A Backseat Reader’s Guide to the Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, The Oxford Companion to Wine 4/e.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

I started teaching a university course called The Idea of Wine at about the time that the third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine appeared and it was such a fantastic reference that I had my students purchase it and read various entries for each class session along with other books and articles.

The Curse of the Backseat Reader

One day about a month into the class I asked the students to give me feedback about the various readings. When it came to the Oxford Companion there was nearly unanimous praise. Concise, detailed, informed, well-written — they liked everything about it except its heavy weight, which burdened their backpacks.

One student disagreed.  What don’t you like about the book, I asked? All the other students seem to enjoy it? “Well, they didn’t have to listen to my father reading article after article to me from the backseat of the car all the way back from San Francisco!” 

Yes, I suppose that could get tedious. The Oxford Companion does invite a certain kind of use that I now call Backseat Reading. Start anywhere in the book and whatever article you have chosen will suggest two or three others to jump to. The number grows and grows and pretty soon an hour has slipped away most agreeably.

Backseat reading. Pure pleasure for the reader with a book like this, but hard on the daughter up front in the driver seat who has to endure endless interruptions. “Hey, listen to this!” “Hey, did you know this?” And on and on and (I am sure it seemed) on some more.

There are at least two ways to read the Oxford Companion — look up an entry, read and digest it. Or let yourself surf the book as you would surf the net. Either way it is a great addition to your bookshelf.

New and Improved!

So what’s new about the fourth edition? Well, the format is the same, with alphabetically listed cross-referenced articles that range in length from a couple of paragraphs to several pages. There are maps, too, although you won’t mistake this for a wine atlas. The utility my students found is here as well as is the pure pleasure of the backseat reader. It is still heavy (unless you buy the digital edition, of course) — the Oxford editors limited Jancis and Julia to a 4 percent increase in total word count.

By the numbers, here are now 4104 entries written by 187 authors. The count of new entries is 300 starting with “access system, wine” (Coravin and other wine dispensing systems) and Accolade Wines (formerly part of Constellation) to WSET, Zametovka, and Zelen (the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and two grape varieties from Slovenia respectively).

Beyond the numbers, entries have been thoroughly rewritten and updated as necessary to take into account the hundreds of ways the world wine map has changed. New research, new trends, new players, new rules, new priorities. No wonder we needed a new edition. I found the articles very fresh, which is not always the case with revisions. The authors and editors have done  a distinct service to the wine world with this edition.

A great resource, great source of pleasure for wine lover and in every respect even better than before. Cheers to Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. What an incredible achievement!  Highly recommended — just don’t let your dad get in the backseat with it!

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