book editor, is there anything that really bugs you about editing today?
Jancis will tell you that I have a thing about hyphens, which she doesn’t always agree with. As I edit everything on the website and work on the books and my own articles, I am particularly fussy about hyphens and commas.
Overuse or underuse?
Underuse, where I believe they make the reading easier. If you’ve written it, you know what you’re talking about and you don’t necessarily realise that an extra comma is either grammatically necessary or would help the flow, and similarly with hyphens. I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to grammar and punctuation, but I try to only do it when I think it makes it easier to read. Occasionally, I will let one go.
Given your experience in making books more concise, where do you think wine writing is going? Are we getting more concise or do longer reads have a better future. How do you see the industry shaping up in terms of length?
The advantage and disadvantage of online writing is that there’s generally no word count, so that means you can be wordy and overlong, which I can be as I tend to be a little bit too thorough. I probably lack sometimes the cut and thrust of a journalist, whereas Jancis is not only a great writer and editor, but also a really good journalist, so she knows how to cut to the point. Sometimes I fail to do that. In a way, internet publishing is not so good for me as I tend to be a bit too thorough.
I can’t say that I’ve seen a trend towards shorter or longer. I do think there’s quite a lot of bad writing as anybody can publish, but then you get some quite interesting insights that may not have ever made it to the screen were there not so much freedom for everybody to publish. There are so few wine books being published that it’s hard to make a real judgement as to whether wine books are getting longer or shorter. I don’t think they’ve really changed much.
You travel around the world a lot in your job. Do you have a favourite wine region that you like to return to or one that you recently visited and fell in love with?
No. I confess to being a sun worshipper, so any place that’s sunny and beautiful, which makes great wine and has, especially, lovely people. I like to go to new places and there are still places that I’ve never been to and would love to visit. It’s like wine. If you were to ask me which my favourite wine is, I’d say there are a few things I’m drawn to but basically I love the wide variety. I thinks that’s true with wine places, too.
You write about so many different regions, but do you consider yourself a specialist in any one particular area?
I’m not a specialist, but I do write quite a lot about Portuguese and Greek wines. I do love those wines but this just sort of happened without me thinking I wanted to be a specialist in this or that. Sometimes it’s frustrating not to be a specialist because you have to stop at some point and move on to something else. However, because of the variety and change, I think I quite like being a generalist, so there isn’t one in particular that I’d want to settle down with.
Is there any region or wine that you really loathed during you Master of Wine studies. Is there one that you really struggled to get to grips with?
I’m going to give a very boring answer and say no [laughs]. I think I have an insatiable desire to learn and to taste. If I don’t know anything about it, I want to know more.
A lot of people spend many years trying to get through the Master of Wine, and you passed without any retakes. Is there any advice you’d give people about how to approach the Master of Wine qualification?
If I’m thinking specifically about the MW, I would say basically give up the rest of your life for a couple of years [laughs]. I was in a very fortunate position in that when I started the MW, I’d just moved to a new town and a new job, and I could contain my job and didn’t have many friends and not much of a social life, so I could work and study in the evenings and at weekends. I didn’t have a partner or children, so I didn’t have to think about anyone else. I think the hardest thing is when you have other people in your life and the MW just takes so much – not just time but energy, emotion and anxiety. The first thing would be to recognise that it’s a very big thing to do and if you’ve got people who are not too keen on it and are very close to you, then probably don’t do it.
One of the big things about the MW that’s underestimated is that it’s 50 per cent about how to communicate, how to write, how to argue and analyse, and 50 per cent about wine knowledge. Most people can accumulate wine knowledge, but it’s harder to learn to communicate if you haven’t had that experience for some other reason in the past. I felt very lucky to have had a background in writing, editing and languages. I think that made a huge difference in me being able to do exams in tasting and theory, as well as the dissertation. I think a lot of people underestimate that and know much more about winemaking, chemistry and all those things than I will ever know, but they may find it harder to answer a question in a short space of time in an exam.
What do like to do in your downtime, if you have any?
I have two types of downtime: there are the short bursts when I’m in London of army boot camp fitness, which is three times a week in the park. It’s the only time I don’t think about work. When I’m on holiday, it’s lying by the swimming pool or on the beach with a good thriller.
What do you like to drink on a night off?
Only wine, I don’t drink spirits because of the alcohol, but I really love malt whisky but it’s too alcoholic. If I went to a pub in the past where there was no decent wine, which is not really true these days, it would have been a gin and tonic. But because I have quite a lot of wine at home, downtime is usually drinking one of the samples that was really good the day before and seeing if it is still really good. If I go down to my cellar, which is not grand but has things in it that I like, then it’s probably more German Riesling and white Burgundy than anything else.
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Introduction and edition by Robert Smyth