Two new guides to the global wine scene are scheduled for release next Tuesday, October 11 and this coincidence of release dates provides an opportunity to compare their different approaches and to consider the problems that such books necessarily confront today.
Hugh Johnsons’s Pocket Wine Books 2023 (general editor Margaret Rand) is the latest annual edition in this best-selling series. The new third edition of Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil is as big as Hugh Johnson volume is slender. Both books are jam-packed with information and insights. Both are addictive page-turners that reflect all the creativity, attention to detail, and pure hard work that has gone into their production. No wonder they are so successful.
A global wine guide has got to be exceptional to succeed these days. Consider the challenges that authors and editors face. First is the vast domain of the topic. Fifty years ago the world of wine was pretty big in theory, but much smaller than today in practice. New Zealand wines existed, for example, but you might not need to talk much about them. Who would ever encounter a kiwi wine outside of kiwi-land?
Now, of course, wine production takes place in more places and efficient wine trade brings an enormous number of the bottles to our doorsteps. More wines from more places made in more styles with more different wine grape varieties. Incredible.
How is a book supposed to approach such a huge topic? And how can a book compete with the internet, which can provide smartphone-equipped wine enthusiasts with vast storehouses of wine data? A physical book simply has to have a lot going for it to find a market in the smartphone era, don’t you think?
And then there is the problem of readership. Physical books and e-books there to be read, but more and more people want to listen to information instead of reading it. Podcasts and audiobooks are very popular today. When I checked the Amazon sales figures for my wine books back in August, for example, and I think the audio-book versions usually topped the tables.
My books might have had more listeners than readers during the peak summer weeks, but my books have lots of stories and so lend themselves to audio narration. Reference books and guides might not be as easy to transform from printed word to spoken voice.
You probably have earlier editions of both these books on your bookshelves, but it is worth considering their different strategies for capturing the world of wine in print.
The Hugh Johnson Guide takes a sort of pointillist approach, with lots and lots of very short entries in each of the major sections such as vintage reports, wine grape varieties, food and wine pairings, ten wines to try in 2023, and so on. The chapters on wine producing countries take the same approach, featuring lots of star-rated thumbnail producer reviews. The classic Old World regions — think Burgundy and Bordeaux — get special attention.
The Wine Bible takes a more broad-brush approach, with many of the same topics and topics covered, but in a more flowing narrative style with many of colorful illustrations. The Wine Bible encourages deep reading and focused study more than browsing. The Hugh Johnson chapter on Washington State, for example, has short sketches and star ratings of more than 60 wineries while The Wine Bible focuses on the stories of just eight iconic producers that help define the region. Both approaches are useful — it depends on what you are looking for.
Both books confront the inevitable question of where do you stop? The world of wine is so broad today, how much coverage should emerging countries and regions receive given the obvious constraints of the book format? There is no right answer to this question, but I admit that I was a little disappointed in the Hugh Johnson treatment of Asia and especially China, which received less space on the page than New Jersey. The Wine Bible’s treatment was more in line, in my view, of China’s current and potential position in the wine world.
The Wine Bible and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book both have a lot to offer and much that is new. Wine enthusiasts are fortunate to have these great guides to global wine.
However do people still buy encyclopedias?