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Book Review: The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson

oxford_companion_3.jpgAs casual wine lovers, we live in the daily romance of wine. We thrive on the pleasures of a great glass with a wonderful meal, a fabulous bottle shared with a friend, or the exciting first taste of a new grape variety. But lurking just under the surface of this delightful, even magical world, lies a deeper more complex universe of wine made up of history, geography, geology, meteorology, organic chemistry, geopolitics, economics, philosophy, and more.

Some are content to always experience wine in the most casual of ways, but nearly every wine lover I know has at some point wanted to at least dip their toe into the richer world of knowledge that adds new layers of meaning and enjoyment to our favorite beverage.

Ultimately, there are two types of people in the world: those who want to own an encyclopedia and those who do not. But anyone who seriously wants to learn more about wine -- more than simple osmosis from friends will afford -- should become devotees of at least one reference book on wine. When I realized that I actually did want to know what the hell mercaptans were, and once and for all figure out how to pronounce Meritage, I went out and bought the heaviest wine book I could find.

I've now owned all three editions of the Oxford Companion to Wine, and while I expect that the recently released Third Edition will be my last made from dead trees, I will continue to purchase every edition that is ever released. Why? Because it is the single most useful book on wine ever written in the English language.

I will resist the temptation to justify my claim by peppering this review with a shotgun blast of knowledge from this weighty tome. While I certainly have found that there is a lot of obscure wine knowledge that is not in The Oxford Companion (it sadly does not describe every single one of the thousands of grape varietals in the world) I have learned more about wine from this book than any other I have ever read.

Back when I was single, blog-less, and had time to sit around on the couch flipping through my coffee table books, I would also occasionally grab (carefully bending at the knees and lifting with a straight back) this book, flip it open to a random page, and soak in the wine knowledge.

Most of the time, however, I use it whenever I come across a wine word, region, variety, technique, personage, or bit of history that I want to know something (or more) about. Google can be useful for a reminder of what are the five First Growths of Bordeaux, but when I want to know the types and uses of different grape trellising methods there's no substitute for the succinct prose of The Oxford Companion.

Organized in straight alphabetic form, with edge-guides and section markers, the book clearly earns its nickname as"The Encyclopedia Britannica of Wine." Simple typographic conventions help readers understand when entries exist elsewhere for terms that are used in the text that they are reading, and a helpful few pages in the very back of the book list every item covered in the book. Other helpful appendices cover wine production volumes and vineyard acreage for every wine producing country in the world; the permitted grape varieties for every controlled appellation in the world; and per capita wine consumption by country. The text is richly illustrated with diagrams, maps, photographs, tables, and charts worthy of any major reference book.

Importantly, The Oxford Companion does more than just define, it explains. The entry for "rootstock," for instance, contains a brief explanation of what they are, followed by a brief history of their use, their effects on wine, how vintners choose an appropriate rootstock, the characteristics of different rootstocks, and a listing of all the major rootstocks and their uses. In short, pretty much everything you'd want to know unless you were studying for your viticulture final at U.C. Davis.

Every wine lover eventually reaches a point where their enjoyment of wine requires them to know more about it. Every wine connoisseur, no matter how knowledgeable, runs across things in the wine world that need to be looked up. And every wine geek needs a secret source of knowledge so that next time someone mentions mercaptans, they know that they are chemical compounds found in wine caused by yeast reacting with sulfur in the wine that are responsible for off odors like "burnt match" and "rotten egg."

Neat, huh?

Jancis Robinson (editor), The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Edition), Oxford University Press, USA 2006 $40.29 (Hardcover).

Comments (24)

03.20.08 at 10:16 AM

As a WSET Advanced Certificate and soon to be Diploma Student I would have to agree about this book. This is an invaluable tool for wine lovers and wine professionals alike. My general rule for using the Oxford Companion to Wine in my studies is, if it isn't in the book, than it doesn't pertain to wine.

Dean Tudor wrote:
03.20.08 at 1:05 PM

Well, nice as it is to see a review of the book, it could still be as dead as the dead wood it is printed on, in that it came out in 2006 (copyright 2006)...why is the review appearing now? It is not, as you say, "recently released". I don't want to start any flame wars, but why now? The EB literary edition (#11? #13?) is a great read too, but it came out about 100 years ago...

Alder wrote:
03.20.08 at 1:53 PM


Thanks for the comments. The 3rd edition is much more recently released than say, the 2nd edition which was back in 1999. I wasn't aware that in order to be relevant or useful, book reviews could only be about books released in the past 6 months...?

Part of what I'm trying to do on Vinography is build a collection of wine book reviews that are written by and for the wine loving community. That will include current releases as well as "classics," of which this certainly qualifies.

1WineDude wrote:
03.21.08 at 1:01 PM

Thanks Alder - I've recommended this book to people for a long time, it seems that once they hit a certain plateau of wine knowledge (past Intermediate but not quite Advanced yet), they need this book.

Wink Lorch wrote:
03.22.08 at 11:09 AM

Great review summing up this invaluable 'bible' and who it might appeal to well. Interesting, Alder that you mentioned that the 3rd edition is likely to be the last you will buy in book form. Since the 2nd edition, it's been available on-line for members of Purple Pages - the subscription part of www.jancisrobinson.com - and of course, that makes it searchable with a click.

On the subject of how up-to-date the 3rd edition is ... I believe that the intention is - when they can ever find the time - for Jancis and her side-kick Julia Harding MW to try to keep entries up-to-date for the on-line version. I don't think it's happening quite yet, but that would make it really worthwhile to use the on-line version.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.