The heyday of wine publishing

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.

A Sicilian Wine Odyssey

I was complaining the other day about the lack of good wine books being published these days. It turns out that I just wasn’t looking hard enough. True the great stalwarts of recent wine publishing have either given up, Faber & Faber, or severely pruned their list, Mitchell Beazley, but quality new titles are still appearing often from little-known publishers.

Take the University of  Nebraska press for example. I, and this probably says more about my ignorance of this great institution, would have thought that they would be content to publish biographies of 19th century spinster poets but on their list is Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey by Robert V. Camuto. I’ve been to Sicily twice and both times been disappointed with the distinctiveness of the local wines I tried; though often good they could have come from Tuscany or California.

If only I’d read this book before going. Palmento examines the revival in traditional wine-making from indigenous grape varieties. The author has a rare gift for describing these wines: ‘It too seemed like a wine from another time: a rustic combination of black earth, fruit and rocks that tasted as though it were made by a man who indeed rode on a mule.’ Doesn’t that sound more interesting than another glossy cabernet?

This book’s other great asset is its cast of characters. Towering over them all is Marco de Bartoli the outspoken champion of old-fashioned marsala who died recently. In 1995 the carabinieri shut down his winery ostensibly for making a vino da tavola that was too strong.  As this is Sicily the truth behind the raid was more complicated. His outspoken opinions on other producers had made him some powerful enemies. ‘My father is not a diplomatic man’ his son Sebastiano is quoted as saying.

Palmento is an ode to Sicily, Sicilians and their wines. Camuto celebrates the traditional but is also refreshingly unsentimental about why people gave up the old ways – they were very hard work and did not make any money. It is understandable that people want to make modern wines that can be easily sold internationally. Thank heaven for the obstinate people making something different.

My appetite for the more idiosyncratic end of Sicilian wine whetted, I got myself invited to the Natural Wine Fair in Borough market. I was going to write a whole post on ‘Natural Wines’ but frankly I’m a bit bored of reading articles advocating or criticising this movement. I’m anti-movements in general, a relic of my childhood horror of ‘joining in.’ At the fair were some of the producers featured by Camuto including COS who age some of their wine in amphora and Arianna Occhipinti. Sadly the Sicilian tables were at the far end of the market and by the time I reached them my tasting technique of not spitting had left somewhat tired and emotional. Combine this with my lack of Italian meant that my attempts to engage with the Sicilians were unsatisfying for both parties. And then I managed to knock my glass out of my hand, it broke on the floor and I had wine all over my trousers. It was time to go home.

Nero di Luppo, 2009, COS –  Chewy deliciousness, good acidity, refreshing and drinkable. This is 100 % Nero d’Avola and probably the most ‘normal’ of the COS range.

10 SP 68 Rosso, 2009, Arianna Occhipinti – This is a blend of frappato and Nero d’Avola. ‘God this is nice’ I wrote just before the glass dropping incident.

My favourite wines at the Fair came from a Sardinian producer called AA Panevino. I have put a big tick on their page and written ‘magical.’ Try the snappily-titled: Kussas Intrendu A Manu’ e Manca 2009. Made from cannonau (grenache), it’s sweet, tannic and hedonistic.

All are available from Cave de Pyrene. The Sicilians at about £10 a bottle and the Sardinian somewhat more.