Book Review: The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson

As 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).