The Most Useful Wine Book Ever

The Oxford Companion to Wine.

As a general rule, I prefer drinking wine to talking or reading about it. Forced to choose between a $30 bottle of wine and a $30 book about wine, I’ll almost always take the former. But it never hurts to have a good reference manual in close proximity to the corkscrew. The Washington Post once described The Oxford Companion to Wine as “the greatest wine book ever published.” That’s a reasonable claim; it is without question the most useful wine book ever published. The third edition of the OCW has just landed here; if you have a more-than-casual interest in wine and don’t own either of the previous editions, this is one instance in which your wine money—$65 of it, anyway—will be best spent on something to read.

Totaling just over 800 pages and weighing nearly as many pounds, the OCW is the magnum opus of Jancis Robinson—Oxonian, Master of Wine, OBE (that would be Officer of the Order of the British Empire), wine columnist for the Financial Times, and almost surely the world’s most popular and prolific wine writer. (Jancis is also a friend of mine.) Robinson edited the original OCW, which took five years to produce and was published in 1994. She described this hellish undertaking in her memoir, Tasting Pleasure, in which she referred to the OCW simply as “The Work.” Robinson has since edited two follow-up editions (the second appeared in 1999), and although she had an assistant editor for this latest one, fellow Master of Wine Julia Harding, and enlisted the services of 167 contributors worldwide, the OCW is still very much her work; she wrote more than a third of the nearly 4,000 entries.

Much has changed, for both Robinson and the OCW, in the seven years since the second edition was published. In that time, she has supplanted the equally prolific Hugh Johnson, author of The Story of Wine and The World Atlas of Wine, as the face of British wine journalism, a role that automatically makes her, in the eyes of some Robert Parker loyalists, the anti-Parker. (Parker and the Brits have been trading spitballs for several years now.) The Parkerati have had Robinson in their cross hairs ever since she trashed the 2003 Château Pavie, a Bordeaux that Parker (and several other major critics) adored. Her dissenting view brought a tetchy rebuke from him and convinced his most ardent followers that she was jealous of his influence and motivated chiefly by a desire to knock the emperor of wine off his throne (as if an OBE would even contemplate regicide). But it’s never been my sense that Robinson is striving to unseat Parker. Why would she? She’s built a nice throne of her own—in addition to the weekly FT column and her endless run of book deals, she’s a wine consultant for British Airways, has numerous speaking engagements around the world, and operates a Web site that now has 5,500 paid subscribers.

The OCW’s lengthy entry on Parker (largely unchanged, it should be noted, from the second edition) will probably rile his more rabid fans. The biographical material is straightforward, but the discussion concludes with a tart observation about Parker’s “dangerous” degree of influence over the wine market and the growing tendency of winemakers to cater to his palate. Parker is among just a handful of individuals given entries in the book. Being left out of the first edition caused at least one wine luminary a minor conniption, but Robinson told me via e-mail that the barriers to inclusion are high— the main criteria being “a long track record” and “global significance.” Michel Rolland, the French consulting enologist who now has projects on five continents, made the cut; Helen Turley, who is California’s most sought-after consulting enologist, but whose work and influence are largely confined to Napa and Sonoma, did not.

Of course, the point of purchasing the OCW isn’t to read about personalities or industry scuttlebutt; it is to have a single, compendious source of wine information at your disposal, and the OCW serves this function brilliantly. While there are certainly some fine introductory texts on the market—The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, written by Tom Stevenson, is particularly good—there is simply no book that comes close to matching the breadth and depth of the OCW. Every wine-related topic imaginable is covered in erudite, meticulous detail. Need a primer on oak? Over three pages are devoted to the subject, addressing everything from the differences among various European species of oak to the chemistry behind the oak-imparted aromas and flavors in wines. Looking for a good summary of those arcane German wine laws? In eight simple, meaty paragraphs, the OCW tells you everything you’ll ever need (or want) to know about the development and application of the complex regulations governing German winemaking. And it is not just the comprehensiveness that sets the OCW apart; no other wine book draws on such a deep reservoir of expertise. Contributors include the hugely influential Australian viticulturist Richard Smart, the celebrated French enologist Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, the aforementioned Hugh Johnson, and dozens of other first-rate scholars and writers with specialized wine knowledge. It is a remarkable roster.

The OCW does take a fairly expansive view of what qualifies as wine-related material. It was a bit surprising, for instance, to find Mikhail Gorbachev, never known to be an enophile, included in the third edition. (The reason he’s there: The campaign he initiated against alcohol abuse had dire consequences for the Soviet wine industry and for wine producers in several Eastern Bloc countries.) But if some entries are a stretch, other slightly offbeat items evince a certain English quirkiness and give the book considerable charm. There is, for example, a learned and wryly entertaining discussion of wine in English literature, from Chaucer to Ian Fleming. (Robinson tried to get her friend and drinking buddy, the novelist Julian Barnes, to write this entry for the first OCW. He passed, and the task fell to wine merchant Bill Baker, who has done it with aplomb.)

The OCW is not just a great resource; it is a great artifact, whose contents tell the story of wine today. One part of that story is the growing deployment of technology in vineyards and cellars, and the book discusses at length many of the new and often controversial techniques and devices now being used by winemakers, such as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis. Another part of that story is globalization, a term that makes its OCW debut in the third edition; its profound impact on the world wine market is given a detailed, dispassionate assessment. Two byproducts of wine’s globalization are also first-time entries: Yellow Tail, the Australian wine that has conquered much of the English-speaking world, gets a paragraph, and so does la crise viticole, as it is called—the wine crisis presently roiling much of France.

I have but one, shallow gripe with the third edition—I prefer the more sober look of the second edition. Its text was purely black-and-white; in the third edition, by contrast, the entry titles are off-red, and cross-references and page numbers are highlighted in pink. I find it a bit too bright and chirpy. On the other hand, no copy of the OCW would be complete without a few wine stains, and at least now they won’t be quite so obvious.