Henry Jeffreys on the literature of wine

A Lot of Bottle

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It is received opinion among publishers that wine books don’t sell. Don’t even try to suggest a book with the word wine in the title to a publisher – he will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry). The Faber wine list is no more and the once mighty Mitchell Beazley list is a shadow of its former self.

As a wine-lover and a reader I find this sad but understandable. It’s impossible to put the hedonistic pleasure of a good burgundy into words. ‘But what about food writing?’ I hear you ask. It’s true, people in Britain spend more time reading about food than they do actually cooking. Wine, by contrast, is not photogenic. It comes in only three colours, and vineyards can be some of the dullest looking places on earth, you can’t easily make it at home, and it is very, very complicated. You really do need to know your stuff to write about it clearly. Sadly, some writers interpret the need for knowledge as a need to impart all that knowledge to the unfortunate reader.

To simplify drastically, wine writers can be divided into two schools – the anecdotal and the technical. Reading the anecdotalist is like being trapped with a learned relative who is a little the worse for wear. Things are never explained, merely alluded to. Characters are introduced in a way that assumes you already know them. Wines are anthropomorphized, or whatever the plant equivalent is, leading to lines such as: ‘For a Prince of the Royal Blood of Burgundy, Musigny has a curiously feminine character.’

That’s from Desmond Morris’s Guide to the Pleasures of Wine. This kind of wine writing is the preserve of the enthusiastic amateur. One imagines such books coming together over those extinct publishing lunches. They are not very good guides to wine, but they are far more enjoyable, I find, than the technical kind. These ignore wine’s sensual side in favour of scientific-sou

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About the contributor

For most of the week Henry Jeffreys is a freelance publicist working in publishing, but on Fridays he attends wine tastings and attempts to write a book claiming that the British Empire’s greatest legacy is its alcoholic drinks. The book is going very slowly. He also blogs at worldofbooze.wordpress.com.

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