Where did you grow up?
I’m a Londoner, born in St John’s Wood. I was exiled to Scotland by the Blitz, and then we moved and most of my childhood was spent on the North Downs in Kent – now a famous wine area. My father was a barrister and my mother was half German, which has always given me a fellow feeling with the Germans. I always loved going there – and of course I’m notorious for loving riesling.
My grandfather was actually interned during the First World War, which was traumatic for my mother and her sisters: there’s a letter from my mother, aged 10 or 12, saying ‘You can’t do this to Daddy!’
What drew you into wine?
When I went to Cambridge, I shared rooms with a chap called Adrian Cowell who was a very good taster. He then wasted his life – he became a stockbroker. He came back after a dinner one night with two red Burgundies. I was astonished that two wines could be so different – one could bring such pleasure and one could be uninteresting. He said, ‘Do you realize these come from the same village, two fields apart?’ I was amazed. You could call that the origin of 'The World Atlas of Wine.'
So then you left Cambridge and got a job at Condé Nast…
Yes, by sheer chance I landed a job as copywriter at Vogue. I was outnumbered by beautiful girls and I thought I had to do something they didn't do, so I suggested an article about wine. It was in the Christmas issue of Vogue in 1960 – what to drink with the turkey. And so a wine writer was born…
And you went on to do more articles?
Again by chance, I met the features editor of the Sunday Times and I was given a wine slot on the fashion pages, where I developed a jolly style for people who weren’t really interested in wine. As I was moonlighting from Condé Nast I had to think of a pseudonym: I called myself Ambrose Congreve. Then I got picked up by American Condé Nast, which paid much better, and became travel correspondent for American House and Garden, among other things.
Once I was sent to interview André Simon. He had a wonderful presence, with this halo of white hair and an enormous handshake. I was 27 and he was 83 and we became friends, and he asked me to run the Wine & Food Society, then to edit the magazine Wine & Food.
Your most famous book, "Wine," was published in 1966. How did that come about?
Robert Carrier had had fantastic succes with "Great Dishes of the World" in 1963, and I thought, I’d love to do the same sort of thing for wine.
And what about "The World Atlas of Wine"?
I met James Mitchell of Mitchell Beazley, who was wondering if they could do a book of maps about wine. I realized that this book could change the wine world by showing people where it was at.
It must have been a massive project.
It was. The maps we used were were the equivalent of the [British] Ordnance Survey in each country. Some of them were 100 years out of date, and in some regions the data just didn’t exist. I have to admit I made some of it up, but then I would send it to the relevant authority and they would say it was fine. I did four editions on my own [the Atlas is now in its 7th edition], then I had a brainwave and asked Jancis [Robinson] to get involved, and that gave it a new lease of life.
The wine world has become much more international since you started writing. Do you think wine is becoming homogenized?
There is homogenization, but whereas it always used to be a case of the New World following Europe, now Europe is following the New World, and you do see more approachable, fruitier wines in Bordeaux for example. That’s why I’m excited by the natural wine movement. People are saying, we all know the technical moves to make something that tastes as if it was made for the supermarket. Let’s make something that’s not like that at all – we don’t know quite how it will turn out but let’s have a go.
What do you think of the move away from big style wines, towards more restraint? Do you think the pendulum is going to swing too far?
If you follow fashion then it swings all over the place. But if you’re making wine that you love in a vineyard that you love, you’re not going to swing anywhere. But if your wine’s not selling, then maybe you have to change it, and that’s not ideal. In the end it’s the market that shapes the wine.
You’ve been outspoken about scoring wines – do you think it’s time to shelve the 100-point scale?
I never wanted to take it off the shelf! I thought the whole thing was idiotic from the start. I remember in the late 1970s when Dan Green, my publisher at Simon & Schuster, showed me a little magazine by a chap he was thinking of publishing called Robert Parker. I liked the very vivid tasting notes, I thought they jumped off the page, but then I said, ‘What’s this number here?’, and he said, ‘That’s the score.’ I said, ‘That’s not possible.’
Well, it’s worked for many years but I think it's fading away now. It will never die completely but yes, it’s time we shelved it.
Tell me about your interest in gardening.
[My wife] Judy and I were married in 1965, and we found a little house in Islington – for £3,995 [$6,500] – a lovely little house. It had a garden so I set about it, and I loved it.
You’re back in London now after 40 years at Saling Hall [Johnson bought the 17th-century Essex mansion in 1970]. Do you miss the garden there?
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I look forwards rather than backwards, so to me a new project is more interesting than an old one. I’ve done my planting and as I started very young I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing big trees come to maturity, which not a lot of people get to do.
You’ve said recently, ‘Town gardening compared to country gardening is like putting on reading glasses’ – can you explain?
Gardening at Saling was the big picture: things happened slowly, and there were always several projects going on at once. Here it’s the opposite. You make big differences with small gestures: plant a pot and it changes the garden. I find that very exciting.
You’re a prolific tweeter – what do you like about Twitter?
I love editing, crunching information, getting rid of everything inessential in a statement. That’s why I like Twitter so much. It’s an art form. [Johnson's handle is @littlestjames]
What has been the low point of your career?
I can’t think of one, though we’ve all had disappointments. The glass shop was one of them. I had the Riedel idea before Riedel did: I started making glasses in 1964 with David, Marquess of Queensberry, who was Professor of Glass and Ceramics at the Royal College of Art.
Our first design was a dirt-cheap 'ideal' wine glass made of milk-bottle glass for the Wine & Food Society. Brilliant; I still use them.Then I went to the Rejmyre works in Sweden for my suite of glasses and decanters. They went down a storm in Japan – at one stage I had 13 outlets there, until around 1989 the Japanese stock market collapsed and sales figures fell off a cliff. I closed the London shop in 2000 and stopped manufacturing. A few glasses still do the rounds, but my designs are history, I fear.
And the high point?
[laughs] It was my first book being pirated in Taiwan. I suddenly got a glimpse of fame. Someone on the other side of the world is ripping me off. Good!