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.

Australian wine gibberish

Like many people in the British wine world, I watched the recent BBC documentary, Chateau Chunder, which charted the rise of the Australian wine in Britain. What really shone out of it was the Australian genius for marketing and plain speaking. Now you probably think that marketing and plain-speaking are mutually exclusive, but the way that Australian wine was sold in the 1980s really did make sense to British drinkers. Wines were sold through brands and grapes varieties. It was unpretentious and classless. It was refreshing seeing red-faced men with names like Len talking about wine as if they were fixing an old ute (utility vehicle ie. pick-up truck).

Penfolds epitomse this no-nonsense attitude towards wine. Their wines are given numbers and they exhibit a cheerful disregard for the modern shibboleths of regionality and localism. Many of them are blended into a house style from fruit bought from all over South Australia. The most revered wine in Australia, Grange, is made this way. You can’t get less pretentious than Penfolds. However, something seems to have gone awry in their marketing department. Here’s the tasting note for their Bin 150 Shiraz:

‘A waft of ristretto coffee – first-run – synergises with soy and a dark char, almost tar and pitch. . . . Bright red fruits conspire to create an amalgam, a continuum of flavour basking texturally avec sheen, gloss. These fruits do not travel solo – chinotto, licorice, bread and butter pudding flavours peddle (sic, one assumes) in parallel, quietly courted by stylish oak(s).’

I think we can all agree that this is terrible even for wine writing: a mish-mash of mixed metaphors, tautology, marketing jargon and malapropism. I expect they mean that the chinotto etc. are pedaling rather than out selling clothes pegs door-to-door but that scarcely makes more sense. It’s like a parody of Malcolm Gluck (former Guardian wine writer.)

The Bin 150 is one of their newer wines, a single vineyard one as opposed to a multi-region blend, but not even the venerable Bin 28 can escape the corporate gibberish:

‘Mocha/ malt and spice sequentially volatilise, consorting to form an initial aromatic wave.’

There was always something not entirely convincing in the old Australian line that making good wine was just a matter of applying common sense. Nowadays, of course, the Australians have embraced terroir, and are, in my experience, making far better wines than they’ve ever made. Sadly some of them have also embraced the flowery prose that goes along with this and they’re simply not very good at it. Rather than being honest-to-god haughty French pretentiousness, they’re doing it in a matey Australian way and the results are just horrible.

Both wines in the 2010 vintage are excellent with the Bin 28 particularly wonderful having a traditionally Australian generosity combined with lovely balance and freshness. Slurp have it for £18.95 a bottle which seems reasonable though I’m sure it used to be a lot cheaper not that long ago. 

What should we call English ‘champagne’?

This year a Cornish wine – Camel Valley Brut Rosé  – won the best sparkling wine trophy at the International Wine Challenge beating wines from around the world including champagne. Consequently there has been much talk in wine circles about a generic name for English Sparkling Wine like the Spanish have cava. This debate has even reached the comment pages of the Daily Telegraph. Malcolm Gluck, he of Superplonk fame, has suggested calling it a ‘Pippa’ after Pippa Middleton. I don’t think we need to dwell on what a terrible idea this is. Another suggestion was Britagne – an amalgamation of Britain and Champagne. This simultaneously recalls those confected 80s wines drunk by Northern women with grotesquely fat arms like Lambrini and the ill-feted rebranding of the Post Office as Consignia. The final option was to call it a ‘Merret’ after Christopher Merret, a member of the Royal Society, who is often feted as the inventor of the champagne process. This has its merits (pun intended) but from reading his paper to the Royal Society on 17th December 1662 it appears that he did not invent the process; he was merely describing something that was being done at the time. Some of the brightest minds in Restoration London were experimenting with putting bubbles into wine and cider and no one has yet found out who was the first to do it.

I would argue that the real godfather of champagne was a man called Sir Kenelm Digby. Sir Kenelm invented the modern wine bottle. Previously wine bottles were used much like modern-day decanters, for serving wine. They were much too delicate for storage purposes and bubbles would make them explode (the pressure in a modern champagne bottle is 80 psi or about the tyre pressure of a London bus) so no sparkling champagne. Sir Kenelm invented a process to fire glass at a much higher temperature by using charcoal for his furnaces rather than wood thus making it stronger. Furthermore he was a pioneer in corking wine to hold in all those bubbles – a process that had been lost since Roman times.

His portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London by Van Dyke (see above.) He looks a louche sort of fellow; the kind of pleasure-seeking individual who could have provoked a puritan revolt with a raised eyebrow. Opposite him is his wife, also painted by Van Dyke, Lady Venetia Anastasia Stanley who in the great tradition of 17th century beauties seems rather plain to modern eyes. Sir Kenelm’s life reads like a picaresque novel. His father was implicated in the gunpowder plot of 1605 and had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Sir Kenelm himself had a varied career as a privateer, soldier and academic. In his unreliable memoirs he claimed to have been propositioned by Marie de Medici widow of Henry IV of France. She was 47, he was just 18. He was even accused, in 1633, of murdering his Lady Venetia – Van Dyke was on hand to paint her death portrait. A founder member of the Royal Society as well as an alchemist, he was best known in his own time for inventing a substance called the ‘Powder of Sympathy’ that was said to have magical healing properties. If he is remembered at all these days it is as the author of the first cookery book in English, the snappily-titled The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened.

Without Sir Kenelm Digby,  a man who really deserves a new biography of his own, there would be no strong glass and therefore no champagne. In fact it would have been impossible to age wines in bottles so no estate-bottled bordeaux, no vintage port and no modern  fine wine market. Therefore I propose that English Sparkling Wine be called a ‘Digby’. It’s got a good ring to it, has it not? ‘Send us another bottle of that excellent Digby, my good man’ I can hear the more high-spirited members of Boodles shouting after a lavish lunch. It’s easy to pronounce, jolly and solidly English; no ersatz Latinate words here. My wife had an even better idea: bottles should be renamed Kenelms so people could order a ‘Kenelm of Digby’. What better way to remember a great British eccentric?

Majestic wine have set up a poll on their Facebook page where you can vote for your favourite name. Vote Digby!

Writing about wine is like. . .

I think it was Elvis Costello who quipped ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ I pondered this glass in hand whilst my wife took me through the stark steps of the Le Corbusier polka. Music only stimulates one sense whereas wine is smelt, tasted and admired for its colour all of which have to be described. It is easy to mock wine writers for their purple prose, mixed metaphors, non-sequiturs and tautology but you try and taste hundreds of wines a week and then have something original to say about them. Auberon Waugh knew that the first duty of the wine writer is to entertain and only second to describe how the wine actually tasted. In the column that lost him his job at Tatler he wrote that his cousin’s house wine reminded him ‘of a bunch of dead chrysanthemums on the grave of a stillborn West Indian baby.’  A wine to be avoided then but wouldn’t you want to a least smell a wine that inspired such venom?

When I worked at Oddbins we had to write descriptions to go on the wine bottles. My colleague Matt came up with the immortal – ‘sturdier than Robert Mitchum’s trouser press’ for a Greek wine called the Gaia Estate Nemea. This is a perfect description as it entertains and tells you something about the wine – it will be powerful and masculine but with an easy charm. Compare this to Malcolm Gluck’s description of the same wine from his Guardian column: ‘the sexiest Greek red I’ve ever tasted. Its throaty berries and craggy tannins give it a joyous opening and a heroic finish.’ Not bad, it’s clearly the same wine. The craggy tannins do sound Mitchum-esque but the juxtaposition of ‘sexiest’, ‘throaty berries’ (whatever they are) and ‘joyous opening’ conjures up all kinds of vile images. It is off-putting in a way that Waugh’s isn’t.

I will leave you with another description from my Oddbins days. It tells you nothing about how the wine tastes and like Waugh’s may be offensive to readers looking to get offended. It was for the Weingut Reichgraf von Kesselstatt Graacher Himmelreich Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling Kabinett 1998 and simply said: ‘no wonder they needed Lebensraum.’

Gaia Estate NemeaOddbins sadly no longer stocks their amazing range of Greek wines. I am going to do a Greek wine column soon as I love the stuff. Try Yamas Wines.

Reichgraf Von Kesselstatt – I am currently addicted to their dry Riesling 2009 which is a steal at £8.95 from the Wine Society. The single vineyard wines are even better especially in a vintage as good as 2009.