Hugh Johnson

  • Nudging sublimity

    It’s not often that I keep a cork. Memories of enough bottles swill around in my head without having to have a cork collection or a label library. But this one was exceptional: 44 years old and still pale, perfect, sweet-drawing, just red-painted by the wine on the end, with no staining up the side at all. Flawless-no creases, cracks, or spots. What every young cork should aspire to but very few achieve. The result: a flawless, perfectly developed wine. I can’t prove the causality. Post hoc is not propter hoc. An odd coincidence, then: It was a sublime bottle of Château Palmer 1966.

  • Heart to Heart

    I always carry a spare heart in case of need. When a wine doesn’t say something to stir the one I was born with, I can always show it to the better-informed later model. I needed them both in California recently. In fact, Heart B is getting more and more business wherever I go these days.

  • Here, there, and nowhere

    A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like “a wine that comes from somewhere.” It should be music to people who write wineatlases. But do we actually know what it means?

  • Princesses, Peas, and Peasant Girls

    Do we tend to put too much of a premium on potency, depth, and complexity-the distinguishing marks, we assume, of a great wine? Certainly in financial terms, the premium has become (to use the fashionable term) unsustainable. AAA-rated wines occupy a parallel universe. It’s time, we tell ourselves, to look for other criteria, other qualities to admire. Of course, we’ve been doing just this for years. But I know that I, and most of my friends, go all apologetic. “It’s only a simple such and such,” we stammer. “Not one of your grands crus.” Grands crus be blowed! A peasant girl can kiss like a princess.

  • Getting Real

    I am not the only critic who has claimed for wine (or at least certain wines) the status of art. Nor is it much of a claim these days, when you see how much garbage passes by the name. There is a criterion for art, though, that could block the entry of wine and its makers into Parnassus. Art is now required to be disturbing, unsettling, to change your view of the world. I wouldn’t want a wine that did that. Nor do the critics of wine often lay out their stall in terms of movements or periods-or indeed influences. Perhaps they should.

  • Great Expectations

    How do you compare the pleasure of a glorious bottle that fulfills your well-justified expectation with one that held out no special promise but made your heart skip a beat? The first can be compared to a public event: the great artist performing, the diva delivering.

  • Contextual Pleasures

    Is there a paradox in programming moments of emotion? It’s what you do, after all, in planning your daughter’s wedding or opening a bottle you’ve been looking forward to for 20 years.

  • Drinking without thinking

    The sign of Pisces determines thirst, I’m told. We Pisceans are well endowed with it. It also determines that the heart rules the head. Hence, I suppose, my coups de coeur. Ratiocination comes rarely, is of questionable quality, but does reach the surface every now and then-in reaction to works of popular science, for example.

  • The Elephant in the Tasting Room

    He is a girthy chap, there’s no denying, but it is not Monsieur Defaix I’m talking about. No, it’s his wines, his beautiful Chablis premiers crus, and the fact that they are nine years old. Other producers at the fair are sharing excellent things, Burgundies white and red, Côte Rôties, Riojas, clarets from the lovely 2005 vintage. Only Defaix’s Chablis Vaillons, his Côte de Lechet and his Les Lys are palpably, sensuously, seductively on heat. Monsieur Defaix is Pandarus. He knows the dishes that will produce the longest orgasms. But he is playing a dangerous game.

  • Home is where the heart is

    It is, we all acknowledge, an expert’s business to be able to give snap judgments. The parameters are set, the variables assessed before he or she even gets on the bus to work. Once in the tasting room, decisions come logically, instantaneously, without second thought. A flicker of surprise, perhaps, here and there, but no doubts, and afterward no recantations. Methodical appraisal produces the answers—and that’s it.