Book Review: The Business of Wine

The Business of Wine (edited by Geralyn G. Brostrom and John C. Brostrom) is organized as an encyclopedia with entries from A (Airlines comes first) to Z (for Zinfandel, of course). I opened the book with two questions on my mind: Why an encyclopedia? And why another encyclopedia?

Why an encyclopedia?

This question comes up because there are a lot of different ways to tell the story of the business of wine and to organize that story. An encyclopedia, with alphabetically arranged entries of various lengths, is a peculiar choice when you think about it.

On one hand, it gives a lot of freedom to the reader to cut and paste her own story by darting back and forth among items, possibly but not necessarily hitting all the key points along the way. On the other hand it also gives the editors quite a bit of control, since they get to choose what gets in (and in which author’s account) and what and who are left out.

Does the encyclopedia format work, or would a series of essays by various experts  (the format chosen for another recent book also titled The Business of Wine) have been more useful?

Why another encyclopedia?

This question arises because we already have a really excellent encyclopedia of the business of wine — it is embedded in The Oxford Companion to Wine 3/e edited by Jancis Robinson. Although the Oxford Companion is an encyclopedia of wine in general, there is a lot of great wine economics to be found here.

This is understandable. It is difficult to think about wine without straying, intentionally or not, into wine economics. Winemaking is an art, a science and a business and you really can’t leave the business part out if you want to understand the whole process. That’s why about a third of the Masters of Wine exam deals with questions about the business of wine.

The Oxford Companion does a good job dealing with many wine economics topics. Does the new encyclopedia add something to a bookshelf that already contains the Oxford Companion?

Managing the Trade-Offs

How does the encyclopedia format work? Well, having spent some time with this book I have to say that it is an OK compromise. It is a lot more hit-and-miss than the ideal book of essays that I imagine, but apparently that book is very difficult to write because no one seems to have written it. The business of wine is very complicated and the parts of the business and the factors that affect it are both numerous and highly interconnected.

The encyclopedia format is problematic, but all the other wine business books I have read have had their problems, too. (One in particular — I won’t name it, but you probably know the one I’m talking about  —  promised a first-person account of the wine trade  but descended into something closer to a personal vendetta against professional colleagues.)

Do we need another encyclopedia – this specialized one – when the Oxford Companion already does a pretty good job covering wine economic topics? Yes, I think so, but as a supplement to the Oxford Companion not a replacement for it. I find it useful to have a book that drills down into the wine business in many cases, rather than treating it as part of a more general survey.

And some of the choices the editors have made are interesting. The Argentina entry, for example, is written by Laura Catena, VP of Bodega Catena Zappa and owner of Luca winery. And Joel Butler MW, the head of wine education at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, wrote the Washington State essay. Interesting to get these industry insider views.

Possible Improvements

My initial doubts about this new book have been overcome to a considerable extent. There are a number of ways the book could be improved, however. It seems to me that the editors might want to tinker with ratio and proportion a bit. Most encyclopedias like this divide entries into short, longer and longest (the longest being a couple of thousand works at most) and it is probably difficult to match topics and lengths. Maybe the entry on Airline wine sales could have been shorter and the discussion of Biodynamic wine a bit longer – you know what I mean. It’s a tricky business.

Most of the entries include suggestions for further reading and these are often  inadequate (as is the brief attempt at a bibliography). An encyclopedia like this is usually the introduction to a topic for readers, not the last word, so readers need to know where to go next. A little more guidance would be useful, especially for students.

And although this is an encyclopedia, I would have appreciated a longer introductory essay that tried to say something interesting about the state of the wine industry today and its challenges for the future.

Got data?

Finally, I am an economist, so I’d naturally like to see more data. Many of the entries include a good deal of data, as you would expect, and there is an appendix on “international wine data,” providing basic consumption and production information on many but not all the countries discussed in the main text. I think this could be usefully expanded to include more country-level data as well as data about international flows and time series data on prices and quantities.

Let me end on a positive note. This book exceeded my expectations and I think it is a useful reference, especially good for anyone just getting started in the study of the business of wine. And especially useful when read alongside other standard references like the Oxford Companion and Tom Stevenson’s excellent Wine Report annual series.

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