What Does It Take to Be a Great Wine Reference Book Today?

This month, two of wine's most iconic books—The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Wine Bible—saw updated editions. Jon Bonné reviews both, and considers the challenge of staying current and authoritative in today's ever-changing wine world.

wine books oxford companion and wine bible review

Wine has always relied on its canonical texts, books to guide you through the endless particulars. For much of the past 15 years, the eager student typically chose between two: The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson, who is now helped by her longtime collaborator Julia Harding; and Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible.

The former was tidy and British in its way: sometimes dry and occasionally blunt, but always authoritative. (“To ripen fully, Syrah demands a warm climate, but if temperatures are too high, its telltale fragrance is lost.”)

The latter was far friendlier, filled with homilies and quotes in display type, always trying to be disarming—and often romantic—in its language. (“Syrah reminds me of the kind of guy who wears cowboy boots with a tuxedo.”) To strain an obvious comparison, it was downright American.

Even if both were on your shelf, one always ended up more dogeared and cracked.

Me, I’ve always been an Oxford man. In my early writing days, it had a near-permanent place on my kitchen’s butcher block, where I spent hours wormholing from entry to entry.

That preference might have been because the Oxford provided the sort of bottomless detail that, at the time of its 1994 first printing, the Internet could not yet provide. Perhaps it was because the Bible opened with a lengthy tutorial section for the newbie—something that always seemed grafted onto its encyclopedic back half. Perhaps it was that I felt wine should best be learned by free association. Or perhaps I preferred my wine talk without the aura of romance that gets too many writers into trouble. No matter. Both found their audiences. Both were wildly successful.

It can’t be entirely coincidental that new editions of the two hit shelves this month—arriving at an odd moment. It has been 21 years since Robinson’s work first appeared, and 14 since MacNeil’s (this will be the fourth edition of Oxford, and the second of the Bible). In that stretch, both wine and publishing have been radically transformed.

In France, for instance, Burgundy has risen from the background to become as fetishized as Bordeaux. The Austrian wine industry, all but moribund when Oxford’s first edition appeared, was gaining strength by the time MacNeil published (“the most riveting wines in central-eastern Europe”) and today is a great success. Italy’s wine geography has been thoroughly scrambled; obscure regions are now darlings, and many darlings now passé. California has evolved, too, both in its regional hierarchies and styles. Then there’s China, Slovenia, the new Australia and so on.

Reference books have had an even crazier go. “A printed encyclopedia is obsolete the minute that you print it,” was how Jorge Cauz, president of Britannica, Inc., put it as he halted the encyclopedia’s print edition three years ago, ending 240 years of tradition. Britannica’s rule hadn’t ended—it simply went digital—but the ungracious truth is that, in wine as other things, nearly any relevant fact can be found online today, often from the same official trade bodies that supply the backbone of wine reference material. What grapes are allowed in the Leithaberg DAC? What’s the sugar limit for brut Champagne? Here, let me Google that for you.

It’s not enough to simply be current and accurate. You also need to provide informed perspective of a sort the Internet doesn’t provide for free—interpreting and occasionally calling bullshit on all those official factoids. Everyone, after all, gets to be an expert now.

Today’s wine world is sprawling. Is it really possible for any one book cover so much ground anymore? (And honestly, was it ever? A generation ago, André Simon’s 1968 “Wines of the World” exceeded 700 pages.) Attempting to encapsulate it seems a nearly insurmountable task.

It’s not enough to simply be current and accurate. You also need to provide informed perspective of a sort the Internet doesn’t provide for free—interpreting and occasionally calling bullshit on all those official factoids. Everyone, after all, gets to be an expert now. Today’s wine lover is too smart, and too plugged in, to tolerate the middlebrow (or at least middle-of-the-road).

The new editions gave me an opportunity to revisit both books with fresh eyes, and it quickly became clear: Oxford’s fourth edition succeeds admirably in a complicated task, while the Bible struggles—in part to be as current as it needs to be, and in part because it seeks to be too many things.

I suspect Oxford works because the task at hand is a simpler one; it is heavy on facts, sly in its opinions. Basics are left to others. It seeks to be pure reference, and has tapped experts with deep knowledge—David Schildknecht for Austria, Wink Lorch for the Jura—for help. (MacNeil was also assisted by at least a dozen helpers.)

The revisions since the 2006 edition are evident, and almost always feel contemporary. Au courant tidbits like orange wine and en rama sherry appear. More crucially, there has been solid expansion on places and things that were only emerging a decade ago. Austria’s Neusiedlersee now receives nearly a half-page and California sounds very much like the place it is today, and is becoming in the future.

It is not without shortfalls. Oxford has never been a place to learn about producers, and its voluminous cross-referencing—“carbonic maceration” prompts page-turns to “Pasteur” and “semi-carbonic maceration”—can be complex (a good argument for digital). But it also has semi-hidden pleasures amid the dry discourse. Look right past “fanleaf degeneration” to Robinson’s discussion of “fashion”—a pointed one-page condensation of millennia of aesthetic choices and tensions. These Easter eggs elevate Oxford from becoming an encyclopedic brain dump. They sum up wine, in its current state, with finesse.

“Current state” is precisely where the new Wine Bible falters. I flipped to page 726, where I found an image of Santa Lucia Highlands grower Gary Pisoni with his famous Jeep. The photo seemed slightly off; Pisoni has boundless energy, for sure, but here he looked a bit too young. After poking around, I dated the photo to 2005. It summed up my impression of the new Bible: it’s working hard to capture an era that, if not archaic, is slightly bygone.

My complaint isn’t that MacNeil has ignored esoterica. (She does indeed include newly fashionable regions like the Republic of Georgia and Slovenia.) Rather, like the Pisoni photo, it’s the Bible’s view of classic wine regions that hasn’t quite kept up. While I’m happy to see Hungary’s obscure juhfark grape earn four mentions, is it more relevant than trousseau or poulsard? In fact, can it be possible that France’s Jura doesn’t warrant even a few words? Or Corsica?

Part of the difficulty may be that the Bible spends so much ink on that long, explanatory first section. A tutorial on the basics is a worthy task, but one that is perhaps best suited to a different kind of book. The other is the book’s struggle to resolve its massive scope—nearly 1,000 pages—with its folksy tone.

I deeply admire, for instance, how adamantly MacNeil talks of food in relation to wine. She devotes long passages, as in the first edition, to the cuisines of Germany, France and so on. But no matter how wonderful tarte tatin may be, should it occupy space in a Loire chapter when the red wines of Anjou are left out? The growers of Saumur, including Clos Rougeard—one of the Loire’s greatest reds—might wonder.

If you aim to be all-encompassing, the modern reference’s burden is, again, to avoid the middle of the road, and instead to provide the type of contemporary and critical view that the wine trade shies away from. I hoped to find more of that in, say, a Champagne chapter that largely read as though it could have been penned by the region’s official trade body. Nearly half the recommended wines come from grower-producers, yet the growers’ movement, crucial in modern Champagne, receives two long paragraphs in a 24-page chapter.

This party-line tendency was most evident to me in the discussion of California. The Bible wonderfully captures California’s historic sweep, but when it comes to the present day, too often it reads as though the industry’s recent seismic changes simply haven’t happened. Are unoaked chardonnays, hot a decade ago, just now “on the rise”?

This section is one place where MacNeil breaks from character to take a stand on matters of taste. But I’m not convinced it does her, or her readers, a service. Even if you believe, as she does, in a more-is-more philosophy for her home state (“California wines are all about cream, not about skim milk”), it is a deep oversight, in a purportedly canonical book, not to acknowledge the profound style debates taking place there right now.

It’s because the Bible seeks to wear the uniform of authority, and courts such a wide audience, that these shortfalls are hard to ignore. But here’s the thing: Today’s audience has access to too much information to be swayed by any view of wine that doesn’t feel fully contemporary. Will they really trouble themselves with such Boomer pastimes as “timing the finish” of a wine? Probably not.

It’s this constantly plugged-in access that provides any reference book, including Oxford, with a challenge going forward. For wine as for other things, we live in what Herbert Gans would have called a “multiperspectival era.” Even the best reference book is merely a jumping-off point. When the basics are always a click away, you’re compelled to offer something more: an authoritative voice that’s not only resonant today, but also smart about tomorrow.


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