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The Oxford Companion to Wine, third edition (September 22, 2006)

book review
by Dean Tudor

The Oxford Companion to Wine, third edition (Oxford University Press, 2006, 815 pages, ISBN 0-19-860990-6, $75 hardbound) has been edited and prepared by Jancis Robinson, MW, with Julia Harding, MW, as Assistant Editor. It was first published in 1994, with a second edition in 1999. It also came out in a "Concise" paperback version, and there was also a North American Companion. The first edition won many book awards, and was proclaimed by one major newspaper as "the greatest wine book ever".

First, here are the numbers. There are 4000 entries here (the 1994 edition had 3000), covering the regions, the grape varieties, the major owners and companies, connoisseurs, growers, viticulture, history, consumption, and production. These were written by 167 contributors (73 new to this edition), although most of the unsigned entries were written by Robinson or Harding. Forty per cent of the older entries (1600 articles) have been radically revised (e.g., yeast, barrel alternatives, climate change); others have been updated (e.g., the wine regions, production figures). There are 400 brand new entries, on the globalization of wines, politics, economics, "precision viticulture" – there is a list of these, just in case you have read the previous editions and wish merely to read the totally brand new stuff.

Unfortunately, to make room, Oxford has dropped all previous entries on brandy and other forms of distilled grape varieties. Not to carp, but I think that one page could have been set aside to handle all of these other products of the grape, however briefly. Oxford did abbreviate the entries on wine antiquities, so they could have done the same thing with distilled grape products. I suppose "verjus" would be the next to go; it was retained from previous editions.

The appendices contain useful lists, such as controlled appellations and permitted grape varieties around the world, and statistics on wine production, vineyard areas, and consumption by country. Regional and demographic data might have been useful, such as pointing out that Quebec skews the French wine market in Canada or that 34- to 49-year-olds on the American west coast drive the pinot noir market. Stuff like that.

The maps are boring line sketch maps, which merely allow one to find Burgundy within France. Of course, the point of this Companion is not to be an atlas, but still. At the back, there is a complete list of entries by subject. There are, of course, problems: all minor, nothing major. But they are cumulative, and based on a mere half hour of serendipitous flipping and checking out cross-references (don't get me started on that topic!), I found the following: some typos (e.g., "my" for "may" on p. 14); no linkage between the entries "micro-oxygenation" and "Rolland, Michel"; the entry on "Edelzwicker" (2.5 lines) tells me nothing and refers me to "Alsace" (a long article for searching) – I finally find it after a quick scan, and the material here could have been reproduced under the original heading of "Edelzwicker". The entry for "Niagara" mentions only the grape, and indeed there are no entries for Canadian wine beyond "Canada" and its sub-headings. I know that on a world scale we are not that important as a wine-producing nation (except maybe icewine), but among the colour photos there is one of a water spray at Cedar Creek Winery in BC, which gets the slamming knock for being a "relatively wasteful and imprecise technology." Come on, guys, be nice to us - why not a picture of frozen grapes for the icewine pressing? The article on "Noilly Prat" fails to note that there is a dramatic difference between that particular vermouth in Europe and in North America: the version exported from Europe is meant for the martini market. If you want the real thing, you must ask for "Noilly Prat Classique", and not all foreign markets have it.

Audience and level of use: Wine lovers everywhere, reference libraries, wine schools.

Some interesting or unusual facts: The entry for "Wine writing" says that it is "a parasitical activity undertaken by wine writers, enabled by vine-growing and wine-making but more usually associated with wine tasting." There is also an entry for "wine bore", but you'll need to check it out under "bore, wine" since Robinson decided to relocate it as far away from the "wine" entries as possible. So far as I know, this is the only inverted subject listing in the book which deals with "wine" – all the rest are in the "W" section, beginning with the word "wine"

The downside to this book: There needs to be more discussion about the impact of websites and email and discussion forums on the Internet. The book needs to be available as a word-searchable database, on CD-ROM. Adobe PDFs would be useful – the New Yorker did it to great acclaim.

The upside to this book: In the fast-changing wine world, seven years is a long time between editions. It is good to have this book back.

Quality/Price Rating: 95




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