I’ve now been writing about wine for 19 years, and the more time that goes on, the list of things that I don’t know gets longer and longer. That would be true if nothing ever changed in the world of wine, but of course, the opposite is true. Change both evolutionary and radical unfolds relentlessly, meaning that quite literally there’s more to know every year.
All of that by way of saying how terrifyingly impossible the prospect of capturing the entirety of the wine world in a single volume would be, and how amazing it is that Karen MacNeil has attempted to do it, not once, but thrice.
What has she learned along the way to publishing the third edition of her best-selling The Wine Bible? I recently sat down with my friend and colleague to find out.
“I learned that you don’t leave Italy until the end,” she says. “Italy is chaos. If you leave Italy and Germany until the end, you’ll throw yourself off the roof of the building. You get Portugal, Germany, and Italy out of the way early on, and you don’t do them one after another. You need something easy in between that you can really handle, like Oregon.”
MacNeil wrote the first edition of The Wine Bible in 2001 without much of a track record as wine writer. “I was better known as a food writer,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have a readership, and I didn’t have any expectation of sales. The first one was a passion project.’
The second edition was published in 2015. Between those two editions, the book has sold more than 800,000 copies, making it one of the top five best-selling wine books in history, and the best-selling American book on wine.
“I feel like at this point it has its own life and it drags me along behind it helping,” laughs MacNeil. “This time it only took 4 years to write, which was twice as fast as the original.”
Updating a reference book with the kind of aspirations at comprehensiveness inherent in The Wine Bible (I mean look at the title, for Pete’s sake...) doesn’t involve merely refreshing the number of hectares under vine in Romania.
“I realized I could keep the same house and paint the walls a different color, or I could take it down to the studs, put a new roof on and add rooms,’ says MacNeil. ‘I took it down to the studs. It would be faster to just change the facts, but it is much more satisfying to create a whole new book.’
MacNeil set out (both for this edition and the previous one) to largely rewrite the text, which meant re-researching every section of the book. Somewhat shockingly, MacNeil refuses to rely on other writers’ research for her own, preferring authoritative, primary sources for any facts she conveys to readers.
While many of us might be content, say, to trust Jasper Morris when he tells us the acreage of Echezeaux in his authoritative Inside Burgundy, not so Karen MacNeil. She’ll rely on government records, thank you very much.
To say there are a lot of facts in this 728-page tome would be grossly understating the case.
The Wine Bible has always stood somewhat apart in the world of wine reference books for its insistence on being a one-stop-shop for the wine-loving reader. This approach makes it unique, even in the company of some of the world’s greatest, most encyclopedic works on wine.
The Oxford Companion to Wine is as close to a universal reference for the English-speaking wine world as it comes, but it doesn’t really recommend wineries or their wines, teach you how to taste, or tell you what Baumes-de-Venise actually tastes like.
The World Atlas of Wine covers well the geographical, climatological, and regulatory facts about major wine regions and appellations of the world, briefly indicating their most notable wines, but it doesn’t explain what tannins are, or how wine barrels are made.
The Wine Bible attempts the incredible feat of trying to do it all: giving you the fundamentals about what makes wine special; teaching you how to taste and appreciate wine; explaining how wine is made; relating the history of wine through the ages; introducing you to different types of grapes; covering the major and minor wine regions of the world; and recommending and reviewing wines and producers from every major region.
If you didn’t know that MacNeil founded and taught at one of the world’s top wine education programs (the Culinary Institute of America’s Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies in St. Helena, California) you’d certainly suspect it after a few pages worth of reading her prose.
A master of clarity and concision, MacNeil spends the first 90 pages of The Wine Bible delivering an eminently readable master class in wine fundamentals, punctuated every so often by one of the book’s signature elements: the side box.
“One of my early jobs was as one of the first food and wine editors for USA Today in the Eighties,’ explains MacNeil. ‘On my drive to work every day, I would listen to the radio and notice that sometimes the DJs would say some of the things that I had written. I realized the real power in giving people little snippets of information that they could remember.”
MacNeil says that from the beginning she conceived of The Wine Bible as a book that didn’t require someone to pick it up and read for long stretches. Instead, she says, she wanted someone to be able to open a random page and get something out of it.
While this kind of structure is more common today in the genre, there weren’t any other wine books at the time taking this bite-sized approach to wine information when the first edition of The Wine Bible was published.
After the first 90 pages, which MacNeil groups together under the heading “Mastering Wine” comes a new addition to the book, a short section on the ancient history of wine, which offers a couple of pages on what wine was like in the ancient world before the rest of the book moves on to deal with wine in the modern world.
The core 556 pages of the book (in color, for the first time in this third edition) cover the major and minor wine regions of the world. The world’s most important wine regions are covered in depth across dozens of pages, with sub-sections focused on key regions, their grapes, and recommended “Great Wines” from each, for which MacNeil provides detailed information and tasting notes.
France gets 129 pages, Italy gets 70. Mexico gets 3. Israel gets 5.
“With the second Wine Bible, I got hundreds of letters from people saying ‘Great job.’ I got four letters from rabbis asking me how I could have left Israel out of the book. I didn’t want to get any more letters from rabbis,’ jokes MacNeil.
In addition to providing the fundamentals about a region and its wines, along the way, MacNeil’s beloved side boxes offer interesting anecdotes, fascinating facts, tips for travelers, and more.
The Italian section, for instance, offers the following minor detours: How to Read an Italian Wine Label (Good Luck); Grappa (You Could Regret This in the Morning); The DOC, DOCG, IGT, VdT (Acronym Hell); How the Italians Eat Pasta; White Truffles: Piedmont’s Other Treasure; Vermouth—So Couth; Wine Glasses: A History and Italy’s Early Role; The Famous Prosciutto of Fruili; The Law of Mezzadria and “Promiscuous” Farms; and so on.
With a book of this scope, it seems impossible to include everything, but that hasn’t stopped MacNeil from trying.
“It’s so demoralizing when things get cut out of the book,’ admits MacNeil. ‘That happened in the first two editions. This time I wrote so tight to minimize the cutting as much as possible. I knew I would have to leave things out to make it all fit. At 800 pages you start getting people who want to make it two volumes, or make it a $75 book because the binding gets more expensive.”
MacNeil, to her credit, remains firmly committed to keeping the book at an affordable price, even if that means dropping standalone sections for Texas and Virginia to make room for other content, as this edition eventually required.
Israel, Great Britain, and Croatia have new sections in the book, with expanded sections for Georgia, China, and Slovenia. Portugal and Hungary have both been significantly reworked to address the dramatic ascendance of dry table wines in those regions over the past 10 years.
The book also features a 400-grape “glossary” in the back, along with a separate wine word dictionary designed to help wine lovers with some of the trickier wine terms from other languages that are often used without translation, such as recioto or vigneron.
MacNeil tasted “nearly 8000” wines in the process of writing the book, in service of completely overhauling the recommended wines at the end of each major wine region of the book. These sections now feature really excellent recommendations for benchmark bottlings that typify each region.
The phrase “herculean effort” definitely came to mind as I listened to MacNeil describe the process and intent behind her latest revision. But the result clearly speaks for itself. The third edition of The Wine Bible is certainly the best yet, and the update to full color makes it feel that much more engaging and helpful.
As a serious wine lover, I would never recommend that anyone own just a single wine book. But for those who might only need one, or even just one to start with, there’s no better single volume in the world of wine than The Wine Bible.
Karen MacNeil– The Wine Bible 3rd Edition – Workman Publishing 2022, $36.87 (Softcover). Purchase a copy.