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The best books on Wine

recommended by Jancis Robinson

Reading about wine may not be quite as fun as drinking it, but can help open up a world of history, geography, science and culture — and some wonderful stories too. The Financial Times's wine critic and daily writer on JancisRobinson.com, Jancis Robinson, picks the best books on wine.

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Jancis Robinson

Described by Decanter magazine as 'the most respected wine critic and journalist in the world', Jancis Robinson writes daily for JancisRobinson.com (voted first-ever 'Wine Website of the Year' in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards 2010), weekly for the Financial Times, and bi-monthly for a column that is syndicated around the world.

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Jancis Robinson

Described by Decanter magazine as 'the most respected wine critic and journalist in the world', Jancis Robinson writes daily for JancisRobinson.com (voted first-ever 'Wine Website of the Year' in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards 2010), weekly for the Financial Times, and bi-monthly for a column that is syndicated around the world.

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Tell us how you first got interested in wine.

I was not brought up with wine, but, as a student at Oxford, I was exposed to really good wine at prices that nowadays seem ludicrously low. I had one bottle of really great red Burgundy, a Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses 1959, that was just so clearly many streets ahead of student plonk. At just one smell of it, I could sense that there was history, geography, psychology, and all sorts of interesting things in this liquid and that it was not only hugely, sensually appealing but probably intellectually satisfying as well. Of course I didn’t then immediately say, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m going to become a wine writer,’ because back then, in the early 1970s, the subjects of wine and food had no social status at all. They were seen as being terminally frivolous. It took me living in France for a year, a few years later, to throw off that idea.

Except presumably, in England, there would have been a class divide?

Wine was a very elitist drink at that stage, yes. Whereas I had already seen, when working as a chambermaid in Italy, that for Europeans wine was an everyday drink. In the staff quarters of this hotel, you could drink as much wine as you liked for nothing, but if you wanted water that was safe to drink, you had to pay for it. That was quite an education.

Do you sometimes feel—when you look back at the past 40 years since you started writing about wine—that it’s gone too far?

No, not at all. I’m thrilled that wine is such a democratic drink. You can have an episode of the most downmarket soap opera, and people pour themselves a glass of wine without any comment. Whereas when I was growing up in a little village in Cumberland, if you mentioned the word wine, you had to put audible quotation marks around it. “Wine.” It was such an exotic thing. I think it’s great, and I don’t think people take it for granted in a bad way. Wine has just become part of our lives. And an interest in wine—I’m just back from Asia—is spreading throughout the globe. Wine is such a popular pasttime and hobby.

“At just one smell of it, I could sense that there was history, geography, psychology, and all sorts of interesting things in this liquid and that it was not only hugely, sensually appealing but probably intellectually satisfying as well.”

But that wine you fell in love with would now be out of range for most people. You’d have to be a banker or a tech or hedge fund guy to drink it.

It’s true that there is now an elite of wines—as opposed to an elite of people who drink wine—that is out of reach of the normal budget. However, I think today’s new generation of wine drinkers couldn’t give a stuff about that. They are more excited by the huge range of wines that are now being made around the world, with a far greater variety of flavours and styles than there ever were. We’ve abandoned the model whereby everyone is aspiring to make a copy of grand red Bordeaux or white Burgundy. We can choose from all sorts of weird and wonderful wines and different provenances.

So tell us about your first book, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson. Presumably, you fell in love with this wine at Oxford and thought, ‘I want to know more about this…’

Like almost any wine writer of my generation and those that followed, I realised that wine is nothing if not geography in a bottle. Geography is all-important to wine, and it is, therefore, natural to try and work out where each wine comes from: not least because nowadays wine producers the world over are trying to put the essence of smaller and smaller geographical units—like single vineyards or even, sometimes, single blocks within a vineyard—into each bottle. So it’s natural to look at a wine atlas. I, of course, consulted by far the world’s best-selling wine atlas, which is The World Atlas of Wine, first published by my friend Hugh Johnson in 1971. This was at a time when New Zealand only deserved a quarter of a page — the world of wine has evolved enormously. I remember going to see Pamela Vandyke Price, who was then the Times wine correspondent here in London. There, on her desk, was an open copy of The World Atlas of Wine. I think every wine writer has used it as a reference.

So that, originally, was the Bible?

It was definitely the Bible. I was thrilled when in 1998 Hugh sidled up to me, at a party, and said, ‘I’ve done four editions of The World Atlas of Wine,’—it had gone into masses of different language versions and sold four millions copies or so—’and I’m getting too old. I’m not fresh enough with the knowledge. It would be lovely if you could take it over from me.’ Of course, my instinct was to say yes because I was so flattered. But I did think about it, and my husband said, ‘Oh, don’t. Don’t! It’ll be masses of work.’ But I did, because that’s my character. So from the fifth edition—we just published the seventh in 2013—it’s been by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.

Can you tell us a bit about what’s in it, what it’s about, what it’s trying to do?

The World Atlas of Wine has unrivalled maps. Hugh did a fantastic job, the real spadework, of getting some top quality maps of the world’s classic wine regions and many of the new ones. The original editions had Hugh’s matchless prose, trying to encapsulate the spirit of each region in surrounding texts, but the maps are the thing, and some photographs. What was innovative, at the time, was a selection of labels, which had never appeared in books before. I changed it so the labels denote the best or favourite wines.

That brings us quite neatly onto your second book, which is the Pocket Wine Book by Hugh Johnson also. This is an annual book, isn’t it?

It is, and I can remember so clearly Hugh, again, sidling up to me at a gathering, and saying, ‘I’ve just had a brilliant idea. You know the Michelin guide that gets across a lot of information in just a few symbols? I’m going to apply that to wine. I’m going to produce a little pocket book on wine, which will try and summarize the qualities of all the wines of the world.’ I take my hat off to Hugh. This is one wine reference book that I have nothing to do with, and it is absolutely brilliant. It’s very small—although, of course, it’s been getting bigger and bigger as the wine world has expanded—and it does pack a heck of a lot of information. There is some nice writing by both Hugh and his editor, Margaret Rand. It is not just bland: it gets across some judgements as well. I think anybody travelling, who wasn’t sure they could get online and wanted lots of information in a small space, would probably choose Hugh’s Pocket Wine Book.

“Wine is for drinking and enjoying. It is not, I believe, for trying to make money out of.”

There’s a ranking?

It’s laid out alphabetically, within countries. There’s a tiny little entry for each significant wine, sometimes for individual wine producers. It’ll show which are the best vintages, which ones are ready and which ones aren’t, and give you some guidance on when to drink. Then there are star ratings to show which are the best and which are second best, and two or three nice little sentences about each. It is a real achievement.

How far is all this driven by personal opinion? You might agree with his taste, or could you find you have a different palate and that he’s covering wines that you’re not interested in?

Everything with wine is subjective. There are no rights or wrongs in wine appreciation, and, as one would expect with anything that involves the palate and sensitivity to various different compounds and like and dislikes, we do vary. I’ve never tried to give the impression that my opinion is the one and only one. I just say what I think, and my whole career has been dedicated to trying to give consumers enough confidence to make up their own minds. That has happened now. Helped considerably, actually, by social media. It is no longer the case that you have people like me or the American critic Robert Parker handing down judgements from on high with which no one can disagree. We put out there what we think, but, boy, the public can now say what they think. They can share between themselves photographs of labels and bottles that they’ve enjoyed and make Instagram recommendations. I think that’s very healthy, actually. It keeps us on our toes.

Well, that may be, but given most people, I’m told—and Sophie has apparently tried this on her husband, blindfolded him, and given him a glass of white wine and a glass of red wine—can’t tell the difference between white or red…

Especially if they’re both Burgundy, yes.

Doesn’t that make it almost impossible, except for a few people—like, perhaps, Robert Parker who has an amazing palate and memory and the ability to predict how a wine is going to evolve or to recommend a certain style of wine—surely, most people are quite ignorant of wine?

But what Robert Parker thinks is just what Robert Parker thinks. And, as has been proved, there is now a whole army of people who have not got his taste and actively do not want the wines that he has been recommending all these years. Yes, we are ignorant, but that doesn’t mean that only a handful of people are capable of making judgements. I think an increasing proportion of people are interested enough in wine to notice what they like and remember and follow it and develop their own palates and interests.

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But none of that will affect the wines that are publicly auctioned and collected. There’s probably only 20 of those aren’t there, the first growth clarets?

There you’re talking about the world of investment, which is very different from the world of enjoyment. I’m very anti-investing in wine, and, I have to confess, I’m rather thrilled to see that those who jumped into investing in wine haven’t made a killing, and, in fact, wine prices have been softening recently. And the wine investment funds that started up with a great hoopla, only a minority of them have actually made money for their investors. Wine is for drinking and enjoying. It is not, I believe, for trying to make money out of.

There are some people who take themselves very seriously, though. They get to an age where they stop drinking cider and start drinking and collecting wine. You’re almost scared to contradict them. Do you encourage that?

I’m anti anyone who tries social terrorism through wine, if you like, who sets themselves up as an expert to tell you what you should like. Even I don’t do that. Everyone should do what they want with wine, but don’t imply that what you do is the only right course.

This is a good moment to ask which book is good to read if you want an introduction to wine — if you don’t know anything about it but want to be able to talk about it in social settings. Presumably one should start with your latest, The 24-Hour Wine Expert?

It’s funny because I’m best known for producing absolutely massive wine reference books of particular interest to serious students of wine. The Oxford Companion to Wine is an obvious one, which has been a help to wine students around the world because, in the past, you couldn’t get information about wine making and vine growing in the English language. Then, more recently, I wrote Wine Grapes, which runs to seven pounds or three kilos of information and is about all the grape varieties that produce wine commercially. But our 24-year-old daughter kept asking me questions about wine, because all her friends drink wine and they would say to her, ‘You must know, your mother is a wine writer!’ So at one stage, she thought that she would write a little guide to wine for her friends. She went about it in a very clever way, doing a sort of focus group with all her friends and writing down the things that they were interested in and felt they needed to know. But then she got offered a nice job on Vogue so she never wrote the book, but I did.

You nicked the idea?

I nicked her idea. I used it as my reference guide, and then I got her to read the text—which is only a hundred and something pages—and she would occasionally say, ‘Oh Mum, you can’t use that word.’ It’s called The 24- Hour Wine Expert. It is just all the basics and the idea is that you can become a wine expert within 24 hours by reading this book. It’s a Penguin 4.99 (GBP) paperback, something you really can stick in your pocket. It’s particularly the practical things: how to taste wine, what you do in a restaurant (what the point of all that is), wine faults, how to store it, what makes wine different colours, that sort of stuff.

People have said to me, asking me about this book, ‘How did you get all of The Oxford Companion into a hundred pages?’ That’s not the point at all. I didn’t start with all of The Oxford Companion to Wine and try and shrink it. It’s for an ordinary person who likes drinking wine and wants to know more about it. That’s all.

In a way, from what you’ve been telling us so far, it seems you’re like the Ralph Nader of wine. You are trying to get the consumer involved, you want it democratic, you’re not interested in snobbery. Having said that, your third choice is a book dedicated to Bordeaux, one of the snootiest regions, a place where you’re almost not welcome to visit in many chateaux. They’ve done their best to market it as something very rich and elitist. How does that fit in?

I do speak from a very privileged position. I’m really lucky that people share the most fantastic bottles with me, so I’ve had the chance, and still have the chance, to taste some of the finest wines in the world. In fact, I wrote recently, that the only people who get to drink first growth Bordeaux are oligarchs, oil sheiks, IT billionaires and wine writers. My choice of The Complete Bordeaux by Stephen Brook is because it is the most up-to-date English language guide, with value judgements, to the region with the most soi-disant fine wines in it, the Bordeaux region. The irony is that, actually, Bordeaux also has some of the best value nowadays. Although the crème de la crème, Bordeaux’s top wines, are completely, ridiculously expensive, the region produces such a range of wines that the bottom layer, the petits chateaux, are some of the best value. You can get some really nice wine for about 10 pounds a bottle. This is serious, fine, well-made wine because the techniques that those at the bottom of the ladder use are remarkably similar to those at the top, and yet the prices are very, very different. So it is useful to have a good guide around that region, and Stephen’s, who has been writing about wine for as long as I have, is a very good, dispassionate one.

I have a theory, that wine writers are either Cavaliers or Roundheads. If you’re a Cavalier, you are into the whole poetry of wine, the artistic sensibility, the nature, all that sort of stuff. If you’re a Roundhead, you are more into the science and the technical stuff. I see the roundheads as focusing on things like whether it’s been fined with egg whites. Is this one a romantic book, or more scientific?

Stephen—and I—are probably somewhere between the two. It is not dry and scientific. I don’t think Stephen is particularly interested in science. It’s got lots of value judgements, and it is a good solid read. It’s not dull, but it’s not airy fairy, ‘This wine reminds me of something poetic.’

“Although the crème de la crème, Bordeaux’s top wines, are completely, ridiculously expensive, the region produces such a range of wines that the bottom layer, the petits chateaux, are some of the best value. ”

Would you be dismissive of those kinds of writers?

I think there’s definitely a place for it, as long as it doesn’t go too far into the realm of fancy and as long as you are convinced to buy it. Sometimes you think that people have run out of something to say.

When you read some of the new world wine labels, on the back, they give you all the tasting notes. Are you a fan of that?

I’m very sceptical of any tasting note that has more than four flavours in it. An American tasting note, in particular, can have up to twenty. As I understand it, physiologists say that’s actually technically impossible, to taste as many flavours as that. Also, you see the same old flavours coming up again and again and again. I don’t think that a long list of flavours is particularly useful for the consumer because we all taste differently, and it must be rather off-putting for the consumer to read 20 different flavours and think, ‘Heck! I can only taste two of those.’ Nor does anyone get up in the morning and say, ‘I just have to get my hands on a bottle that’s got a touch of fenugreek and oolong tea.’ So I’m a bit anti those. Probably, for my tasting notes, the length of them is a good measure of my enthusiasm. Sometimes they are very terse. But, at least, they are honest. They’re just what I think.

So this book gives the reader a bit of the history of Bordeaux?

It will tell you about all the wines that he’s tasted and what he thought of them. It gives you, in a nicely visually presented form, basic facts like the area of the vineyard and what it’s planted with. The book is actually a direct successor to a brilliant book that I used to use as my guide to Bordeaux by my predecessor at the Financial Times, Edmund Penning-Rowsell. He was chairman of the Wine Society and wrote a fantastic book called The Wines of Bordeaux, which was an increasingly thick Penguin paperback. What I loved about Edmund’s style of writing, which I think, perhaps, mine is slightly like, is that he presents a lot of information—a bit like Henry James—and then, suddenly, as long as you’re paying attention, there’s a little wry joke in the middle.

On the blurb for this book, The Complete Bordeaux, it talks about the Bordeaux region having 13,000 wineries and 54 appellations. From what you were saying earlier, is part of the idea behind the book to draw attention to the non-Château-Lafites?

Yes, to a certain extent. It doesn’t have room, unfortunately, for every little one, but it would help you with that.

Which brings us neatly on to your fourth book, which is Thirsty Dragon. We were very intrigued by the title. Can you tell us what it’s about?

This a journalistic book, a very sound bit of journalism by Suzanne Mustacich. She is based in Bordeaux, but she clearly travelled to China an awful lot and unravelled a most amusing commercial battle that went on in the early years of this decade between the Bordeaux chateau owners and merchants on the one side and Chinese business people on the other. Each were trying to make as much money as possible out of the other and resorting to not always the most tried-and-tested ways of doing business. It’s quite dramatic for anyone who cares about wine. They were all trying to diddle each other like mad, and the Bordelais committed the hugely silly sin of thinking they could run rings around these ignorant, Asian, wannabe investors. Of course, the Chinese are much wilier than they realised.

I can remember it all very clearly. It was February 2008. I was driving from Hong Kong airport into Central, and a friend of mine, a Hong Kong wine writer, texted me and said, ‘Have you heard? They’ve just done away with the wine tax here in Hong Kong.’ By doing that, Hong Kong became the hub of the exploding Asian fine wine market, because there are big taxes in pretty much every other Asian country. I was in Bangkok just a few days ago—where there is 300-400% ad valorem tax on wine, so it is prohibitively expensive—and one big wine lover said to me airily, ‘Whenever I want to buy wine, I just send my secretary to Hong Kong with a couple of empty suitcases.’ There’s a massive trade in humans just carrying bottles over the border from Hong Kong into mainland China.

As I understand the story of the book and the Chinese interest in fine wine, they focused on one wine in particular, Château Lafite.

Yes, Château Lafite came to have iconic status in China.

How did that happen?

There are several different theories: that the people behind Château Lafite really worked hard at it, that the name ‘Lafite,’ has a special significance. Also, that the first Chinese to invest in Lafite really did make a killing, and there’s nothing more convincing than that for the Chinese to encourage everyone to try and do the same. The result was that Lafite’s price absolutely ballooned and pulled away massively from all the other first growths.

But now it’s come right back. The Chinese were persuaded to invest massively in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, which were very, very good. But they sold at hugely inflated prices. They had their fingers burned because prices softened after they paid out all the initial money. Everybody says that there are still warehouses in China piled high with top quality Bordeaux just waiting for the market to turn.

Have you ever tasted a counterfeit bottle?

Oh, yes. China is awash with fakes, absolutely awash with them. And not just subtle fakes with bottles whose labels make them look like Château Lafite, but also silly fakes that have a badly mimeographed copy of, typically, a bottle of Lafite, but it could be anything. Then it’s called ‘Château Lafeet.’ On JancisRobinson.com, we had a huge many-parted serial on Chinese fakery with lots of photographs because a lawyer who was trying to stamp it out very kindly shared all his investigations.

Does somebody have to go around tasting the wine to determine whether it’s fake or not?

Not if the label is spelled wrong. Or you have things like Bordeaux Port, or Minervois Pinot Noir.

But presumably you could buy a very nice bottle of second growth, put it in a Lafite bottle, put a cork on, and most people would struggle to tell the difference. In the same way that art experts go around and spend years trying to work out whether a painting is a Caravaggio or not. If it is, it is worth millions, if not, it’s not. Especially since so much wine is bought, and then held for a long time. It could be many years after you’ve paid the money that you pull the cork and either can, or many people can’t, tell that it is what it is meant to be.

As the price of the top wine has soared so, of course, has the incidence of counterfeits. There are a few specialists in authentication but the sad thing about wine, rather than a picture, is that you can’t definitively tell what it tastes like until you’ve destroyed the evidence. It’s a bit of a case of the Wild East. There are still people selling quite blatantly dubious fine wines in Hong Kong, which they wouldn’t get away with in London or New York.

What about the Chinese drinking Château Lafite and Coke. Have you tried it?

I haven’t tried it. I’ve never seen it, but I certainly know lots of people who have. But you underestimate the Chinese at your peril. There are a lot of very keen wine lovers in China now, who are increasingly fastidious and knowledgeable. There are a lot of wine students. The first Chinese resident master of wine will be covered with glory, and there’s a great race to become that person.

And they have a lot of vineyards.

They’re the fourth biggest grower of grapevines in the world, and one of the biggest markets for wine. Growing at a great pace, although it has slowed slightly since the premier outlawed bribery and giving gifts. I’m a judge of the annual Oxford Versus Cambridge Wine Tasting Competition, which I did just before setting off for my Asian trip. All the top tasters this year were Asian. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which is the global prime wine educator, running courses all over the world, their biggest national group is Britain because that’s were they started. But China is almost ready to overtake them in terms of number of students. And the top student they always give a prize has been an Asian woman for some years now. The Asian palate is very sensitive.

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I’ve just been living in China, and the wines I bought at the local corner shop weren’t terribly good.

Most Chinese wine is pretty awful, as you discovered. I’ve been every two years this century, and I always ask somebody whose taste I respect to line up for me a tasting of what they reckon are the best Chinese wines. In the first decade of the century not much changed, but, actually, in the last four years or so, there’s been a dramatic upturn in the number of decent Chinese red wines. This last trip, I came across about five really quite respectable wines. LVMH have just brought out the first vintage of their top Yunnan Red which is pretty smart. They’re selling it at 200 Euros a bottle.

Are there wines that you used to love, and you go back to now and don’t love as much?

My tastes mirror the masses, to a certain extent. Nowadays, I’m not looking for the big, oaky wines that Australia sent initially, and we thought, ‘These make those French ones look a bit anaemic and unfriendly!’ Now, of course, the Australians are making copies of those anaemic, unfriendly wines — or rather very austere, steely wines. I think, probably, that what I’m looking for keeps changing, but I’ve never really liked the absolutely massive, turbo-charged, full-of-alcohol wines. I’ve always treasured subtlety, really.

It seems to me that a lot of wine writers are forever extolling the virtues of Riesling — and no one else drinks it.

It’s true. Occasionally, someone will say to me, ‘You’ve been around so long, you’ve got this website and this FT column. What is it like having all that power in the world of wine?’ And I say, ‘Well, for forty years, I’ve been banging the drum for Riesling and that hasn’t had much effect.’ In defence of poor old Riesling, I think the reason it never takes off is that it’s got an awful lot of flavour and character, and you either love it or loathe it.

It is slightly lower in alcohol, generally.

Yes, but it’s got this strong flavour that some people just don’t like. Whereas no one could accuse Pinot Grigio of having an excess of flavour, and, of course, it’s soaring away.

The other thing that intrigues me is that your focus is mainly on Bordeaux, and not Burgundy. Traditionally, wasn’t the big battle between those two?

I couldn’t love Burgundy more. There’s a very good book on Burgundy called Inside Burgundy by Jasper Morris, which is really nice and beautifully designed as well. I would certainly recommend it to anyone. The only trouble with Burgundy is that, even more than Bordeaux, it’s changing. There are lots of new players because it is so sought-after at the moment. It is very, very fashionable. It’s even more difficult to keep up with what’s going on in Burgundy, than in Bordeaux.

Why, do you think, do people read about wine?

Probably as a substitute for drinking it. It doesn’t have calories, it doesn’t have alcohol, but you can still immerse yourself in wine. I remember, way, way back, in between Oxford and becoming a wine writer, for a brief time, I was organising skiing holidays. There was a year when no one could afford to go skiing, but sales of skiing books soared. Perhaps, there’s a bit of that as well. Wine is also a complex subject, however much popularisers might say, ‘Oh, it’s easy.’ It’s not. There’s lots of ramifications to wine, which is why the pass rate of the Masters of Wine Exam is only about 10%. There’s a lot of information to share.

Why do so many fail?

It’s a very broad qualification. It’s not necessarily deep, but to pass, you have to be good at writing, you have to be good at blind tasting, you have to understand science to quite a reasonable degree, and you have got to have a great memory. Combining all those things is quite rare, really.

I saw you slightly scoffing at my Roundhead and Cavalier theory. Our final book is, presumably, on the Cavalier side. Here is a guy, famous for his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. Tell us about this book.

Yes, Jay Mclnerney is a Cavalier. I’ve chosen his third collection of writing about wine, The Juice. They’re all fun. They’re all very well written because Jay is a very good writer, and doesn’t take it too seriously. I’ve chosen the last one because, I think, his taste in wine and knowledge of wine has matured. He’s funny, and I know, because he is a friend—I’ve drunk with him a lot and I’ve drunk a lot with him—that he really respects wine and loves it. In fact, he can sometimes actually slightly bore me with wine because I think that wine is for drinking, not necessarily for talking about. I slightly shy away from dinners where everyone around the table is going to want to talk about nothing but, ‘Don’t you think this vintage is slightly better? And didn’t they put slightly less Merlot in this one?’ I spend the day writing about this sort of thing, and that’s, perhaps, why, in the evening, I want the pleasure of wine, rather than to be reminded of the theory of wine.

So for your ideal dinner party, how much time would be spent talking about the wine?

Each time a new wine is poured, you would talk about it for perhaps five minutes max. Then you’d go on to the gossip, and just really enjoying the sensual pleasure of it.

Tell us some more about the book. So he’s the Wall Street Journal’s wine critic and these are travel pieces, aren’t they, to places where they grow wine?

He was one of the Wall Street Journal’s wine writers. It’s sometimes travel, but it’s mainly about the wine itself and the people. I mean, the people in wine are more interesting than people in ball bearings, in my experience. There are lots of stories to tell. I think you can tell what his shtick is just by the headings under which he groups these collected articles. He starts with “Acid Trips” then “Grape Nuts.” He’s writing with a nice light touch, but now he’s really quite knowledgeable too, so that’s fun.

So we would pick up his book if we wanted to read interesting stories?

Just for fun, but you’d learn something, definitely. It says the essays in this book were previously published in House and Garden, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Ritz Carlton Magazine, Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal. That’s where they all come from. It’s a nice bit of recycling, but unlike most collections, they do actually bear rereading.

Two things strike me about your list: one is the lack of foreign books.

Well, I’m sorry. I can’t read German.

But you would assume that a French writer would have written the definitive book on Bordeaux or Burgundy, rather than Edmund Penning-Rowsell, for example.

Britain has a long tradition of writing about wine, having been a major trader in it. And the French, I think, are a little bit too reverential. They don’t criticise enough in their books.

So the French have written about wine, but, generally, they don’t travel well.

They’re not translated into English, for a start. For your selection, you do want your books in English, don’t you?

My point is that for something that’s been around since forever, you would have thought that at some point, a book would have come up. I’ve just been reading about Montaigne. You would have thought that someone of his ilk would have written about wine. And then it would be translated.

I think the French have taken wine for granted, whereas for the English, it is more exotic. There is a certain sense in which a grand French writer would not devote a book to wine. It would be a bit like devoting a book to potatoes. There are one or two lovely books, say, on Burgundy. But they are more workmanlike, something for a professional, rather than a great read.

Are there any novels about wine?

There are masses at the moment—like Sideways—and an awful lot in which wine plays a part. I can’t think of any that I’ve really, really enjoyed because usually I read them and I go, ‘Oh, they got that fact wrong.’ I always admire it if I do read a reference to wine in fiction and it’s correct. It’s quite rare, but it’s great. It shows that either they know, or they’ve got a friend who knows. Michael Dibdin wrote thrillers, his detective was Aurelio Zen. He got me to read the full manuscript of one book that he set in Piemonte.

Sideways got it wrong, didn’t it? He supposedly hated Merlot, but his treasured wine was Cheval Blanc, which has Merlot in it.

Yes, although Cheval Blanc usually has a majority of cabernet franc, I suppose. Perhaps he meant it that way. I hear there’s going to be a theatre production of Sideways here. I was very pleased because I think it is in page 2 of Sideways—it doesn’t come out in the movie, unfortunately, but in the book—as he’s packing for his road trip, he puts a copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine into his suitcase.

Interview by Rupert Wright

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