My fiancée, who is otherwise appropriately territorial, has told me that if ever I am going to be permitted a hall pass in our relationship it will be for Jancis Robinson alone. Robinson, who has been writing about wine for 40 years now, is the lead editor and general force behind The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine, and Wine Grapes—this last, lavishly illustrated volume weighing in (an appropriate metaphor in this case) at 1,280 pages. She is the wine columnist for the Financial Times and edits an eponymous website for subscribers—devoted, of course, to the grape. In 1984, she became the first person not directly employed in the wine business to pass the hilariously demanding Master of Wine exam.
These are, to be clear, only the highlights. (Jancis, can we text?) Alas, even if bourgeois conventions are going to keep us apart—Robinson’s career also includes marriage to restaurateur and critic Nick Lander, not to mention three children—I can still admire her writing, and most recently the fourth edition of the Companion. Long considered the standard text of wine scholarship, I feel comfortable (as an admirer of both wine writing and Oxford companions) in observing that it also sets a standard for the Oxford series. With a word count that puts it in the neighborhood of Proust and comfortably in advance of the King James translation of the Bible, it makes a serious play for comprehensiveness without sacrificing a recurring playful element. Wine writing is "a parasitical activity undertaken by wine writers"; when tasting, "most professional tasters … demonstrate their devotion to duty rather than alcohol by spitting. There are no taste receptors in the throat."
Taking a task seriously without taking one’s self too seriously is not an easy balance to achieve, but it is the norm in the entries composed personally by Robinson. Nearly 200 other writers also contribute articles, and many are quite extensive. The volume's entries range from subjects as obvious as ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘Cabernet Sauvignon,’ to more technical matters like ‘Stuck fermentation’ and ‘Yeast’ (subsections: ‘Nomenclature,’ ‘Cultured versus ambient yeasts,’ ‘Cultured yeast characteristics,’ and ‘How yeast works’) and often include genuinely surprising information.
Until this most recent edition, I can’t think of how I would have known that Syria, even under present circumstances, produces "at least one first class wine … Domaine Bargylus … founded in 2005 by the Saade family (also owners of Château Marsyas in Lebanon) in the mountains above the port city of Latakia. A fine red and very respectable whites have been made from international varieties on a site with a Roman connection." If the vodka runs low, Russian troops will have an indigenous fallback. I certainly wouldn’t have known that certain vintage Madeiras are so sturdy that they should, in some cases, be allowed to breathe for a few days after opening, to achieve optimal pleasure.
There have been compromises over the years. I still retain my copy of the Second Edition, published in 1999, because subsequent versions have omitted entries about grape-based spirits for reasons of space. But in general the process of revision has been one of improvement and expansion, with entries edited to include whatever is latest on the state of the art. Sometimes the changes are as subtle as they are amusing. Here’s the Third Edition’s biting bottom line on prominent critic Robert Parker, who engaged in a long and at times quite nasty feud with Robinson’s colleague Hugh Johnson over such matters as desired acidity and the appropriate role of filtration:
But his success has won a degree of power over the wine market so great that it is dangerous, in that such a high proportion of producers, particularly red wine producers, seem deliberately to be adapting the style of their wines to suit this one, compelling palate regardless of their own personal tastes.
And here’s the Fourth:
But his success won a degree of power over the wine market so great that at one stage it encouraged some producers, particularly red wine producers, to adapt the styles of their wines to suit this one, compelling palate regardless of their own personal tastes.
Parker, who is very much alive, perhaps appreciates no longer being regarded as "dangerous"—but I wonder how it feels to be downgraded to the past tense.
The pleasures of the volume go well beyond such internecine disputes. Its first role is, of course, as a reference—though it takes a certain sort of masochist, if not also a true believer, to tote this monster on the road for use during tasting and buying. In the novel Sideways, the narrator—a wine snob later played in the movie by Paul Giamatti—tosses the book into his bag before taking off for the Central Coast. That sounds about right. (Incidentally, in the new edition the film version now gets its own entry, having single-handedly both cratered the Merlot market and been responsible for a glut of mediocre Pinot Noir for the better part of a decade.) But the book is strangely readable in its own right. I recommend selecting a topic of interest—say, ‘Ageing,’ and then letting the cross references take you where they will. While preparing this review, I killed most of a cross-country flight by beginning there, and subsequently proceeded through ‘Temperature,’ ‘Serving wine’ (which included the surprising suggestion that a microwave oven can be used to bring a chilled wine up to optimum serving temperature), ‘Food and wine matching’ ("…either an extremely complex, detailed subject, a set of rules embedded in one’s natural culture, or an activity only for gastro-bores, according to one’s point of view"), and finally on to ‘Tasting,’ which opened its own new world of cross-references.
It is a strange historical moment when so much human effort can be devoted to the art and science of fermented grape juice. And so much money—in Napa last month, during a harvest morning at Opus One, I watched as grapes were sorted by computer analysis. After being thrown onto a fast-moving conveyer belt, numerous images a second were captured of the accumulated vine matter, after which it was launched into mid-air off the end of the belt. The computer having decided which berries were good enough and which failed to meet the standard, the undesirable fruit was literally shot down out of the sky by jets of compressed air, leaving only the wanted grapes to land on the next belt, thereafter to be crushed and dropped into the tank for fermentation. I can only hope that as much investment and effort goes into, say, organ transplants. I also hope that other, more serious fields are as blessed with commentary displaying the judgment and remarkable labors that Robinson and her colleagues have invested into a subject that deals purely in pleasure.