Hugh Johnson, younger son of a London lawyer, began his life-long passion for wine in all its variety as a member of the Wine & Food Society at Cambridge University, where he gained an Honours Degree in English literature. When he left King's College in 1961 he became a feature writer for Vogue and House & Garden, writing, among other articles, travel and wine columns for both magazines and their sister-papers in New York.
In 1963, as a result of his close friendship with the octogenarian André Simon, the founder of The International Wine & Food Society, he became General Secretary of the Society and succeeded the legendary gastronome as editor of its magazine Wine & Food. At the same time he became wine correspondent of The Sunday Times and started work on his first book, Wine, whose publication in 1966 established him as one of the foremost English gastronomic writers. There are now over 800,000 copies in print in seven languages and the book is still regularly reprinted. After a year as Travel Editor of The Sunday Times he became editor of Queen Magazine, in two years doubling the circulation of the fashionable glossy. It was 1969 when James Mitchell of the newly-founded publishing house Mitchell Beazley invited him to write The World Atlas of Wine. The research involved took Hugh Johnson all over the world; the result was a best-seller that might justly claim to have put wine on the map. Its publication was described by the Director of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine in his Foreword as "un événement majeur de la littérature vinicole". Since publication in 1971, and revised editions in 1977,1985 and 1994, it has sold over three million copies in 13 languages. The fifth edition, published in September 2001, was revised in conjunction with Jancis Robinson.
In 1965 Hugh married Judy Grinling, daughter of the sculptor Antony Gibbons Grinling, who was also a director of his family firm, Gilbey’s. In 1967 they had a daughter, Lucy, in 1970 a son, Redmond, and in 1973 another daughter, Kitty. In 1971 the family moved from Islington, London to an Elizabethan house in 12 acres of Essex countryside, where he and his wife Judy started a small printing and publishing company, Saling Hall Press. By 1973 he had become deeply involved in the study of trees and his book on this new passion, The International Book of Trees, was published in six languages, with sales now amounting to 750,000 copies. A new edition was published in 1994 and another is due in 2006. In 1975 he published, co-authored with his friend Bob Thompson, The California Wine Book, the first critical modern text on this subject.
By 1979, with the inspiration and challenge of restoring the fine but neglected gardens he had acquired in Essex, he wrote The Principles of Gardening, (translated into six languages; sales 250,000 copies). The garden and arboretum at Saling Hall have since gained an international reputation and The Principles was rewritten, redesigned and reissued in 1996 as Hugh Johnson’s Gardening Companion (In the USA the original title is unchanged). Johnson spends much time updating his existing books, and annually since 1977 has produced Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book, which has now sold over eight million copies and appears in 13 languages - including Russian and Mandarin. His fourth major wine book (published in 1983), was Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion (in the USA Hugh Johnson's Modern Encyclopedia of Wine, in France Le Guide Mondial du Connaisseur du Vin, in Germany Der Grosse Johnson). This comprehensive reference work filled the need for an accessible directory of the world of wine. A fourth edition was published in 1997and a fifth, revised by Stephen Brook, in 2003. A Hugh Johnson Cellar Book and an Atlas of German Wine were published in 1986. An Atlas of the Wines of France, co-authored with the Dutch author Hubrecht Duijker, was published in 1987. In 1992 Johnson published The Art and Science of Wine (in the USA The Vintner's Art), co-authored with the Australian authority James Halliday. It is now available in five languages.
The year 2000 saw the publication of Johnson’s Tuscany and Its Wines. His latest major book, Wine – A Life Uncorked, was published in autumn 2005 Other Johnson activities: He has been President of The Sunday Times Wine Club, which has a membership of 350,000, since its foundation in 1973. From 1975 to 2005 he was Editorial Consultant of The Garden (the Journal of The Royal Horticultural Society) and in 1979 founded The Plantsman quarterly. For the last thirty years he has written a monthly column for The Garden under the pseudonym Tradescant. In 1993 a collection of his Tradescant diary pieces was published by The Royal Horticultural Society as Hugh Johnson on Gardening. Johnson has also written for The New York Times on gardening and travel. A new book based on thirty years of writing about gardening is due in 2006.
Hugh Johnson has been a consultant for many organisations, including British Airways and Jardine Wines & Spirits in Tokyo and Hong Kong, and from 1986 to 2001 was a director of the Bordeaux first-growth Château Latour. He was also honorary Chairman of the annual Tokyo wine show, Wine Japan. In 1989 he co-founded The Royal Tokaji Wine Company in London and Hungary to revive the fortunes of this great but almost-forgotten wine.
In 1984 Hugh Johnson started a film company, Winestar Productions, in partnership with the producers Michael Gill and Bill Travers. The company's first production, a one-hour video film entitled How to Handle a Wine, filmed on location at Johnson's home, was released in Britain in 1984 and the USA by Simon & Schuster in 1985 (under the title How to Enjoy Wine). The same material has been published in book form in Britain and a dozen other countries under various titles. (In the USA How to Enjoy Wine, in France Le Vin: Mode d'Emploi). A new edition was published in autumn 1998.