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Hugh Johnson, the Atlas of Wine Writers

April 15, 1993|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In 1966, a young writer approached various British publishers with an idea for a book on wine. They laughed in his face.

"When I asked for a modest advance," Hugh Johnson recalls with a wry smile, "they all turned me down. Finally, one British publisher, Mitchell Beazley, took me on, then Simon & Schuster in the U.S. bought it--and it's still in print."

Simply titled "Wine" and written in a straightforward yet evocative style, the book demystified what was then an elitist subject. It struck a chord, selling more than half a million copies worldwide, and helped make Johnson perhaps the world's best-known wine writer.

Johnson, an affable, soft-spoken, 54-year-old Englishman of medium size, bushy black eyebrows and banker suits, calls himself "much more of a wine interpreter than a wine critic."

Sitting in his flat in the St. James section of London, Johnson explains his mission: "I try to approach wine as a writer lucky enough to make sentences readable. I want to tell people about wine and encourage them to drink it. The main thing is to convey the excitement and involvement that I feel about wine--and I think readers have fun because I am having fun."

For Johnson, wine is more than a beverage. "It is a perfect expression of modern civilization at its best," he has written. "There is simply nothing that so perfectly encapsulates physical pleasure, social well-being and aesthetic exploration at the same time."

And Johnson says that the news for wine drinkers has never been better. Top-quality products have never been so abundant, and the industry, he says, "is aspiring toward higher quality as never before in its millennia of existence."

Mainly, he says, this is due to the improved state of winemaking: "The ability to make good wine is universal now. This is due to the technology developed in schools and universities where they have learned the scientific basis of winemaking. There has also been a change in the old French tradition of secrecy in winemaking, keeping secrets from neighbors and rivals. Now everyone swaps information--from France to California to New Zealand."

Johnson's wine education began in earnest at Cambridge University, where he first began to go to tastings and found, he says, "Wine began to mean something." In the late '50s, the year before he entered Cambridge, Johnson had spent four months in California during what the English call the "gap year" between school and University. He stayed with an actor cousin in Los Angeles, camped out in the Sierras and went up to the Napa Valley which was, he says, "pretty quiet." Still, he was taken with both its scenery and its wines, then just emerging as world-class products. "I fell in love with California," he says, and has made frequent trips here ever since.

In 1960, fresh out of school, he got a job writing captions and copy for British Vogue. He also got the chance to write a few articles about London wine importers and merchants. "They were wonderful, old-fashioned, charming people," he recalls. "As I got more interested, I visited wine regions, often doing travel stories too."

Johnson became editor of Wine & Food and secretary of the Wine and Food Society; his career writing about wine and travel blossomed.

After the success of "Wine," which he says was intended to give an imbibing traveler "a sense of discovery," he worked on an enormous book, "The World Atlas of Wine," published in 1971. It has sold more than 1 million copies.

"It was one hell of an effort," he says, and at the finish he felt that he had, at least temporarily, exhausted his enthusiasm for the topic of wine.

So Johnson the writer looked for another subject. He found it in his back yard. He and his wife, Julie, had bought a country place in Essex. "I was enthralled with the trees on the property," he says. "But I didn't know an oak from an elm. Here were some of the most majestic creations of nature, and I couldn't give them a name."

What's more, when he tried to research the subject, he couldn't find a book that adequately satisfied his curiosity. Frustrated, Johnson began his own research. "I went around the world talking to tree people." The result was "The International Book of Trees" in 1973. The same back-yard curiosity led him to gardening and his 1979 book, "The Principles of Gardening."

Back on the wine track, his "Modern Encyclopedia of Wine" was published in 1983 and a massive revision of the "Atlas" appeared in 1985. Finally, the acclaimed public television series "The Story of Wine," and the accompanying book, came out in 1989. All the while, he has continued publishing a seemingly endless--and highly successful--series of vest-pocket wine guides. The 1993 edition (the 18th edition) of the flagship "Pocket Wine Book" has just been issued; the last edition sold 360,000 copies.

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