Jancis Robinson, voted the world's most influential wine critic in polls in the US, France and internationally in 2018, views herself as a wine writer rather than a wine critic. She writes daily for JancisRobinson.com and weekly for the Financial Times. She is founder-editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine, co-author with Hugh Johnson of The World Atlas of Wine (4.7 million copies sold just before the 8th edition was published in October 2019) and co-author of Wine Grapes, each of these books recognised as a standard reference worldwide. The 24-Hour Wine Expert (2017) is a slim paperback guide to the practical essentials of wine. She travels all over the world to conduct wine events – often for the global literacy initiative Room to Read - and in 2018 launched her own hand-made, dishwasher-friendly, ideal wine glass. In 1984 she was the first person outside the wine trade to pass the rigorous Master of Wine exams and in 2003 she was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen, on whose cellar she now advises. In one week in April 2016 she was presented with France's Officier du Mérite Agricole, the German VDP's highest honour and, in the US, her fourth James Beard Award. She now has six, including being the only wine writer elevated to the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.
She loves and lives for wine in all its glorious diversity, generally favouring balance and subtlety over sheer mass.
Magnavai Janjo, who was awarded the Golden Vines Scholarship by the Gerard Basset Foundation to cover the cost of his Master of Wine studies and was shortlisted this year for a Vintners’ Company Award.
Born in Cameroon, Magnavai Janjo has been in the UK only since 2006, arriving at the age of 15. Inspired by his financial controller stepfather who started a wine company of his own, Mags now has his own company MJ Wine Cellars that, at well under two years old, supplies no fewer than 30 different lines to the likes of The Wine Society, Waitrose and Majestic Wine as well as a host of much more varied accounts, and has an e-commerce retail site.
Earlier this year he was awarded a Golden Vines Scholarship by the Gerard Basset Foundation to cover the cost of his Master of Wine studies and was shortlisted this year for a Vintners’ Company Award. Oh, and he somehow found time to get married last month and teaches at WSET between one and three days a week.
It doesn’t sound as though he has experienced too much discrimination on the basis of his skin colour, does it?
When I asked him about it he was a little more careful of his words than this super-affable wine salesman is usually. ‘No overt prejudice,’ he said. ‘It was more subtleties. I distinctly remember in early days of my career, I’d go into a tasting and want to taste as fast as I possibly could because I didn’t feel comfortable there. But it’s improving. It’s no longer just a sea of white faces and burgundy trousers. There’s a bit of young blood now, and even the odd tattoo. The dial is shifting. Is it where we want it to be? No. But it’s significantly better than it was
Together with web designer Tom Wallis, Mags and I created a website BAME Wine Professionals in summer 2020 to provide a directory of people of colour in the UK wine trade in the hope it would create more opportunities for them, and we’re delighted that it has played a part in inspiring companies to promote diversity and inclusion. In fact Nigerian-born, Italian-raised Blessing, the new Mrs Janjo, plans to take a WSET Level 2 course as part of Majestic’s Diversity Scholarship scheme and his sister Maddie, a recent Oxford graduate, already has hers thanks to Moët-Hennessy’s sterling efforts in the same direction. Blessing is currently a medical information specialist but she and Mags hope eventually to work together. His stepfather provides the business with its financial anchor, his sister with copy for the MJ Wine Cellars website.
Mags’ first job was as a wine specialist in Berkhamsted Waitrose where he spent the years 2008 to 2015. He has nothing but praise for their encouragement and support as employers. They sponsored his early WSET studies and he now says he has huge respect for the global education leader too. He had specialised in the sciences at school which helped him considerably in his viti and vini studies.
Once he went to work for Michael Palij MW of Winetraders, gaining experience of selling to the on trade, he had to resort to his parents for his WSET Diploma course fees - and did not let them down. This was followed by a year in Majestic’s corporate division from which he moved to three years at Roberson which he describes as ‘really fun. One day you’d be selling 10 cases to a tiny wine shop, the next you’d be taking a Waitrose buyer out to California to select their new blend of Zinfandel. I racked up serious airmiles.’
His stint at Roberson coincided with their London winery London CRU, used for wine courses and visits. They sent him off on a WSET Educator programme and he found he loved teaching. (He does clearly love talking, and does it in a pretty compelling way.) So he volunteered to teach at the WSET’s Bermondsey Street HQ and admits that the fees from this helped him make the break to go off on his own. Being based in Leighton Buzzard, he has also been keen to take maximum advantage of his train fare into Euston.
He is clearly not afraid of hard work. Four years ago he signed up for the first-year MW course and would rack up three or four hours’ study before and after his working day at Roberson. He was devastated therefore not to pass the first-year exam. ‘I’d never failed an exam in my life. I locked myself away for a week; I was so sore.’
He decided to take a break from studying but then came Covid and furlough from Roberson. ‘Suddenly I had a helluva lot of time on my hands. There was no excuse not to study.’ Thanks to the Golden Vines Scholarship he is now enrolled on Year One studies again and feels both more relaxed and determined about the MW.
M J Wine Cellars took on Drew Slowe as sales support manager last March when they began their retail site. Next year Mags will be looking for an on trade sales rep. How will he choose? ‘Personality is the most important thing. I’ll be spending a lot of time with them so we need to get on. I can teach them things but I can’t change their character. I’ll be asking, “can I trust you to take a client out to lunch and not ruin that relationship?”
He says he has assembled his notably eclectic portfolio on the same basis: ‘I want to work with friends, people I’ve had dinner with.’ Though he admits there is so much admin involved in his job that ‘only 5 to 10% is the fun everyone thinks we have.’
Like presumably every one of his peers, he cites logistics as his biggest single problem. ‘In the old pre-Brexit days, you could order early on a Monday and sometimes get the stock from France on the Friday. Now it takes four to six weeks, and shipping is so much more expensive.’
I asked what he is most proud of. ‘Going on my own with a profitable business. Our suppliers are very happy with us and our year on year growth. If I could give myself advice, I’d say, “do it sooner”.’