Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding

I read Jancis Robinson's 'Confessions of a Wine Lover' at an impressionable age - I would have been in my early twenties and working in a bookshop. She inspired me to really learn about wine instead of just enthusiastically drink it, and so I started to frequent the Oddbins just around the corner. It was 1999, the 1996 Clarets were just hitting the shelves. 1996 was a good vintage and back then it was possible to get something like a Ch Lynch-Bages for around £20 a bottle (it's £150 now) the same price as an ordinary champagne and so much more exciting.

By then I was armed with 'Jancis Robinson's Wine Course' (I wish I knew what had happened to my copy) a book to accompany a TV series and a very good introduction to the world of wine. I was also so familiar in Oddbins that they offered me a job. The never very strong charms of a discount bookshop with a slightly crazy work mate (she would fix me with a nasty look and tell me that people she didn't like died. She really didn't like me.) and the day to day routine of selling basically pornographic material to increasingly grubby middle aged men was no match for the chance to learn more about wine with the added advantage of staff discount and training.

Last night I got the chance to meet the woman herself at the launch for the brand new fourth edition of 'The Oxford Companion to Wine'. Not wanting to sound like some sort of weird stalker I opted for a 'hello, what an achievement, marvellous' sort of a comment rather than the 'you changed my life' kind of thing when faced with the great woman (at least the wine trade has been blessedly free of death threats from colleagues and sexual harassment from customers).

My Oddbins days are far behind me now but there are still things I miss about it, especially those early days when the company was still, just, in its heyday. There was so much passion for wine and more than a willingness to share knowledge, and when the shop was quiet there was time to read. This is when my relationship with The Oxford Companion began (second edition).

This new edition runs to around a million words and is no light weight to tote around - it's not going to make bedtime reading (not without wrist braces at any rate) and I could use my phone to access all of this information and yet I wouldn't be without an up to date copy. Haven't been without the latest edition since 1999. Back then the book was the obvious option, and I still think it's irreplaceable. Even last night, momentarily distracted by wondering if that was indeed Oz Clarke (it was) I found myself leafing through the display copy and unexpectedly finding an informative essay on English literature, wine in. Exploring it back at home it lead to medieval literature (there is of course the entirely separate literature of wine) and then a dozen other references to be chased regarding specific grapes and wines.

This isn't something I do on the Internet. An online search may lead to following other references, but you can't open it at random and start following a trail of knowledge. The book allows me to do exactly that, and what's more do it with information that can be trusted implicitly. It's a luxurious way of learning that leads to all sorts of unexpected places, as well as an increasingly long shopping list of wines to be tried.

The moment wine becomes more than something to be picked up cheaply and drunk as much for its alcoholic content as its flavour a whole world opens up. Not every glass has to be an intellectual exercise but the more you know about it the more you get from it. I'm trying hard not to fall into extravagantly purple passages about history and poetry here whilst I attempt to put my finger on why this book is so important.

I think the clue is in the title - companion - wine should be a companionable thing and this book will be your best friend in that respect. The label on the cover proclaiming it to be 'The Greatest wine book ever published' (The Washington Post) does not lie. I'll say it again, I really wouldn't contemplate being without it.


  1. I think that the 'Wine Course' book spontaneously self destruct after a certain time, since mine has also disappeared without trace.

  2. Either that or they've all returned to a vast warehouse somewhere...