Three different ways to talk about wine

Friday, 15. January 2016 - 10:45


The Oxford Companion to Wine

Dipping into the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine quickly becomes an exercise in restraint – there are so many interesting entries, one leading to another, that it’s easy to lose track of time. Not for nothing has it been called ‘The Greatest Wine Book Ever Published’.

The intent of the Oxford Companions has always been to combine a laser-like focus on a single topic with “the breadth and scope of an encyclopaedia”, according to the publishers. The series debuted in 1932, when Oxford University Press commissioned The Oxford Companion to English Literature and in the 80-plus years since, there have been Oxford Companions to everything from Children’s Literature to Australian Gardens; while other encyclopaedias have not survived the age of Wikipedia, the Companions carry on. What makes them unique is that they’re produced by acknowledged experts in their field whose personalities imbue the work, rather than by teams of anonymous researchers.

In the case of the Oxford Companion to Wine, what makes it such an important work isn’t merely the depth and breadth of material, or that contributors include the most significant names in the wine world, but that the guiding hand belongs to Jancis Robinson MW.

Robinson is widely admired, not just for her wine knowledge, but also for her cool, impartial and scrupulously fair approach, and this ethos permeates the volume.

Whether the topic is natural wine, wine and health, or sulfur, the tone is measured and respectful; a notable lapse is the jokey reference to wine writing as a ‘parasitical activity’, a turn of phrase which will no doubt appeal to the wine trade, but which might be a baffling ‘in’ joke for the general reader.

Also impressive is the way the Companion has managed to expand alongside the world of wine. When the first edition came out in 1994, Hong Kong was irrelevant and world-beating English sparkling wine was unthinkable; the current edition of the Companion takes all these developments in its stride, and more.

While there have been many Oxford Companions over the years, most of them never went into a second edition, much less a fourth. The Oxford Companion to Wine, on the other hand, has attained the status of an essential reference book. This is no small achievement, and it’s one for which the wine world (and wine students everywhere) are grateful.

The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition
Edited by Jancis Robinson MW with Julia Harding MW
Oxford University Press

Wine Words: English for Wine Professionals & Wine Lovers

Learning a second language as an adult is a major challenge, as I discovered for myself when I moved to Germany. The problems are legion, from having to squeeze language classes around a full time job, to learning to pronounce the new vocabulary in a way the natives will actually understand.

The biggest challenge of all is learning to speak like a professional; learning how to order in a restaurant is easy to master. But there’s a chasm between the language employed in everyday conversation and the fluent, high level language required for professional situations.

Those of us who are native English speakers have it easy, as English has become the international default. But what happens if you work in wine and don’t speak English?

Into this breach has stepped English teacher and wine educator Mike Mazey, who – with colleagues – has created a textbook aimed at giving wine professionals the international language they need. Mazey et al take an important wine topic, such as international wine marketing, and introduce the necessary language while exploring the topic. There are accompanying YouTube videos and plenty of multiple choice questions for practice. Anyone who worked through the entire book would come out the other side not just with an expanded vocabulary, but also with a working knowledge of the global wine trade. However, it can be dipped in and out of, as necessary, and is livened up with interviews and short articles. 

The book also covers the difference between American and English usages, so you’ll always know when to say ‘variety’ and when to use ‘varietal’. 

I do have some quibbles. It’s not always clear that some of the vocabulary being introduced is colloquial, rather than professional: for example, the terms ‘satisfied sipper’ and ‘savvy shopper’ are treated as professional terms, rather than as jargon that is only used in some markets.

It’s also unfortunate that many of the multiple choice questions don’t have an answer code, with the reader expected to cross check the answers against the texts being studied. Speaking as an adult learner of a foreign language, I know how easy it is to get tripped up by seemingly simple questions. Being able to check the answer can get the learner back on track.

Overall, however, this is a long overdue and useful aid for the global wine trade. Although it’s designed for self study, it could easily be used as a textbook at university level, to get students up to professional speed at a rapid clip.

Wine Words by Mike Mazey et al
€55.00 plus €9.00 shipping

Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine

Just when it seems the market for wine education books must be completely saturated, along comes something so novel and interesting, it deserves a place on the shelf. Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine is one such book, illustrated as it is with the lively infographics created by graphic designer Madeline Puckette.

Puckette and her partner Justin Hammack are both digital natives, whose Seattle-based site took off the day that Puckette released an infographic called ‘How to Choose Wine’. It’s a flow chart that empowers viewer to choose a wine style quickly and easily, simply by asking the right questions.

Since then, Puckette’s posters and infographics have become instant wine education classics, because they typically compress an enormous amount of information into one, colourful and genuinely useful chart.

A book was inevitable. The result a slim volume that is heavy on colourful infographics, diagrams and illustrations, and short on verbiage. This makes it more of a handy ‘read at need’ guide than something to sit down and read all the way through; it would be good to have on hand while exploring new wine styles, because there’s so much information-at-a-glance on major grape varieties.

Indeed, it's the pages on wine styles, tasting and pairing that are the most helpful and engaging parts of the book. No guide that attempts to shoehorn the world of wine into one book is going to be perfect; it’s impossible to reduce a country like Spain to two pages in any meaningful way, although Wine Folly makes a heroic try.

Overall, this is a lively and easy-to-grasp addition to the book shelf and would make a perfect gift for the budding wine drinker. For more information about Wine Folly, see the article we wrote about them for the magazine.

Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine
Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack
Penguin Random House

Felicity Carter