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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
16 Sep 2006

Nick is not best pleased. Having carried a box of six of the latest Oxford Companions to Wine weighing 3 kilos each – the equivalent of a sturdy four year-old - upstairs to our office a week ago, he has yet to see me properly inspect any one of them. But frankly I am too terrified of spotting a mistake, so heavy has the responsibility of preparing this heavyweight reference book become.


Editing the first edition of a large reference book such as the Oxford Companion to Wine was daunting. When I signed the contract in 1988 for publication in 1994 I wondered how on earth I was going to amass 800,000 worthwhile words on the subject. And in the pre-electronic era this meant painstaking transcription of hand-writing and faxes, not to mention considerable uncertainty over accents in ancient and obscure modern languages. Editing the second edition which came out in 1999 was much less stressful. For a start there was not the spectre of blank pages if I failed to update the grape varieties of Azerbaijan, the story of Robert Parker or the explanation of cut cane sweet winemaking. And email made this thoroughly international enterprise very much easier – although it still took the best part of three years to complete it.


In terms of mechanics editing the third edition of this doorstop of a book which is published next Thursday 21 Sep in the UK and 01 Oct in the US has been similar to preparing the second edition, with the one major new development that I have for the first time had an assistant editor, in this case the ideally qualified Julia Harding MW. Not only did Julia become a Master of Wine (at the first attempt) as recently as 2004 winning the prize for the best all-round candidate, so that she is seriously up to speed on the latest research work in viticulture and oenology, she was previously a freelance book editor of the most delightfully pernickety and conscientious sort, while having a Cambridge degree in French and German. Could anyone think of any more perfect qualifications?


But even despite this huge advantage, preparing this third edition has been by far the most humbling of the three marathon tasks. This is not just because the world of wine is expanding and evolving so rapidly that it can sometimes feel almost impossible to keep up.


Both I and, especially, Julia are by now painfully aware of just how intimate a relationship many of its readers have with it. For a start it has been adopted by the world's most active wine educational body, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust with 15,000 students a year in 35 countries, as the standard textbook for its top, Diploma Honours course. This means that thousands of people each year depend on it to help them gain a qualification that is often very important to them. The book is often their only friend late at night, and in the run-up to exams, the one place they hope to be able to find an answer, a definition, a clear and logical explanation. I meet people who claim to have destroyed two editions during their studies, one at home and one at work, in their quest for knowledge.


If the second edition corrected the shortcomings of the first, the third has required a radical rethink and is very much less like the second than the second was like the first. For a start, the publisher Oxford University Press cleared its collective throat and pointed out that the book was already arguably unwieldy and that the third edition should have no more than 925,000 words, no more than a paltry 20,000 more in total than the second. This was a major challenge in a world of wine that is changing so radically every month but, I must admit, this restriction imposed much-needed editing rigour on us.  Because we needed to add so much new material, we have had to ensure that every word in the new edition deserves its place rather than just extending each article, so many entries have benefited from a bit of toning to add muscularity in place of flab.


The last edition had 3,650 alphabetically arranged entries. This one has 3,900 but for reasons of space has lost all those concerning wine in distilled form (cognac, armagnac and other grape-based spirits). Thus there is no contradiction in there being more than 300 substantive new entries. Some of them are, as one might expect, describe entirely new sources of wine such as Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast, Denmark (thanks to climate change, whose own entry has been considerably revised), Sri Lanka and Burgundy's Côtes du Couchois.


Then there are the less obviously benign new entries: those on new pests and diseases that attack grapevines, on new techniques for making wine and growing vines, on globalisation  itself and some of the large corporations that now control considerable proportions of the wine business (though very much smaller proportions than their counterparts in the beer and spirits sectors). Mikhail Gorbachev earns his own entry in this edition for the far-reaching effects on the world of wine of his anti-alcohol campaign. France's crise viticole is another quasi political entry and, with a certain neatness for students of the Oxford University curriculum, each of politics, philosophy and economics have for the first time their own wide-ranging entries on their implications for wine.


Of course these, like so many of the book's entries, depend not on Julia and me but on the Companion's roster of 167 contributors from around the world, of whom 73 are new to this third edition. They include not only winemakers, vine growers, wine writers and wine merchants but chefs, lawyers, architects, geologists, palaeoethnobotanists, sommeliers, entomolgists, doctors of medicine, molecular biologists, engineers, archaeologists, and a dazzling array of specialist historians. About 75 per cent of the articles have had to be revised in some way, about 40 per cent quite radically. When we started work on this third volume in 2003 I assumed that at least our historians' entries could be left intact but in fact recent archaeological discoveries have meant that even some of these have needed considerable revision. Some of these contributors, notably Denis Gastin on Asia's army of new wine producers, feel so keen to have their specialist area included in the book, that they have toiled despite illness, back surgery and serious road accident.


With any book written in English there is a tendency to depend too heavily on Anglophone contributors but with this edition we have been particularly determined to try to make the entries as cosmopolitan as possible, depending on European input rather more than in previous editions which owed so much to Australia and the US.


The one big consolation of seeing the book at last in solid, so very solid, form is that Julia and I no longer have to worry so much about the data stick carrying the back-up of the single document on which the latest version of the text was stored. I would hang it on my newel post in case of fire.  

See a complete list of new entries in the new edition.


The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edn, OUP £40/$65 813pp

A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the Financial Times