I have a bit of thing about old wine books. I can’t resist picking them up no matter how rubbish they might look. My latest acquisition from Oxfam is called Supernosh by Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Malcolm Gluck. It features the authors on the front cover resplendent in brash 80s clothing (though it was published in 1993 – the 80s carried on well into the 90s in some parts of the wine trade) both looking a bit tipsy with looks on their faces as if to say: “I can’t believe we’re being paid to write this shit”. Inside there’s some spiel about how the book was cooked up by their agents over a boozy lunch. Unbelievably it’s published by the house of TS Eliot, Faber & Faber. Looking back now, the 80s and 90s were a golden age to be a wine writer. Newspapers were expanding their wine coverage, there were regular wine slots on television including lavish BBC series and wine publishing was booming. It was the age of Oz Clarke’s New Classic wines – proper well-researched wine writing, written for a mainstream audience, and the Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson seemed to have a book out every year (plus ca change one might say). Faber’s wine list headed up by Julian Jeffs had off-beat personal books such as Patrick Matthews’ the Wild Bunch and Mitchell Beazley were in their pomp. Wine writing was the new food writing.
It all seems a long time ago. Faber sold off their wine list to Mitchell Beazley in 2002. I spoke with a mole at Mitchell Beazley who wished to remain anonymous. He (or perhaps she) told me that when he started at Mitchell Beazley in the late 90s, he pretty much only worked on wine books. Now it was mainly food books. According to him, Mitchell Beazley published too many wine books including some that were too specialist – trying to sell a book devoted to Canadian wine in 2005 seems particularly optimistic. Having a full time specialist editor was expensive for the rare successes such as their New series including Andrew Jefford’s the New France (still one of my favourites). In some ways the decline in wine books just reflects the decline in publishing in general, the decline of bookshops, of newspapers, but this isn’t the whole answer because food books currently buck this trend. The Mitchell Beazley wine list is now principally Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson with a few specialist books including, of course, Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. Their last attempt at building a new mainstream wine writer was Matt Skinner who they thought was going to be the Jamie Oliver of wine. He wasn’t.
Nowadays the idea of a Gluck/ Worrall-Thompson type affair being cooked up over a long lunch belongs to another age. In fact the idea of having anything cooked up over a boozy lunch is unlikely as most publishing lunches these days are dry. When I was trying to shop my history of modern Britain told through wine around, my agent was adamant that we mustn’t let anyone think it was a wine book. He positioned it as a sort of Giles Milton-esque narrative history thing with added alcohol. Even so, despite a lot of positive noises, no publisher picked it up.
I’m now doing my book, Empire of Booze, through Unbound, a crowd-sourcing publisher. The future of wine books is now outside the mainstream publishing. You can self-publish like Neal Martin did with Pomerol or Benjamim Lewin with Wine Myths and Reality, you can crowd source like I’m trying to do with my book and Wink Lorch did with her book on the Jura, or you can do it with the help of Berry Bros like Jasper Morris did with his recent Burgundy book. Publishers are finding it increasingly hard to connect with readers, but wine writers know their readers and can find them. At least I hope they can.
The one problem with this new world is that the big mainstream books, the sort that need lavish funding, will not be written (unless they’re by Jancis Robinson and/ or Hugh Johnson). There is no new Jancis, Oz or Hugh. I’m dying to read books such as New New Classic Wines – perhaps looking at Eastern Europe, the Levant and South America, or the New New France, but these are the kind of projects that only a big publisher can bankroll.